Rascal and Revolutionary War Hero?


  Peter HENLEY was born in Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire.UK., the son of Robert HENLEY & Margaret HENLY, he was christened there on 26 December 1740. His father, Robert was a Butcher and also mayor of Wootton Bassett. His mother was the daughter of John HENLY, yeoman farmer of Brinkworth about 4 miles from Wootton Bassett. The two HENL(E)Y families had a common ancestor in Thomas HENLY some seven generations earlier.
Until the age of 8 Peter lived a happy life in a fairly prosperous household and then disaster struck and within two years he and his brothers and sisters were orphans. They were taken into the care of their uncle Thomas Henly a Yeoman farmer of Tockenham, about 3 miles from Wootton Bassett. At the age of 14 yrs Peter was apprenticed as a Staymaker but after only two years he decided, in company with two other boys, to abscond and join the Navy. They travelled to Portsmouth and enlisted but after only a few weeks Peter decided that the Navy was not the life for him so he absconded again and joined the army. He repeated this game over the next few years repeatedly absconding and the re-enlisting, each time receiving a bounty payment. On more than one occasion he was caught and flogged as punishment but he was considered a good soldier. He fought at the battle of Minden in the Seven years' war and was wounded in the leg. Eventually, when he was caught once again, he was sent to a labour battalion in the copper mines in Ireland. Here he befriended the local priest and in conversation with him one day it was suggested that he should change his name and try to start a new life. He decided (with the priest's help) that as his father's name was Robert he would use the patronymic Robertson ie., son of Robert. He absconded from the battalion shortly afterwards and travelled across country to a coastal port where he contracted with a ship's captain to work his passage to North America. The captain reneged on the deal and when they were at sea Peter learned that he was to be sold as a bonded servant in the Barbadoes.
To cut this story short, he had little trouble in absconding from his employer and eventually he reached mainland North America where he enlisted in the British Army and served in the New England states and Canada. Around 1770 he decided that he had had enough of a wandering life and decided to settle down so again he absconded from the army in Canada and travelled south to New Hampshire. In Amherst he found work with a farmer John SEATON and lived with his family. He married John's daughter Mary (Polly) Seaton on 14 March 1772 and set himself up as a Stay-maker in Amherst. Peter and Polly had three daughters and three sons:-

Mary Seaton Robertson who married John WASHER and lived in Goffstown
Peter ROBERTSON who I believe married Sally CURTIS
John ROBERTSON who probably married Sally DARLING and died before 1837
Ismenia Seaton ROBERTSON who married Timothy BUTTERS
Robert Henly ROBERTSON -- nothing known
Anne Seaton ROBERTSON who married (1) Samuel EASTMAN and (2) Aquilla RICHARDSON

Peter worked mainly as a Stay-maker (ie., making lady's corsets) and by his own account had quite a substantial clientele. He also taught for a while at a school in New Boston. It is curious that in his book he refers only to his eldest daughter Mary (Polly) and never mentions his other daughters or his three sons. From the terms he uses, Polly was clearly the apple of his eye and the one to whom he turned later when things went against him. Polly was named after his wife but also after his eldest sister and in this may lie the reason why she was so dear to him. In his book he admits that when his parent's died his sister Mary was like a mother to him even though he behaved very badly towards her. Polly was born on 1st May 1773 and in order for her to be baptised Peter had to be received into the local Congregational church. This seems to be the start of his conversion to a more Christian way of life. Again, from his own account, this conversion was by no means easy. He fell prey too easily to the temptation of a night out drinking with his friends. But the good life came to an abrupt end when the Revolution started and the news came that British troops were advancing on Amherst. Peter immediately enlisted in the local militia and served at the battle of Lexington. He then enlisted under Captain Archaelus Towne. The increasing burden of taxes placed upon the colonists by the British Government to pay for the Indian War which concluded in 1763 and the lack of true representation in the British Parliament finally exploded in 1775. Starting as a civil war within the British Empire the conflict was soon enlarged to an international war when America was joined first by France and then Spain and the Netherlands. The colonists declared their independence from the Crown and the War started when the British General Gage set out to destroy the rebel military stores at Concord, Massachusets. Although Gage tried to keep his plans secret they quickly leaked out. The approach of the troops was expected and many riders, including the legendary Paul Revere set out on horseback to arouse the rebel forces. Revere rode via Medford and Lexington arousing members of the militia but he was intercepted before he reached Concord. There his horse was taken from him and he was allowed to return home on foot! Fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775 which is where Peter first enlisted. Captain Towne's Company was part of the 27th Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Colonel Bridge. At Bunker's Hill it was one of the thirteen companies in the First New Hampshire, or Stark's Regiment. Peter was wounded in the retreat over The Neck; here is his account:

"They (the British) began cannonading about two o'clock in the morning, and kept it up till nine, without any intermission, but with little execution. That morning the 'Lively', a twenty gun ship, weighed anchor, went further up the river, and there lay in order to cut off the Americans crossing Charlestown Neck, for there was no way to get on the hill without crossing there. About noon the Britons landed, in order to drive the Americans off from the hill, by storming their intrenchments; but the Americans repulsed them very warmly, broke their ranks, so that they were obliged to retreat with the loss of a great many men. The Americans repulsed them three times after that , and they must have lost all their men had it not been that the Americans were short of ammunition, and the Britons setting fire to Charlestown, and marching round on their flank, under cover of the smoke. Now at the latter part of the engagement I received my dreadful wound; it was by a cannon ball shot from the 'Lively' twenty gun ship, which lay in the river. The shot struck me at the wrist, and took my right hand off. Had it not been for a friend who helped off I must have bled to death. But leading me over the Neck, I met with a very skilful surgeon, Doctor Welch of Boston, who dressed my wound, so that I was able to ride to Medford that night."

After he was wounded Peter returned to Amherst and commenced work as a Post-rider between Amherst and Boston. Although he qualified for a pension he never received one. He continued to teach at New Boston. However he was eventually swindled out of his pension and died a pauper in 1807. His widow, Mary Robertson lived with her eldest daughter Mary WASHER in Goffstown, NH until she died on 2nd April 1841. The year 1836 saw the passing of the Widow's Act whereby the widow of a Revolutionary soldier could claim and receive the soldier's pension. The widow had to show proof of her relationship. This Mary Robertson tried to do with affidavits from friends who had known her and Peter when he was alive. After her death the claim was pursued by her daughter Polly (WASHER) and her children too. Eventually a certificate to Peter's service was issued by the State Department but there is no surviving record to show that a pension was ever paid. Nevertheless, Peter's War Service and his widow's attempts to have his pension paid to her are all to be found in the National Archives. His three daughters all applied successfully for membership of the heritage society Daughters of The American Revolution (DAR).
One of the latest known descendants of Ismenia Seaton ROBERTSON, who married Samuel EASTMAN was Ebenezer Freeman EASTMAN who lived in Vermont ca.1901 and according to the published EASTMAN Genealogy was in possession of the musket that Peter was carrying when his hand was blown off in the retreat across the Neck!
Practically nothing is yet known of Peter's three sons. The above marriages have been taken from the IGI and surviving court-house records add nothing to confirm or deny them.

In 1798 he wrote a book in which he recounted his various adventures, most of which have been verified from extant records. The book was published in Calne, Wiltshire, UK., and the only known copies are in the library of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society in Devizes, Wiltshire and in the University of Wisconsin.. The Wiltshire copy was donated by a Mr Large who was most probably an uncle of Peter and this suggests that either Peter or maybe one of his sons maintained contact with the family here in Wiltshire.

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Copyright H. R. Henly 1999

Page Updated 16 January 1999