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This Day in History: Timothy Bigelow, little-known hero

On this day in 1790, a little-known American Patriot passes away. Timothy Bigelow was a founder of Montpelier, Vermont, a Colonel in the Continental Army, and a man who fought in numerous Revolutionary War battles, including Quebec, Monmouth, Saratoga, and Yorktown.

He even wintered with George Washington’s army at Valley Forge.

Bigelow had been among the first to join the Patriot cause. As a blacksmith in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the early 1770s, he’d been a leader in a group called the “American Political Society.” The Society was a bit like the Sons of Liberty. Secret meetings were held. Arms and ammunition were organized, and minute men were trained. Soon, Bigelow found himself on the front lines of the so-called Worcester Revolution.

Col. Timothy Bigelow Monument, Worcester, MA

The story of the Worcester Revolution is too long to recount here, so I’ll save it for another day. For now, suffice it to say that the town of Worcester got quite upset when the British passed the Massachusetts Government Act in 1774. That Act effectively ended the people’s ability to have a say in their own government. Militia turned out in droves. They shut down the courts, drove British officials out of town, and effectively brought an end to British government in their area. They did all of this peacefully, without firing a shot.

Soon, Bigelow was sent as a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The town gave Bigelow strict instructions:

“If all infractions of our rights, by acts of the British Parliament, be not redressed, and we restored to the full enjoyment of all our privileges, . . . you are to consider the people of this province as absolved, on their part, from the obligation [of the 1691 charter], and to all intents and purposes reduced to a state of nature . . . .”

It was only October 1774, but Worcester was effectively declaring its independence.

The “shot heard 'round the world” at Lexington and Concord would follow about 6 months after these events. Bigelow was once again involved, leading militia toward Boston to help. It was the beginning of many long years of military service.

Bigelow volunteered for Benedict Arnold’s mission to invade Canada during the fall of 1775. After a long and dangerous trek across Maine, the expedition ended with a failed attempt to take Quebec. Bigelow was among those captured. He was held as a prisoner of war for months.

By the fall of 1776, Bigelow was free again. He went right back to fighting for the Patriot cause. On February 8, 1777, he was promoted to full colonel. He later fought at Saratoga, and he suffered through the winter at Valley Forge. Tradition has it that he fought “more like a tiger than like a man” at the Battle of Monmouth. He was later present at the Battle of Yorktown.

After the war, one family historian reports that Bigelow was left “with a frame physically impaired by long hardship, toil and exposure, with blighted worldly prospects, with the remains of private property—considerable at the outset—seriously diminished by the many sacrifices of his martial career.” He could not rebuild his blacksmithing business back to what it had been before the war.

The circumstances of his death are a little confusing. He’d been given quite a bit of land in Vermont in return for his military service. Nevertheless, he apparently died in a debtors’ prison on March 31, 1790.

Such an unfortunate end for a man who gave so much to the cause for liberty.

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