PEPPERELL — “This flag flown in Pepperell could well be the first American flag.”
So boasts the Pepperell Historical Commission on Pepperell-mass.com. For 2012, the commission will also be printing the claim in their annual report, says Commission Chair Diane Cronin. According to Town Meeting minutes from Aug. 29, 1774, the townspeople of the province of Pepperell raised a flag of “blew” and red cloth up a 100-foot “Liberty Pole on the common directly before the Publick Meeting House door.”
The report will read the “flag of liberty flown in 1774 in open defiance to the King could perhaps be one of the first American flags flown in New England or in the country.”
“We believe this is the first colonial era flag of New England and the first flag flown without connection to the crown,” Commission Member Franek Kiluk said.
Such a treasonous act by the district of Pepperell in 1774 would have been met with harsh punishment from the British Crown. Such punishment was being doled out by the Intolerable Acts passed earlier that year, after Britan received news of the Boston Tea Party.
So is the claim the commission is making today dangerous, too? They won’t be drawn-and-quartered, but scrutiny from scholarly circles is a possibility.
“We need to be cautious in making the claim — wording is key — but it is also important to make a strong claim and provide the research and evidence to support it,” Cronin said.
With more research, which the commission is still conducting, Cronin says others can then dispute the claim and provide evidence to the contrary.
“Expect to hear about it on websites,” commission member Ron Karr said.
The Town of Bedford is commonly referred to as having the oldest known flag in the U.S., according to the commission. It flew over the North Bridge in Concord during the battles which began the Revolution in April of 1775, but it was designed in the mid-1660s.
Kiluk argues that because of its early origins, it would’ve been designed in England and is therefore an English flag.
Taunton’s Grand Old Union Flag, another early flag, was flown, but featured the Union Jack where one would see the stars today. Historical Commission member Tony Saboliauskas explained that flags such as this one were made to represent a colony of Englishmen wanting rights, not a district, like Pepperell, looking to stand entirely independent of England.
Such claims have gone back and forth over centuries. Pepperell resident William Prescott, for example, was born in Groton, which claims him as a native son, but while leading American forces at Bunker Hill, he lived in Pepperell. Further still, he is credited with the quote “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” unless you’re in Connecticut where history classes attribute the quote to Israel Putnam, according to the commission.
The aforementioned description of the flag, which can also be found on Pepperell.ma.us, was the work of former Town Clerk and Selectmen Neomiah Hobart. Current Town Clerk Jeff Sauer worked on some of the translating.
“They were ticked off, really. They use terse language which was pretty radical,” Sauer said of town meeting records from the mid-1770s.
Size descriptions that Hobart outlined “five yards long and four bredths wide” gave the commission an impression that the flag was large. Bredths, they say, is an old British measurement they haven’t been able to find an exact amount for.
Based on the description, the commission said the flag’s design was most likely derived from the flag of those who incited the Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty. Known as the “loyal nine,” their rebellious flag had five red and four white vertical stripes, but was connected to a political group rather than a district.
The Sons were also known to meet around a liberty pole and utilize newspapers to rally colonists to their cause. According to Kiluk, it is likely the people of Pepperell were well-versed in the goings-on of the Sons.
“We have this recorded record, but when you start putting two and two together, it doesn’t take much to see,” said Saboliauskas.
Other activist influences, such as Boston’s Committee of Correspondence led by Samuel Adams and English radical John Wilkes, also contribute. Wilkes was a radical member of Parliament who published Pamphlet 45 in the North Briton newspaper, a famous indictment of King George III and his chokehold on far-flung colonies.
“Wilkes’ influence trickled into New England. Towns like Pepperell harbored it. This wasn’t a Tory town by any means,” Kiluk said.
As for making the strong claim, the town report will document it officially, but Kiluk said it’s just the beginning.
“It’s an amazing story and everyone should know,” he said.
Using the flag as a stepping stone, the commission is not only planning to reproduce it, but educate Pepperell about the town’s rich history.
Follow Luke Steere at twitter.com/lsnashobapub.