Hewes, George Robert Twelves (1742-1840)
George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840)
Origins . George Robert Twelves Hewes was the sixth of nine children, being the fourth of seven sons. His father, also named George, was a Massachusetts tanner who ended up in debtors’ prison at least twice. Hewes’s father died young, and George was sent into apprenticeship as a shoemaker. Shoemaking was a poor man’s trade and not a desirable way to start out in life, but Hewes had little choice. He was bound to a harsh master, ill fed and clothed and possessed a streak of lively mischief that earned him the occasional whipping.
Boston Youth . He and his fellow apprentices scavenged about the town of Boston, looking to beg or steal anything they could get to eat. Hewes played pranks on his master and drank and frolicked in the streets during public celebrations, along with the hundreds of servants, apprentices, laborers, and artisans of Boston. During the 1750s and 1760s, Pope’s Day (5 November) was a particularly boisterous holiday. Young people formed into companies and paraded with effigies of the Pope, the Devil, and other hated figures, exacting treats and money from the wealthy of the town and brawling with rival groups. Hewes finished his apprenticeship in 1763; standing only 5’1”, he was too small to join the British army though he tried. He struggled as a shoemaker, built a shop, and married at age twenty-six. His wife was the daughter of a poor church sexton and brought him no dowry. Hewes tried his hand at fishing, and like his father, found himself frequently in trouble for debts. He was imprisoned when he could not pay for the suit in which he wooed his future wife.
Revolutionary Activity . Despite his insignificant stature and prospects, Hewes became an active participant in the events that rocked Boston and led to revolution. In 1770 four thousand British soldiers were stationed in a town of fewer than sixteen thousand inhabitants. The common people of the town clashed with the soldiers, who competed for jobs and housing. A series of violent incidents, including the murder of an eleven-year-old boy by a customs informer, led to boiling tensions. Hewes was among the crowd outside the British barracks on King Street on the night of 5 March 1770 and was a participant in the deadly affray known as the Boston Massacre. A sentry struck the unarmed Hewes on the shoulder with his musket, and he stood among the crowd as British troops shot and killed five citizens.
Sons of Liberty . In the angry days after the massacre Hewes gave a deposition for the prosecution of the British soldiers who fired on the crowd. Hewes’s courage and outspokenness came to the notice of prominent revolutionaries in the town. His street savvy was useful to the Sons of Liberty, the Patriot group that organized demonstrations against British taxation and oppression. Among his other resources, Hewes had a knack for whistling; he could issue a shrill and piercing signal during an important moment of a demonstration, calling the crowds to order for instructions or maneuvers. On the night of 16 December 1773 Hewes’s talents for civil unrest reached their historic pinnacle as he was among the small group of disguised men that boarded three merchant ships and dumped tea into Boston Harbor. Hewes, dressed as an Indian, his face and hands daubed with coal dust, was an officer in the raid: one participant recollected serving under “Captain Hewes.” The Boston Tea Party was not by any means an uprising of the rabble: wealthy merchants and lawyers such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams coordinated the event. Tea dumpings took place from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. But young and obscure men led the raid so as to deflect attention from the more prominent Patriots.
War Activities . Hewes continued as an important figure in the streets of Boston, but by 1775 the number of British troops grew to a staggering 13,500. Soldiers broke up Hewes’s shoe-repair shop and used it for firewood. The day after the Battle of Bunker Hill he saw the corpses of British soldiers dumped into an open pit on the common. Hewes escaped the British quarantine of the city and compiled an impressive war record with several stints as a militiaman and a privateer. Like many revolutionary soldiers, he enlisted for one- to three-month periods, returning home to work and take care of his family. Privateering was government-sanctioned piracy. The Continental Congress authorized voyages to raid British shipping, the spoils to be divided among the crew. Hewes made little profit on these voyages; he continued to live from hand to mouth, supporting his wife and four children. Hewes put in a total of twenty months service in the Patriot cause, well above the average, and then returned to his workaday world, where he struggled to support his family until the 1830s, when he became a fixture at parades as one of the oldest known surviving revolutionary veterans. He applied for a pension and produced the required documentation to prove his service. Still lively and quick-witted in his nineties, he attracted the attention of journalists and biographers. Two books were written in these years based on his recollections of his experiences.
Alfred F. Young, “George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 38 (1981): 561-623.