On this day in 1770, the Battle of Golden Hill occurs. The incident has been called “the first bloodshed of the Revolution.” Yes, you saw that date correctly. The “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord was still more than five years in the future.
The seeds for conflict were planted in 1766. The Stamp Act had been repealed, and the people of New York were ready to celebrate! Thus, they erected a Liberty Pole on the King’s birthday, June 4. Their pole carried a flag with the words: “King, Pitt, and Liberty.” (Pitt was a reference to a man who had advocated for them in Parliament.)
Needless to say, the British soldiers in New York were pretty unhappy. On August 10, they cut down the Liberty Pole. Soon, two more poles were erected by the Sons of Liberty, only to get torn down. Finally, colonists erected a fourth pole and tied it down with iron braces. For a time, the soldiers were stymied and this fourth pole stayed up. But the tension continued.
By January 1770, British soldiers had had enough. They decided to get that Liberty Pole down. They would use gunpowder to blast through the iron braces. Their first attempt was made on January 13, but it failed. The soldiers were furious and rushed a local meeting place for the Sons of Liberty, Montagne’s Tavern, “with drawn swords and bayonets, insulting the company, and beat the Waiter. Not satisfied with this male treatment, they proceeded to destroy everything they could conveniently come at.”
They tried again a few days later. This time, they chopped the pole into pieces and piled the scraps in front of Montagne’s. Making matters worse, soldiers soon began posting “scurrilous handbills” around town. The bills labeled the Sons of Liberty the “real enemies to society” and mocked them for thinking “their freedom depended on a piece of wood.”
These soldiers were caught in the act. Soon, a crowd had gathered and some soldiers ran to get reinforcements. It wasn’t long before matters had deteriorated, with soldiers and citizens brawling between nearby Golden Hill and the Mayor’s house. The soldiers had bayonets, but citizens were either unarmed or had makeshift weapons. One account describes the scene: “Those few that had the sticks maintained their ground in the narrow passage in which they stood, and defended their defenceless fellow citizens, for some time, against the furious and unmanly attacks of armed soldiers . . . .” A small number of New Yorkers were reportedly wounded during the fray.
In the days that followed, the Sons of Liberty requested permission to build a fifth Liberty Pole on public ground. The Mayor denied this request, but the Sons of Liberty were not to be deterred. Instead, they purchased a plot of private land and erected a fifth pole. This pole had iron bands reaching two-thirds of the way up the pole.
“[I]t has been the custom of all nations to erect monuments to perpetuate the Remembrance of grand Events,” the Sons of Liberty wrote. “Experience has proved that they have had a good effect on the Posterity of those who raised them …. seeing we are debarred the privilege of Public Ground to erect the Pole on, we have purchased a place for it near where the other stood.”
Unsurprisingly, the old language about the King was nowhere in sight. Instead, this pole carried a new sign: “Liberty and Property.”
The foundations of the American dream.
Bob Ruppert, The Battle of Golden Hill--Six Weeks before the Boston Massacre (Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 21, 2014)
F.S. Bartram, Retrographs: comprising a history of New York city prior to the revolution (1888)
Gustave Straubenmuller, A Home Geography of New York City (1905)
J.L. Bell, The Non-Fatal Battle of Golden Hill (Boston 1775 blog; Jan. 20, 2013)
Mary Louise Booth, History of the City of New York (1867) (Vol. 1)
Richard M. Ketchum, Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York (2002)