Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight story of Paul Revere,?


As the above poem demonstrates, historical accounts can come from a variety of sources, including poetry and ballads.  Although some might be somewhat unreliable regarding all the facts, they may lead researchers to consider information not available from other resources.  In the Early State Records Collection, these poems can generally be grouped into two categories: the religious sentiments and moral warnings of the time, and descriptions of then current events. 

The first example of religious verse was found in The Whole Booke of Psalmes (LLMC #24661).   Referred to as the Bay Psalm Book, an introductory note from the Boston Public Library indicated that this 1640 translation of the Psalms in meter by Rev. John Elliot, the Rev. Richard Mather, and others was the first book printed in what is now the United States.   However, not every religious and moral poem was as well-known.  In LLMC #20440, a personal poem, On the Death of Philemon Robbins, eulogized the death of the only son of a Norfolk couple, and the third child they buried in less than four years.  While a eulogy for an infant who died in 1766 may seem insignificant, the poem can remind researchers about the fragility of life for the young, weak, and old during these times.  While the poetry was not of the highest quality, it certainly evoked the suffering of all parents who have lost a child.

Turning away from sin, or paying the consequences of bad actions, was also a common thread in these poems.  For example, LLMC #24179 presented The Reformed Rake for the readers’ consideration.  While not precisely religious in tone, this poem gives credit to the love of a good woman to change a ladies man into a man of love and honor.   On the other hand, A few Lines on the Occasion of the untimely End of Mark and Phillis served as a strong reminder to servants to avoid sinful ways and obey their masters.  Given that the two were executed for poisoning their master from “Time to time, which kill’d him by Degrees,” this seemed like good advice.   (See also LLMC #24167.  While not a poem, this twenty-three year old’s speech prior to his 1754 execution was both last words and a warning to all, consistent with the religious and legal mores of the time).   

Historical events can also be found in poetry and ballads.  For example, LLMC #20861 bears the interesting title of “Religious Reflections, Particularly on the late dreadful fire of the Governor’s House in FORT GEORGE.” The self-published author, G. Hughes, described a December 1773 fire that destroyed Governor William Tryon’s house in a rather long-winded broadside which admired the governor while providing very little information regarding the fire.  However, LLMC #24176, a Ballad concerning the Fight between the English and French, at Lake-George, was more descriptive of the actual events.  Although subjective in its admiration of the English and insulting to the French (who were likened to “wearied Sheep”), this poem described the order of the battle and its aftermath.  Twenty years later, this partisan view shifted against Britain.   In LLMC #20865, the Poem on the Bloody engagement that was Fought on Bunker’s Hill In Charlestown, New England, the author, Rev. Elisha Rich provided a description of the battle of June 17, 1775, while deriding the “savage” British troops.  (And in a more neutral vein, see LLMC #24178 and 24188 for two poems regarding an earthquake which occurred in New England in November 1755). 

And, of course, the Early State Records Collection cannot forget the drinking ballad and its place in history.   LLMC #24775, Tea Destroyed by Indians, undoubtedly became more rousing to the “Glorious Sons of Freedom” as more rounds of alcohol were served.  Boasting a chorus that encouraged “Bostonian’s Sons [to] keep up your Courage good,” or die fighting the “tyrants,” these verses give readers a sense of the emotions and tensions following the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773.

Ultimately these poems and ballads might not be every researcher’s favorite read.  However, while not always the best illustrations of poetry, the above examples can add additional historical information, as well as providing a sense of the attitudes and concerns of the times.  And, of course, who doesn’t like a good drinking song? 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as the broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 

 [1] Paul Revere’s Ride, Henry Wadworth Longfellow, 1860.   And just in case you want more reliable information regarding the Battle of Lexington and Concord, check out LLMC #20866, 20901, 22444, and 24828.