Rufus Putnam and Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays never set foot in Ohio, but he is part of the Ohio story.  When Rufus Putnam and others to set out for Ohio in December of 1787, they knew they would be crossing the Appalachian Mountains in the dead of winter.  Could they not have waited for better weather? Why the urgency?

Rufus Putnam’s sense of urgency had begun well before 1787. While still fighting for independence from Great Britain, Putnam foresaw that winning that war, while better than losing, was going to put some his fellow soldiers and neighbor farmers between a rock and a hard place. The story of Daniel Shays illustrates what Putnam feared.

Revolutionary War Hero

Daniel Shays had been a part of the Massachusetts militia known as Minutemen. After the battles at Lexington and Concord, Shays was part of the force that marched to Cambridge in 1775, serving as a sergeant  under the command of Captain Reuben Dickinson. Shays fought at Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Stony Point and Saratoga. Rising through the ranks, he became a captain in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army under the command of Colonel Rufus Putnam. During this five years of service, he was wounded in action, leaving him with some degree of permanent disability.

Soldier Unpaid

Shays was considered an able and prudent man. However, when he resigned his commission in 1780, he was having difficulty making ends meet.  Pay to the Continental Army, which was mostly in the form of debt securities or paper script, was often deferred.  Indeed, Shays may have received no pay at all during his military service.  In order to pay debts, Shays had been forced to sell a commemorative sword he had received from Lafayette. This contributed to Shays’ decision to quit the army.

Back to the Farm

After receiving an honorable discharge, Shays returned to farming.  Born in humble circumstances, Shays had acquired a farm in western Massachusetts through his own labors, without the benefit of inherited wealth or family connections. Shays was well-regarded by his neighbors, who elected him to several offices for their town of Pelham, which was not far from the Rutland home of Rufus Putnam.

The Threat of Ruin

After the war ended, as Putnam was no doubt aware, many war veterans in Massachusetts found themselves in difficult circumstances. While serving, these men had been unable to attend to their farms and had acquired debts. Massachusetts was also in debt, not only for its own war bonds, but also by virtue of its obligation to help make payments on the debts the Continental Congress had acquired to finance the war for independence.

By 1786, Shays had yet to receive pay due to him for his military service. He had been sued several times for debt and forced to sell some of his land. This loss of land not only reduced his ability to support his family, it also reduced his ability pay the taxes that Massachusetts needed to pay its war debts.  Further loss of land would not only reduce him to poverty, but would also disenfranchise him. At that time, only those who met certain wealth and property requirements were allowed to vote, though the laws passed by those elected most surely applied to all.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Some states were able to ameliorate the problems of the post-war economy by printing paper money. However, this did not work out very well for Rhode Island and probably would not have worked well for Massachusetts. Overseas trade was an important component of the Massachusetts economy. If that were to collapse, Massachusetts’ problems would become even worse. However, in order to recover from new British trade restrictions and develop new trade relationships, businesses needed hard currency, i.e. sliver and gold. Meanwhile, interest payments on government debts to foreign banks also needed to be made in hard currency This led to requirements in Massachusetts that purchases be made, debts be satisfied and taxes be paid in hard currency. Unfortunately, the supply of silver and gold in circulation was insufficient to meet the demand for it created by these economic conditions.

Faced with a shortage of hard currency and a deepening recession, the small farmers of Massachusetts were becoming increasingly desperate. A significant number of these were soldiers who, like Shays, were not only owed back pay but who also had been unable to make much use of the pay they had received. Many had sold short their paper script and debt bonds to get the hard currency now demanded. Due to the shortage of silver and gold and the deflation that created, however, even the sale of everything a small farmer owned would often fall short of satisfying his obligations.

Uprisings

One consequence of these troubled conditions was a series of uprisings, beginning in the summer of 1786, which came to be known as Shays’ Rebellion. In rural areas of Massachusetts, people began to disrupt and close down courts to prevent foreclosures and seizures of property. Daniel Shays had refused to participate in the first of these actions, but then became involved, hoping, it seems,  not only to prevent mob violence, but also to turn the energies of his compatriots to lawful protest and petitioning of the state legislature for a general pardon and for some kind of economic relief.

Rufus Putnam Tries to Help

Rufus Putnam knew Daniel Shays and had an extended private conversation with him in January of 1787. Putnam sympathized with Shays’ account of how he had been inaccurately deemed the leader of a movement that had pushed him from being an advocate of non-violence into spokesman now viewed by the state government as a criminal. Putnam first attempted to persuade Shays to quit the movement and cooperate with authorities. Finding Shays unwilling to do this for fear of prosecution for treason, Putnam used his influence to seek a pardon for Shays. [1]

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Putnam obtained a pardon, but it came too late. Before It could be communicated to Shays, he rendered it void by leading a march on the armory at Springfield. While planning this action, Shays et al. were probably unaware that the armory had become occupied by militia troops. The militia first fired warning shots and then fired into the group as it continued to advance, killing four and wounding twenty.  The group scattered and fled in panic. Soon after, however, Shays and others regrouped, moving from town to town, aided by locals and pursued by government forces.  Rufus Putnam now carried messages and tried to act as a mediator while Shays attempted to negotiate for amnesty. [2]  When militia commander Benjamin Lincoln explained that granting amnesty and pardon was not in his power and continued his pursuit, Shays and others managed to slip away to the north.

“A Horrid and Unnatural Rebellion”

The uprisings in the late summer and autumn of 1786 had caused great alarm. The Massachusetts legislature had suspended habeus corpus and condemned the uprisings as “a Horrid and Unnatural Rebellion and War. ” The events in January produced even greater shock — and not just in Massachusetts.  Many felt that entire United States was in peril. In April of 1787, Daniel Shays and others were indicted for treason by a Worcester County jury for which Rufus Putnam was the foreman. [3]

The Legacy of Shays Rebellion

The events of “Shays’ Rebellion,” culminating in the march on the Springfield armory in January of 1787 are credited with bringing George Washington out of retirement, speeding the convening of a Constitutional Convention, and helping to shape the Constitution of the United States. The Northwest Ordinance and the sale of lands to the Ohio Company happened during this same period.

Requiem for Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays went to New Hampshire and then to Vermont, where he remained until he was pardoned in 1788. He returned to Massachusetts for a time, then moved to New York.  Although no longer in fear for his life, he was never able to recover the prosperity that had once been his. In 1818, a now impoverished Daniel Shays, who had once owned approximately 250 acres of land in Massachusetts, applied for and received a small military pension. He used this to buy a 12 acre plot on which he built a house and barn in Sparta, NY. It was there he died in 1825 at age 78. It was once said that he died in obscurity, yet he has not been forgotten.

A sprig from a hemlock tree was used as a badge by many of those who aligned with Shays. The hemlock tree is unrelated to the poisonous hemlock plant. The inner bark of the tree was used to treat colds and pain, and the needles were used to make a tea high in vitamin C. As an evergreen, the hemlock tree was a symbol of constancy.

West to Ohio!

By the winter of 1787, Rufus Putnam could not help Daniel Shays. However, by acting quickly, he could provide new opportunities for other war veterans and distressed people. And so he did.


[1] Putnam, R. (1847) Shay’s rebellion: Letter from Gen. Rufus Putnam to Gov. Bowdoin. Collections of the Maine Historical Society (Vol. 2, pp. 250-254).  [Online access via Google Books:  https://books.google.com/books?id=gqMMAAAAYAAJ.]

[2] “To George Washington from Benjamin Lincoln,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-04-02-0374-0002. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 4, 2 April 1786 – 31 January 1787, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 418–436.]

[3] Noble, J., & American Antiquarian Society. (1903). A few notes on the Shays Rebellion ( pp. 12-14). Worcester, Mass., U.S.A: Press of Charles Hamilton, no. 311 Main Street. [Online access via Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=WOwWAAAAYAAJ.]

Further Readings on Shays Rebellion

Butz, S. D. (2017). Shays’ settlement in Vermont: A story of revolt and archaeology. Charleston, SC: The History Press. [Online access via Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=MW8uDwAAQBAJ.]

Condon, S. (2015). Shays’s Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America. [Parts of this book may be previewed via Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=O04dCgAAQBAJ.]

Gross, R. A., Colonial Society of Massachusetts., & Historic Deerfield, Inc. (1993). In debt to Shays: The bicentennial of an agrarian rebellion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. [May be viewed online at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts website: https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/2732.]

Richards, L. L. (2002). Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s final battle. Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania Press. [Parts of this book may be previewed via Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=v6oeBQAAQBAJ.]

Starkey, Marion L. (1955) A Little Rebellion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. [Online access via Hathi Trust: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001261987.]

Szatmary, D. P. (1980). Shays’ Rebellion: The making of an agrarian insurrection. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press. [Parts of this book may be previewed via Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=uOY8x2YfJEoC1787.]

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