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Roxbury’s Shirley-Eustis house helps connect us to Revolutionary roots

Shirley-Eustis House:  Illustration by James HobinShirley-Eustis House: Illustration by James HobinOn March 17, 1776, the British evacuated the city, never to return. The Dorchester Heights monument, which is built of white marble, commemorates the events associated with Evacuation Day, the colonists’ first major military victory in the Revolutionary War.

On Evacuation Day this year, I took the Number 15 bus up Dudley Street, got off at Langdon Street, and walked down one block to Shirley Street where I saw a man wearing strange clothes and swinging a sword in wild circles through the air over his head. This was quite a surprise, and I looked around for a phalanx of police cars with lights blazing and sirens wailing, but no one was paying any attention at all, not even the girls who hurried by with their box of pizza.

How was anybody to know that the man with the sword was none other than the father of our country, George Washington? “General Washington” was in town for the Annual Evacuation Day Knox Trail Remembrance Caravan.

On this day, the 283th anniversary of the British leave-taking, Robert Alison, who during the rest of the year acts as president of the Dorchester Heights Historical Society, was playing the role of our first commander-in-chief. Normally, impersonating an officer is a serious offense, but Mr. Alison had nothing to fear from the firing squads, because this was all just good fun. The only shots fired came from the camera of a modern-day paparazzi, who was snapping photos of the general waving his sword and galloping on horseback around the Shirley-Eustis House, an 18th century building that quartered rebel troops during the siege of Boston.

The imposing Shirley-Eustis House is located on Shirley Street, one block north of Dudley Street. It was built in 1747 as a summer residence for William Shirley, the sitting royal governor. Today the buildings and grounds of the Shirley-Eustis House Association take up about half a city block between Shirley, Burrell, Clifton, and Dudley streets; they are intersected by Rockford Street, a dead end.

I climbed the massive sandstone steps and yanked open the big door to take a look within the house. Inside, a gentleman in a long coat, breeches, and tri-corner hat, was giving a lecture on Dorchester Heights and Evacuation Day to an audience seated on chairs crowded together in the blank winter light that filled the Great Hall. The speaker, J. Archer O’Reilly III, plays Col. Henry Knox, the hero who brought the guns that drove the British from Boston.

Washington and Knox: Colonel Knox and General Washington. Illustration by James TobinWashington and Knox: Colonel Knox and General Washington. Illustration by James TobinAnyone who has driven a car through western Massachusetts, Vermont, and upstate New York knows how long it takes to make any progress over the endless hills and valleys that mark that region. Imagine doing this in wintertime 1775-1776, transporting sixty-tons of inert iron and brass 300 miles across a road-less landscape. Only a leader of great intelligence and indomitable could have carried out such a task – provided there were enough oxen available to do the hauling. Col. Knox, who was promoted to brigadier general in December 1776, accomplished the feat at age 25.

There is yet another interesting fact about Knox the soldier: his prodigious girth, which, at 300 pounds, made him appear as big as an ox. Because no horse could support him, he was obliged during the siege to walk from Boston Common to Dorchester Heights, an extra-long walk around occupied Boston and through Brookline and Roxbury to Washington encampment. His size was matched by his strength: He made the trip twice.

Evacuation Day, like many celebrations, offers a good time to stop and think about how history played out, and also to wonder how it could have played out differently. Who knows? If the guns of Ticonderoga had never made it to Dorchester Heights, we might all be Canadian citizens today. There was a time when the area where we live was in total revolution against a world-dominating empire, and the sites where great historical events occurred are the places where we carry out our daily routines. It’s not unimaginable that Col. Knox stopped at the end of his journey for refreshment at the Shirley mansion, dragging fifty-nine cannons behind him.

Since 1747, the city has moved in around the Shirley-Eustis House. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was a boarding house with fifty inhabitants. In 1913, the Shirley-Eustis House Association was formed, and it soon acquired the house and started to work on its reconditioning. Did the people who began this work ever dream that one hundred years later it would be such a magnificent asset to the community? Today, when you are inside the house, from a window overlooking a landscape terraced with dirt lanes and rock walls, you can see an old country path that leads to the 18th century. So much of Boston’s history has been buried, like Rockford Street, once been a canal, now a dead end. It’s a victory for all of us whenever a historical heirloom like the like the Shirley-Eustis House survives to beautify our present, and celebrate our past.

With special thanks to J. Archer O’Reilly III, and nods to the Evacuation Day Heritage Committee and its honorary chairs, State Representatives Nick Collins and Gloria Fox.