The Early History of the Paul Revere House1

THE Paul Revere House, like any building, can be considered from a variety of points of view. To millions of schoolchildren, the house has something to do with that fellow on horseback who rode about shouting that the British were coming. To innumerable hardened sightseers, it’s that funny little house on the Freedom Trail that we couldn’t get a photo of. But to the architectural historian, the Revere House is a tremendously important Colonial artifact.

And a building is an artifact—a product of the needs, desires, and resources of the man for whom it was built. A building is not, however, a stable artifact. As time passes, needs change, owners sell out or die off, and an old building is altered to suit new purposes. An older building becomes a sort of palimpsest showing, in layers, the evidences of the men who have used it.

Two of the primary tasks of the architectural historian are the separation and identification of the layers of cultural history found incorporated in the fabric of an important building. Only as these tasks are completed can the architectural historian begin to understand the evidence presented by a building. Only when he understands a great number of buildings in this way can he begin the critical task of discovering relationships and hypothesizing mechanisms of change.

The Paul Revere House in Boston’s North Square is doubly significant to the architectural historian. Besides being one of only a handful of surviving First Period dwellings originally built in urban rather than rural contexts, the Revere House is the only known wooden dwelling of the First Period still standing on Boston’s Shawmut Peninsula. Potentially, then, the Revere House has much to tell us, not only about our earliest urban architecture, but also about the possible early role of Boston as a New England style center.

To date, however, the tremendous potential of the Revere House has been only partially tapped, the reason being that the earliest layers of the Revere House “palimpsest” have long resisted separation and identification. Estimates of the building’s date of erection have ranged from 1650 to 1681.2 While some authorities have thought that the original owner was John Jeffs, others, after more thorough research, have found the evidence inconclusive.3 The exact original configuration of the building is also in doubt. Are the main house and the peculiarly angled ell the unified product of a single building campaign? Is the ell a fragment of an earlier house to which the larger section facing North Square was later added? Or is the ell, instead, a later addition to the main house? Each of these theories has been seriously advanced at one time or another.4 While the single-build explanation is now favored by most experts, the validity of that theory has not been conclusively demonstrated; nor has it been shown that either of its rivals can be safely eliminated.

In an effort to shed some new light on these unsettled questions of date, original ownership, and original form, the Paul Revere Memorial Association has sponsored a program of intensive research into the early history of the Revere House. William Lebovich began the documentary portion of this research in 1972–1973, and I completed it the following year. While the documentary study has turned up little information concerning the building’s original form,5 it has produced relatively solid answers to the questions of date and original ownership. The documentary evidence in these two areas and the conclusions which it supports are the subject of this paper.

The architectural historian’s first line of research is the title chain. A completed title will provide the names of the original and all subsequent owners of a property; it will usually establish a rough date for a building’s erection, and it may provide clues to the dates of later remodelings. As the first step in the Revere House research project, William Lebovich undertook a thorough search of the property’s title. Mr. Lebovich was able to run a solid chain of title back to November 2, 1681. On that day, Capt. Daniel Turell, Sr., anchorsmith, and Sgt. Thomas Walker, brickmaker, both of Boston, sold to the Boston merchant Robert Howard “All that peece of Land and the dwelling house that stands upon part therof Scituate at the North end of Boston near the New Meeting house.”6 At this point the title chain falters, and might have come to a premature end, save for the existence of one extremely important clue—the Rev. Increase Mather of the Second Church is said to have once lived on the Revere House site. Following this lead, Mr. Lebovich was able to locate a deed in which the Second Church purchased a house and land from one Anthony Chickley in 1670. The land described in this deed can be positively identified as the Revere House lot in North Square.

The discovery of the 1670 deed created an eleven-year gap in the title chain—a gap Mr. Lebovich was not able to fill. The land and probate records are silent concerning the links between the Second Church, which bought the Revere House lot in 1670, and Turell and Walker, who sold it in 1681. There is no recorded conveyance of the property out of the Second Church, no recorded conveyance of the property to either Turell or Walker, and no indication in the 1681 deed that Turell and Walker might have been acting as anything other than private individuals.

While the land and probate records provide no answers to our questions concerning the ownership of the Revere House property from 1670 to 1681, some rather convincing evidence has been discovered in other documentary sources. This evidence strongly indicates that the property was owned throughout this eleven-year period by the Second Church, and that Turell and Walker were acting on behalf of the church when they sold the property to Robert Howard in 1681. The evidence supporting these conclusions falls in two areas. That in the first area establishes that the Second Church owned the Revere House lot until at least November of 1676. That in the second establishes that Turell and Walker were both Second Church members, and very likely members of a church committee charged with negotiating the sale of the Revere House property in 1681.

The principal sources of evidence in the first area are the diaries and family records kept by the Rev. Increase Mather. Mather recorded the births of each of his ten children in the family Bible, noting in each case the house in which the child was born. The first four children, born between 1662 and 1669, were all delivered in the house of John Cotton (Mather’s father-in-law) where the family lived for eight years. The fifth child, however, born November 8/9, 1671, entered this world in “that house which was bought of Mr. Anth. Chickley.”7 This corresponds nicely with the Second Church’s recorded purchase of the Chickley property in North Square in December of 1670.

The Chickley House was Mather’s home for less than seven years. Though he records that his sixth child was born in this house in August of 1674, the next birth on Mather’s list, that of Abigail in April of 1677, is described as having occurred in “that House which was Capt. Bredons formerly.”8 The family’s removal to Thomas Bredon’s house is graphically explained by the following entries in Mather’s rough diary for 1676:

[November 27, 1676]

This was the Fatal and dismall day, when the Meeting House and Houses hereabouts, and mine amongst the Rest, were burnt with fire. The services of the day were such that I could doe nothing at my study. I and my wife and several of my children were kindly entertayned at Mr. Richards. The Lord reward him.

[November 29]

A.M. Time spent in drying my Bookes and taking care about another house et. P.M. Removed things to C. Bredons House.

[December 5]

Removed from mr. Richards to that House which was Capt. Bredons.9

The move to Capt. Bredon’s was not a permanent solution. Exactly one year later, Increase Mather bought an empty lot on Hanover Street. Within a year, a house had been raised on this lot, and Mather’s last three children were all born “in that House which was built for me.”10

In summation: as Increase Mather is known to have occupied the Chickley House at least as late as August of 1674; as there is no record of Mather buying any real estate or owning a house of his own before 1677; and, as there is no evidence to indicate that Mather moved out of the Chickley House before the fire of November 27, 1676, it is therefore assumed that the house from which the Mathers were driven by the fire was, in fact, the Anthony Chickley House. It should follow, then, that the Second Church owned the Chickley/Revere House property until at least November 27, 1676.

The second body of evidence supports an attempt to close the eleven-year gap in the title chain from the opposite end. The goal here was to identify positively the individuals, Daniel Turell and Thomas Walker, and then to discover the relationship between them which led to their being co-grantors of the Revere House property in 1681. This has been accomplished; the critical relationship between the two appears to have been the active membership of each in the Second Church.

The identification of Capt. Daniel Turell, Sr., anchorsmith, was relatively simple. The only other man to bear the name in seventeenth-century Boston was the anchorsmith’s son, who was usually identified as “Jr.,” who seems never to have borne a military title, and who appears in the Colonial records chiefly as the alleged father of an illegitimate child. Daniel Turell, Sr., on the other hand, was a man of some prominence in early Boston, rising eventually to a captaincy in one of the military companies, and being voted a Selectman for a number of years.

Sgt. Thomas Walker, brickmaker, was not so easily identified. There were at least three, and possibly as many as six men who bore the name Thomas Walker in seventeenth-century Boston. After extensive genealogical research, the grantor of the Revere House property has been identified as the Thomas Walker, Jr., who married Susanna Collins in 1662, and who died a wealthy man in 1725/26. This particular Thomas Walker is the only one who fits all of the identifying characteristics supplied in the 1681 deed, and he also appears to have been the only one of that name active in Boston during the period between the late 1660’s and the mid-1680’s.

Once Turell and Walker had been identified as individuals, an attempt was made to relate them to the Revere House property and to each other. The results are strongly suggestive. I found no direct connection between the Revere House property and either man, save for the 1681 deed in which the pair sold it. There is no recorded conveyance of the property to either one. I found no deeds to properties adjoining the Revere House lot which named either Turell or Walker as abutters. I found nothing in any Boston town records, including tax records, to associate either man with any property in North Square. On the contrary, there is evidence in both land and tax records to indicate that Turell was living on the harborfront, and Walker next to the mill-pond, during at least part of the period in question. I did, however, find two ways in which Turell and Walker were related to each other. The two men were named in the 1678 will of Nathaniel Blague, brickmaker, as overseers of Blague’s estate. Also, Daniel Turell, Sr., is known to have been, and the correct Thomas Walker almost certainly was a member of the Second Church in the 1680’s.

The connection through Nathaniel Blague appears to have no direct bearing on the question at hand, as Blague does not seem to have been related to the Revere House property in any way. Blague’s naming of his “Very good friends Mr. Daniel Turin and Mr. Thomas Walker”11 as overseers of his estate, however, does establish that Turell and Walker not only knew each other and shared at least one good friend, but that the two had worked together in a semi-official capacity at least once prior to the 1681 conveyance of the Revere House property.

The second connection between Turell and Walker is much more to the point. Capt. Daniel Turell, Sr., was an extremely active member of the Second Church from the 1670s on; a Thomas Walker, who is almost certainly the man we are interested in, became a member of that church in 1680. While Thomas Walker’s name appears only infrequently in the Second Church records, Capt. Daniel Turell was regularly named to positions of responsibility within the church. Significantly, Turell’s first major church appointment was to the committee of five brethren charged with rebuilding the meeting house after the disastrous fire of 1676. At a church meeting held in December of that year it was “Voted and agreed that Brother[?] Richards, Brother Collicot, Brother Philips, Brother Tyril, Brother Hudson, be appointed as a C[omm]ittee in order to the Rebuilding of a Meeting House, for the comfortable attending the Publick worship of god.”12 Turell must have proved his worth on this initial undertaking, for his name reappears on each of the several committees formed to supervise repairs to the new meeting house over the next two decades. These included a committee of four to see about either casing its roof with lead or adding a shingled roof in 1681, and a committee of three appointed in 1691 to “inspect the condition of the Meeting-House, as to any want of Repairs in it, and act accordingly.”13

Daniel Turell’s services to the Second Church were not limited to his participation on the various committees charged with overseeing the meeting house. At a church meeting held on January 15, 1678/79, the members voted that

Brother Turil, Brother [. . .]our and Brother Hudson should be desired to receive [?] the weekly Contribution, and dispose of it according to the churches order. Consequent to this vote it was declared that Deacon Philips should deliver the church Books, and what Moneys are in his hand belonging to the church unto the Brethren Mentioned Who were also desired to take care about providing for the Lords Table and to attend in [. . .] the bread and wine at the Administracon of the Lords Super.14

In essence, Capt. Daniel Turell was voted onto the “Board of Trustees” of the Second Church in 1678/79.

All of the foregoing evidence points strongly toward the following conclusion: that Capt. Daniel Turell, virtually a Trustee of the Second Church and a fixed member of its “property committee,” and Thomas Walker, a church member who had worked with Turell before, were ideally suited to act as agents of the Second Church in the disposal of the Revere House property in 1681. I have found not one scrap of evidence which would contradict the conclusion that Turell and Walker were, in fact, acting as a committee of the Second Church in that transaction.

Given what is now known of the backgrounds of Turell and Walker; given the evidence presented by the Mather family records; and given the absolute lack of evidence to the contrary, I believe that it is safe to conclude that the Second Church owned the Revere House property continuously from 1670 to 1681. The gap in the title chain is thus closed.

This leaves us in a somewhat curious situation, for one now recalls that while the Anthony Chickley House burned in November of 1676, the 1681 deed to Robert Howard was to a piece of land “with the dwelling house” standing thereon. The inference must be that the Second Church was responsible for the erection of a new house on the Chickley lot sometime between November of 1676 and November of 1681. And, presumably, it is the skeleton of this new dwelling which survives as the original seventeenth-century core of the Paul Revere House.

Thus far we have established two major points: first, a dwelling house was erected on the Chickley/Revere lot sometime between November 27, 1676, and November 2, 1681; and second, this dwelling house must have been built at the direction of the Second Church, which owned the property throughout this five-year period. We have not established, however, what specific motive prompted the Second Church to erect this new building. The one which immediately suggests itself, that the new dwelling was built to replace the Chickley House as the residence of Increase Mather, has already been eliminated. Mather, as detailed above, removed first to Capt. Thomas Bredon’s house, and then to a new house which he had built on Hanover Street. The Revere House, it seems, was not built for Mather’s use.

A second plausible motive is suggested by the fact that ministerial duties in Puritan churches were divided between two men—a pastor to exhort, and a teacher to instruct. Given the magnitude of the 1676 fire (it destroyed about forty-five houses) there would appear to be a good chance that Mather’s colleague at the Second Church was also burned out. If this were the case, the church might have built the new house for that minister’s use. This motive, too, can be quickly eliminated—Increase Mather was the only minister of the Second Church between the retirement of John Mayo as pastor in 1673 and the ordination of Mather’s son, Cotton, as teacher in 1685.15 Even the suggestion that the church might have provided their retired pastor with a new house if his own had been destroyed can be easily dismissed—Mayo had moved from Boston to Barnstable in 1670 and he died on the Cape in May of 1676, six months before the great fire leveled North Square.16

With the two most obvious motives for the Second Church to have erected the Revere House thus removed, we are forced to consider some less obvious possibilities. Let us begin by recalling the situation faced by the Second Church at the end of 1676. The fire of November 27 had destroyed their meeting house, Mather’s dwelling, and about forty-five other houses in the North Square area. Some seventy to eighty families were homeless. Many if not most of these people were undoubtedly members or attendants of the Second Church. In this situation, the church could have found at least two motives for the erection of a new house on the Chickley site: to bolster its overburdened treasury through the rent or sale of a new dwelling house, or to provide housing for some of its burned-out members. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive; in fact, there is evidence to suggest that both may have figured in the Second Church’s decision to rebuild on the Chickley site.

Support for a purely financial motive might be discovered in several places. To begin with, the Second Church is known to have built and rented several shops and tenements on church-owned land in Ship Street early in the eighteenth century. Knowing that the church initiated one early real estate development scheme, would it not be logical to suppose that it might have undertaken a somewhat similar project between 1676 and 1681? Consider, also, that Robert Howard paid the rather stiff price of £300 for his house and lot in 1681. From what is known of North End property values and construction costs in the 1670’s and ’80’s, it appears that the Second Church either built a very expensive house, or realized a tidy profit on its redevelopment of the Chickley property.17 It may have done both.

Concerning the second motive (the provision of housing for burned-out church members)—a small body of indirect evidence suggests that the Second Church may have built the new house in North Square specifically for a particular homeless member of its congregation—Robert Howard. This theory, which is based partly on Howard’s known connections to the Second Church and to the North Square area, and partly on the surprisingly expensive character of the new house, is tantalizingly logical. The earliest evidence to support it is found in the fragmentary Boston tax lists of 1674. These indicate that as early as that year a Robert Howard was living on the western side of North Square.18 There were only two known Robert Howards in Boston in 1674—the merchant who later purchased the Revere House, and the man who was probably his father, a notary public. As the notary is clearly identified in these tax lists as residing in one of Boston’s southern precincts, it is almost a certainty that the man living in North Square in 1674 was the same Robert Howard who bought the Revere House seven years later.

Now, surely, if Robert Howard, merchant, were living in North Square in the 1670s he would have been an attendant of the Second Church (whose meeting house stood across from his own front door, and of which he became a full member in 1682/83). Surely, he would have known Daniel Turell, Thomas Walker, and the other leaders of that church. If Howard were still living in North Square in 1676, then he was almost certainly burned out in the fire of November 27. Might Howard have signified to the leaders of the Second Church his desire to stay in the North Square area after the fire? Might he have even worked out with them an arrangement whereby the church would build and sell to him a new house on the site of Increase Mather’s old one?

Further support for this theory can be found in the expensive nature of the house which the Second Church built. As remarked above, the £300 which Howard paid for this house and land seems notably high. Even allowing for the church to have made a substantial profit on the deal, a purchase price of £300 should indicate that the new house was a relatively large and elaborate one. This deduction is confirmed by the Boston tax schedules of 1687.19 In this detailed listing of the taxes assessed in that year, about a thousand Bostonians were assessed under the heading “Houseing, Mills and Wharfs.” While the inclusion of mills and wharfs, and the use of lump sum figures for the taxes of individuals owning more than one building, makes it difficult to determine the exact tax assessed against any particular dwelling house, this can be done in many instances. Such a figure, once determined, can be compared to the average tax levied against all assessed buildings (a highly approximate figure, I will admit) to obtain a rough indication of that particular dwelling’s relative worth. This has been done for the Revere House and the results are quite revealing.

Prior to 1689, Robert Howard, merchant, is only known to have owned one building—the Paul Revere House. It is therefore assumed that the 20d. tax entered against Howard’s name in the “Houseing, Mills and Wharfs” column in the 1687 tax schedules was figured solely on the value of the Revere House. In comparison, the average tax assessed under the “Houseing, Mills and Wharfs” head in 1687 was roughly 7d. Amongst the thousand-odd Bostonians assessed under this category, Robert Howard was one of only sixty-two (roughly 7% of the whole) whose assessments were listed at 20d. or higher.20 And even amongst the members of this elite group there must have been many whose higher assessments resulted from the ownership of several buildings, none of which, individually, were taxed at anywhere near the 20d. which Howard paid on the Revere House.

All of this evidence supports the conclusion that the Paul Revere House was one of the finer houses of its day in Boston. Would the Second Church have undertaken the construction of such a house on pure speculation?21 I rather doubt it. I suspect, instead, that the church built the house for a specific client—one who could afford to pay a premium price for a large and fashionable dwelling. While the identity of this supposed client is far from certainly known, the leading candidate can only be Robert Howard.

So, while the documentary evidence has identified the Second Church as the original owner of the Revere House, it has also suggested that the church may have erected the building with the specific intention of selling it to Robert Howard. If this is so, then it must be presumed that Howard was actively involved in determining the size, layout, finish, and all of the other myriad details involved in the construction of the house. In fact, if this line of reasoning is correct, it may have been Howard, rather than any committee of the Second Church, who exercised that direct control of the design and construction process which is the normal role of the original owner. It just might be that Robert Howard, who purchased the Revere House in 1681 and lived in it until his death thirty-six years later, was the single individual most responsible for the original seventeenth-century character of the Paul Revere House. Who, then, was Robert Howard?

“Robert Howard, of Boston, merchant.” The name appears here and there among the Colonial records of Boston; never a description of the man, never very much information in any one place, but enough bits and pieces to begin to sketch the character of a highly successful seventeenth-century merchant. The sketch lacks depth, for very little is known of Robert Howard before 1681. We know that by that date he was married, had at least one child, and was living in Boston. It appears that he was the son of Robert Howard of Dorchester, later of Boston, a notary public, but this is not certain. Of the rest of the merchant’s background, virtually nothing is known.

In fact, Robert Howard doesn’t really emerge from the documents as an individual until the mid-1680’s. The image which forms then is primarily that of an active and prosperous merchant. Though Howard in his later years rose to positions of prominence within both the Second Church and Boston’s town government, these appear as short-lived incidents—society’s marks of respect offered to a man who had spent most of his life in the successful pursuit of commercial gain. Briefly, then, I will summarize what is known of Howard’s commercial affairs.

Surviving documentary evidence indicates that Robert Howard was one of late seventeenth-century Boston’s principal West Indies traders. He had particularly strong connections in Barbadoes, and did a considerable business in Antigua and Jamaica as well. He is also known to have traded to Newfoundland, Amsterdam, and Virginia, but apparently with less frequency. He may have increased his transatlantic ventures in the late 1690’s, for he is known to have registered a number of large, ocean-going vessels just at the turn of the century.

The cargoes carried on Howard’s vessels remain largely unknown. Specific mention is made only of logwood (the source of a dye) carried from the West Indies to Amsterdam, rum from Barbadoes to Boston, and tobacco from Virginia to Newfoundland. There is strong evidence that he dealt in fish, and at least one indication of an interest in the New Hampshire ships-timber trade.

Through the Bailyns’ analysis of the surviving portion of the Massachusetts Shipping Register (covering the period 1697–1714) we are able to establish Howard’s relative position among the maritime traders of late seventeenth-century Massachusetts. Of the 332 individuals who owned shares in the 171 vessels comprising the Massachusetts fleet of 1698, only 17 invested in more than 4 vessels—Robert Howard was one of those seventeen. The Bailyns went on to compute a “total-tonnage-per-owner” figure for sixty-nine of the leading investors. These figures show Robert Howard tied for the ninth-largest tonnage-interest in the 1698 fleet. And, finally, the Register shows that Howard invested in four new vessels in 1699, including two large ships of 100 and 110 tons. If the Bailyns had been able to analyze the Massachusetts fleet at the end of 1699, they might well have found that Robert Howard was one of the five heaviest investors in it.

Howard’s business success allowed him to enjoy luxuries unavailable to most of his fellow townsmen. While most Bostonians, then as now, probably raised bitter complaints about the taxes on their real estate, Robert Howard was one of a relatively small handful of seventeenth-century Bostonians who could also complain about the taxes on his trade, his cow, his horse, and his Negro servants. By 1687, the man was ranked among the top 2% of Boston’s taxpayers. Robert Howard was distinctly well-off.

In light of Howard’s prominence as a merchant, it is perhaps surprising that absolutely nothing has come to light concerning his political views. His terms as Selectman (1702–1704) are his only known (and quite uneventful) ventures into politics at any level. Though Howard signed a number of petitions concerning fish, shipwrecks, convoys, and the prevention of fire, he is not known to have come out on either side of any of the important contemporary political issues. In only two instances did he even come close to taking a political stand. First, he evaded the Navigation Acts (but so, presumably, did nearly every other Colonial merchant). And second, he was on the jury which acquited Increase Mather of slandering Edward Randolph in 1687. It appears, however, that Randolph didn’t have much of a case, and Howard might well have been predisposed to favor his own minister against the despised Collector of Customs whether he agreed with Mather’s politics or not.

In conclusion, the picture which emerges of Robert Howard is that of an active and highly successful merchant. Politically cautious, he apparently believed that the surest way to survive in Colonial Boston was to mind one’s own business. Respected by his townsmen, Howard was chosen Selectman for several years, and sat on at least two committees to arbitrate differences among them. A staunch member of the Mathers’ congregation, he served on a number of church committees and was named, essentially, a Trustee of the Second Church toward the end of his life.

So there the case rests. A fairly solid body of evidence indicates that the Revere House was built sometime between 1676 and 1681 upon the orders of the Second Church. A less substantial body of evidence suggests that the church was acting in accordance with an agreement made with the wealthy merchant Robert Howard. Although these conclusions cannot be regarded as definitive, they are the end product of two years of intensive documentary research. I believe that they come very close to the truth about the early history of the Paul Revere House.