Bringing History to Life

The People of Shays' Rebellion

Bringing History to Life: The People of Shays' Rebellion

One of the primary goals of this website is to present multiple historical perspectives in an engaging and compelling way. People are drawn to stories, especially stories of actual historical characters. We have therefore tried to bring to life the history surrounding Shays' Rebellion, in part, by telling the stories of people involved in the event.

An inevitable challenge in doing so is that while the lives of some of the prominent players in this drama are well recorded and documented, lives of more common folk are not. At most, we might have an historical outline of an individual's life, his or her date of birth and death, and information about parents and number of children. For others, we have little more than a name and that they were present during a particular event.

For example, much is known about Governor James Bowdoin and John Hancock and their perspectives on the Regulation—the movement they called a rebellion—from letters and newpaper articles. In contrast, surprisingly little is known of Daniel Shays, one of the leaders of the Regulation and, for better or for worse, its namesake; there is no known image of him except for a crude woodcut in the National Portrait Gallery. Similarly, little is known of Henry McCulloch, one of the few men sentenced to die for his participation in the Rebellion. We know still less about Moses Sash, one of the few African Americans known to have participated in the Regulation and indicted as "a Captain & one Shaises Councill."

Actual correspondence survives for some participants—ranging from one to many letters. Of those who wrote about their experiences, a handful of diaries and journals survive; for example, the diaries of Sylvester Judd, Justus Forward and Elihu Ashley; and the autobiographical reminiscences of Justin Hitchcock and Park Holland.

The experiences and perspectives of individual women during the Regulation are particularly difficult to document and reconstruct. They surface intermittently—Mary Harvey's visits to a local store during the post-Revolutionary War boom in 1783; Elizabeth Porter Phelps' tragic certainty in January 1787 that bloodshed seemed both inevitable and imminent; Abigail Adams' angry characterization of the Regulators as "Ignorant, restless desperadoes"; Sarah Peeble's impassioned petition to Governor Bowdoin to spare the life of her son Henry, "a tender child, the Support & comfort of my old Age." The character narratives of Mary Harvey, Abigail Adams and Elizabeth Porter Phelps are a window on the unsettled and tumultuous 1780s from the perspectives of three Massachusetts women.

People today usually learn about history through the viewpoint recorded in their history books, which, more often than not, highlights the lives and accomplishments of well-known political figures. This website trains the spotlight on lesser-known, as well as more prominent, individuals involved in Shays' Rebellion. For all of the people on this site, including those who speak to us in their own words, we have relied upon surviving accounts and sources to flesh out where possible the experiences of the Regulators and their opponents. Our goal in these character narratives is to "do history" in a way that brings it to life for site visitors, while maintaining accuracy and scholarly integrity:

The end to be sought is not to get something "absolutely right" but to make it come alive in all of its uncertainties. The more we can multiply perspectives from many different kinds of people the better able we are to ask useful and specific questions out of which can come the fullest sense both of what did happen in the past and how we might understand and judge it…It is our task, as students and teachers, writers and citizens, to bring everyone and everything out of the mist so we might hear their voices, follow their actions, and respect each person, past and present, as a maker as well as a subject of history.
From "Who Owns History," by Professor Barry O’Connell, Amherst College