Sentenced to Death for Treason: Alpheus Colton of Longmeadow
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Jonathan Hale Daybook: Jan 25, 1787
On January 25, 1787, a Longmeadow merchant, Jonathan Hale, recorded in his daybook a debit to Alpheus Colton for the rental of a “slay to West Springfield.” On that same day, Hale made a notation that felt like it carried far greater importance. It referenced a decisive incident in the series of actions collectively known as Shays’ Rebellion. Hale wrote, “This Day about 4 o’Clock Began the Sivel War by Shaiyes Party …on the Hill in Springfield, were fired on & Turned and they Left three Men Dead on the ground & one Mortally wounded.” Why does the rental of the “slay” (sleigh) on January 25th matter?Because the man who rented it, Alpheus Colton, would be sentenced to death for actions he took that day in his role in Shays’ Rebellion.
Alpheus Colton, of Longmeadow, MA, was only fifteen years old in 1781 when he and two other young men from town appeared at the Rev. Stephen Williams’ door asking for a blessing as they left their families’ farms in Longmeadow to enlist in the Continental Army: “This day Alpheus Colton, Hancon [Hanan] Colton, & Alpheus Hancock - weny off to go to ye Army - ye Youth called at my house - I prayed with them. Ye Lord be pleased to be with and bless them.” Records show that Colton served for 2 years and nine months in the Continental Army before being honorably discharged at West Point in December of 1783.
Despite the end of the Revolutionary War, all was not settled for many of its veterans. Many men who had fought and served found themselves back in their hometowns struggling financially. Pensions and payments that had been promised by the government never materialized, leaving many veterans destitute and angry. In general, the new nation was struggling under the uncertainty of a fledgling financial system, and citizens throughout the new republic were anxious and stressed by their lack of access to real money to meet their basic needs. When pleas, petitions, and letters to government representatives were unsuccessful, men like Daniel Shays of Pelham attempted to harness the energy of fellow frustrated Americans into action. Shays’ Rebellion culminated on January 25, 1787 in an attempted raid on the Springfield Arsenal, today known as the Springfield Armory. Six men from Western Massachusetts, including Alpheus Colton, were sentenced to hang for their role in the unsuccessful uprising. Alpheus Colton was only twenty-two years old at the time.
On that frigid January afternoon in 1787, as many as 2000 frustrated men, many veterans like Alpheus Colton, tramped through knee deep snow from various points in Western Massachusetts prepared to overwhelm the military stationed at the Springfield Arsenal with their show of unity and strength. Ultimately their goal was to steal the weapons housed there and march towards Boston to force the government to recognize their frustrations and act to make necessary changes to relieve them of their financial problems. The soldiers at the Arsenal fired on the Shaysites forcing them to retreat. The raid was unsuccessful.
So, what was the sleigh to West Springfield for? We can’t know for sure, but it is likely Alpheus Colton was taking it to the headquarters of Luke Day, one of several leaders of groups organized in support of the Rebellion. A very interesting account of how he might have used the sleigh appears in an 1893 family history of the Burt family of Hampden County: “The last Nathaniel Burt was taken as a hostage during “Shays’ Rebellion” and carried to West Springfield. He was a large, heavy man and he made his captors carry him by force and put him in the wagon when they took him prisoner. … The leader, Alpheus Colton, wrote an humble and heartfelt apology to Nathaniel Burt, for the part he took in his capture, under date January 30, 1787, acknowledging that he had ‘acted the part of a fool,’ but pleaded that he was a ‘hasty youth.’ ‘My design,’ he wrote, ‘in taking you was to exchange you for William Russell, as I told when I took you, but as soon as I got to West Springfield I felt a sorrow within. The next day I went to Luke Day to get him to write your brother [Col. Gideon Burt] to make an exchange for William Russell, but his answer was ‘No.’ I repent of what I have done. It causes bitter repentings and sincere sorrow, and I pray you to overlook it if it be possible. *** I humbly ask pardon from you and your whole family.’ ”
While some of the attackers were arrested, none faced punishments as dire as the men sentenced with Alpheus Colton on April 27, 1787. Per newspaper accounts, “Last Saturday ended a fortnight’s sessions of the Supreme Judicial Court at Northampton; at which were convicted and sentenced to DEATH for the crime of TREASON six unhappy persons, who had taken a very active part in the late rebellion, had been concerned in captivating, plundering, bayoneting or firing upon peaceable citizens of the Commonwealth, had been in arms from time to time, for stopping courts of justice, and acted as zealous officers under Shays and Day, at the time of the attack upon the continental arsenal…” In reading out his sentence that day in April in Northampton, Alpheus Colton, among his fellow conspirators, heard the sentence pronounced by the Hon. William Cushing, Esq, Chief Justice, ““You shall go from hence to prison, from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, and there be each of you hanged by the neck, till you are dead.” And God Almighty have mercy on each of your souls!” Strong words indeed.
Ultimately, within a matter of weeks, all men would receive pardons from Gov. John Hancock. In a dramatic turn, the last two men to be pardoned were first led to the gallows before an assembled crowd. Nooses were placed around their necks, and only then were they informed of the governor's pardon.
Alpheus Colton lived out his days in Longmeadow. In 1818 he was still seeking the pension he had been promised for so long. In a letter published in the Hampden Federalist on Nov. 12, 1818 he wrote, “Attention! Soldiers of the thundering 3rd of the Massachusetts line! Rear rank! Take distance! March! Dress! Order arms! Bear regimental orders! Daniel Merrill calls upon us once more to petition to the honored fathers of our country, for that is our just due. Let us hear the call, brother officers and soldiers, or lose the blessing by delay. …Ought I now give up the chase? No - let us all try once more, that we may receive our just dues; and may the blessings of heaven follow. - Alpheus Colton. Longmeadow, November 5, 1818.” It appears that he did receive a pension of $96/ yr from 1818-1820. Colton died in 1823 at the age of 58 and is buried in Longmeadow Cemetery. A marker placed near his gravestone pays tribute to his service as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, but makes no mention of his brief, but dramatic turn as an insurrectionist. Nathaniel Burt, whom he allegedly forced from his bed on that cold January night in 1787 is buried nearby in the same cemetery.
photo credit: Betsy McKee
Special thanks to Dennis Picard for his editorial assistance.
Ancestry.com, Military Records, Pension Papers for Alpheus Colton (1765-1823)
Burt, Henry M. and Silas W. Burt. Life and Times of Henry Burt of Springfield and Some of His Descendants, 498. Clark W. Bryan Company, Springfield, 1893.
Hale, Jonathan. Daybook C: 1784-1788 BV 52, Longmeadow Historical Society Archives