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Yankee Doodle: The Man
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".
Yankee Doodle: The Song
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.
April 30, 1741: Thomas Ditson Jr. and his twin sister Sarah are born. Sarah dies two years later. They are the children of Thomas and Elizabeth (Lawrence).
June 18, 1761: Thomas Jr. marries Elizabeth Blanchard. They have 9 children while in Billerica.
October 1768: Royal troops first appear in Massachusetts. They have come to enforce the heavy tax imposed by the British. Tensions begin to mount.
March 5, 1770: Boston Massacre occurs.
December 16, 1773: Colonists throw the Boston Tea Party
June, 1774: The desire for freedom from British control and aggression is growing and reaching outlying towns and villages. At Town Meetings in Billerica, a number of resolves are unanimously set forth. Billerica declares her support of Boston and prepares to defend its freedom; a blow to Boston is a blow to us all.
March 8, 1775: Thomas Ditson, Jr. goes to Boston to buy a gun. There is anticipation of a coming battle.
March 8, 1775: A British soldier, under the directions of British Col. Nesbitt, offers to sell Ditson a musket and brings him to his quarters. Once there, the soldier takes Ditson's money and sends up an alarm to British troops who take him captive. He is held overnight at the Guardhouse at Foster’s Wharf.
March 9, 1775: Ditson is stripped, tarred and feathered, and paraded through the streets surrounded by the officers and soldiers of the 47th regiment under Col. Nesbitt. The tune of Yankee Doodle is being played by the soldiers in derision.
March 9, 1775: Ditson tells in his own words what took place and signs a solemn Oath to the Truth.
March 11, 1775: Billerica Selectman send a letter to Boston to General Gage, condemning the attack on Ditson.
March 21, 1775: In a letter to R.H. Lee of Boston, Samuel Adams expresses his outrage at the tar and feathering of Ditson and Gage’s lack of response to it.
April 1775: General Gage was preparing to seize the ammunition that the patriots had stored in Concord.
April 18, 1775: About 11 P.M. Paul Revere and William Dawes set out on their now-famous ride to give the alarm and call for the minutemen to resist the advance of this attack.
April 18-19, 1775: John Hancock and Sam Adams find refuge at the home of Amos Wyman in Billerica (Middlesex Tpk). They spend the night hiding there and have breakfast the next morning before departing.
April 19, 1775: About 2 A.M. The Ditson farm is among the first in Billerica to receive the summons. After his recent experience, Thomas Ditson, Jr is eager to respond. He and the other minutemen from Billerica march to Merriam's Corner in Concord where they engage the British in battle. This victory is sometimes referred to as Ditson's revenge.
January 1776: Ditson enlists in the Army at Billerica. He serves one year as a sergeant in a regiment commanded by Colonel Loammi Baldwin.
1777: Ditson is discharged at Peekskill, New York but he returns to Billerica and re-enlists for another three years. He served as a sergeant under John Lewis and later in Captain Daniel Shay’s Company.
1778: Thomas Ditson Sr. dies. Thomas Jr. buys his brother, Samuel's, share of the Ditson homestead. The family farm was located in what is now the Pinehurst section of town on the Woburn (now Burlington) line.
July 13, 1819: Ditson marries Prudence Douglass of Mason, NH. He is 78, she is 47.
June 1820: Thomas Ditson, age 79 years and a resident of Townsend, Mass., swears before Chief Justice Samuel Dana that he had served in the Revolutionary War during 1776, 1777, 1778 and 1779. He further declares that in 1777 while serving in the army, he "lost the sight of one eye by the small pox."
Sept. 2, 1828: Thomas Ditson dies at Mason, NH, age 87. Burial unknown.
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