"Set Mrs. Warren down in her own Habitation": Tracing the Footsteps of Mercy Otis Warren

For an introduction to the life of Mercy Otis Warren, please see Robin's previous post here.

Robin researching the life of Mercy Otis Warren

Building a character profile for our Revolutionary Characters Live! Program can take time. This is what I am doing for the Bostonian Society right now, and this means going through Mercy Otis Warren’s life, finding out who her friends and family were, what her opinions were, and what impacted her throughout her life. It also means trying to establish her location during some of the major events of the Revolution.

Mercy actually provides quite a bit of this information to us through her letters. She had a few friends that she regularly corresponded with, among them John Adams, Abigail Adams, Hannah Winthrop, and her own husband, James Warren. In addition to these letters, Mercy was a published author and we can use those works to get at her opinion on a number of topics. We can use these sources in addition to many more modern biographies to build as complete a picture as possible.

One issue I’ve come across recently has been figuring out where Mercy was when the alarm went out from Boston to warn Lexington and Concord about the British troops headed their way in 1775. One telling of the story says that James Warren was in Concord meeting with the Provincial Congress (a body put together to replace our colonial legislature which had been disbanded by the Royal Governor) when the alarm arrived. According to the story, it’s at this point that James rides to Plymouth, picks up Mercy, then rides on to warn the Sons of Liberty in Providence, Rhode Island.

Some of this seems to line up with what I have found. James wrote to Mercy on April 6th from Concord, so we know he was there prior to the alarm. A letter to Sarah Bowen from Mercy confirms that Mercy had been in Providence in April. Even better, a letter from May 7th from James to John Adams goes even further: “After I had executed my Commission at Providence, I returned home, set Mrs. Warren down in her own Habitation, made the best provision I could for the security of our Family, and some of our Effects, which we considered to be not very safe at Plymouth, and immediately hastened to this place, to contribute my Mite to the publick Service in this Exigence of Affairs.” This also confirms that James Warren, after leaving Mercy, went on to Watertown to return to the Provincial Congress.

However, the journals of the provincial congress suggest that they had gone into recess on April 15th and were not to meet again until May - which suggests that James Warren may have actually left Concord before the alarm on April 18th arrived. To make matters more complicated, Mercy’s good friend Hannah Winthrop wrote a letter on April 15th from Concord, but she addressed it to Mercy in Watertown. So where were James and Mercy between April 15th and 19th?

The tricky thing about history is that, when possible, we like to have more than one source to confirm what we know, but sometimes we only find one and have to infer. Sometimes we will later come across corresponding documents that help confirm or deny those inferences, but often times we just don’t find out what happened.