The “descendant of a reputable line of Boston mechanics,” William Palfrey was born in Boston on February 24, 1741.  He was liberally educated at the Boston Latin School and afterwards apprenticed in the mercantile firm of Nathaniel Wheelwright.1  Palfrey’s acumen for trade gained the attention and respect of John Hancock, who in due course, employed Palfrey as a business associate.  As with most of the merchants of Boston, the Stamp Act of 1765 drew the ire of these two men and they became involved in the remonstrations against the administration of King George III.  William Palfrey often served as the scriber for the “Sons of Liberty” in Boston and maintained a correspondence with the radical John Wilkes on behalf of the group.2  Moreover, he would call upon like-minded leaders when he travelled to the port cities of North America and England on business.     

In the Massachusetts spring of 1775, the tenuous situation between the citizens and the government of the crown came to a head at Lexington and Concord.  The united colonies began to prepare for war and, on July 16, 1775, William Palfrey was appointed an aide-de-camp to Major General Charles Lee.3  In this role, he increasingly came into the notice of General George Washington, who was impressed with his “conduct and activity”.4  Hence, on February 10, 1776, the Commander-in-Chief courteously requested Major Palfrey from General Lee.5  Believing Palfrey to be “valuable and capable,” Lee acquiesced and Palfrey was appointed an aide-de-camp to General Washington in General Orders for March 6, 1776.6  However, his time on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief was short-lived.  William Palfrey’s “talents and address” were recognized by the Continental Congress and General officers alike and he was selected to the post of Paymaster General – or the chief financial officer – of the Continental Army on April 27, 1776.7  With the uncertainties of currency in the new country, Lieutenant Colonel Palfrey served in this problematic position dependably for over four years until he was elected a consul to France on December 9, 1780.8  Shortly thereafter, William Palfrey embarked for Europe on board the Shelala, but the ship was never heard from again. All aboard were presumed to have been lost at sea.9 

 

Samuel K. Fore

Harlan Crow Library

 

Notes:

1. Palfrey, John Gorham “Life of William Palfrey: Paymaster-General in the Army of the Revolution” In Sparks, Jared, ed., The Library of American Biography:  Second Series, Vol. VII (Boston: Little & Brown, 1845), pp. 339-344.

2. See “[August 1769],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, [Original source: Butterfield, L. H., ed. The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. 1, 1755–1770 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 338–342.] & Elsey, George M., ed. “John Wilkes & William Palfrey” Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Transactions XXXIV (1937-1942), 411-428, for example.

3. “General Orders, 16 July 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 1, 16 June 1775??15 September 1775, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985, pp. 122–123.].

4. Robert Hanson Harrison to William Palfrey, 4 December 1775.  Force, Peter, comp.  American Archives: Fourth Series, Containing a Documentary History of the English Colonies in North America… Vol. 4 (Washington, [D. C.: Published by M. St. Clair Clarke & Peter Force], 1843), pp. 178-179.

5. “From George Washington to Major General Charles Lee, 10 February 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 3, 1 January 1776??31 March 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 282–284.].

6. “To George Washington from Major General Charles Lee, 29 February 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 3, 1 January 1776??31 March 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 389–393.] & “General Orders, 6 March 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017. [Original source: Chase, Philander D., ed. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. III: 1 January??31 March 1776. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 413–414.].

7. Horatio Gates, February 10, 1776, to Charles Lee.  Lee, Charles.  “The Lee Papers, Vol. I,” New-York Historical Society Collections for 1871, p. 282 & Ford, Worthington C., ed.  Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Vol. IV, 1 January-4 June 1776.  (Washington, D.C.: Government printing Office, 1906), p. 315.

8. Hunt, Gaillard, ed.  Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. XVIII: Sep. 7-Dec. 29, 1780.  (Washington, [D.C.,] Government Printing Office, 1910), pp. 1134-1137.

9. Artemus Ward, April 30, 1781, to Thomas Ward, Letters of Delegates to Congress Vol XVII, p. 201 & “From Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Huntington, 14 May 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 35, May 1 through October 31, 1781, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 61–64.]

Bibliography:

Elsey, George M., ed. “John Wilkes & William Palfrey” Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Transactions XXXIV (1937-1942), 411-428.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. George Washington’s Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Palfrey, John Gorham “Life of William Palfrey: Paymaster-General in the Army of the Revolution” In Sparks, Jared, ed., The Library of American Biography:  Second Series, Vol. VII, 337-448. Boston: Little & Brown, 1845.

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