Daniel Shay's Rebellion

August 29, 1786; Western Massachusetts

The Man

Daniel Shays was a captain in the American Revolutionary War . He is mostly known for leading a small army of farmers in Shays' Rebellion, which was a revolt against the state government of Massachusetts from 1786-1787, and a seminal event in the history of the early United States. Many historians see the Rebellion as a major factor in the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation , the adaptation of the United States Constitution , and the creation of the Federal government of the United States .

Little is known of his early life; he was probably born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts to Patrick Shay (spelled without the s ) and Margaret Dempsey. He married Abigail Gilbert on July 18, 1772 in Brookfield, Massachusetts . In 1777, he was commissioned as a captain in the 5th Massachusetts Regiment and he participated in the battles of Bunker Hill , Ticonderoga , Saratoga and Stony Point . His service record was notable, and he was awarded a ceremonial sword by the Marquis de Lafayette at the end of the war for distinguished service.

After resigning from the army in 1780, Shays settled in Pelham, Massachusetts , where he served in several local government positions. Economic conditions in the U.S., especially Western Massachusetts , began a serious decline and, by 1786, Shays became one of several who took command of units of rebels. The uprising soon became known as the "Shays Rebellion" after an encounter between a force of about 800 farmers under Shays, and a private militia unit of roughly the same size, at Springfield on September 26 , 1786 . Four men were killed - the first casualties of the rebellion - and many were wounded. Shays and his men were trying to prevent the Massachusetts Supreme Court from convening, fearing indictments against farmers in arrears.

By the winter of 1786-1787, there was open fighting between government forces and rebels. After several skirmishes, Shays and his men were defeated at Petersham, Massachusetts on February 2 , 1787 . Shays then fled to the Vermont Republic . Condemned to death in absentia on a charge of treason , Shays petitioned for amnesty in February 1788, and the petition was granted by John Hancock on June 13 . Shays then relocated to New York .

Shays was later granted a $20 monthly pension by the federal government for his Revolutionary War service. He maintained for the rest of his life that his service in the Revolution and his fighting during the rebellion were for the exact same principles. He died impoverished in Sparta, New York and is buried in Springwater . During his life, he never allowed a portrait of him to be made, so it is unknown what he looked like.

The Rebellion

The rebellion was triggered due to the overtaxation, debt, and ultimately the result of the Revolutionary War. The nation's debt trickled down to ordinary citizens, in Massachusetts particularly farmers. Farming was the most popular living style at the time in Western Massachusetts. What also aggrevated the situation was that the method of taxation at the time was a direct poll tax. (where everybody is taxed a flat rate despite occupation, income, etc).

Also, as is still true today, most of the "money" in Massachusetts was floating around in the eastern part of the state. Here in Western MA it was must more common to trade/barter for goods rather than to invest. There were a few strong economical centers, such as Hadley and Northampton, but this just added fuel to the fire. Dispersed throughout the region (Amherst, Pelham) were the small farmers, who were finding their debt becoming increasingly difficult to pay. Eventually, many farmers had to sell their land, and they of course did not get the fair market value at the time.

Men from all over western and central Massachusetts began to agitate for a change to a more democratic system. They formed a group of resistance and named themselve "The Regulators" Initial conflicts were mostly peaceful and centered primarily on freeing jailed farmers from debtor's prisons. Shays gathered many outraged farmers for a meeting at Conkey's Tavern (now bured in Quabbin Reservoir), where he vented his anger and said they should rebel. In the late summer of 1786, the conflict escalated into a statewide movement (excluding Boston) when armed Regulators shut down the unpopular debtors' courts in Northampton , Worcester , Concord , and elsewhere. Shays continued to hold meetings at Conkey's Tavern and encourage rebellion. Militia groups called out to confront the Regulators often refused to confront their neighbors or failed to muster.

The Regulators were led by a number of prominent local people. Although Daniel Shays, a farmer from East Pelham and a former captain in the Revolutionary War, was most often identified as the overall commander of these forces, in fact leadership was collective among a number of local leaders. For example, another key leader was Luke Day , the son of a wealthy family in West Springfield . This points to the fact that while the Regulators were usually characterized as rabble, they were, in addition to yeoman farmers and other small landowners, town leaders, members of prominent local families, and very often veterans of the Massachusetts Line including their officers. For example, in Amherst, virtually every key town leader was involved in the regulation in one form or another.

Because of both the lack of a significant standing army and lack of power to intervene in the affairs of the individual states under the government of the time, the Congress of the Confederation was prevented from sending federal forces. Also, due to a lack of funds and some empathy for the Regulators, the Massachusetts General Court was unwilling to approve the raising of a militia. After months of indecision and desperate for a solution, in late December 1786, Gov. James Bowdoin and a number of Boston -area bankers raised a pool of private money and hired some 4,400 mercenaries (later legitimized as a militia), under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln . When the Regulators heard about the army, they planned to return to the federal arsenal in Springfield for more weapons.

The rebels were divided into three widely separated regiments led by local leaders. Daniel Shays' unit was to the east in Palmer, Eli Parson's to the north in Chicopee, and Luke Day's across the Connecticut River in West Springfield. The plan had been to attack on January 25 , but Luke Day decided to postpone that to January 26 . His note informing his other commanders was intercepted. As a result, only two of the regiments arrived on the late afternoon of January 25 , marching through some four feet of deep snow. (When's the last time we had four feet of snow??) Leading the small army were some four hundred "Old Soldiers" marching eight abreast.

Facing them were 1,200 soldiers led by General William Shepherd. Shepherd had decided to seize the arsenal without authorization to keep it out of the hands of the rebels, and deployed several of the arsenal's artillery pieces. As the rebels advanced, he ordered the guns to fire over the troops' heads. Instead of the rebels faltering as he hoped, they accelerated. However, the fire of the cannons panicked several inexperienced mounted troops behind the veterans, and more than a dozen fell from their horses. At that moment, Shepherd ordered his cannons to fire at "waistband height" as a hidden howitzer fired a load of grapeshot at their flank. Four men were killed the first casualties of the rebellion and many were wounded. The raw militia at the rear fled at that point, leaving the veterans alone. Seeing that they were now badly outnumbered, the rebels then retreated. The next morning, Lincoln's army of 4,400 arrived after a long march from Worcester through deep snow.

During his retreat to Petersham it is said that the remaining forces, including Daniel, hid within the giant stone caverns known as "The Horse Caves." Nobody knows if this is indeed true, and my research didn't turn up any archeological finds in the area that would support this. Keep in mind that the area was much, much different back then in terms of access roads and flora. Today we may think it easy to find access to the area, but in the past this may not have been the case.