We all know that Yankee Doodle went to town but where did he come from? He came from Billerica, of course. Thomas Ditson Jr., a young farmer from Billerica, went to Boston on March 8, 1775 to sell vegetables and to buy a musket. It was customary at that time for farmers to have muskets. A British soldier (under the directions of British Col. Nesbitt) offered to sell young Thomas a musket and brought him to his quarters. Once there, the soldier took Ditson's money and then sent up an alarm to other soldiers. He was taken captive by the British troops who claimed that he was buying arms and trying to persuade a British soldier to desert. Without the benefit of a hearing, Ditson was stripped, tarred and feathered, and paraded through the streets surrounded by the officers and soldiers of the 47th regiment under Col. Nesbitt. They were playing the tune of Yankee Doodle. This event outraged the people of Billerica, causing the selectmen to demand that British General Gage take action against Col. Nesbitt. General Gage made no response. The people of Billerica banded together and voted for the training and arming of minutemen to join the rebellion. Thomas Ditson, who had survived his ordeal, joined the minutemen.
About one month later, General Gage was preparing to seize the ammunition that the patriots had stored in Concord. It was about eleven o'clock on the night of April 18, 1775 when Paul Revere and William Dawes set out on the now-famous ride to give the alarm and call for the minutemen to resist the advance of this attack. The news probably reached Billerica about two o'clock in the morning. The Ditson farm would be among the first in Billerica to receive the summons. After his recent experience, he was eager to respond. Ditson and the other minutemen from Billerica marched to Merriam's corner in Concord where they engaged the British in battle, beating them soundly. This victory has been referred to as Ditson's revenge.
Thomas Ditson Jr. and his twin sister Sarah were born April 30, 1741. Sarah died two years later. They were the children of Thomas and Elizabeth (Lawrence). The family farm was located in what is now the Pinehurst section of town on the Woburn (now Burlington) line. Thomas Jr. married Elizabeth Blanchard on June 18, 1761. While living on the Ditson farm they had eight children: Thomas born Jan. 31, 1762 was lost at sea Feb. 1782; Elizabeth born Oct. 3, 1766; Sarah born May 30, 1767; John born Sep. 20, 1770; Jesse born July 4, 1772; Allice born Jan. 21, 1779; William born Nov. 30, 1780; Josiah born Mar. 26, 1782; and Thomas born May 22, 1783.
When his father died in 1778, Thomas Jr. bought his brother Samuel's share of the Ditson homestead. He and his family continued to live in the house until 1784 when they moved out of town.
According to Thomas Ditson's Revolutionary War Pension papers, he was living in Ashby, Massachusetts in 1818. Ashby's vital records show a marriage on July 13, 1819 between Thomas Ditson and Prudence Douglass of Mason, Massachusetts. In June 1820, Thomas Diston, age 79 years and a resident of Townsend, Mass., swore before Chief Justice Samuel Dana that he had served in the Revolutionary War during 1776,1777,1778 and 1779. He further declared that in 1777 while serving in the army, he "lost the sight of one eye by the small pox".
The tune we know as Yankee Doodle is a very old one that became popular as an accompaniment to the children's nursery rhyme, "Lucy Locket lost her pocket". The lyrics, however, were changed and then changed again and then expanded upon. As Oliver Cromwell rose to power in England in the 1600's, new lyrics were maliciously invented for the tune.
Oliver Cromwell went to town;
a-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
and called it macaroni
The term macaroni refers to the flamboyant manner of dress that had become popular among English and European aristocrats. The lyrics imply that, although Cromwell may have aspired to greater heights, he just didn't quite make it. Just like sticking a feather in his hat does not make him a Macaroni! The new lyrics stuck and it became a popular marching tune that lasted until the next century.
During the French and Indian War, American troops often aided the British soldiers. Legend has it that when Connecticut Col. Thomas Fitch rode into a British camp with his recruits, the British officers found it amusing that each soldier was dressed and armed differently. Dr. Richard Schuckburg, a British Army surgeon, changed the opening words of the old marching song to make fun of the recruits. He presented it to Col. Fitch as a joke. "Yankee doodle went to town"
A doodle was defined as a simple person often seen as coming from rural areas or farms, a country bumpkin of sorts. The British prided themselves on their sense of style and their spit and polish uniforms. In contrast to this, the colonials were a motley crew, wearing whatever they had in their wardrobe.
Twenty years later, during the Revolutionary War, the British were still singing Dr. Schuckburg's lyrics to ridicule the Americans. The song had grown and expanded with the years and there were many more verses, some say up to 190 of them. One of the verses is believed to be about Billerica patriot, Thomas Ditson:
Yankee Doodle went to town
For to buy a firelock
We will tar and feather him
And so we will John Hancock.
Yankee doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni
The joke backfired when the Americans began using the song to rally their own troops. They played the song with pride and used it for inspiration. The story even goes that as Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War, the American fifers were playing Yankee Doodle. Our patriots had the last laugh.
Today, Yankee Doodle is the state song of Connecticut and people there claim that Col. Thomas Fitch, who later became Connecticut Governor Fitch, is the original Yankee Doodle. However, we here in Billerica, take great pride in knowing that Thomas Ditson is the true Yankee Doodle. And it is with great joy that the people of Billerica celebrate being America's Yankee Doodle Town. It was the strength and unity of patriots like Thomas Ditson that made America the great independent nation that it is and it is this that we celebrate with parades, fireworks, fun and camaraderie on homecoming weekend every September.