Mass. Recovers A Roxbury Revolutionary’s Account

On May 25, 1775, as the American Revolution was just getting started, a young Boston physician wrote of victory at Fort Ticonderoga and a somewhat egotistical colonel named Benedict Arnold.

Joseph Warren was the patriot from Roxbury serving as president of the first Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. He sent the good news from Watertown in a letter to the revolutionary Committee of Safety, asking that it be forwarded to the good Gen. Henry Knox.

Warren’s letter has been missing since the 1950s, when it was stolen from the Massachusetts Archives. On Thursday, the commonwealth got it back for $8,000.

“We were simply anxious to get our hands on the document,” said Secretary of State William Galvin, who talked to me by phone. “It’s obviously worth a great deal more. The costs of securing it will be minimal now that it’s in our hands, but obviously it was important for the state to get it back.”

Just three weeks after Warren sent the letter, his death in the Battle of Bunker Hill would galvanize the colonists. Warren is immortalized there today as a statue, not far from the oldest tavern in Massachusetts, the aptly named Warren Tavern.

For years, historical documents like the Warren letter were kept on Beacon Hill in a building with lax security. Priceless documents would go missing, many of them turning up years later in private collections and auction houses around the country. Galvin’s office routinely scours the Web for artifacts that belong to Massachusetts.

Warren’s letter recently turned up in a catalog for a Sotheby’s auction. Alan Cotes, the state’s supervisor of public records, negotiated to get the document back from a private collector in California.

“Whenever we see (documents) in the name of the commonwealth, I lay claim to them,” Galvin said. “Sometimes we have to make some financial accommodations. Obviously they’re our documents, but if there are costs attendant we are willing to pay them.”

Galvin could not be more excited about getting the letter back.

“He’s laying out some of the major events that are coming to pass in the Revolution,” Galvin said. In the letter, Warren celebrates the battles for Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point, at the edge of Lake Champlain in New York. Warren had authorized Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen to seize the large stock of artillery there.

“Of course, this artillery that was captured and brought down to Boston was critical in the final defeat of the British in Boston in 1776 — on March 17, 1776, Evacuation Day — when Washington put the same artillery at the heights of Dorchester Heights,” Galvin said.

Arnold apparently wasn’t willing to share his glory, Warren remarks, perhaps sarcastically:

I had the Pleasure of being informed that our worthy Friend Col’l Arnold, not having had the sole Honor of reducing Ticonderoga and Crown Point determined upon an Expedition against St Johns in which He happily succeeded

“The issues that Warren is dealing with in his letter — the concerns about a possible invasion from Canada, how the provincial army was to be strengthened — all of these issues, I think, demonstrate the depth of his intellect. He was thinking ahead as to how this revolution would proceed,” Galvin said.

Warren reports that New Hampshire was amassing 2,000 troops to fight an incursion from the north, and that troops from Providence were stationed in “the upper part of Roxbury.”

Warren’s letter is fragile and not available for public viewing, Galvin said. Today the Massachusetts Archives are carefully stored, catalogued and guarded at a facility in Columbia Point.

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