Asa French and Shays' Rebellion

Mark Dionne The following article appeared in the Hampshire Gazette newspaper in Northampton, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1896, shortly after the death of Marvin Marcy French, a well-known merchant in the town. Towards the end, it contains an interesting bit of history about Shays' Rebellion which probably has not been recorded elsewhere.

About the French Family
Reminiscences by Henry Shepherd. Northampton, July 11, 1896 This event has removed from Northampton one of the oldest merchants and highly esteemed genial fellow citizens. He will long be missed by all who knew him best, especially by one who has known him from his childhood, and also knew his no less genial father, Jabez French, and also knew his heroic grandfather, Captain Asa French, all of whom have true descendants of New England stock. Industry, economy and character have been prominent elements with Marvin M. French and his father, and steady accumulation of property has been the result. Jabez devoted his energy and talent as carpenter and house builder, and Marvin devoted his energy and skill to tailoring, ready made goods, etc. During a part of the period between 1815 and 1820 Jabez French was my father's head farmer on Round Hill a few years, and then left it for the carpenter's business, in which he continued during his life successfully. He was one of nature's noblemen. His pleasing address was alike natural and charming to the humble as the opulent. He was often pronounced the handsomest man in town. The pleasing twinkle in the eye of Marvin M. French belonged there; it was his inheritance, but Jabez French was no match for Marvin in pungent jest, or ready anecdote, in fact there were few his equal. The old Revolutionary hero, "Captain" Asa French, the father of Jabez, (as a boy I remember him), was cheerful and jolly, and yet his record declares him a Bonaparte when occasion required it, and one of those occasions is interesting even at this late day. During Shay's rebellion, as it was called, in 1786, the state of Massachusetts hurriedly ordered troops to assemble at Springfield to check Shay's men, who were marching there, as they had before, to prevent the court's sitting, which would give power to individuals who had mortgages on farms and homes of poor soldiers and others to foreclose those mortgages and thus deprive the soldiers and others of their homes.

The real facts were terribly severe upon the soldiers of the Revolution, who had fought seven years to form this government, and the same government was depriving these soldiers of their homes and would not accept in payment the U.S. scrip, which was the only payment the soldiers had received for their services. This scrip paid to the soldiers for one month's services would buy only one bushel of wheat. Among troops hurriedly mustered by the state to Springfield at that time was a company from Williamsburg. The men marched nearly to West Springfield the first day, and camped for the night, and there talked matters over, and then came to the conclusion that their homes would be sold for their debts and it was their duty to assist Shay. Then came the question who would dare to defy the state of Massachusetts and assume command of the company. Asa French, a private in the company, declared that he would take command, which involved a death penalty if not successful. The next morning the captain of the company formed it in line of march, and then Asa French stepped from the ranks and commanded Sergeant Hemingway to take a file of soldiers and put the captain under guard. He was held a prisoner, and the company crossed the Connecticut river on the ice and joined Shay's army, which was defeated that day by the state troops. Shay's men dispersed in small squads to their homes and were disgraced for defending a just cause. So great was the odium that no record of its company was kept in Williamsburg. There was so much sympathy in the community for the Shay cause that all, or nearly all, the members were treated with leniency and slight records were made of their transaction except at the state house in Boston. Asa French was a resident of Williamsburg then, but later of Northampton. Here is illustrated three generations of New England character. It is this development that has established free institutions. Character may endure when blood relation has lost its identity in diffusion. H. Sheph

I have tried to verify the story about Asa French's involvement in Shays' Rebellion. I have not found any facts that contradict any part of the story. It is well established that Asa French (1757-1842) was a veteran of the Revolution, who later received a pension in Northampton. (He did not hold the rank of captain.) In A History of Williamsburg in Massachusetts, by Phyllis Baker Deming (Hampshire Bookshop, Northampton, Mass. 1946.; available at I found the following about Captain Jonathan Warner (1743-1826) of Williamsburg:
Captain Warner was an officer during the war of the Revolution. He was wounded in the shoulder at the battle of Saratoga. His final commission, appointing him to the rank of second lieutenant, was dated at Watertown, April 8, 1776, and signed by such men as James Otis, Caleb Cushing, and James Prescott. Later, in 1781, when he became captain, his commission was signed by Governor John Hancock. After the Revolution when orders for men to join the Continental Army were issued, it was to Captain Warner that the orders were dispatched. One of these orders was

to answer the crisis of Shay's Rebellion. Warner was later captured by some of Shay's men, and held prisoner for several days. Reimbursement for his horse and sundry articles which he lost because of this incident was collected in due time at Warner's insistent demand.

Note that the Continental Army was disbanded in 1783. The militias opposing Shays' men were actually raised privately. Also note that there was another Jonathan Warner, a General from Worcester, who played a central role on the government side in Shays' Rebellion. Mr. Ralmon Black of the Williamsburgh Historical Commission found the following account in the Northampton Gazette & Courier, March 26, 1861. The information in the article was collected by Henry S. Gere:


“Capt. Warner was an officer during the war of the Revolution. His first commission, appointing him a second Lieutenant, was dated at Watertown, April 8th, 1776, and signed by the “Major part of the Council of Massachusetts Bay.” Fifteen names are appended, and among them are the autographs of James Otis, Caleb Cushing, B. Lincoln, (afterward General,) and James Prescott. This commission appears to have been prepared for use under the authority of the King, and the line reading, “In the year of the reign of King George Third,” is erased with a pen. He subsequently received two other commissions, signed by the “Major part of the Council,” and in 1781 received a Captain’s commission signed by Gov. John Hancock. His terms of service in the army are unknown at present, but he was wounded in the shoulder by a ball, most probably at Saratoga or Bennington, which troubled him through life. He refused to apply for a pension, which he might have obtained, because he thought himself well off without it, and the country too poor to pay it. Among his papers is a Regimental order, dated July, 1781, which he is required, “immediately, without loss of time,” to put in execution, and be at Northampton with his men to be mustered. Appended to this order is an act of the House of Representatives, resolving, in response to the earnest request of General Washington that 2700 men be immediately raised in this commonwealth and sent on to join the continental army at West Point, or such other place as the commander-in-chief shall direct, and that each man shall provide for himself a good firelock, bayonet, cartridge-box, haversack and blanket. Then follows a list of the towns and the number of men each is required to furnish, which shows the relative proportion of their population. Springfield is required to furnish 20, Northampton 17, Hadley 10, Williamsburg 6, Deerfield 11, Greenfield 8, Conway 10, Pelham 8, Ware 5, Charlemont 4, Ashfield 8, Worthington 7, Chesterfield 9, Westhampton 3, Buckland 8.

1786, Dec. 4, during Shay’s Rebellion, an order emanating from Gen. Shepard, was sent to Capt. Warner, by which he was requested to assemble his company, see that they were well armed, well clothed, and furnished with ammunition and provisions for 15 days, and march them with all possible speed to Northampton where he would receive further orders. The order is still in existence, but it bears no record of the result. It was probably duly obeyed, however, as Capt. Warner was a strong government man and was subsequently, while riding alone on horse-back near Horse Mountain in Northampton, suddenly surprised and taken prisoner by the Shay’s men and carried to Pelham or Petersham, where he remained in duress for several days, suffering for want of necessaries which he had not the means with him to purchase. This circumstance led him to form the resolution never to be without money in his pocket, and his family recollect that he duly kept his resolution and carried a five-dollar bill with him ever after. His horse was not returned to him, and after the rebellion was crushed it appears that he commenced a suit for it. A letter from W. Williams dated Dalton, 23d Nov., 1787, concerning the case, conveys a moral suited to the present times. He says— “My neighbors, the Chamberlains and others, who committed a trespass against you last winter, of a highly aggravated nature, appear to be sensible of the wrong done you and disposed to make complete satisfaction for it. If your feelings will suffer you, in settling with them, to comport with the ideas government seems to have entertained of the folly and madness of the times, and so lower your demands as far as you can and do yourself justice, you will probably in the review feel yourself as happy, as to press matters as far as legal right might allow.” The appeal seems to have been effectual, as a receipt eventually follows, in the following words:-- “Received of Benj. Chamberlain and the party that took me and my horse, saddle, and bridle, Thirty-Five Pounds, L. M., in full of all demands from the beginning of the world to this day.”

The following questions are open for research:
• • •

Are there any other accounts of the mutiny of the Williamsburg company? Are there any records for the Williamsburg militia regiment? Who were Sergeant Hemingway, Benj. Chamberlain and W. Williams?

Thanks to Brian McCulloch, who discovered the Hampshire Gazette article in March, 2002. Eric Weber and Ralmon Black of the Williamsburgh Historical Commission also provided invaluable help.

Copyright © 2006 Mark Dionne. All Rights Reserved. This work is based on original research by Mark Dionne. Permission to copy or reprint this work is granted, provided: (1) the copy or reprint is used for non-commercial, educational purposes; (2) the work is copied in its entirety or a single paragraph is used as a quotation, and; (3) the author's name (Mark Dionne), email address, the URL mentioned in the following paragraph, and this notice are all included. Latest revision: November 7, 2006. The master copy of this document resides at Revisions may have been made since this copy was taken. Please refer there for the latest revision. Additional search keywords: genealogy, biography Email: mark at markdionne dot com

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