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Wendy M. Levy/The Commons

Members of the sheriff’s posse shoot colonists.

Town and Village

Remembering the shots before the ‘shot heard ’round the world’

Before Lexington and Concord, one of the first skirmishes against Britain was waged in Westminster

WESTMINSTER—“I’m Bill Paterson and nobody tells me what to do!”

Kevin W. Titus yelled these words last Saturday afternoon across Route 5, in the general direction of the Town Hall.

Titus was playing the part of Tory High Sheriff William Paterson, under whose command it is argued the first blood was shed in the American Revolution.

The Westminster Town Hall was playing the part of the Westminster Courthouse.

A handful of locals joined Titus and his Connecticut-based group, the Determined Education of American Historical Association, to stage a re-enactment of the Westminster Massacre, which took place on March 13, 1775, more than a month before the battles of Lexington and Concord.

From inside Town Hall, the “Colonists” yelled back at Titus and his “officers."

“Boo! Go away!"

“Get out!"

“Go back to New York!"

At this time in the Colonies’ development, Vermont did not yet exist. Westminster was considered part of the New Hampshire Grants, land grants made by Benning Wentworth, New Hampshire’s provincial governor.

The problem was, New York held a claim to the same lands, and that colony’s Supreme Court ruled all of Wentworth’s land grants invalid.

Thus, some landowners in the Westminster area were concerned New York could seize their property in lieu of debts owed to the Crown, and they would become slaves to an authority they considered illegitimate.

At the re-enactment, Jeanne Moody, dressed in period finery, played the part of Narrator, and explained the action to the attendees.

“The courts, now more oppressive than ever, are in service to the Crown,” she announced.

In an attempt to prevent court from going into session back in 1775, the Colonists visited the local magistrate, Justice Thomas Chandler, played on Saturday by Moody’s husband, David. The couple are professional re-enactors at the Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown, N.H.

As the scene continued, Titus, Moody, and the other players engaged in a dramatic re-telling of what happened that day.

Outside Town Hall, Paterson told Judge Chandler, “the insurgents have taken the Westminster Courthouse. We can’t have that here."

Chandler told Paterson, “they can stay in the courthouse overnight."

“I have orders from the King!” Paterson replied.

“What about my proclamation?” he pleaded with the judge.

After Chandler reminded Paterson that he, as Magistrate, out-ranked the Sheriff, he made a suggestion to Paterson and his men: “Go to the tavern and get yourself a drink."

“I have an order and I will serve it!” Paterson yelled to the townspeople, with a hint of whine in his voice.

“We’ll use formation and we’ll take this courthouse!” he continued, then paused, and announced to all present, “We’ll have a few drinks and think about it."

As history tells it, Paterson and his Tories went across the street to the town tavern and got drunk.

They came back hours later to jeers from the Colonists holed up in the courthouse.

“You’re in great shape now!” one yelled.

“Go back to New York and drink your own cider!” another shouted.

Paterson looked around, and seeing no sign of Chandler, countered with: “There’s no magistrate here for you!"

Tempers flared.

Shots were fired.

William French, who was 22 years old at the time of the Westminster Massacre, was killed instantly by Paterson’s troops at the courthouse.

On Saturday, he was portrayed by Joshua Lafoe, age 13, who fell on the Town Hall steps in a most convincing manner.

Lafoe said he had no idea he would be part of the re-enactment until that morning.

“It was fun,” he said, adding, “I’d do it again.”

Hunter Lafoe, Joshua’s brother, commented on the weapons (not loaded with musket balls) Titus and his crew shot toward Town Hall. “I had no idea blanks made that much smoke!"

There were two casualties of the Westminster Massacre. Daniel Houghton died nine days after the event, of injuries sustained from being shot by Paterson’s posse.

On Saturday, Clifford LaPlante assumed the role of Houghton, falling on the front steps next to the already felled French/Lafoe.

LaPlante told The Commons he is a descendent of William Roe, one of the townspeople attempting to stave off Paterson and his drunken men.

Two of LaPlante’s major interests are genealogy and local history.

“I have read up extensively on the Massacre,” he noted.

He said it had “been awhile” since the town last staged a public re-enactment of the Westminster Massacre, surmising it had been “at least 20 years."

LaPlante considered this one a great success.

The day’s re-enactment “was done very accurately to my eye and recollection,” he said, adding, “it was very enjoyable."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #323 (Wednesday, September 16, 2015). This story appeared on page B6.

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