top of page

Living in Sandwich at the Time of

Rebellion Against British Rule

By Kaethe Maguire

revolutionary - town mtg 3.jpg

“At a Legal Meeting of the Town of Sandwich on June 21st, 1776, Cap’n Simeon Fish Moderator voted that should the honorable Congress of the United Colonies for the safety of these Colonies declare themselves independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain we will solemnly engage with our lives & fortunes to support them in the measure.”

(Courtesy of Taylor White, Sandwich Town Clerk)


At the time leading up to the American Revolutionary War, it appears that—although Cape Cod had its portion of loyalists—the dominant public sentiment favored a separation from Britain. The people wished to rule themselves and rid themselves of the noose of British soldiers, commonly called “red coats” or “lobsterbacks.” Taxation without representation by the British government was, of course, a major point of contention.

In spite of the distance and poor communication of the times, Sandwich carefully followed the events in Boston. As early as 1769 the patriots in Sandwich built a secret gun powder hiding place in the Old Town Burial Ground. And from 1770 on the people of Sandwich supported the ban of tea and other “superfluities”—things they thought they could live without—to protest the taxes imposed on those items by the British. 

Leaders of Sandwich’s first Committee of Correspondence—these were committees throughout the colonies that helped shape ideas and coordinate resistance to the British forces— included some familiar Sandwich names such as Joseph and

Revolutionary - cemetery 2.png

Old Town Burial Ground (Courtesy of Joan Osgood)

As tensions progressed, Sandwich residents declared which side they supported in the war. People were consequently divided between being either a British-supporting Tory or a patriot-supporting Whig. Most people tried to avoid violent conflicts with those who did not share their beliefs. But that proved difficult.

Stephen Nye, Nathaniel and Simeon Fish, Nathaniel and Seth Freeman, Simeon Dillingham, Moses Swift, Zacchaeus Burgess, Mordecai Ellis and Joshua Tobey.

One of the patriots’ goals was to prevent the Barnstable County court, which had jurisdiction over all of Cape Cod, from acting in the name of King George III. The courts had recently been force to implement autocratic new rules, instituted by the British to punish Boston for dumping tea in the harbor. The new laws eliminated much of the people’s freedom for self-governance.


A series of events soon unfolded that is evidence of the patriots’ resolve. It began on September 26th in 1774.


First, a liberty pole was erected in Sandwich Village, one of many such structures being raised throughout the colonies as signs of dissent against British rule. Melatiah Bourne contributed the wood for the pole, which was to be forty-five feet high. It was most likely located in front of his house at what is now 138 Main Street. 

Throughout the day men arrived from Plymouth, Rochester, Wareham, and Middleborough. Their goal: to demand that the Barnstable court judges refrain from enforcing the governor’s oppressive new provisions. Thirty-three-year-old Dr. Nathaniel Freeman was elected their speaker and leader. 

Revolutionary 1.png

Melatiah Bourne House (Courtesy of Joan Osgood)


Nathaniel Freeman

(From Russell Lovell's book Sandwich A Cape Cod Town)

At 6am on September 27, several hundred men began their march from Sandwich to the beat of drums as they headed toward the courthouse in Barnstable Village, now known as the Olde Colonial Courthouse and headquarters of Tales of Cape Cod, Inc.  


On the way they stopped at the West Barnstable home of chief justice James Otis Sr., to whom they offered a salute and drum roll. Otis was respected by and sympathetic to the patriots.

The parade arrived at the courthouse about 10am. Between 1,200 and 1,500 people were packed in and around the courthouse. Despite some minor incidents, the crowd did not dissolve into a mob and the day’s events were productive. All thirteen justices signed a resolution agreeing that they would not sit under the unjust acts of Parliament and would resign if forced.


But peace did not last. That night the Tories chopped down the Sandwich Liberty Pole! Sandwich Patriots reacted violently and swiftly. 


Twenty-two men left Barnstable to find the culprits. Once back in Sandwich they rounded up the guilty. They wanted the resignation of government officials Colonel Roland Cotton—of the Puritan family—and Major Thomas Bourne. They eventually received apologies, and Cotton and Bourne resigned from the Sandwich militia. The confessions were not obtained without violence. And those who cut down the liberty pole were forced to help raise a new one. 

Nat Freeman - Revolultionary 5.jpg

Speaking of violence, local readers may have heard of the infamous tarring and feathering of the forty-five year old widow Nabby Freeman in Barnstable Village. The debate continues as to whether this was a vengeful act by the patriots or Tories. These were becoming violent times, and she was not well liked. In Sandwich A Cape Cod Town, author R.A. Lovell wrote in support of the view that it was done by young patriots, fueled by Nabby’s vocal dislike for Dr. Freeman and an ongoing family feud between the Crockers on one side and the Freemans and Otis’ on the other. But he conceded that we will likely never know the full truth. 

You may also know the story of the dreadful beating of Nathaniel Freeman in Sandwich, which occurred in October 1774 as he passed in front of the Newcomb Tavern, a Tory meeting place. His attackers demanded he answer for his conduct that September in Barnstable. Despite the doctor’s large head wound the patriots’ urged restraint, but the incident nearly resulted in the lynching of the six who beat him.

Newcomb Tavern - Revolutionary 4.png

Newcomb Tavern (Courtesy of Joan Osgood)


Following the Battle of Concord and Lexington in the spring of 1775, a wartime stance permeated the area. In Sandwich, a watch was ordered whenever a British military presence appeared there. And Sandwich patriots were determined to be part of the action in Boston. Despite the distance, Stephen Nye and Dr. Freeman—by 1776 known as Colonel Freeman—were chosen as delegates to the Provincial Congress that met in Watertown on July 19, 1775.


Additionally, as evidenced by one of the photos accompanying this story, those that attended the 1776 Sandwich town meeting were in full agreement that if Congress declared the Colonies independent of Britain, Sandwich wholly supported the united colonies.  


The text of this 1776 Town Meeting article reads as follows: “At a Legal Meeting of the Town of Sandwich on June 21st, 1776, Cap’n Simeon Fish Moderator voted that should the honorable Congress of the United Colonies for the safety of these Colonies declare themselves independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain we will solemnly engage with our lives & fortunes to support them in the measure.”  


Cape Codders tried to help supply General Washington and his soldiers with vital goods throughout the war, starting early on during the seizure and blockade of Boston. General Washington, ever the surveyor, noted that the lack of a canal through the area linking Cape Cod to the mainland greatly impeded the timely movement of supplies. 


In 1776 Washington ordered a survey of this crucial area, specifying that the canal should be 12 feet deep and contain two locks to handle the different depths of ocean. But the work was never commissioned. Washington was not the first military man to note this. Myles Standish expressed the need for a canal in the 1620’s.


Boston and Cape Cod finally breathed more easily when on March 17, 1776 the British and local loyalists were forced to evacuate, sailing from Boston Harbor to Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was not the end of the war, of course, but it was General Washington’s first major victory as commander of the Continental Army. 


It is interesting to note that the popular Irish holiday St. Patrick’s day is also on March 17. But in Boston “Evacuation Day” is the officially designated holiday.

Kaethe Maguire is a member of Friends of the Sandwich Town Archives 

bottom of page