Minutemen History 101

Recently, many reaffirmed their belief that there’s no better mascot than the Minuteman for the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But just who were the Massachusetts Minutemen of history?

In the Revolutionary War, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was considered by the British government to be the most rebellious of the thirteen colonies. It was unique in having townspeople – “Minutemen”– who volunteered to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

In fact, citizen-soldiers had by necessity gathered as “training bands” in Massachusetts towns since the middle 1600s, fighting during the French and Indian Wars and other confrontations. Minutemen were often a subset of a larger militia and were designed to be a flexible, quickly mobile force.

Many picture the Minuteman as a white colonial man in farmer’s clothes and tricorner hat, dashing with a musket through woods and town commons in skirmishes with the British.

In fact, retired professor Joseph Larson explains, although the majority of Minutemen were white men, and often those who had some role in town leadership, the Minutemen also included women, blacks, and Indians.

Though overlooked in most popular accounts, says Larson, the presence of minority members of the Minutemen is documented in The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, by former UMass Amherst scholars Sidney and Emma Kaplan (University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).

Larson cites the stories of Sarah Tarrant, who on February 26, 1775, two months before the momentous battles of Lexington and Concord, confronted a British solider head-on in Salem, and of Prudence Cumming Wright, who commanded a patriot band. Wright and fellow female Minuteman Sarah Hartwell Shattuck put on their husbands’ clothes, armed themselves with muskets and pitchforks, and took positions at Jewett’s Bridge over the Nashua River to repel British troops attempting to seize colonial weapons. They captured the Tory captain Leonard Whiting.

The Minutemen are perhaps most famous for their role in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which took place on April 18-19, 1775, after Paul Revere’s and other messengers’ warnings that British troops were advancing to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock and seize munitions. Prince Estabrook, a black slave; the free Lemuel Haynes; Peter Salem, who later fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill; and almost a dozen other black Minutemen fought in these battles.

American Indian Minutemen included a company from Stockbridge who engaged the British in Boston and Cambridge. Half of them had lost their lives by the end of the war.

Larson describes the Minutemen as part of a network of committees, signals, messengers, and volunteer soldiers that the “cranky Yankees” in Massachusetts towns assembled to communicate to each other when the British occupied Boston and closed down town meetings to try to squelch the rebellion.

This sense of solidarity still resonates with many today. During the 2003 debate about the UMass Amherst Minuteman mascot, sophomore Kristi Stefanoni, who plays second base on the softball team and co-chairs the Student Athlete Advisory Council, discussed the issue with her teammates.

“We decided we wanted to keep the Minuteman,” says Kristi, a psychology major. “Because it’s Massachusetts. It’s our state history and everyone knows it. We all play for the same reason — to play well for Massachusetts.”