Honoring Jamaica Plain Revolutionary War Dead

Crossing the Delaware. Painting by Emanuel Leutze.  Courtesy archives.gov

Crossing the Delaware. Painting by Emanuel Leutze. Courtesy archives.gov

On Memorial Day members of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and the First Church decorated the grave of Revolutionary War Soldiers Captain Lemuel May and others for the first time in many years.

Earlier this spring, on April 29, members of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and the First Church joined forces in the neighborhoods clean-up. They concentrated on the burying ground behind the church and followed up last year’s efforts by the church, when the infant forest in the cemetery was cleared.

This year the sacred ground’s history was uncovered so that one grave in the cemetery could be decorated on Memorial Day, along with the Civil War Monument, by the Society and the Rev, Terry Burke of the First Church.

Published remarks on this sacred area always single out one gravestone inscribed “In Memory of Capt. Lemeul May died Nov. 19, 1805, aged 67.” A further account notes a bronze tablet placed there by members of the family for their ancestor, who fought the British on April 19, 1775.

A walk in the cemetery before April 29 showed nothing, but on Memorial Day this Jamaica Plain man was able to be honored with a flag for the first time in many years, even though the tablet remains elusive, why all this labor for Captain Lemeul May?

The first May owned a ship that brought Puritan emigrants to Boston and settled here in 1640. Lemuel was born here on February 20, 1733, and supported the American cause as relations between England and Massachusetts grew strained. He became a lieutenant in the 3rd Company of the Roxbury Militia under the command of Captain Lemuel Child, who kept the Peacock Tavern at Centre and Allendale Sts., which Sam Adams later bought for a summer residence. Roxbury’s force formed a contingent of 140 under the command of Col. William Heath.

On the fateful morning of April 19, 1775, as news of the dawn fight at Lexington trickled through the country in all directions, Roxbury’s militia started for Lexington at 9 a.m., Heath having started earlier. The regiment met the returning British, rescued by Earl Percy’s relief force, below Arlington Heights. There, says Heath in his memoirs, the right British flank was exposed to the fire of the body of the militia which had come from Roxbury, Brookline, and Dorchester, with brisk firing on both sides for a few minutes.

After brief service at the Roxbury Camp during the siege of Boston, May became a captain in the 1st Suffolk Company of Col. McIntosh’s regiment of the Massachusetts Militia, formed in May 1776 after the British left. Here he remained until discharged in April 1778; His military duty was “intertwined with farming on the homestead he had bought in his native area four years before hostilities broke out. During the siege of Boston it was used as barracks for American soldiers.

The May place was long famous as a fruit farm with its cherries, peaches, pears, apples, and berries. The original house was one of the earliest here, built in 1650 by John Bridge, a May ancestor. It fronted on May’s Lane (now May St.) on a farm lot of 38 acres in 1771. Here the Captain lived with his family and died. The house remained in the family until the 1900’s, though with changes from the 1771 houses, whose appearance is known. The old kitchen at the rear was removed and a wing added out from it, while the central chimney was replaced by ones on either side and the pentagonal corn barn was torn down.

In addition, the modernized version had a central porch at the front entrance with a bay window on the second story with a conservatory on the east end. When most of the old farm’s area was taken by the park Commissioners to build the Arborway boulevard system in 1890’s the home’s owners decided to blend the house with a new house in the rear.

Despite elaborate plans by the architect, this action could not be taken. On removing the roof it was discovered that the chimneys were out of plumb, in weakened condition, and that the old frame was in poor condition, in tearing down the building in the fall of 1896, the house told of its construction and history. Among other things, lead bullets, an old spoon, coins, and Continental Army buttons verified the barracks use in 1775 and 1776. Many items were saved for incorporation into the new house facing the Arborway.

Tangent to the old house was erected the unique turreted stone house that sits majestically at 61 Arborway today, In 1901, a popular naval hero of the Spanish-American War, Admiral Sampson, was there entertained by T.W. Carter, whose wife was the Captain’s great-great- granddaughter, when he gave a July 4th oration. Many of the former house’s furnishings surrounded that luncheon group: doors, hinges, locks, paneling, and brass fittings. Most notable was the reconstructed fireplace with its iron fireback dating to 1760 and iron cooking implements. Captain May deserved mention in two places in Jamaica Plain and must not be allowed to fade from our memory.

By Walter H. Marx
June 1, 1989
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts