This Day in History: Israel Bissell, the real hero behind Paul Revere?
On this day in 1823, Israel Bissell passes away. Was he the real hero hiding behind the oft-told story of Paul Revere?
Some people believe so.
In reality, it’s hard to be certain about too much when it comes to Israel Bissell’s life and daring ride. Indeed, when push comes to shove, even his identity is in question.
We all know the story of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, of course. Revere rode to Lexington late on the night of April 18, carrying a warning that the British were coming. But Revere was not the only rider that night. The colonists had devised an elaborate system designed to carry information quickly. They didn’t have telegraphs, telephones, or the Internet, but they had post riders. They used shotgun blasts or lights to signal messages over distances. Two riders, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, accompanied Revere on part of his ride. Others rode as well.
As the story goes, one of these riders was Israel Bissell.
Legend has it that Bissell rode 345 miles from Watertown to Philadelphia, raising people with a cry: “To arms, to arms, the war has begun.” It took him more than four days! One of his horses collapsed and died, but he finally made it. Some versions of the story have Bissell telling the old military hero Israel Putnam about the British invasion. Old Put reportedly left for Boston immediately upon hearing the news, even leaving his plow standing in the middle of a field.
As Bissell rode, he carried a letter, noting that the “bearer Mr. Israel Bissell is charged to alarm the country quite to Connecticut & all persons are desired to furnish him with fresh horses as they may be needed. . . .”
Or, at least, that’s what one copy of the letter said. The original is gone. And therein lies a bit of the mystery! All that remains now are the copies of the letter that were transcribed at various stops between Watertown and Philadelphia.
Bissell’s name does not appear continuously in these copies. Errors were made in transcription, so some letters change his first name to “Isaac” or “Tryal.” Others change his last name to something like “Russell.”
Did one man really ride the entire 345 miles? Or did the journey work more like a normal post, with Bissell doing the first ride and others taking up subsequent legs of the trip?
Of course, if Bissell wasn’t riding the final legs, it would explain why no one caught and corrected the transcription errors in his name.
Confusing matters further, the Massachusetts House of Representatives later approved a payment to Isaac Bissell of Suffield, Connecticut. Isaac Bissell had written a note asking for it, stating that “you may Remember when Lexinton Fite was you gave me an Express to Cary to Hartford in Connecticut which I did. . . . I think I Earn my money.”
Which Bissell began the ride? In real life, both an Isaac and an Israel Bissell lived. Both men were Patriots who supported the cause, briefly serving in George Washington’s army.
Israel Bissell retired to be a sheep farmer, eventually passing away on October 24, 1823. The marker on his grave describes him as “Post rider from Watertown to Philadelphia alerting towns of British attack at Lexington April 19, 1775.”
In the meantime, Isaac Bissell became a blacksmith. He passed away in 1822 and lies in an unadorned grave. Was he the real post rider?
The answer may forever remain a mystery. But the situation illustrates another truth: Unknown men and women performed many acts of bravery during America’s fight for freedom. We owe a debt of gratitude to these unknown heroes as well.
David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (1994)
J.L. Bell, Comparing Bissell and Revere (Boston 1775; May 3, 2010)
J.L. Bell, The True Story of Isaac Bissell (Boston 1775; May 4, 2010)
Lion G. Miles, The True Story of Bissell's Ride in 1775 (iBerkshires.com; July 21, 2004)
M. William Phelps, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy (2008)
Papers and Proceedings of the Connecticut Valley Historical Society (Connecticut Valley Historical Society; 1904) (Vol. 2)