Forgotten Hero of Independence

A granite block supporting a bronze tablet stands before a Victorian house outside Westerly, where Langworthy and Shore Roads meet. It hails Samuel Ward, Jr., Lieutenant-Colonel of the Continental Army. I’ve long wondered why the father, not the son, is hailed.

Samuel Ward, Sr. governed Rhode Island during the Stamp Act controversy, but his resolutions for Rhode Island’s Committee of Correspondence and his leadership in both Continental Congresses are almost forgotten. He died “at his meridian”, as his admirers wrote. Smallpox took him, in Philadelphia in March of 1776. He would have “Signed”.

Ward was born in Newport, son of Richard Ward, Rhode Island governor in the 1740’s. He followed his father to that post in 1762-3 and 1765-7. He was a delegate to both Continental Congresses, that of September, 1773 and the Second, following the conflict at Lexington and Concord: “April the Eighteenth of ‘75”. He died, as it is carved on his grave in Newport, “on station” in Philadelphia, March 26, 1776.

At twenty-five, Ward married Anna Ray of Block Island, daughter of Simon Ray a leading proprietor of the Island. They settled on her dowry land, some six hundred acres called by the Ninigret Indians Tushcottock, in Westerly. Ward frequently wrote to Anna as his “better half”, and that she was, sharing the business tasks of the farm with him. In 1765, 2,000 pounds of cheese were shipped to Boston.

Anna died, perhaps of cancer, in 1770. Of their eleven children, all lived to adulthood except Hannah, their second daughter. She joined her mother in the graveyard on September 8, 1774, shortly before Ward’s return from the First Continental Congress. A long and sad ride that must have been, accompanied only by Cudjoe, one of three family slaves.

A night for George Washington? I maintain that Colonel Washington stayed at Tushcottock en route to Boston in late February, 1756. He travelled, with four men, on a matter of Lord Braddock’s “Dismal Tragedy”, his defeat in the Pennsylvania forests, via Newport. Geoffrey Malbone, the resplendent Virginian, Newport’s leading merchant, awaited them. A Westerly stop following a New London night with Post Master Joseph Chew verified in The Letters of George Washington would be logical. Dr. Joshua Babcock, Franklin’s correspondent would have recommended Ward, for fresh horses would be on his farm, ready for the next stop, “Sugar Loaf Hill”, (later Wakefield) and the Narragansett Ferries beyond. Dr. Babcock’s house stands today, the pride of Westerly, on US 1, the old Post Road.

In the morning, Washington might well have been introduced to Rhode Island’s own Narragansett pacer, small but smooth-riding for the long uphill journey to the Bay. We know he bought a “golden Narragansett” in 1799, the year he died and that Ward was well-known for breeding them.

As taxes grew and threats to their rights as Englishmen developed, Ward was among the first, in 1773 to propose Committees of Correspondence among the colonies. Resolutions were respectfully addressed to the Ministry, not the Monarch. The closing of the Port of Boston in 1774, however, triggered the First Continental Congress. From each Colony, the men hastened to Philadelphia. Ward quickly impressed his fellow delegates. They named him Chairman of the Committee of the Whole that met in camera and controlled agendas. The Congress closed in late October; Ward and Cudjoe negotiated the long return to Westerly, with the dismal realization of his daughter’s death.

The Second Congress was called, with greatest alarm, after the events at Lexington and Concord. Ward was made chair of the “secret committee” immediately charged with obtaining munitions from France, the Caribbean or anywhere else. Franklin, Robert Morris and Silas Deane joined him in that enterprise.

In June Ward’s committee proposed Colonel George Washington of Virginia as Continental Commander. He alone could moderate Yankee, Quaker and plantation interests. Granted, he was the only delegate in uniform (mothballed from the Braddock campaign), but other qualities quickly became apparent.

Ward’s elder sons, Charles and Samuel had joined the forces in front of Boston in March of ’75. His namesake was captured on the disastrous Quebec expedition that saw the death of General Montgomery, a young leader of such promise. Samuel Ward was taken and held prisoner until August of 1776.

Two daughters had husbands under Rhode Island’s James Varnum, defending Boston: Christopher Greene, brother of General Nathanael Greene and Captain Ethan Clarke of Westerly. Imagine keeping Ward’s farm going. The younger children were left in the charge of a Newport cousin. Governor Ward’s letters from Philadelphia parallel those from Washington to Mount Vernon.

A Philadelphia widow intervenes before tragedy strikes. Mrs. Mary House, a well-to-do Philadelphia widow let rooms in her Lodge Street house to delegates to the Congress. Ward, most fortunately, was one of her boarders, for both of the meetings. He became more than a boarder, it appears. Silas Deane wrote Mrs. Deane on December 12, “Governor Ward has, in a formal manner laid siege to Mrs. House, and I am apt to think the fortress will surrender on the first serious summons”.

Nathanael Green, from Rhode Island’s camp in front of Boston wrote Catherine Ward Greene, the Governor’s eldest daughter on January 13, 1776, “I hear (your Daddy) is paying his addresses to a very Rich Widow worth Ten thousand Pounds Sterling. How does it (sit) with you? Mother in Law (editor’s note: stepmother was a parallel term) has an ill sound, but a father’s happiness doubtless will qualify the Evil.”

Smallpox arrived in Philadelphia in the winter of ’76 and held the frozen city captive. Ward, berudging time from Congress, refused inoculation, at that time a danger in itself. Lister’s cow-pox serum was years away. “There never was a sick person more assiduously attended in any part of the World than Mr. Ward”, writes Thomas Young, one of the five doctors that attended him.

“Besides the tender and affectionate Mrs. Mary House with whom he lodged,” Doctor Young reports, “he had constant attendance every night by some or other of the most respectable persons in town.”

Congress mourned him for a month, “with crepe upon the arm.” Young continues, “One at least of the mighty advocates for American Independency is fallen in Mr. Ward, to the great grief of the Protopatriot, Samuel Adams.

The bereaved Mrs. House sent a letter to Mary Ward Clarke, packed in her father’s trunk that Cudjo brought north in April. “Permit me in the most affectionate manner to Sympathize with you in the loss of your tender and truly respectable father . . . the sorrow in which he has left his surviving Relations, friends and Country can only find relief and consolation in a pious Reflection upon the Example he has set and how much he lived and died the Christian.”

John Adams wrote to Abigail on March 29, “We have this week lost a very valuable friend of the Colonies. . .” In 1821, Adams responded to a letter from his son, Samuel, Jr., the thriving founder of the Bank of New York, “When he was seized with the smallpox, he said that if his vote and voice were necessary to support the cause of the Country he would live, if not, he would die.”

Ward now lies in Newport’s Common Burial Ground, moved there from Philadelphia by the State of Rhode Island in 1860. The marble table monument flanks his fathers. Governor Richard Ward’s plaque boasts his family’s arms and Tudor roses. No heraldry for the son: his American record stands as Governor and as delegate to the Congresses, “on station at the General Assembly.”

Not far away in the crowded cemetery stands the tomb of William Ellery, Esq. He was called to Philadelphia upon Ward’s death. He and Stephen Hopkins signed for Rhode Island. Ellery’s grave is surrounded by an iron fence, secure and grand. It is opened only on the Fourth of July when, with the glory of the Newport Artillery and the Sons of the American Revolution in attendance. Ribbons and flowers shine.

Squinting through the iron pickets, one can make out the grave of a daughter. Her name is Philadelphia. The family thus marked its glory. But nearby, in the earliest part of the cemetery lies Samuel Ward, known to the few today who know his letters. No biography exists; a few letters were published in 1952. He deserves more, and perhaps more is to come, dear reader as we conclude his story.

Credits: Mrs. Houses’s letter is held by the Rhode Island Historical Society

Dr. Young’s letter and the Silas Deane and John Adams quotes are in The Correspondence of Governor Samuel Ward, May 1775-March 1776, Bernhard Knollenberg, editor, Providence Rhode Island Historical society.

Nathanael Greene’s quote is in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol. 1, Richard K. Showman, Editor, University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

This article appeared in Rhode Island Home, Living and Design, Volume 5, Issue 2.