Robert Bell, aka Robert Leathhead, Marine

Robert Bell. Robert Bell was the alias of Robert Leathhead whose intriguing story is fleshed out in pension application # S-37609. Born in Scotland in about 1756, Robert Leathhead “deserted from the British Service and fearing detection…took in the American Service the name of Robert Bell,” his mother’s family name. At Boston, Leathhead shipped on board the twenty-six gun Massachusetts State ship Protector under the command of Captain John Foster Williams (1743-1814) in December 1780. Prior to taking command of the Protector early that Spring, Williams had previously captained the sloop Republic in 1776 and the Massachusetts Navy brig Hazard beginning in 1777. Williams’ first cruise on the Protector was short-lived as she engaged the Admiral Duff on 9 June 1780 in an action which ended with the thirty-two gun British privateer engulfed in flames and exploding. The Admiral Duff’s fifty-five survivors were rescued by the victor, who evaded capture by the British warship Thames to return to Boston. With Leathhead on board, the Protector “cruised about six months and captured two or three prizes,” other records indicate five, before she was taken by the British frigate Roebuck of forty guns and the sloop of war Medea in May 1781. Most of the crew was imprisoned on the old Jersey prison ship in New York while the Protector was taken into service in the Royal Navy and renamed Hussar. Although the name of Robert Bell is included in the list of prisoners on the Jersey, the pension application states that Leathhead was put on a 64 gun British warship and compelled to serve about six months or more before escaping at New York in December 1781. Leathhead traveled immediately to Boston where according to the Payroll of the Alliance in the Barry-Hayes Collection at Independence Seaport Museum Library; Robert Bell entered service as a marine on the 36 gun frigate Alliance for fifteen months, twenty days beginning 12 December 1781 and ending at Providence on 1 April 1783. Jonathan Merry testified in his pension application that Leathhead, alias Bell, served as a marine rather than as a gunner like himself. According to the ship’s Ledger in the Barry Collection, Bell was issued a blanket, two shirts, two pars of shoes, hose, breeches, knife and two frocks shortly after enlisting. According to Leathhead’s account in his pension application, the Alliance cruised to L’Orient, to “the Havanna” and to the Cape of Good Hope. Leathhead continues, “but did not enter the harbor at the cape and returned from the Cape of Good Hope to the United States” while taking a number of the Jamaica Fleet. The Alliance actually sailed from Boston to L’Orient transporting Lafayette home for Bell’s first cruise from 23 December 1781 until her return to New London on 13 May 1782. Interestingly, Leathhead does not recount his reunion on the ship with his former skipper of the ship Protector, John Foster Williams. Williams had just recently escaped from a British prison when Captain Barry offered him passage as a guest aboard the Alliance as it sailed for home on 16 March 1782. John Foster Williams would soon take command of the 200 ton Alexander in January 1783. While the ship was idled at New London, the Alliance Ledger includes a June 1782 entry indicating Robert Bell was issued two pairs of breeches, trousers, jackets, shoes and one shirt along with two baths and bars of soap. Bell’s recollection of the capture of a number of ships from the Jamaica Fleet actually occurred in September 1782 during his second cruise on the frigate Alliance. This cruise took Bell to L’Orient again and stopped in Havana on the homeward bound voyage between 31 January and 7 March 1783  for the purpose of loading a cargo of specie for Congressional use. Robert Leathhead, alias Bell, was “to the best of my recollection verbally discharged from the Alliance at Providence after the Peace.” His pension testimony concerning traveling to the Cape of Good Hope can probably be attributed to the Alliance’s celebrated later sailing around that geographical icon on her voyage to Canton, China in 1785 under Captain Thomas Reed after the frigate was sold to Robert Morris at the close of the war. It is not surprising he may have identified with this history-making voyage to help boost support for the pension claim. After the war, Robert Leathhead resided in Chester, NH where he married Jane Fulton, daughter of James and Margaret Fulton. Born on 18 April 1745, Jane lived with her family “on No. 85, 2d P. 2d D.” at the Long Meadows, the West part of old Chester “where Matthew Dickey lately lived.” She was likely married to Robert Leathhead, eleven years her junior, prior to the birth of their children John and Margaret between 1785 and 1790. The family of four is recorded living in Chester, Rockingham County, NH in the 1800 Census. Author Benjamin Chase in the “History of old Chester from 1719-1869″ humorously recalls on page 414 that “Robert Leathhead, who lived where Matthew Dickey lately lived, used to itinerate with ladle and spoon-mould to run (make) pewter spoons. He was a religious man, a Presbyterian, and knew nothing of responses, or the use of amen, except as a finis to a religious exercise. On one occasion he put up with a family of Freewill Baptists or Methodists, who invited him to lead in their family devotions. He had but just commenced, when there came a loud, responsive ‘amen”, which Mr. Leathhead took as a signal for him to close, which he reluctantly did.” Jane and Robert moved their young family the 180 miles to Anson, ME during the first couple years of the new century and joined the Congregational Church at Norridgewock in 1803. Jane’s younger sister Margaret also moved to Anson with her husband Arthur Dinsmore, who would testify in the pension application that his brother-in-law Robert “sustains the character of a man of truth.” The family of four were residing in Anson, ME at the time of the 1810 Census. In 1820, laborer Robert Leathhead testified that he owned just one cow and calf valued at $17, three sheep and three lambs valued at $4.50, eight dollars in “household stuff” and one old chain with two old hoes worth $2. He further states that he “owes as much as $15” and that the “income from above property does not exceed” three dollars per year. Leathhead’s need for a pension was confirmed by the Selectmen of Anson in an 1820 statement found in the pension application, “he has not been taxed for his Poll for a No. of years…” His family at this time includes “my wife Jane 75” who is “quite helpless and blind” and “my daughter Margaret who is quite out (of) health.” It can be surmised from the 1820 Census record that the three of them are all living in the home of son John Leathhead with his wife and infant daughter, born on 8 March 1820 and named for her grandmother Jane Fulton. Seven years later in 1827, Robert Leathead’s wife Jane died at age eighty-one. It is recorded that she was “an eminently devout and matured saint, who always attended public worship as long as she was able to get to the place, though she could not hear a word. But ‘she wished to be present where God was worshiped’.” Robert Leathhead again appears to be living in his son John’s household at the time of the 1830 Census along with John’s sibling Margaret and his ten year old daughter Jane Fulton Leathhead. Robert’s daughter-in-law Abigail died suddenly four years earlier in July 1826 at age twenty-nine. In subsequent years, John Leathhead served as Justice-of-the Peace for Anson and entered into a contract with the Post Office to deliver mail from West New Vineyard to Madison, ME between 1837 and 1841. At the time of the 1840 Census, octogenarian Robert Leathhead was still living with his son John as the enumeration suggests despite his name in the Revolutionary War veteran column being incorrectly inserted in the household row of twenty-nine year old neighbor Joseph S. Houghton. This apparent error was repeated in the official government publication of a census of pensioners in 1840. Robert Leathhead, who sailed under the alias Robert Bell in the Continental Navy, died on 29 November 1840, less than one month after the marriage of his grand-daughter Jane Fulton Leathhead to James H. Tibbettts at Solon, ME on 2 November. Leathhead was buried in Anson, his burial place later located and remembered in the first quarter of the twentieth century with a cemetery marker placed by the Ruth Heald Cragin Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

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