The Bostonian Society has on display at the Old State House what at first appears to be a rather unassuming textile. Unfurled, however, it is an enormous flag (8’ by 13’) with nine red and white stripes, and it came into the collections with a remarkable story: that it hung from the great Liberty Tree in the early days of the Revolution, and even a few years before, when the Sons of Liberty began opposing British rule in Boston.
Liberty Tree Flag, 1893.0093
Before coming to the Old State House, the flag was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. When Bostonian John C. Fernald donated the flag to the Society in 1894, it was noted that the flag had first belonged to Mr. Samuel Adams, a Boston wire-worker, who died in 1855 at age 96. For decades very little was known about this Samuel Adams or how he came into possession of the flag; sources often only repeated his name and occupation.
The flag is currently being prepared for an exhibition about the Liberty Tree, so I have been researching Adams to learn more about him and the flag. Following a centuries-old paper trail, I have tried to connect the dots between the appearance of a flag on the Liberty Tree (documented in Boston newspapers in the 1760s and 1770s) and the death of Adams in 1855. Why did an obscure wire-worker hold fast to the flag for more than seven decades? What did it mean to him?
I found a man who, far from being an anonymous Bostonian, was a well-known local character and who led a very long and interesting life. Samuel Adams was born in 1759, reportedly in the North End, to a book-binder named Benjamin Adams and his wife Abigail. Samuel had an older brother, Abraham, who became a leather-dresser and a well-respected citizen. Samuel married Catharine Fenno in Boston in 1781. They had 8 children together, including a son named for Benjamin Franklin, and a daughter, also Catharine, who married William Fenno, and through whose descendents the flag passed to John Fernald.
Adams moved around quite a bit according to the Boston city directories and the advertisements he placed in newspapers. He had several occupations during his lifetime; in fact it seems he came late to wire-working. In the 1790s Adams owned a wharf at the end of Cross Street from which he sold various goods. In the early 1800s he became the town crier, and printed a number of interesting advertisements announcing things he had found throughout the town. As a wire worker, his business was known as the Sign of the Flying Man and Fender Manufactory, and his advertisements included beautiful designs of his work. His work in wire also earned him the nickname, “Rat-Trap Adams,” by which he was known affectionately (or not, depending on the source).
The story of Samuel Adams and the Liberty Tree Flag will continue next week . . .
By Kathryn Griffith, History Department Intern