Primary Documents Relating to the Seizure of Powder
at Williamsburg, VA, April 21, 1775

Digitized by Bart Reynolds

Documents are presented chronologically, and tell the story well if read that way. These materials were transcribed from the Naval Documents of the American Revolution (NDAR), volume 1.

Journal of His Majestys Schooner Magdalen, Henry Colins,
Commanding 1

April 1775        Moord abreast Burwels Ferry in James River
Thursday 20th at 3 A M landed 20 Men Armed to take some Gunpowder out of the Magazine at Williamsbg    at 6 the people returnd with 15 half Barrs    lost one Scabbard for Bayonet by handing the Arms into the Boat    at 1 P M had Intelligence that the Inhabitants at Williamsburgh were under Arms and threatened to Attack. the Schooner   got in readiness    loaded with Round & Grape and put the Vessel in a State of Defence
1. PRO, Admiralty 51/3894.

[NDAR, Vol. 1, p. 204]

Purdie's Virginia Gazette, Friday, April 21, 1775

Williamsburg, April 21.

      By Capt. Taylor, from Liverpool, there is advice that things had taken a sudden turn in the House of Commons, in favour of America; and that it was expected Lord North would resign, in a very short time.1

      This morning between 3 and 4 o'clock, all the gunpowder in the magazine, to the amount as we hear, of about 20 barrels, was carried off in his Excellency the Governor's waggon, escorted by a detachment of marines from the armed schooner Magdalen, now lying at Burwell's ferry, and lodged on board that vessel.

1. This report, prevalent at the time, was due to a discussion in the House of Commons concerning the possibility of repealing certain acts in favor of more conciliatory measures

[NDAR. Vol. 1, p.204-205]

Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette, Saturday, April 22, 1775

Williamsburg, April 22.

      Last Thursday night [April 20] Capt. [Henry] Collins, with a party of men, belonging to the Magdalen armed scooner, by command of Lord Dunmore, came to this city, from Burwell's ferry, and privately removed out of the magazine, and carried on board the said schooner, about 20 barrels of gunpowder belonging to this colony. The inhabitants were alarmed with the intelligence early yesterday morning, the Common Hall assembled, and the following address was presented to the Governor.
      To his Excellency the Right Hon. John Earl of Dunmore, his Majesty's Lieutenant, Governor General, and Commander in Chief of the colony and dominion of Virginia.
      The humble Address of the Mayor, Recorder, Alderman , and Common Council of the city of Williamsburg.
My Lord,
      We his Majesty's dutiful and loyal subjects, the Mayor, Recorder, Aldermen and Common Council, of the city of Williamsburg, in Common Hall assembled, humbly beg leave to represent to your Excellency, that the inhabitants of this city were this morning exceedingly alarmed by a report that a large quantity of gunpowder was in the preceding night, while they were sleeping in their beds, removed from the public magazine in this city, and conveyed, under an escort of marines, on board one of his Majesty's armed vessels lying at a ferry on James river.
      We beg leave to represent to your Excellency, that as this magazine was erected at the public expense of this colony, and appropriated to the safe keeping of such munitions as should be there lodged from time to time, for the protection and security of the country, by arming thereout such of the militia as might be necessary in case of invasion and insurrections, they humbly conceive it to be the only proper repository to be resorted to in times of iminent danger.
      We further beg leave to inform your Excellency, that, from various reports at present prevailing, in different parts of the country, we have too much reason to believe that some wicked and designing persons have instilled the most diabolical notions into the minds of our slaves, and therefore the utmost attention to our internal security is become the more necessary.
      The circumstances of this city, my Lord, we consider as peculiar and critical. The inhabitants, from the situation of the magazine, in the midst of the city, have, for a long tract of time, been exposed to all those dangers which have happened in many countries from explosions and other accidents. They have, from time to time thought it incumbent upon them to guard the magazine. For their security they have, for some time past, judged it necessary to keep strong patrols on foot; in their present circumstance, they, to have the chief and necessary means of their defence removed, cannot but be extremely alarmed. Considering ourselves as guardians of the city we therefore humbly desire to be informed by your Excellency, upon what motives, and for what particular purpose, the powder has been carried off in such a manner; and we earnestly request your Excellency to order it to be immediately returned to the magazine.

      To which his Excellency returned this verbal answer: That hearing of an insurrection in a neighboring county, he had removed the powder from the magazine, where he did not think it secure, to a place of perfect security; and that upon his word and honour, whenever it was wanted in any insurrection, it should be delivered in half an hour; that he had removed it in the night time to prevent an alarm, and that Captain Collins had his express commands for the part he had acted; he was surprised to hear the people were under arms on this occasion, and that he should not think it prudent to put powder into their hands in such a situation.

[NDAR, Vol. 1, pp. 207-208]

Journal of His Majesty's Schooner Magdalen, Henry Colins,
Commanding 1

April 1775       Moord abreast Burwels Ferry in James River
Sunday 23d at 8 A M Captain [George] Montagu took the powder with him on board the Liberty Sloop and immediately made for Hampton Road

1. PRO, Admiralty 51/3894.

[NDAR, Vol I. p. 212]

William Grayson and Philip Richard Francis Lee to George Washington 1

Dumfries [Virginia] 26th Apl 1775

      We have just recievd a letter from the Officers of the independant Company of Spotsylvania which I have herewith inclos'd; 2 I immediately call'd together this Company and had the vote put whether they would march to Williamsburgh for the purposes mentioned in that letter which was carried unanimously.

      I have nothing more to add but that We are well assured you may depend on them either for that or any other service which respects the liberties of America. We expect yr answer and determination by Mr. Daviss.
      We have the honor to be [&c.]
      By order of the Co

Willm Grayson     
Phil. Rd Frans Lee

1. Washington Papers, LC
2. See letter to Grayson, April 24, 1775. [Below]

[NDAR, Vol. I, p. 228]

Officers of the Independent Militia Company of Fredericksburg to Captain William Grayson 1


Fredericksburg [Virginia] 24th April 1775

Sir      From undoubted Authority we receiv'd here this day Morning -- the very disagreeable Intelligence that in the Night of Thursday last Capt. [Henry] Collins Commander of one of his Majesty's Sloops of War by -- Command of his Excellency the Governor assisted by a Company of Marines carried off all the powder from the Magazine in the City of Williamsburg & deposited it on board his Vessell which lay at Burwell's fferry, about five miles below the City.
      The said Authority informs us that the Corporn of the City of Wmsburg addressed the Govr on that occasion The people had received no Satisfaction nor are they likely to recover the powder tho' it is so very necessary for the security of the the Country.
      This being a day of Meeting the independt Co of this Town, they considered it necessary, to take the matter into serious Considn and are come to a unanimous Resolution that a Submission to so arbitrary an Exertion of Government may not only prejudice the common Cause by introducing a suspicion of a defection of this Colony from the noble pursuit but will encourage the tools of despotism to commit further Acts of Violence in this Colony and more especially subject the Arms in the Magazine to the same fate of the powder.
      In these sentiments this Compy could but determine that a Number of public spirited Gentn should embrace this opporty of showing their Zeal in the grand Cause by marching to -- Wmsbg to enquire into this Affair and there to take such steps as may best answer the purpose of recovering the powder & securing the Arms now in the Magazine to this End they have determined to hold themselves in readiness to march from this place as light horse on Saturday Morning and in the mean time [su]bmit the Matter to the determn of yours & the neighbouring Counties whom Expresses are purposely forwarded   We address you in the [na]me of our Co as their Officers & are Sir yr very hble Servt

Hugh Mercer                   G. Weedon
Alexr Spotswood            Jno Willis 

1. Washington Papers, vol. 14-15, 1868, LC. This is printed in S. M. Hamilton, ed., Letters to Washington, 1775 - 1777 (Boston and New York, 1898 - 1902), vol 1, 163, 164.

[NDAR, Vol I, p. 214 - 215]

Peyton Randolph, for the Corporation of Williamsburg,
to Mann Page, Jr., Lewis Willis and Benjamin Grymes, Jr. 1

Williamsburg the 27th April 1775


      In compliance with your request we give you a candid Relation of the Disturbance which happened last Week in this City about the removal of the Powder from the Public Magazine. Early on Friday morning [April 21] the Inhabitants were universally and much alarmed at the Report that the Powder had been removed the preceding Night under an Escort of Marines and carried on board an Armed Vessel at Burwell's Ferry. The Common Hall assembled and presented the address which we presume you have seen with the Governors Answer. The Inhabitants were so much exasperated that they flew to their Arms; This incensed the Governor a good deal and from every thing we can learn was the principal Reason why his Answer was not more explicit and favourable. His Excellency has repeatedly assured several Respectable Gentlemen that his only motive in Removing the Powder was to secure it, as there had been an alarm from the County of Surry which at first seem'd too well founded, tho it afterwards proved Groundless; besides what he has said in his Public Answer, he has given private assurances to Several Gentlemen, that the Powder shall be Return'd to the Magazine, tho he has not condescended to fix the Day for its Return. So far as we can Judge from a Comparison of all Circumstances, The Governor considers his Honor as at Stake; he thinks that he acts for the best and will not be compell'd to what we have abundant Reason to believe he would Cheerfully do, were he left to himself -- Frequent Messages have been sent from the Neighbouring Counties to enquire into the State of this unfortunate affair with the most friendly and Spirited offers of assistance and Protection. The City could not but hold themselves exceedingly obliged to those Gentlemen as they do to you Gentlemen, and the rest of our Worthy Country Men, by whom we understand you are sent, We hope that you and the other Gentlemen can have no doubt of our paying the utmost attention to the Country's Interest as well as our own Security in particular. If We may then be permitted to advise, it is our opinion and most earnest request that Matters may be quieted for the present at least; we are firmly persuaded that perfect Tranquility will be Speedily Restored; by pursuing this Course we foresee no Hazard or even inconvenience that can ensue; whereas we are apprehensive, and this we think upon good Grounds that violent measures may produce effects, which God only knows the consequence of.
      We beg that our thanks and best Wishes may be presented to the several Gentlemen of this Country who have interested themselves in our Behalf and are Gen: [&c.]

Payton Randolph for self and the      
Corporation of the City of Williamsburg

1. Lee Papers, UVL.

[NDAR, Vol. I, p. 234]