By Walter H. Marx
Sky watchers in the American West often report cloud formations in the shape of mounted cowboys, and indeed their ghost riders in the sky have made their way into song. The unseasonably warm night of Wednesday, April 18, 1775, in Massachusetts, seems to have produced more phantom riders on each succeeding anniversary. Even the most famous rider was veiled in obscurity until 1825. When Longfellow came across Paul Revere’s account of his ride in 1863, he made it into the subject of a ballad that makes Revere’s name live forever. Other riders became more ghostly, since they left no written reports except in their families.
Many different men rode out as news of the British marching into the countryside to seize colonial arms reached Roxbury-raised Dr. Joseph Warren after dark on April 18.
In Revere’s words, “Dr. Warren sent in great haste for me and begged that I would immediately set off for Lexington, where Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement.” Thus began Revere’s northerly ride across the Charles through the towns there. A little while before William Dawes of Boston also began to take a southerly route (four miles longer,) toward Lexington through Roxbury, Brookline, and Harvard Square - in case Revere failed.
Besides bearing a letter, these men roused the country folk to arms, as neatly portrayed by Grant Wood in his surrealist 1931 painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Both riders arrived at the Lexington parsonage within a half an hour of each other, after midnight. They decided to go on as far as Concord to give alarm, since most of the colony’s arms were still there. They joined Dr. Samuel Prescott, “a high Son of Liberty” and proceeded to ride to Concord. Before the Lincoln-Concord line they were stopped by the British at a spot now well marked on Rt. 2A, but Prescott escaped to get the word to the center of Concord.
He then went on over the Old North Bridge to West Concord, Acton, and Stow. In Lincoln, Prescott already had sent Nathaniel Baker to South Lincoln; in Concord, he dispatched Josiah Nelson north to Bedford; in Acton, he stopped at John Robbins’ farm and sent that farmer all around his own town.
The total number of rides triggered by Dr. Warren on that fateful night may never be know, but it is a matter of fact that our area had its very own messenger sent out by Dr. Warren - perhaps with special concern for his birthplace. Without doubt Ebenezer Dorr was a “high Son of Liberty,” having served on the Roxbury Committee of Correspondence since the Boston Massacre of 1770. He was a 36 year old leather dresser, who lived between Eustis and Vernon Streets. In those days the town of Roxbury included Jamaica Plain.
All accounts state that Dorr left with Dawes over Boston Neck for Roxbury after 10 p.m. - both in the guise of peddlers with saddlebags on jogging horses- just before the Neck was closed by order of General Gage. They proceeded along the present Washington St. to Dudley St. to Eliot Square, giving the alarm. At this point Dorr’s activities grow fuzzy, some saying he went without Dawes to Cambridge, or eve Lexington. This confusion could be due to similar names. To make the truth more difficult to learn, Dorr is not an easy man to find in accounts of the start of the Revolution.
Some historians (probably more correctly) picture Ebenezer Dorr as the Paul Revere of the southwestern Boston area, taking the alarm throughout Roxbury and beyond. Given the roads in Revolutionary Roxbury, Dorr could have easily thundered down the Dedham Turnpike, whose terminus would later be Washington’s choice for a rallying point if the British ever sallied forth from their Boston blockade and overthrew the American camp in Roxbury. As suddenly as he plunged into history, Dorr became a ghost.
Yet what a fine picture of him with Dawes at Boston Neck: mistaken by English guards as a country bumpkin but carrying a message that would toss the British out of the area in less than a year! As Revere has made room for Dawes (whose family has commemorated him in Harvard Square) so the two must add Ebenezer Dorr to their spot in history. If alive, we may be sure that they would, these fellow ‘high Sons of Liberty.”
The Old Manse in Concord, intimately involved with the events of April 19, 1775, has featured a map showing additional known riders to further outlying towns after Dr. Prescott arrived with the alarm in Concord about 2 am. Strangely, Israel Bissel’s five-day ride from our area to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia has never been given full public honor.
Editor’s note: Dawes, Dorr and Warren were all from Roxbury. Warren lived on Warren Ave and Dawes lived in Eliot Square area. Dawes rode along Centre Street but then took the road to Cambridge (not to Dedham) perhaps along the edge of modern Jamaica Plain. Dorr, however, might have lived in the Jamaica End of Jamaica Plain although his exact address is not known. Conventional wisdom holds that he rode the Dedham Turnpike (Washington St) through Jamaica Plain.