George Robert Twelves Hewes : biography
George Robert Twelves Hewes (August 25, 1742 – November 5, 1840) was one of the last survivors of the American Revolution. He participated in the political protests in Boston at the onset of the Revolution, including the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre. Later he fought in the American Revolutionary War as a militiaman and privateer. Shortly before his death at the age of 98, Hewes was the subject of two biographies and much public commemoration.
George Robert Twelves Hewes was born in the South End of Boston, the son of George Hewes, a poor tanner and chandler who had moved to Boston from his family home in Wrentham, Massachusetts, which was located in present day Plainville, Massachusetts. Hewes’s unusual third name evidently came from his maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Twelves.Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press,1902′), 17.
At the age of fourteen Hewes was apprenticed to a shoemaker named Downing. Disliking both his master and his craft, Hewes tried to enlist in the British army but was rejected for being too short (he stood at only five feet, one inch tall). Upon turning twenty-one in 1763, Hewes opened his own shoemaking shop and began a long, poverty-stricken career. In January 1768 he married Sarah "Sally" Sumner, the daughter of a Baptist sexton. Before being caught up in the political unrest of 1770, Hewes was an average member of Boston’s lower class, never belonging to any church or association, and never participating in politics.
George Hewes lived in Wrentham until after the outbreak of the War of 1812. This period of time was relatively unremarkable. He and Sally had fifteen children, and probably eleven survived birth.Young, 69. He remained a poor shoemaker. In 1812 two of his sons followed in his footsteps and joined the militia. Apparently their willingness to fight was unusual for Wrentham citizens at the time.Young, 70.
After the war George and Sarah Hewes followed a few of their children to Richfield Springs in Ostego County, New York. George was then seventy-four years old. Hewes never escaped from the poverty that haunted him his entire life. Even in his old age he continued to earn money making shoes. Sarah died in 1828 at the age of 77. In his later years he relied on various friends and relatives for support, moving from house to house. He became, however, a notable figure in the community, being one of the last survivors of the Revolutionary War and appearing at Independence Day festivities in his militia uniform every Fourth of July. During these years Hewes converted to Methodism and began reading the Bible frequently.
The 1830s were a period when the American Revolution experienced a revival in the public memory. Battles and events from the revolution were being newly commemorated.Young, xv. During this period, in 1833, a writer named James Hawkes discovered Hewes in Richfield Springs and wrote a biography about him, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party.
Hawkes’s book became popular, and in 1835 Hewes toured New England as a celebrity. He sat for a portrait by Joseph Cole, called simply The Centenarian, which now hangs in the Old State House in Boston. Benjamin Bussey Thatcher wrote a second biography, Traits of the Tea Party. He was the guest of honor at an elaborate ceremony on the Fourth of July attended by the lieutenant governor and by other Revolutionary War veterans. All along his route he was adored by the public for his age, his health, his pleasant demeanor, and for his role in the seminal events of the Revolution.
Both Hawkes and Thatcher were amazed by Hewes’s memory. Hewes remembered details of his stages of life clearly, and he could recall his memories smoothly. He could recall how things looked, how things tasted, and how he felt at that time even though he was in his nineties.
Although Hewes was not by any means a pivotal player in the Revolution or an important public figure, he helped to secure the American Revolution as an important event in American history. He was rediscovered at a time when the Boston Tea Party and other early events of the revolution were also being rediscovered. He continues to be notable today through his biographies, which give the impressions of a common person of the revolution reflecting on his participation at the end of his life.