The True Story of Bissell's Ride in 1775

By Lion G. MilesPrint Story | Email Story

HINSDALE, Mass. — The town of Hinsdale celebrates its 200th anniversary this year and that is a cause for joy, a statement of the enduring qualities of Berkshire County history.

The town naturally wants to honor the prominent citizens of its past, including a man named Israel Bissell, whose grave rests in the local cemetery. For some 70 or 80 years now, Hinsdale has believed that Israel Bissell was a Revolutionary War hero who carried an alarm message to Philadelphia in 1775 after the battles of Lexington and Concord.

It is unfortunate that no one has found any documentary evidence to support that claim, so it has become necessary to mount a search of the records to determine the facts. There are 345 miles from Watertown to Philadelphia, and the newspapers of the day show that the news of Lexington was carried that distance in five short days.

Some, but not all, of the messages copied along the way show the name "Israel Bissell," while others have a distorted version of "Train" or "Trail Bissell," suggesting errors in the copying of the name as it passed through many hands. There is no evidence that a man named Bissell actually accompanied each of the messages. In fact, it would have been physically impossible for a single horseman to travel such a distance in five days at the standard express-rider's rate of 2 to 4 miles an hour. Only by using relays of fresh riders and horses would such a ride have been possible, and no doubt regular post riders carried the message to Philadelphia in that manner.

Israel Bissell's name appears in the early versions of the message that a series of riders carried south, all the way to New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Williamsburg, Va., and Charleston, but he himself did not go with those papers and was safe at home in Connecticut. Not one of the recipients of the message has left us with any remarks to support the claim that a man named Bissell actually delivered it in person.

New evidence from Massachusetts archives shows clearly that the initial rider's name was not Israel Bissell at all and that he rode only from Watertown to Hartford, Conn., while other riders took the news south.

On the morning of the Lexington battle, Col. Joseph Palmer of Watertown gave a message to the post rider and charged him "to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut." He did not give an order to ride to Philadelphia, which would have been much too far and of little use as an alarm. From Connecticut, the contents of the message became simply an important news item to be circulated throughout the colonies.

The horseman was a post rider named Isaac Bissell and he lived in Suffield, Conn. He rode off and spent the next six days traveling through Connecticut, doing what he was ordered to do. Which is proof enough that he did not continue on to Philadelphia. His account in the Massachusetts Archives is quite clear about this. In July 1775, Isaac Bissell petitioned the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts for his six days of expenses "to Hartford," claiming two pounds and one shilling (Massachusetts Archives, vol. 138, p. 191a). The Congress approved payment and then adjourned, leaving Bissell unable to collect his money.

So, in March 1776, he petitioned Col. Palmer for help and wrote, "Sir you may Remember when Lexinton Fite was you gave me an Express to Cary to Hartford in Connecticut which I did," adding, "I think I Earn my money." He signed with the clear signature, "Isaac Bissell of Suffield." (Massachusetts Archives, vol 303, p. 162.)

Col. Palmer, who had given the original message, verified the rider's identity as Isaac Bissell and petitioned the government on his behalf. On April 23, 1776, the Massachusetts House of Representatives ordered payment to Isaac (not Israel) of two pounds, one shilling "in full for his Riding Express to Hartford iin Connecticut in April Last past." (Massachusetts Archives, vol. 283, p. 159)

The House published the resolution in its Journal for all to see (Journal of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, vol. 51, part III, p. 165), a volume available at the Berkshire Athenaeum.

No one named Israel Bissell appears in the official record. The story of his remarkable ride was unknown until the 1920s and 1930s, when it surfaced in the secondary writings of several historians who invented the tale without providing any corroborating evidence. There is no account or petition from him, no record of payment for services, no document anywhere that attests to his being in Philadelphia and no statement from anyone who may have seen or known him. He is an unknown cipher.

His fame rests solely on an error in copying the name of Isaac Bissell of Suffield and the subsequent theories of historians who wrote their accounts before doing thorough research. If there was a man named Israel Bissell involved, some primary documentary source would be needed to prove it. So far none has been found. In the meantime, we should wish Hinsdale the best of fortune in her next 200 years. She may well continue without the myth of Israel Bissell's ride to Philadelphia, but, knowing how stubbornly persistent these legends can be, I would not bet any money on it.

Lion G. Miles of Stockbridge is a historian who specializes in Berkshire County history of the 18th century.


Tags: Colonials,   local history,   revolution,   

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Destination Better Health Offers Programs at Fairview

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Fairview Hospital, Berkshire Health Systems' nationally recognized critical access hospital, will host Destination Better Health '24, a week of free health education, programs and resources offered under a tent next to the hospital at 29 Lewis Avenue in Great Barrington from Tuesday, June 25 through Monday, July 1.  
 
The program is designed to raise awareness through education and exposure to topics of interest to the community. The schedule includes morning, midday and afternoon programming and all events are free of charge. Pre-registration is requested and can be completed at www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/betterhealth or by calling Fairview's Community Relations Office at (413) 854-9609.

Tuesday, June 25
  • 12:00 noon         "Stress Release Through Hypnosis" will be led by certified hypnotherapist and BHS Wellness Coach, Doreen Donovan.
  • 9:00.- 2:30 p.m. BHS Bloodmobile will be on site (both Tuesday and Wednesday).  Appointments are preferred but drop-ins are welcomed. To schedule, call (413) 447-2597, option 2.
  • 4:00 p.m.             "The Role of Hormones in Bone Health" will be offered by Pier Boutin, MD of Fairview Orthopedic & Sports Medicine.

Wednesday, June 26

  • 12:00 noon           "Diabetes: Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment Resources in our Community" will take place presented by diabetes educator, Lauren Whitney, of Endocrinology & Metabolism at BMC.
  • 4:00 p.m.,            "Berkshire Health Systems: Looking to the Future:" BHS's President and CEO, Darlene Rodowicz, will be joined by Fairview's Interim Vice President, Emmett Schuster, for a discussion of the challenges and opportunities for healthcare in the Berkshires.
Thursday, June 27
  • 9:30 a.m.              "Improving Veterans' Access to Care" is a coffee and conversation session for veterans and their families will include presenters Tom Baisley, Southern Berkshires Veterans Coordinator, Robert Shearer of BHS Urgent Care, and Kayli Manning of the BHS Nurse Line to discuss new services that can be helpful in accessing care.
  • 12:00 noon.       "Moving and Functionality: Signs and Strategies to Avoid Decline" will be presented by Fairview Hospital's Director of Rehabilitation, Victoria Guy, RPT, joined by Dr. Katie Hatt of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitative Services of BMC.
  • 4:00 p.m.             "10 Ways to Protect Your Heart and Local Resources to Help You" will be presented by Fairview's Cardiac Rehabilitation Department nurses, Ellen Brady and Cathy Samuels.
Friday, June 28
  • 10 :00 – 2:00.     "Learn How to Save a Life: Naloxone Training Drop -In." Berkshire Harm Reduction will offer ongoing training at Harm Reduction mobile van, which will be located in front of the Main Entrance to Fairview Hospital.
  • 12:00 noon         "Snoring, Sleep Apnea and Other Sleep Disorders" will be presented by BMC polysomnographic technologist, Thomas Rathbun, who will discuss sharing information about signs and symptoms of health issues, as well as diagnostic and treatment services available at the Berkshire Sleep Disorders Clinic in Pittsfield.
Saturday, June 29
  • 10:00 a.m.          "LGBTQ+ Aging Well PRIDE Potluck and Learning Lab at Fairview Hospital." In honor of National PRIDE Month, Fairview Hospital will host a special program for the LGBTQ+ community. The panel of speakers will include Bart Church, Interim Director of Q-Mob of the Berkshires, Maureen Daniels, BHS Director of Wellness, Doreen Hutchinson, VP Operation and Patient Care at Fairview Hospital, and Catherine Record, Certified Application Consultant at BHS Advocacy for Access.
Monday, July 1
  • 12:00 noon         "Preventing Food Allergies from Developing in Children," will be offered by Dr. Ronald Sunog, a pediatrician at MACONY accompanied by Robert Hoechster, Fairview Hospital nutritionist and father of a child with severe food allergies.
  • 4:00 p.m.             "Community Health Workers: Connecting You to Resources" will be presented by Adrien Conklin, RN Care Coordination of Berkshire Faculty Services, Halle Miller, a CHW working at East Mountain Medical Center in Great Barrington, and Deb Phillips, coordinator of the Southern Berkshire Rural Health Network, who will also share information about 413Cares, a website listing resources in the community.
In addition to the programs above, the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce (SBCOC) will partner with Fairview for the June Networking Before Nine meeting on Wednesday, June 26 at 7:30 at Fairview Hospital under the Destination Better Health tent. "Developing Our Future Workforce" will be presented by a panel of speakers including Courtney Warren, BHS Manager of Talent Development, Lauren Cameron of Warrior Trading and Pam Wojtkowski- MassHire Career Center.  Pre-registration is required by calling the SBCOC at (413) 528-4284. There is a fee to cover the cost of breakfast.

 

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