"In fact, Samuel Ashbow was the first Indian killed in the American Revolution on June 16, 1775, at Breed’s Hill."
Bill Stanley: Fourth of July celebrations lost to history
By BILL STANLEY
Posted Jun 29, 2008 @ 12:00 AM
Once upon a time, we used to celebrate the Fourth of July. We don’t do that anymore.
Today, we witness the celebration; that is, we watch fireworks, but we don’t personally shoot off fireworks as many of us did when we were young. It is not the same. Like all things in life, something has been lost with celebrating the Fourth of July.
While I am not a historian, I do so love history and probably understand more than most what the Fourth of July represents. It was a day when 56 men signed their own death warrant. One of those men was from Norwich, Samuel Huntington. They declared their independence from England, which was an act of treason punishable by death. Perhaps it is fair to say for those 56 men, it was very fortunate we won the American Revolution. Otherwise, all of them would have been publicly executed.
‘Pomp and parade’
It was back in 1776 when John Adams, who was later our second president, proclaimed Independence Day “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade ... bonfires and illumination from one end of the continent to the other from this day forward forever.”
Those words were spoken by a man who was there in the beginning, who was a friend of Huntington, as was Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and, oh yes, Thomas Jefferson.
When I was young, the Fourth of July was so much fun. It was a true celebration. We looked forward to it with the same enthusiasm as we looked forward to Christmas. At least the boys did. That was the one day a year when we could shoot firecrackers, sky rockets, Roman candles and pinwheels.
Years ago, many of us had newspaper routes. We would save our money and tips and then go to Campbell’s Sporting Goods and several of the other hardware stores in downtown where there were big, special displays of fireworks for sale.
There were Chinese firecrackers, which were strung together. When you lit the fuse, they were timed to go off one after the other. They sounded like a machine gun, and while there must have been 60 or 70 little firecrackers, I do believe they only cost 4 cents. You could get a package of 2-inch firecrackers for a dime and a sky rocket for 15 cents.
Accidents did happen
We had Roman candles, which were never to be hand-held. But, most of us held the Roman candle and, while it was dangerous, often pointed them dangerously close to our friends. To be sure, there were accidents.
The trick in lighting firecrackers was to light the fuse with the left hand, holding the firecracker in your right hand, but then throwing it quickly before it went off. Sometimes the fuse was short, and it went off in your hand. You would have these uncomfortable black blisters all over your hands for a week or more.
Now, as an old man, talking about fireworks in today’s society sounds reckless and dangerous. When we were young, we somehow took it in stride. Yes, maybe George or Harry had firecrackers go off in their hands. Those powder burns hurt, but rarely were there serious burns.
Oh, yes, we celebrated with parades, and people actually went to them. This morning’s picture, I believe, was taken on the Fourth of July in downtown Norwich after one of the many parades that always were well-attended. We haven’t seen Norwich with crowded streets like that for the past 50 years.
Those who are too young to remember cannot imagine downtown when it was so busy that people actually had to walk in the street because the sidewalks were filled.
Told to celebrate
We had firecrackers because we would celebrate the Fourth of July. We were, after all, only doing what President John Adams told us we should do.
In fact, on the day they signed the Declaration of Independence, Huntington noted in correspondence that the sky was lit with fireworks, and there was great celebration as the 13 colonies declared their independence from England.
The history of America is so spectacular. One almost has to believe we had divine intervention. England was the greatest military power on earth, and it was only with volunteers that a rag-tag army was gathered and, against all odds, beat the greatest power on earth.
Many from Norwich made a difference. We all know Benedict Arnold was Washington’s greatest general before he became the nation’s most notorious traitor. We all know our Huntington signed the Declaration of Independence and served as President of the Continental Congress.
There were other dedicated men who served. One of the great generals of the American Revolution was another Huntington, Jedediah. Born in Norwich in 1743, he was promoted to brigadier general during the war and major general on retirement. To mention a few others, there was Lt. Jabez Fitch, Gen. Israel Putnam (“Old Put”) of Brooklyn and General Trumbull of Lebanon.
Norwich had many slaves during the Revolution. Many of them served in the army and won their freedom or died. Col. John Durkee supposedly enlisted Norwich’s Cato Mead who was the first black man killed in the Revolution.
Many Mohegan Indians also served in the Revolution. In fact, Samuel Ashbow was the first Indian killed in the American Revolution on June 16, 1775, at Breed’s Hill.
He was the son of the Rev. Sampson Ashbow, who lost three sons in that war. Another Mohegan, the widow Tanner, lost five sons.
At least 30 Mohegan Indians served in the Revolution, many on privateer ships that protected the coast and attacked the British at sea.
The Fourth of July is the birth of our nation. Our town of Norwich, and the surrounding towns of Eastern Connecticut, played a major role in the victory that followed.
Oh, how I wish we could once again celebrate the Fourth of July as we once did.
Everything in life is dangerous, as are firecrackers. But, I do believe our young people would get a better sense of the holiday if they were part of it and celebrated as we once did.
Bill Stanley’s prize-winning, latest book, “The 9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence & Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, Magazines & More, all branches of the Dime Bank, Chelsea Groton, Eastern Federal, People’s United Bank, Johnson’s Flowers and Gift Shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam, or credit card by calling 1-800-950-0331