War, western expansion, and an overturned canoe
Samuel Parsons might have spent his golden years reminiscing about his achievements, but he never had that opportunity because he died in 1789 while shooting rapids in his canoe. Not deterred by bitter November weather, he was on a trip to Lake Erie to survey portions of the Connecticut Western Reserve. A day after the accident, Samuel’s broken canoe floated by the outpost where he’d planned to stop for lunch. His body was found the following May. He lies somewhere on the banks of Pennsylvania’s Beaver River in an unmarked grave. He was 52 years old.
I like knowing this, even though it’s sad, because I like the fact that Samuel died as he lived, a man of action.
In March 1787, Samuel had been appointed a director of the Ohio Company of Associates, an enterprise designed to give Revolutionary War officers land grants in lieu of pensions. Two months after his appointment, Samuel rode into Marietta, Ohio, on a barge crowded with cattle, hogs, dogs and two dozen other settlers. He was ready to take on the roles of territorial judge, clergyman, and surveyor.
Samuel was a war hero who had nothing to prove by tackling more challenges, but seven long years of military service had drained him financially and emotionally. Going West may have been a means of healing.
Samuel was born in Lyme in 1737. After graduating from Harvard, he studied law with his uncle, Gov. Matthew Griswold, and then opened his own law practice in Lyme. In 1761, he married Mehitabel Mather, a descendant of the first Mather in America.
As events built inexorably toward revolution, Samuel became deeply involved. He moved to New London and joined the city’s Committee of Correspondence, a resistance communication network linking the 13 colonies.
In 1772, he wrote the Boston firebrand Sam Adams, recommending that the colonies convene annual meetings to address Britain’s punitive policies and, in his opinion, to discuss severing all ties with the English. He told Adams: "The idea of inalienable allegiance to any prince or state, is an idea to me inadmissible; and I cannot but see that our ancestors, when they first landed in America, were as independent of the crown or king of Great Britain, as if they had never been his subjects …"
Events moved quickly. In April 1775, immediately after Lexington and Concord, Samuel and like-minded colleagues began raising money to fund a raid on British-held Fort Ticonderoga. By June, he was in Boston leading the 6th Connecticut Regiment at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Patriotic fervor ran in the family. On hearing about Bunker Hill, Samuel’s father, the Rev. Jonathan Parsons, thundered from his pulpit against British oppression and recruited a company of volunteers right there in the church.
Samuel stayed in Boston until the following spring when the British vacated the city. (Cannons seized at Ticonderoga and mounted on Dorchester Heights left the English little choice.) He spent much of the rest of the war in New York, rebuilding the fortifications at West Point, rooting out Tory strongholds on Long Island, and fighting in the Battle of White Plains, among other engagements.
Of special local interest was Samuel’s role in the improbable attempt to torpedo British ships from a wooden submarine. David Bushnell of Saybrook had constructed the vessel, but when it was time to launch, the intended navigator fell ill. When Bushnell turned to Samuel for advice, Samuel recommended his brother-in-law, Ezra Lee, for the job. The bold mission was unsuccessful, but it gave the British a good scare and foreshadowed our area’s reputation as submarine capital of the world.
After the war was over, Samuel set about building his second career. It’s sad that this chapter of his life ended prematurely, but it’s fitting that he died while expanding the country he’d done so much to create.
In closing, I should note that 100 years after the war, correspondence came to light that suggested the possibility that Samuel had spied for the British. Historians have largely concluded that he didn’t, but it illustrates how the interpretation of new information can expose traitors or cast unwarranted shadows on upright lives.