RJO’s Ancestors in Shays’ Rebellion, 1786–1787

What country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

—Thomas Jefferson on Shays’ Rebellion, 1787

This is one of a series of genealogical pages on my ancestors who served in early American wars, including the Pequot War (1637–1638), King Philip’s War (1675–1676), King William’s War (1689–1698), Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), Dummer’s War (1723–1726) and King George’s War (1744–1745), the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the American Revolution (1775–1781), and Shays’ Rebellion (1786–1787). Ancestors who belonged to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts (1637– ) are also noted, and an additonal page presents a special essay on Lexington and Concord and the Nineteenth of April.

Shays’ Rebellion (1786–1787)

At the end of the American Revolution the Massachusetts economy was in a precarious condition. Coastal merchants, under pressure from European creditors, began demanding payment of debts in specie from inland merchants and farmers who had traditionally paid many of their debts in produce. A call for the issuance of paper money was rejected, and many rural inhabitants (including many who had served in the Revolution just a few years before) soon found their property seized and found themselves in debtors’ prisons. The people agitated for reform, and then in 1786 finally resorted to armed resistance under the leadership of Capt. Daniel Shays of Pelham, shutting down several of the debtors’ courts across the Commonwealth. The climax of the Rebellion was an attempt to seize the state arsenal at Springfield. Government troops from Boston succeeded in dispersing the insurgents and the Rebellion collapsed over the following weeks. Public sympathy for the insurgents at the next election, however, swept the oppressive Bowdoin administration out of power in an overwhelming defeat. At a national level, the Rebellion convinced many people that a strong central government was needed, as advocated by the Federalist party which supported the adoption of the Constitution. Robert Gross’ volume In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, David Szatmary’s Shays’ Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, and Leonard Richards’ Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle are all excellent surveys of the causes and consequences of the Rebellion.


Gross, Robert A. (ed.). 1993. In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Minot, George Richards. 1788. The History of the Insurrections, in Massachusetts, in the Year MDCCLXXXVI, and the Rebellion Consequent Thereon. Worcester: Isaiah Thomas. [Facsimile edition 1971, Da Capo Press, New York.]
Richards, Leonard L. 2002. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Shattuck, Lemuel. 1855. Memorials of the Descendants of William Shattuck. Boston: Dutton and Wentworth.
Szatmary, David P. 1980. Shays’ Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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