Golden Hill — New York’s First Bloodshed of the American Revolution

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

The Battle of Golden Hill was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. It occurred on January 19, 1770, in New York City and was a clash between British Redcoats, citizens of New York, and the Sons of Liberty. Sometimes referred to as the “Golden Hill Riot,” it preceded the Boston Massacre by nearly two months, which is why it is arguably the “First Bloodshed of the American Revolution.”

Background of the Battle of Golden Hill

In the 1760s, tensions between the American colonies and Britain were escalating due to a series of laws and acts imposed by the British government, including the Stamp Act and the Quartering Act. The Sons of Liberty, a group of colonists who opposed these laws, erected “Liberty poles” in various cities, including New York City, as a symbol of their displeasure. These poles were often cut down by British soldiers, leading to further tensions between the two groups.

George Grenville, Prime Minister, Portrait
George Grenville, architect of the Stamp Act. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Golden Hill Riots

On January 19, 1770, Isaac Sears and other members of the Sons of Liberty attempted to stop British soldiers from posting handbills at the Fly Market in New York City. Sears and his group captured some of the soldiers and began marching them toward the mayor’s office. The rest of the soldiers ran to the barracks to sound the alarm, and a crowd of townsfolk soon arrived on the scene. The soldiers were surrounded and outnumbered, and an officer ordered them to “draw your bayonets and cut your way through” the crowd. More soldiers arrived, and a group of officers was able to disperse the crowd before the situation escalated further. Several soldiers and townsfolk were injured in the altercation, but no deaths were reported.

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The Battle of Golden Hill and the American Revolution

The Battle of Golden Hill was one of the early violent incidents in the lead-up to the American Revolution, along with the Boston Massacre and the Gaspée Affair. It made Alexander McDougall, a prominent member of the Sons of Liberty, famous in the area and later a general in the Continental Army. The event was not as well-known as the Boston Massacre, but it was remembered in 1898 with a plaque on the site of the battle, in present-day Eden’s Alley. However, the building was demolished, and the plaque has since disappeared.

Burning of the Gaspee, Painting
Burning of the Gaspee. Image Source: Gaspee Virtual Archives.

Why is the Battle of Golden Hill Important?

The Battle of Golden Hill was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution, it was a clash between the British soldiers and the Sons of Liberty, which helped to escalate the tensions between the colonies and Britain. The event is remembered as one of the early violent incidents in the American Revolution, and it was remembered with a plaque on the site of the battle, but it disappeared now.

Isaac Sears and the Battle of Golden Hill

This video from Founder of the Day discusses the role of Isaac Sears in the Battle of Golden Hill.

A Contemporary Account of the Battle of Golden Hill

A contemporary account of the incident was written by “An Impartial Citizen” and published in the New-York Gazette on February 5, 1770, and then in the New-York Journal on March 1, 1770. 

Please note that we have edited the account for clarity and length, and added section headings.

The Sons of Liberty Confront the Redcoats

Mr. Isaac Sears and Mr. Walter Quackenbos, seeing six or seven soldiers going towards the Fly market, concluded they were going to it to put up some of the above papers: upon the former’s coming to the market, they made up to the soldiers and found them as they had conjectured, pasting up one of the papers. 

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Mr. Sears seized the soldier that was fixing the paper, by the collar, and asked him what business he had to put up libels against the inhabitants and that he would carry him before the Mayor. Mr. Quackenbos took hold of one that had the Papers on his arms: A soldier standing to the right of Mr. Sears, drew his bayonet; upon which the latter took a ram’s horn, and threw it at the former, which struck him on the head, and then the soldiers, except the two that were seized, made off, and alarmed others in the barracks. They immediately carried the two to the Mayor and assigned him the reason of their bringing them before him.

Confrontation at the Mayors Office

The Mayor sent for Alderman Desbrosses, to consult on what would be proper to be done in the Matter. In the meantime…people collected opposite to the Mayor’s. Shortly after about twenty soldiers, with cutlasses and bayonets…made their appearance, coming to the Mayor’s through the main street. 

When they came opposite to Mr. Peter Remsen’s, he endeavoured to dissuade them from going any further — supposing they were going to the Mayor’s — represented to them that they would get into a scrape, but his advice was not taken, owing as he supposes, to one or two of their leaders, who seemed to be intoxicated. 

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The people collected at the Mayor’s determined to let them pass by…opened for them to go through. Captain Richardson and some of the citizens, judging they intended to take the two soldiers from the Mayor’s by force, went to his door to prevent it.

When the soldiers came opposite to his house, they halted; many of them drew their swords and bayonets, some say they all drew. But all that were present, agree that many did, and faced about to the door, and demanded the soldiers in custody; some of them attempted to get into the house to rescue them; Capt. Richardson and others at the door prevented them, and desired them to put up their arms, and to go to their Barracks; that the soldiers were before the Mayor, who would do them justice: The soldiers within likewise desired them to go away to their barracks, and leave them to the determination of the Mayor. Upon the soldiers’ drawing their arms, many of the inhabitants conceiving themselves in danger, ran to some sleighs that was near, and pulled out some of the rungs.

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The Mob Escorts the Redcoats to Golden Hill

The Mayor and Alderman Desbrosses came out, and ordered the soldiers to their barracks: After some time, they moved up the Fly: The people were apprehensive, that as the soldiers had drawn their swords at the Mayor’s house, and thereby contemned the civil authority, and declared war against the inhabitants, it was not safe to let them go through the streets alone, lest they might offer violence to some of the citizens. To prevent this they followed them and the two magistrates aforesaid, to the corner of Golden Hill, and in their going, several of the citizens reasoned with them on the folly of their drawing their swords, and endeavoured to persuade them to sheath them, assuring them no mischief was intended them, but without success.

The Redcoats Attack the New Yorkers

They turned up Golden Hill, and about the time they had gained the summit, a considerable number of soldiers joined them — which inspired them to insult the magistrates, and exasperate the inhabitants; which was soon manifested, by their facing about, and one in silk stockings and neat buckskin breeches — who is suspected to have been an officer in disguise — giving the word of command, “Soldiers, draw your bayonets and cut your way through them!” the former was immediately obeyed and they called out “Where are your Sons of Liberty now?” and fell on the citizens with great violence, cutting and slashing.

New Yorkers Fight Back

This convinced them, that their apprehensions were well founded; for although no insult or violence had been offered to the former; yet instead of going peaceably to their barracks, as they were ordered by the magistrates, they in defiance of their authority…drew their arms to attack men, who, except six or seven that had clubs and sticks, were unarmed. 

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Atrocities Against the Citizens of New York

Those few that had the sticks maintained their ground in the narrow passage in which they stood, and defended their defenceless fellow citizens, for some time, against the furious and unmanly attacks of armed soldiers, until one of them missed his aim, in a stroke made at one of the assailants, lost his stick, which obliged the former to retreat, to look for some instrument of defence; the soldiers pursued him down to the main street; one of them made a stroke, with a cutlass at Mr. Francis Field, one of the people called Quakers, standing in an inoffensive posture in Mr. Field’s door, at the corner; and cut him on the right cheek, and if the corner had not broke the stroke, it would have probably killed him

This party that came down to the main street cut a tea-water man driving his cart, and a fisherman’s finger; in short 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, that was defended himself against them, they stabbed another with a bayonet, going about his business, so badly, that his life was thought in danger. 

Elsworth’s Halbert

Not satiated with all this cruelty, two of them followed a boy going for sugar, into Mr. Elsworth’s house, one of them cut him on the head with a cutlass, and the other made a lung with a bayonet at the woman in the entry, that answered the child. Capt. Richardson was violently attacked by two of the soldiers, with swords, and expected to have been cut to pieces; but was so fortunate as to defend himself with a stick for a considerable time, until a halbert was put into his hands, with which he could have killed several of them; but he made no other use of it, other than to defend himself, and his unarmed fellow-citizens.

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Targe Defends Himself

Mr. John Targe, hearing from his house, the cry of murder, went out unarmed, to see the occasion of it, and when he came in view of the soldiers, three of them pursued him to his house, with their arms drawn, from whence he took a halbert, with which he defended himself against their attacks — with sticks of wood, which they took from a heap that lay in the street, and threw at his legs, as they could not reach his body with their arms — and obliged them to retire to their companions; in which time their lives were in his power, had he been disposed to have taken them. Several of the soldiers were disarmed by the inhabitants, after which no violence was done to them, From all which, I think it is evident that the inhabitants only acted on the defensive. 

Richardson Blames the Redcoats

Capt. Richardson was a witness of all that passed, from the soldiers coming to the Mayor’s door, and declares, that if they had not halted and acted as they did on Golden Hill, he verily believes there would not have been any mischief done.

More Redcoats Join the Fight

Sometime after the commencement of the grand affray on the Golden Hill, a posse of soldiers came from another quarter, opposite to the street that leads down from the hill, and called out to the soldiers on the hill, “to cut” their way down, and they would meet them “halfway.” 

Battle of Golden Hill, Map, New York City
Map of Golden Hill and the surrounding area.

Attack in the Fly Market

During the action on the hill, a small party of soldiers came along the Fly, by the market, and halted near Mr. Norwood’s: Some of the inhabitants gathered around them, when a conversation ensued on the then disturbances. Soon after, the former drew their bayonets; upon which, as the citizens were all unarmed, they cast about to look for stones or some instruments to defend themselves: But the soldiers observing that they could not find anything, one of them made an attempt to stab Mr. Jn. White, who finding himself in imminent danger, judged it most safe to take flight towards the Mayor’s; The soldier pursued him with his drawn bayonet, and make several attempts when he thought Mr. White within his reach to stab him; but in crossing the gutter, the soldier fell, which gave the designed: an opportunity to escape, or in the opinion of all present, he would certainly have fallen a sacrifice to the unprovoked malevolent and merciless rage of his pursuer.

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Officials Restore Peace

Several of the soldiers that were on the hill were much bruised, and one of them badly cut. Soon after the above attack, many of the magistrates collected from different quarters of the city, and several of the officers being made acquainted with the affray, came to the places of action and dispersed the soldiers. Thus ended a riot, which would have been productive of much worse consequences had the citizens been armed.