Here, as promised, is the expose of the first of the earliest, least-known, if not totally UNKNOWN, UNSUNG HEROES of the American Revolution.
Lee smuggled funds and war materiel funneled from Holland through France and Spain to Massachusetts at great peril to himself and to his family!
The following are pages 33-35 from my book, Rochambeau, Washington’s Ideal Lieutenant:
Since virtually all American records were either lost or intentionally destroyed at the time of the revolt against their British overlords, little is known of the methods chosen by colonists to import the supplies and armaments needed to aid the organizing insurgents.
France and Spain were willing to help, but covertly. Some insight can be gained from the role of Colonel Jeremiah Lee, successful shipping magnate and devoted revolutionary patriot, who is largely neglected in history books. He served for twenty-five years as a colonel in the British militia at Marblehead, Massachusetts. In 1774, in collusion with French and Spanish shippers, at great danger to himself, Colonel Lee initiated covert importation of armaments.
It is unclear whether the arms originated in Holland, France, or Spain, but they were routed to Massachusetts through Lee’s shipping agent, Joseph Gardoqui et Fils, in Bilbao, Spain. At the same time, Lee served as liaison between the citizens of Marblehead and the British king’s agent in Boston, giving voice to the colonists’ grievances.
Colonel Lee was, according to the 1771 Massachusetts tax records, the wealthiest merchant in that colony during the pre-revolutionary period. He was very likely America’s largest colonial ship owner, holding full share in twenty-one vessels, mostly fishing and trading schooners from seventy to one hundred twenty tons each, and at least one transoceanic brig. A letter addressed to Colonel Lee dated February 15, 1775, Bilbao, Spain, and signed, Joseph Gardoqui et Fils, refers to an order being filled at Lee’s request. Although the letter never reached Lee, it stands as a record of the clandestine dealings between Lee, the Dutch, and the Spanish.
The Gardoqui agent writes, “We were determined at all events to assist you accordingly, we found out means to procure as many Muskets & pistols as were ready made on the parts for the Kings Army, the quantity was but small having only 300 Muskets & Bayonets, and about double the number of Pair of Pistols ready… besides which they must be got with a good deal of Caution & Ship… as to secrecy you may depend it is as much our Interest as any ones as the English…will look sharp in every port…however by having timely advise we can bring them [arms and powder] from Holland on Reasonable Terms & ship them as you desire. [You know we] long to see it settled with all our hearts, but should it be otherwise (which God forbid) command freely and you will find us at your service.”
Faithful to the American cause of independence, Colonel Lee met regularly with John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other members of the secret committee in charge of supplies to plan the procurement of provisions and weapons. Each time that Lee arranged to ship supplies from Spain, Holland, and France to America he risked his business and his life, as the British had him under surveillance.
Colonel Lee’s last meeting was on April 18, 1775 (the day preceding the now famous Battles of Lexington and Concord), at Newell’s Tavern in Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts, with another scheduled for the following morning at the Black Horse Tavern where Lee and two other patriot colleagues from Marblehead were lodging overnight. The meeting scheduled for April 19 did not happen.
During the British army’s pre-dawn march to Lexington to engage in the battle that officially began the war, the British raided the tavern Lee and the others, Azro Orne and Elbridge Gerry, fled and hid in a cornfield. In the early morning hours the men suffered from exposure, and Lee contracted a fever that led to his death on May 10, 1775. Following Lee’s untimely demise, Gerry continued working seamlessly with Gardoqui. Lee died an unsung hero of the revolution. Fortunately the incriminating letter did not fall into British hands. It remains, however, proof that aid received from the French, Spanish, and Dutch had begun much earlier than the British suspected.
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