The Burning of Charlestown: Only Two Spoons Remained for Relief Ellery

By Massachusetts Historical Society

Two teaspoons made by Boston silversmith John Allen were all that survived of the home of Relief Ellery after the Battle of Bunker Hill ravaged Charlestown on June 17, 1775. The spoons were among “several articles of historical interest, a gift from Miss Anna Sophia Everett of Roxbury” given to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1907.

The Burning of Charlestown is often overlooked in the history of the Battle of Bunker Hill, but it was a move by the British that probably affected more in the Town than the actual battle. Residents of the little rebellious hamlet of Charlestown fled with anything they could grab. For Ellery, she put two silver spoons in the pocket of her dress and fled the burning rabble of the Town.

Today, those two spoons still exist and are part of the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

June 17,1775

The morning of Saturday June 17 dawned clear and warm at the Ellery family home in Charlestown, where 20-year-old Relief Ellery and her widowed mother, also named Relief, had enjoyed their breakfast and were presumably having an ordinary day, albeit one where an occupying force could literally be seen on the horizon.

Then their world turned upside down.

Reacting to intelligence that the British planned to seize Dorchester and Charlestown in order to fortify the position of their troops occupying Boston, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had, a few days earlier, resolved to erect defenses on the hills of Charlestown. On the evening of June 16, about 1,200 colonial troops under William Prescott began to construct fortifications from which artillery could be shot into Boston at British positions. Although tasked with constructing these redoubts on Bunker Hill, the commanders decided to focus their efforts on Breed’s Hill, which was closer to Boston and thought easier to defend.

Their labors had not gone unnoticed by British sentries overnight and some British officers demanded that the invasion begin at dawn. Underestimating the ability and will of the American troops, however, British commanders did not hurry their attack, landing at Charlestown at about 2 p.m. and pausing for lunch while awaiting reinforcements. The fighting began in earnest about an hour later, with some British troops setting the Town afire as others ascended the hill towards the waiting colonial forces. Twice the British troops advanced up the hill and were repulsed, but on the third attempt, with both sides running out of ammunition, the British finally defeated the outnumbered American troops who retreated toward Cambridge. Losses were heavy on both sides, but the British troops sustained casualties of over 1,000 dead and wounded, including nearly 100 commissioned officers.

Who Was Relief Ellery?

Relief Ellery was born on Nov. 27, 1755, the daughter of William and Relief (Barrow) Ellery who married in Charlestown in October, 1748. Relief Barrow was the daughter of George Barrow, a ship captain from Monmouthshire, England who was lost at sea in 1748, and Relief Gill of Boston. William Ellery (1721-1759) was a descendant of the prominent Ellery family of Gloucester, who were involved in maritime and mercantile pursuits. In 1787 Relief Ellery married Benjamin Vincent and had several children, all baptized at King’s Chapel in Boston. The two teaspoons descended through her daughter Hannah Vincent who married Rev. James Everett. When Anna Sophia Tileston Everett (1825-1909), the daughter of Rev. Everett’s brother Thomas, donated them to the Society, she provided the following story:

“Miss Ellery resided with her mother in Charlestown at that time, and on the morning of that memorable day the servant handed her the spoons which had been used at breakfast, which in the excitement of the time, she immediately put in her pocket. As the firing on the Town increased, Mrs. Ellery was advised to leave the scene of the tumult, and with her daughter accordingly walked out toward the country, and found shelter in one of the neighboring towns. Of all their household goods no relic was left but the few spoons that were in Miss Ellery’s pocket …”

Who Was John Allen?

Silversmith John Allen was born in Boston in February 1671, the son of Rev. James Allen and his second wife, Elizabeth (Houchin) Endicott. Rev. James Allen had been a fellow of New College Oxford, but was ejected for non-conformity in 1662, arriving in Boston soon thereafter. He served as Teaching Elder of the First Church in Boston from 1688 until his death in 1710. In about 1685, young John Allen was apprenticed to Jeremiah Dummer, one of New England’s best known silversmiths (and the brother of Rev. Allen’s first wife), and was an active silversmith on his own and in partnership with John Edwards from about 1690 onward. His mark consists of the initials I.A. within an inverted heart.

For Further Reading

The Decisive Day is Come is a web exhibition produced by the Massachusetts Historical Society for the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill showcasing manuscripts, maps, and artifacts related to the Battle of Bunker Hill, as well as a timeline, bibliography, and biographies.

Two fine recent histories of the opening campaigns of the Revolution and the Battle of Bunker Hill are:

Lockhart, Paul. The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington. New York: Harper, 2011.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. New York: Viking, 2013.

Both Lockhart’s and Philbrick’s studies include extensive bibliographies.

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