Early Life

James Davenport was born in 1759, the seventh of 15 children of Isaac Davenport (1730-1799) and Mary Pray (1730-1792). His father was a fourth-generation weaver in the rural town of Dorchester outside of Boston, and his mother was from nearby Braintree. James and one of his brothers, Samuel, were apprenticed under a cousin to learn the trade of cordwaining (shoemakers) in 1774.

Revolutionary War Service

In 1776, James Davenport enlisted in a militia unit and then joined the Continental Army's 8th Massachusetts Regiment in February 1777. In April 1777, he began several months of campaigning in New York that eventually took him to the Battle of Saratoga in September. He spent that winter at Valley Forge with the main Continental Army. Valley Forge, according to his memoir, “huts and cells were built to dwell in during the winter, as commodious as place and circumstances would allow.” After a brief illness and recovery away from camp, he was inoculated for smallpox, as a result of which he “had a siege of it; but I came off conqueror.” In 1778 and 1779, he fought at the Battle of Monmouth, endured a series of illnesses, and saw active service in New York before gaining a furlough in December 1779. In 1781, he was transferred to the 8th Massachusetts, where he served as a sergeant for the rest of the war. As one of light infantry soldiers serving under the Marquis de Lafayette, he received a sergeant’s epaulettes, which are in the Museum's collection, and a sword still in the possession of his descendants. His letters from this time show that he was weary of army life and desperate to maintain connections with people at home. When he was discharged in 1783, James Davenport was 23.

After the War

James Davenport returned to Dorchester after he was discharged and spent the rest of his life there. In July 1784, he married Esther Mellish of Dorchester, with whom he had 11 children. When he died 40 years later, in 1824, he was remembered in a published funeral program as a devout Christian and Master Mason. This pamphlet also included excerpts from a journal of his wartime experiences. His descendants carefully preserved mementoes of his service, including his letters and the various objects featured here. According to a family story, Esther Mellish used the red wool from a British coat that James Davenport brought home to make a small pair of baby booties for their new child. Carefully preserved by later generations, these booties allow us to imagine how the first generation of American revolutionaries beat swords into ploughshares and began their lives in the new United States.