History from the Grave: Jonathan Bell, Goffstown’s Own Bunker Hill Hero

In Hillside Cemetery, row nineteen, in Goffstown, New Hampshire, lies the gravestone of Jonathan Bell, a colonist who fought Britain in the Revolution. His stone reads, from top to bottom: “Jonathan Bell. Died June 10, 1844. AE 89. He was in the battle of Bunker Hill, and afterwards served in the Army of the Revolution.” There is – what appears to be – a weeping willow engraved across the top of his stone. Along with his stone, there is a bronze grave marker identifying Jonathan Bell as a solider of the Revolution. These markers were standard for the tombstones of veterans, and are placed alongside every person in Hillside Cemetery who served in an American war.

With the help of the Goffstown Historical Society, I was directed to an organization known as “NH Roots,” to find some more information on Jonathan Bell. New Hampshire Roots utilizes online databases and works closely with local historical societies, to help provide an entry point into New Hampshire ancestral research. Additionally, I was able to find some information in the “Lineage Book – National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Volume 23.”

From these resources, a small amount of information could be obtained about Jonathan Bell, who was born in 1755. First, Chapter 4 of the online book on the website of NH-Roots states that: “In the month of August of this year it became necessary to pay some attention to the military affairs, and the quota of the town. Accordingly a bounty of 10 pounds for each man was offered for all those who should enlist, and be counted on the quota of the town of Goffstown, and the following is a list of the soldiers of Goffstown in Capt James Aiken’s Company, Col. Moses Kelley’s Regiment, who served under General Sullivan at Newport, R. I., August, 1778:” In this list of twenty-nine men from Goffstown, NH, is Jonathan Bell. It gives further information on each man, including some on Jonathan Bell, who at the time of enlistment, was “age 20; private; Capt. Samuel Richard’s Co., Col. John Stark’s Regt.; enlisted Apr. 23, 1775; Bunker Hill; time in service 3 months, 16 days; Capt. James Aiken’s Co., Col. Moses Kelley’s Regt.; enlisted Aug 7, 1778; expedition to Rhode Island.”  Along with this information, The American Monthly Magazine, under its “Revolutionary Records,” lists a number of obituary-like write-ups for a number of citizens, including one on Jonathan Bell, which states, “Bell, Jonathan, d. Goffstown, N.H., June 10, 1844, aged 89; was at Bunker Hill; also present at completion of Bunker Hill Monument, June 17, 1843.”

Through an archive, a document with Jonathan Bell’s name, among other soldiers from New Hampshire, can be found, listing each soldier’s rank, and annual allowance. Bell is listed under the Massachusetts Militia (Though documents make it unclear as to whether he served under the New Hampshire or Massachusetts Militia, or both) as a Private with an annual allowance of 36.44. He seems to be lower on the pay scale, with the lowest earners making around 20.00, and the highest earning roughly 400.00.

The gravestone itself, while beautiful, is typical of ordinary gravestones from this time, and resembles the large number of the common stones found at Hillside Cemetery. This seems to indicate that Jonathan Bell came neither from wealth, nor poverty, but was somewhat middle-class (for this time), also referred to as the “middling-sort.”. Documents show that he, as well as his son, were landowners. And while the maps are too difficult to identify the exact locations, as they were drawn over 200 years ago and no longer match the landscape of Goffstown, it can be found that the Bell family did own more than one property in Goffstown, which was passed on generationally, until being sold by Jonathan Bell Jr’s widow in 1848 to Thomas Richards. NH Roots lists Frank E. Page as the current owner of this particular home, which has since been moved to a new location in Goffstown.

The stone itself is adorned with what appears to be a weeping willow (though there is a chance it may be corn/maize). In its most simplistic symbolic interpretation, the weeping willow is representative of mourning, or sorrow. The weeping willow became a common gravestone symbol around the 1760s. The colonists, and then United State’s citizens, became fascinated with Ancient Greece, along with their art and architecture. This influence found its way in to funerary art (though it touched nearly every facet of American culture, from architecture, right down to the formation of the government following the Revolution), which is why so many tombstones with weeping willows, as well as Greek urns, obelisks and monuments, can be found from this era. A famous Grecian poet, Orpheus, was known to carry willow branches with him. A common phrase then was “she is in her willows,” which demonstrates a female’s mourning for a lost loved one. Additionally, willows have a reputation tied to renewal, often being the first vegetation to appear at a disrupted location. They are fast growing trees mostly unaffected by conditions. Additionally, they are known to root easily. Perhaps this is a symbolic representation of those who fought in the Revolution, as helping to renew a recently destroyed location. Additionally, these soldiers and patriots can be seen as tough, resilient, and helping to seed a new beginning of growth with strong roots.

While today we may look at someone like Jonathan Bell as a hero (as he very well may be), in his time, he was seemingly ordinary, and likely a general reflection of the common New England resident of the time. He was a colonist, and helped fight, like so many others, for American independence. While he doesn’t appear to be wealthy by any means, he was a landowner, and therefore at least had a relatively decent social status. His tombstone, while not terribly ornate or large, is meticulously carved, and adorned with art, which also demonstrated that he was at least comfortable, economically, as tombstones were an expensive object to have commissioned. Though much of his story remains a mystery, we are able to piece together some of it, thanks to current cemetery preservation efforts, along with our ancestors affinity for documenting… well, nearly everything!

The Raids on Fort William and Mary

​Four months prior to Paul Revere’s famous “Midnight Ride,” he made a lesser-known, though still important, ride to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, arriving into the snow-covered port around four in the afternoon on December 13, 1774. At the end of 1774, talk of revolution was in the air in Boston. The city’s network of patriots and rebels learned that King George had recently issued a confidential order prohibiting the export of arms and ammunition to the colonies, and ordered authorities to secure the Crown’s gunpowder and weaponry. After catching wind of the new policy, Revere made his way to Portsmouth to warn the people of New Hampshire that the British were sending personnel to Fort William and Mary (now Fort Constitution) in nearby Newcastle. Ironically, the British hadn’t planned to head to the fort until learning of Revere’s presence in Portsmouth. A messenger was sent to Boston to inform Governor Gage, who then ordered a vessel of marines to travel to Fort William and Mary. They wouldn’t arrive in time.

​The next morning, a gathering of patriots, lead by John Langdon and others from local chapters of the Sons of Liberty, marched through the streets of Portsmouth, organizing in what is now known as Market Square, spreading the plan to seize gunpowder and munitions from Fort William and Mary. The crowd reached roughly 400 men by noon when Chief Justice and Secretary of the Province, Theodore Atkinson, arrived and warned that any attempt to raid and remove gunpowder from the fort was an unlawful act of treason. His warning had no effect.

​In the early evening, the 400 or so men endured another snowstorm, some marching towards the fort, while the rest paddled down the Piscataqua River. When the men arrived, there were met with just five soldiers, and one officer, Captain John Cochran, who were stationed there. Greatly outnumbered, Captain Cochran boldly refused the mob’s demands. As colonists rushed the fort, Captain Cochran ordered cannon and musket fire. Still, they were greatly outnumbered. The raiders restrained Cochran and his soldiers for a short period of time, took 97 barrels of gunpowder, and proudly dismantled the British Flag atop the fort, before releasing them. No deaths occurred during the raid.

​The following day, on December 15, Major John Sullivan and additional forces overran the fort a second time, taking 16 cannons, muskets and other supplies. Much of these supplies would end up at the Battle of Bunker Hill. As Emma Demeritt, descendent of Captain John Demeritt, states in an article from 1910, “It was stated on the best authority that had not the powder arrived at so opportune a moment, the fate of the day would have been far different. For it was with this powder that the New Hampshire troops, with two regiments from Connecticut, guarded the flank at Bunker Hill twice driving back the British.”

[Next in the series] More NH ties to Bunker Hill, from Goffstown, NH (research inspired by a walk through the graveyard across from my house)