The Battle of Golden Hill — A Detailed Look at the History of Golden Hill Riot of 1770

January 19–20, 1770 — New York City, Province of New York

The Battle of Golden Hill, also known as the “Golden Hill Riot,” took place in New York City in January 1770. Citizens and workers of New York and members of the Sons of Liberty, led by Isaac Sears, John Lamb, and Alexander McDougall, fought with British Redcoats in the streets of the city — almost two months before the Boston Massacre.

Battle of Golden Hill, Painting, Lefferts

Painting of the Battle of Golden Hill by Charles MacKubin Lefferts. Image Source: New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

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Battle of Golden Hill Summary

The Battle of Golden Hill — also known as the “Golden Hill Riot” — was a street riot fought between the New York Sons of Liberty and British troops stationed in the city. Following the passage of the Stamp Act, the New York Sons of Liberty was formed in opposition to the proposed law, led by Isaac Sears, John Lamb, and Alexander McDougall.  Although the Stamp Act was repealed, the Sons of Liberty continued to operate and oppose British policies the members believed violated their rights as Englishmen.

In 1766, British troops were stationed in New York City, which created tension between the Redcoats and New Yorkers. At the root of the issue was the fact the New York Assembly refused to provide money and housing to support the troops, as required by the 1765 Quartering Act. Making things worse, the Sons of Liberty agitated the Redcoats by erecting a Liberty Pole near their barracks. 

In December 1769, the New York Assembly agreed to a scheme devised by Cadwallader Colden which the Sons of Liberty believed was intended to raise money to help support the Redcoats. The Sons of Liberty protested publicly, and McDougall published a pamphlet that criticized raising money for the troops. 

The Redcoats responded by cutting down the Liberty Pole and posting their own handbill around the streets of New York. On January 19, some of the soldiers were putting up the handbill when they were grabbed by Sears and another man, Walter Quackenbos. They took the soldiers to the Mayor’s office and demanded they be arrested. 

A mob of New Yorkers gathered, and then a small contingent of British troops came to the aid of their fellow soldiers. The situation was tense at first but calmed down, and the troops marched back to their barracks — up Golden Hill. However, the mob followed and closed in around the troops. Another group of Redcoats appeared at the top of the hill. Suddenly, a brawl broke out and the riot spilled over into the neighboring streets and the market. City officials and British officers arrived and restored order. More fighting followed the next day throughout the area as the soldiers skirmished with a group of sailors. The Sons of Liberty came to the aid of the sailors and help fight off the Redcoats.

All of this happened less than two months before the Boston Massacre. Early accounts of the battle reported the Redcoats killed one New Yorker, but that has never been proven. Still, the fighting at the Battle of Golden Hill — which included Redcoats using bayonets — was arguably the “First Bloodshed of the Revolution.”

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Battle of Golden Hill Quick Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Golden Hill is widely believed to have started on January 19, 1770
  • Date Ended: It ended on January 20, 1770.
  • Location: It took place in New York City, in John Street, surrounding streets, and the Fly Market.
  • Also Known As: The Battle of Golden Hill is also known as the “Golden Hill Riot.”
  • Fun Fact: In 1898, a plaque was placed on a building that memorialized the incident. The building was later demolished and the plaque disappeared. The plaque was dedicated to the city by the Sons of the Revolution.

Text of the Original Plaque Commemorating the Battle of Golden Hill

GOLDEN HILL

Here, January 18, 1770,

The fight took place between the “Sons of Liberty” and the British Regular, 16th Foot.

First Blood in the War of the Revolution.

John Lamb Speaking to New York Sons of Liberty
This illustration depicts John Lamb speaking out against the Stamp Act. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

History of the Battle of Golden Hill

Formation of the New York Sons of Liberty

After the Stamp Act was passed, the New York Sons of Liberty, led by Isaac Sears, John Lamb, and Alexander McDougall, formed and organized resistance to British policy. Not only did the Sons of Liberty antagonize the Redcoats, but some of them were also members of the New York Assembly. At first, the New York Assembly refused to provide the money needed for the expenses, which upset the soldiers and British officials.

Quartering Act of 1765 — British Troops Stationed in New York

After the French and Indian War, the British government decided it was necessary to maintain a standing army in North America to protect the colonial frontier against the threat of attacks by Native American Indian Tribes. However, the cost of keeping an army in North America was expensive. On March 24, 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act of 1765, which required colonial legislatures to provide money to cover some of the expenses of the troops. 

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In 1766, the act was expanded to require the colonies to provide barracks for the troops. The colonies thought the army was unnecessary and being asked to pay for it was nothing more than a tax.

In New York, the Quartering Act was not an issue until 1,500 troops arrived in 1766 and the New York Provincial Assembly refused to provide the money needed to provide for the new troops, who were forced to stay on ships in the harbor.

Battle of the Liberty Pole

After the Stamp Act was repealed, the people of New York held a celebration on June 4, 1766 — King George III’s birthday — to celebrate. The people were joined by British officials and military officers for the celebration. The Sons of Liberty erected a pole, which had a flag on top with the words, “The King, Pitt, and Liberty.” The pole became known as New York City’s Liberty Pole, and the location upset the soldiers who lived in nearby barracks. Over the next four years, the pole would be cut down — or blown up — several times by the soldiers. Each time, the Sons of Liberty would put up a new one. The continuous back and forth over the Liberty Pole raised tensions between the soldiers and people, which contributed to the violent fighting that took place in January 1770.

Defense of the Liberty Pole, New York, Illustration
This illustration depicts New Yorkers and British troops fighting at the Liberty Pole. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

New York Restraining Act and Townshend Acts

In 1767, Parliament passed the New York Restraining Act, which prohibited the Governor and Assembly from passing any new laws until the colony agreed to comply with the Quartering Act.

The New York Restraining Act is often considered part of the Townshend Acts, which were passed in 1767 and 1768. The Townshend Acts were largely designed to raise revenue, enforce the collection of revenue, and prosecute violators of the laws.

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The Sons of Liberty rallied against the Townshend Acts, not just in New York, but throughout the colonies. They revived the Committees of Correspondence and the Non-Importation Agreements.

The New York Sons of Liberty wrote to merchants in Boston and asked them to join in the boycott of British goods. Most of the colonies joined in the boycott, but not fully. They still continued to import goods, but not as much as they had before.

New York Assembly Agrees to Comply with the Quartering Act

The Assembly held its first session on November 22 and a bill was introduced to make loans available to people through the Assembly. The bill was popular because there were New Yorkers in need of money and they could apply for loans. The Assembly would profit from the interest on the loans.

On December 15, 1769, the Assembly met again, and a motion was made that some of the profit from the loans should be set aside and used to support the troops. Many people saw it as a scheme by the governor, Cadwallader Colden to comply with the Quartering Act.

The Assembly voted to raise 1,800 pounds for the soldiers, however, the soldiers felt it was not enough money, and felt disrespected by the Assembly.

December 16, 1769 — To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York

The Sons of Liberty were outraged at the action of the Assembly because they believed the extra troops and additional money to cover their housing and food were not needed.

On December 16, 1769, a pamphlet called “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York” was published and signed by “A Son of Liberty.” The author was most likely Alexander McDougall.

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The pamphlet criticized the Assembly for providing money for the troops, and said doing so acknowledged the authority of Parliament to levy taxes on the colonies:

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“Our granting money to the troops, is implicitly acknowledging the authority that enacted the revenue acts, and their being obligatory on us, as these acts were enacted for the express purpose of taking money out of our pockets without our consent; and to provide for the defending and support of government in America; which revenue we say by our grant of money, is not sufficient for the purpose aforesaid; therefore we supply the deficiency.”

General Alexander McDougall, Illustration
Alexander McDougall. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

December 17, 1769 – John Lamb Chairs the Public Meeting

People gathered at The Fields — the location of the Liberty Pole — and conducted a meeting. John Lamb was chosen as chairman. The people agreed to send a message to the Assembly to inform the members that they disapproved of granting money to comply with the Quartering Act. A committee was selected to deliver the message to the Assembly, and Lamb was chosen as the chairman. The other members of the committee were Isaac  Sears, Caspar Wistar, Alexander McDougall, Jacobus  Van Zandt, Samuel Broome, Erasmus Williams, and James Yan Yaurk. The Assembly received the committee but refused to change their decision to provide the money to the soldiers.

The author of the pamphlet insisted the troops were not in New York  “to protect” the people but to “enslave” them. The citizens of New York were invited to meet near the Liberty Pole the next day.

December 18, 1769 — The Assembly Offers a Reward

Some members of the Assembly were furious over the “To the Betrayed Inhabitants” handbill. James De Lancey made a motion to take a vote on “whether the said paper was not an infamous and scandalous libel.”

The Assembly voted in favor of it being an “infamous and scandalous libel.” The only member of the Assembly that voted against it was Philip Schuyler. The Assembly voted to offer a reward of 150 pounds for information about the author or authors of the handbill.

De Lancey then brought another handbill to the attention of the Assembly, which has been posted earlier in the morning. It was signed “Legion,” and said:

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To THE PUBLIC. — The spirit of the times renders it necessary for the inhabitants of the city to convene, in order effectually to avert the destructive consequences of the late BASE INGLORIOUS conduct of our General Assembly, who have in opposition to the loud and general voice of their constituents, the dictates of sound policy, the ties of gratitude, and the glorious struggle we have engaged in for our invaluable birthrights, dared to vote supplies to the troops without the least shadow of a pretext for their pernicious grant. The most eligible place will be in the Fields, near Mr. De La Montaigne’s, and the time — between 10 and 11  o’clock this morning, where we doubt not every friend to this country will attend.

The Assembly passed resolutions that this new handbill was libelous and a reward of 50 pounds was offered for information.

December 21, 1769 – John Lamb is Questioned by the Assembly

The consensus in the Assembly was that John Lamb was the author, and he was questioned by a committee. The committee asked him about the public meeting, which produced the resolution condemning the Assembly’s decision to comply with the Quartering Act. Lamb told them he had exercised his rights as an Englishman, which justified his actions. The Assembly was satisfied and he was released.

The Battle of Golden Hill

By January, resentment between the soldiers and the people was at a high. The soldiers carried out an attack on the Liberty Pole on January 13. They tried to blow it up, but failed, then attacked people who were watching from a nearby tavern. Although some of the soldiers were arrested for their actions, some of the others still tried to take down the pole but were unsuccessful.

On January 15, a broadside was posted that said, “the army is not kept here to protect us, but to enslave us.” It called for business owners to hire unemployed colonists for work, instead of British troops and said the people of New York had done more than enough to aid the troops by paying for their food and lodging. It accused the troops of being “ungrateful” and said they despised the very people they were supposed to be protecting.

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The next day, some soldiers successfully were able to take down the Liberty Pole, cut it into pieces, and then dumped it in front of the tavern.

Soon after, on the 18th or 19th, soldiers posted a handbill that attacked the Sons of Liberty and called them the “real enemies.” It also called their intentions as Patriots into question by saying they “depended on a piece of wood” as the source of their freedom. The handbill also complained about how they were being treated.

That afternoon, two Sons of Liberty, Isaac Sears and Walter Quackenbos, apprehended some soldiers who were posting the handbill. They dragged them to the Mayor’s office and demanded to have them arrested. A large crowd gathered of both citizens and soldiers. The Mayor ordered the soldiers to return to their barracks.

As the soldiers returned, they went up Golden Hill, which was one of the highest points in the city at the time, and a crowd gathered around them. A second group of soldiers appeared at the top of the hill and saw their friends surrounded. The second group was led by someone who was dressed like an officer, but the speculation from all accounts is that he was not actually an officer, but a soldier in disguise.

People in the crowd started punching at them and throwing things at the soldiers on the hill. Then the soldier at the top of the hill, who was dressed as an officer, shouted to the soldiers to, “draw your bayonets and cut your way through them!” The soldiers started slashing at the crowd and yelled, “Where are your Sons of Liberty now?”

The riot grew worse when more New Yorkers and soldiers joined in. The fighting spilled over into some side streets and into a nearby market known as the Fly Market. Word of the fighting spread and several city officials and British officers arrived on the scene and helped restore order.

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Battle of Golden Hill, Map, New York City
This map shows the location of John Street and Golden Hill in New York City in 1770.

The fighting finally died down and the soldiers were ordered to return to their barracks. There were significant injuries to both New Yorkers and soldiers. Early accounts of the fighting said that at least one person was killed, but over time that seems to have been proven false.

According to the New-York Gazette from February 5, “they madly attacked every Person that they could reach, and their Companions on Golden Hill were more inhuman, for, besides cutting a Sailor’s Head and Finger was defending himself against them, they stabbed another with a Bayonet, going about his Business, so badly that his Life was thought in Danger.”

A few minor incidents took place throughout the evening, but nothing to the extent of what happened during the day, which was quickly referred to as the Battle of Golden Hill. There was also some minor fighting that took place the next day.

The incident took place a few weeks before the Boston Massacre, so it is considered by some to be the “first bloodshed of the American Revolution.” Although people suffered injuries at the hands of the Redcoats, there is no evidence that anyone died, as they did at the Boston Massacre.

Battle of Golden Hill Significance

The Battle of Golden Hill is important to United States history because it was an important event that took place during the American Revolution. It is an example of how the growing tension between Americans and British troops was becoming more heated and violent. Over the course of the next few weeks, accounts of the incident spread throughout the colonies, including Boston. The violence in New York was followed by the Death of Christopher Seider and the Boston Massacre.

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Where was the First Blood of the Revolution shed?

The First Blood of the Revolution was shed in New York City in January 1770, in the Battle of Golden Hill, also known as the “Golden Hill Riot.” Citizens and workers of New York and members of the Sons of Liberty, led by Isaac Sears, John Lamb, and Alexander McDougall, fought with British Redcoats in the streets of the city — almost two months before the Boston Massacre.

When did the Battle of Golden Hill Take Place?

Most modern sources say the Battle of Golden Hill took place on January 19–20, 1770. However, older accounts of the incident indicate it happened on January 18–19.

What year was the Battle of Golden Hill?

1770. There is no dispute over the year the battle took place. And it happened less than two months before the Boston Massacre, which is far more well-known.

New York’s Liberty Pole — A Cause of the Battle of Golden Hill

New York Liberty Pole, Painting, Lefferts
This painting by Charles MacKubin Lefferts depicts the fifth Liberty Pole erected on the New York City Commons. Image Source: New-York Historical Society Museum.

Alexander McDougall and the Battle of Golden Hill

This video from Founder of the Day discussed McDougall’s role in the Battle of Golden Hill. His publication “To The Betrayed Inhabitants of New York” sparked the Battle of Golden Hill which is arguably the first violence of the American Revolution. McDougall went on to become an important General in the Continental Army.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Battle of Golden Hill — A Detailed Look at the History of Golden Hill Riot of 1770
  • Coverage January 19–20, 1770
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Golden Hill, Stamp Act, Quartering Act of 1765, Sons of Liberty, Isaac Sears, John Lamb, Alexander McDougall
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 29, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 28, 2023

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