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Revolutionary secrets unfold

Researchers' finding: Framingham had independent spirit of its own

You won't hear much about Framingham if you take a tour of the Freedom Trail in Boston or Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord.

Local colonial heroes John Trowbridge and Colonial Joseph Buckminster are mere footnotes in most American history books -- if they get mentioned at all -- between breathless tales about heavyweights such as Paul Revere, John Hancock, and John Adams.

Considered little more than a supporting player, Framingham is something like the Rodney Dangerfield of the American Revolution: It doesn't get a lot of respect.

But now, local historians are trying to determine if their hometown deserves a little more star-spangled glory.

The effort was sparked about two months ago as the Framingham Historical Society was preparing for its annual house tour, which includes the Lilacs, a 22-room Edmands Road estate that dates back to 1690. Homeowners Rollin and Betsy Johnson were looking through a folder of historical notes on the house that had been assembled by a previous owner.

The notes included an intriguing suggestion -- that Trowbridge , who owned the house during colonial times, may have hosted secret meetings of the Committee of Safety -- a group founded by rebellious colonists in 1772 to galvanize towns outside of Boston against the British.

The committee masterminded one of the most famous moments in American history -- the midnight ride of Paul Revere in 1775 to call the Minutemen to arms in Lexington and Concord.

The Johnsons mentioned their discovery to Annie Murphy, the historical society director, who called in two dogged volunteer researchers, Fred Wallace and Kevin Swope.

"The idea really did jump out at us," said Wallace. "We thought, 'Could this really be true?' "

It's not such an outlandish idea.

Historians agree that Framingham had a large and spirited militia, and townspeople smuggled arms and money for Boston Colonists oppressed by British occupiers. The town sent a delegation to the Provincial Congress in Concord in 1774, and later that year British General Thomas Gage dispatched spies to Buckminster's tavern to scout the opposition. The British spies were so alarmed at the sight of Framingham militia running drills on the town common that they told Gage the British regulars would be in for a fearsome fight should they march toward a rumored stockpile of arms in Worcester.

When the British decided to march instead to Concord, Framingham was one of 27 local towns that sent soldiers to respond to the legendary shot heard 'round the world on the morning of April 19, 1775.

The Framingham militia played a "substantial" role that day, said Lou Sideris , chief of planning and communications at Minute Man National Historical Park.

The Framingham fighters were probably alerted around 4 a.m. that day by one of the many "alarm" riders, the most famous of whom is Paul Revere. Framingham militia members jumped into the fight in progress at Brooks Hill on Battle Road in Lincoln, Sideris said, joining the large group of local patriots who chased the British back to Boston.

Fascinated by the possibility of discovering a new Revolutionary War historical thread that might put Framingham in the midst of the excitement, Wallace went to the state archives in Dorchester, while Swope headed to the Concord Public Library's rare book room.

Swope found a tantalizing mention of town moderator Captain Josiah Stone contributing muskets to Boston safety committee members. But nothing more.

Wallace finally hit paydirt in the Framingham town clerk's office, where he spent hours poring over original Town Meeting minutes from 1772 to 1776, recorded in amber-colored quill-and-ink script.

It was in a brief entry marked Oct. 9, 1775, recording that Buckminster had asked to be relieved of his Committee on Correspondence duties and that Trowbridge was named to take his place.

The correspondence committee was known to have frequent overlap with the more secretive safety committee.

Buckminster and Trowbridge would have coordinated local meetings and activities, probably at their own homes, the researchers said. It would have been a small step from hosting a correspondence committee meeting to hosting a meeting of a local or regional safety committee, historians speculate.

The lack of much written record may be a function of just how dangerous safety committee activities were. It may have been considered an illegal act of assembly, with participants risking arrest and seizure of their property, Murphy and Wallace said.

The idea that many suburban communities deserve more credit for contributions to Revolutionary War history has been gaining steam.

About 10 years ago, Minute Man National Historical Park erected a visitors center display graphic that shows a birds-eye view of all the surrounding towns that sent troops to fight on April 19, said Sideris.

"A lot of these towns, from Danvers to Needham, are very proud of their heritage, and now people from the area towns can come and see and say, 'Look, we were there that day,' ."

Last year, the city of Woburn for the first time re enacted its militia's march to Lexington Green for combat -- a heroic act overshadowed for centuries by the fact that it reached the battlefield 20 minutes too late for the fight.

The desire to explore and expand one's role in the War of Independence is understandable, said Alan Rogers, a Boston College American history professor.

"We're all eager to connect ourselves with the birth of the nation and we're enthralled by the stories we learned when we were young," he said. "Connecting people who lived there then to people who live there now has a lot of meaning. It may be a small claim to fame, but its still a claim to fame."

Brandeis University professor David Hackett Fischer's 1994 book "Paul Revere's Ride" had a democratizing effect by illustrating how many people were actually involved in Revere's alarm network, although Revere is the only household name, Rogers said.

"It helped take the spotlight a little away from the 'great' men we all know and put the spotlight on the subsidiary players as well," he said.

Even without the safety committee proof, Framingham has plenty to be proud of concerning the Revolutionary War. It is the birthplace of Crispus Attucks , a victim of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Peter Salem , an African-American soldier who fought in Concord and at Bunker Hill, also had local roots.

On orders from George Washington, Major Henry Knox hauled cannons on sleds from Fort Ticonderoga in New York through Framingham en route to Dorchester for Evacuation Day on March 17, 1776.

Although there was never a Battle of Framingham, Nicholas Paganella , a local veterans advocate, is still pleased about the effort to prove the mettle of local soldiers, even way back then. As he sees it, the British were downright intimidated by Framingham.

"They thought there were fewer rebels up there," he declared of Concord and Lexington. "They didn't want to deal with Framingham."

Nevertheless, Murphy said the historical society doesn't expect to rewrite Revolutionary War history. Right now, it's just one more way to educate local residents and their children.

"The mission of the historical society has always been to keep people connected to the amazing things that happened right here in their backyard, " she said.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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