Every September, Billerica, Massachusetts celebrates “Yankee Doodle” weekend. But, what is Billerica’s tie to the popular patriotic tune? And how does Billerica claim to be the birthplace of Yankee Doodle? The origin of the Yankee Doodle’s tune is said to stretch back as far as 15th century Holland, where it may have been a harvesting song that incorporated the words “Yanker dudel doodle down”. In England, around that same time, the tune was set to the words of the Lucy Locket nursery rhyme. The English thought the tune so engaging that men critical of Oliver Cromwell, the mid-17th century Lord Protector of England, replaced its words to mock him. The tradition appears to have continued, and later in that same century, in 1689, British soldiers again exploited the tune to ridicule the troops from New England who joined their forces against France in the French and Indian War. The tradition (and association with American soldiers) continued right up through the early months of 1775 when the city of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay colony found itself in the midst of Revolution and on the cusp of the Revolution War.
On March 8, 1775, Thomas Ditson, Jr., a Billerica farmer in his early thirties, had come to Boston to sell his wares, and to buy a new gun. Perhaps unbeknownst to Ditson, the British soldiers in charge of the city had been starting to worry about colonists’ possession of arms, so much so that, only a few weeks later, a troop of 700 soldiers marched to Concord, Massachusetts in an effort to capture and destroy militia arms stored there. That march ended badly for the British and sparked the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which represented the first armed conflict between the American colonies and the Kingdom of Great Britain.
But, in March, none of this had happened yet, and what Ditson sought to do was perfectly legal. Upon arrival on Fore Street of Boston, Ditson asked around, trying to find a gun to purchase. Finally, a man, who appeared to be a British soldier, stepped forward. Ditson likely knew that many British soldiers supplemented their income by selling the King’s property. The man, who introduced himself as McClenchy, told Ditson he wished to sell a “very fine gun”. Ditson followed McClenchy to a house where another British soldier, the Sergeant, told him that he also had a gun to sell – a cheaper one – that he described as a “rusty piece”. Ditson, wary of the soldiers, asked several times if the men had the right to sell the guns, and as many times, they replied that they did. McClenchy went so far as to reassure Ditson that he had stood sentry often and recently, and that he had personally let American colonists pass by with the same such guns.
Ditson began to relax and negotiated his price. He would pay $5.50, $4 for McClenchy’s fine piece, and $1.50 for the rusty piece offered by the Sergeant. The men made ready to get the guns as McClenchy’s wife entered the room. She shot a look at her husband and said, “What are you trying to do . . . to bring the man into a scrape?” Ditson lost his nerve for the transaction at that, and asked for his money back. The British men refused. McClenchy damned Ditson for a fool and said his wife’s “oration was nothing”. Ditson wasn’t convinced and insisted on a refund. He was refused and finally gave in, anxious to end the transaction.
“Take care of yourself.” McClenchy told Ditson ominously as more British soldiers burst into the room. Ditson was seized and brought to the Guard House on Foster’s Wharf. There, a soldier read an unfamiliar law. He understood very quickly that they were charging him with buying a gun from a soldier, which meant, in their eyes, he was “enticing a solider in the King’s army to desert and take up arms against his country.” He had been set up.
He spent a restless night in the Guard House, devising plans to procure the proceeds to pay the five pound fine he expected. At 7 o’clock the next morning, the Sergeant came through the door. It became clear quite quickly that Ditson was in for more than just a fine. He was ordered to strip to his breeches. The soldiers stepped forward and painted him head-to-toe, breeches included, with black tar. And, to this, they applied a thick coat of feathers. They then marched him out of the Guard House, forced him into a chair that had been perched atop a donkey cart. A sign was placed around his neck, first facing forward so that he could read it, and then it was spun around so that it hung on his back. It read:
“American liberty, or Democracy exemplified in a villain who attempted to entice one of the soliders of His Majesty’s 47th Regiment to desert, and take up Arms with Rebels against his King and Country.”
By Ditson’s estimate, 40 to 50 soliders of the 47th regiment, McClenchy included, marched him through the streets of Boston, in what today is the Financial District. Along King Street (now State Street) and past the old state house (which still stands near Government Center), they marched the tarred-and-feathered Ditson. The soldiers did their best to ridicule him, first playing the Rogues’ March, on their fifes, and then singing their own version of Yankee Doodle, which had the words:
“Yankee Doodle came to town
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar and feather him
And so we will John Hancock.”
The citizens of Boston grew increasingly irate at this treatment of one of their own, and began to press into the troops. The order went up to halt on Frog Lane (now Boylston Street). Then, the order to load their firelocks followed. Lt. Col. Nesbit, perhaps remembering the Boston Massacre, which had occurred nearby five years before, stopped the march and released Ditson into the crowd.
Ditson returned to Billerica soon after. Selectmen there were predictably outraged at the injustice suffered by Ditson and penned a scathing letter to General Thomas Gage, then the provincial governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He promised to investigate the incident, but nothing resulted from it. Ditson, for his part, went on to fight with the Minute Men of Billerica one month later at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
And the Yankee Doodle song? The Ditson incident marked a turning point in its use in the American colonies. What had been an tune used to mock the colonists was adopted by them and turned back against the British soldiers. Later that year, Edward Bangs, a student at Harvard wrote a fifteen-verse version that was entirely American in its perspective and humor. And when the British surrended at Saratoga in 1777, much to their dismay, the Americans played Yankee Doodle there, to mock them. And it all started with a farmer from Billerica, Massachusetts who just wanted to buy some guns.
- The Lowell Sun – Page 5 – September 17, 1925.
- The Beginnings of the American Revolution, Vol.2 ., Ellen Chase, 270-273, 1910