Minuteman reenactor’s forebear may have started the battle

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / April 19, 2010

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LEXINGTON — Like the other Minutemen in his company, Bill Poole will grab his musket, sling his cartridge box over his shoulder, and stride onto Lexington Green this morning to fight, and lose, the famed first skirmish between Patriot and Redcoat.

But unlike his comrades in the annual reenactment, Poole will carry with him a piece of a 235-year-old mystery that still surrounds that momentous clash: the question of who fired the shot that sparked the opening volley of the Revolutionary War.

Poole, 76, is the direct descendant of Ebenezer Locke, a man who, according to one account, fired the musket that set the course of the nation’s history. Whether or not that account is true is probably impossible to prove. But even if it’s not true, Locke is certainly one of only a handful of Minutemen identified by name as someone who shot at the British on Lexington Green.

That makes Poole a rather special player in the annual Lexington drama.

“To be part of the reenactment and find out that my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was there and played a role was certainly exhilarating,’’ Poole said last week, counting with the fingers of his right hand as he ticked off the greats. “It was a tremendous surprise.’’

Poole, a retired educator with a doctorate in American history, learned of his semifamous ancestor several years after he joined the Lexington Minutemen in 2000. It is the kind of discovery any historian dreams of making: that of a personal connection to an event that shook the world.

Standing in the center of Lexington Green, Poole was quick to say that Locke’s story, which he discovered while researching his family’s genealogy, is just one version of how the battle might have begun. As is often the case when history meets national identity, only a few strands link Locke to the fateful discharge of that flintlock: a timeworn gravestone, the historical record of a small New Hampshire town, and a sworn deposition given by Locke’s cousin, Amos, before a Middlesex County justice of the peace in 1824.

It goes like this. Ebenezer and Amos Locke, farmers who owned land in what is now Lexington, were members of the Woburn militia when they came to the green on the morning of April 19, 1775. But when someone told them — mistakenly as it turned out — that the king’s troops had not been seen between Lexington and Boston, the two headed home.

They had not gotten far when, according to Amos Locke, they “heard a firing’’ and returned in the direction of the “common,’’ as the green was called in the day. Not far from where the British were now assembling, behind a wall, the Lockes found the body of another Woburn man, Asahel Porter, pierced by a musket ball. As his cousin recalled it, Ebenezer then took aim at some regulars nearby and fired. The battle began, and the cousins took cover behind the wall and lived to fight another day.

A version of this account appears in an 1885 history of the town of Deering, N.H. In the town, an old gravestone in a quiet cemetery attests that Ebenezer Locke lived there after the war and died in 1816 at the age of 82. A commemorative coin, minted for the bicentennial in 1974 of the town’s incorporation, bears the inscription “Early Settler Ebenezer Locke Fired First Shot Of American Revolution.’’

So is it true?

“Bill Poole’s research is impeccable and should be relied on,’’ said Susan Bennett, director of the Lexington Historical Society. But she and Poole agree that no one ever will know for sure.

Poole points out the loopholes in interpreting Amos Locke’s account. Did the “firing’’ they heard mean the skirmish was already underway when they returned to the green? And even if it was not, shouldn’t the shot that killed Asahel Porter count as the first one?

“Maybe Amos was talking about the first American shot,’’ Poole mused.

The historical society tells it this way: No one expected a battle to unfold, and orders on both sides were to hold fire; a firearm went off; the British believed they were under attack and opened fire; when it was over, eight men were dead and nine were wounded. For the annual reenactment, the first shot is fired from a window in Buckman Tavern, across Bedford Street from the green.

Accounts of who fired first, said Jane M. Morse, head guide of the Lexington Historical Society, changed over time. At first, the Americans wanted to show that they had been a peaceful gathering of farmers fired upon with no provocation. Decades later, Morse said, “It became more and more popular for Americans to try to imagine that the local militiamen played a much more active role, stood their ground, and fired off many times at the Redcoat troops.’’

Amos Locke’s account 49 years after the bloody confrontation in Lexington could have been influenced by this mood, Poole said.

What matters most to Poole is the feeling he gets when he shoulders his musket, dons his tricorn hat, and steps on the ground where his ancestor trod.

“I’ll sometimes come walking across the Common and catch sight of the shadow of my hat and my musket and think ‘He was here,’ ’’ Poole said. “I can feel it deeply; I feel it in my stomach.’’

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