Daniel Shays

Origins and marriage

Son of a Scots-Irish indentured servant, Daniel Shays was the first male child in his family, and he hired out his labor as soon as he was old enough to work.  Before the revolution, he earned £16 a year, a pound more than the common rate, and he married the adopted daughter of the wealthy landowner he worked for in Brookfield, Captain Daniel Gilbert. 

The Gilbert family were not Scots-Irish, they had come to the colonies in the 1640s, and their people had moved up the Connecticut River, to Hartford, Springfield, and then Brookfield, on the Quaoboag River. A Gilbert had built Gilbert's Fort in North Brookfield in 1688, after the conflict known (also inaccurately) as "King Phillips' War."

Gilbert himself performed the service that married Daniel and Abigail, and he gave Shays a dowry that raised him from the rank of laborer, and allowed him to be entered in the Shutesbury tax records as a gentleman farmer.

Revolutionary War service

Shays went to war as an ensign in Colonel Dickinson’s regiment, and rose through the ranks to the commissioned rank of Captain.  In 1779, he led troops at the Battle of Stony Point, which ended the northern war, as the defeat caused the British General Clinton to withdraw his troops from New England to Charleston South Carolina. 

 

Shays’ leadership was rewarded by the gift of a gold-handled ceremonial sword from the Marquis de Lafayette, who was helping George Washington build an officer corps with such gifts.  Shays was not wealthy enough to keep the sword when he already had a serviceable weapon of his own, so he sold the sword to raise funds to pay a debt.  Some of his fellow officers grumbled that Shays should have been court-martialed for conduct unbecoming an officer, but he returned to Pelham to serve as one of four heads of the town's militia.

Return to Pelham

Shays left the army a year after Stony Point, in October 1780, and returned to a farm he had bought during the war, a well-placed farm on East Hill in Pelham, with long views south and west over the valley of the west branch of the Swift River. 

 

Shays could have gone north to join his sisters Margaret or Polly and their families in Barnard, Vermont, northwest of White River Junction.  He could have joined another sister Phebe and her family on the Vermont/New York border, near where Abigail’s brother Jonathan Gilbert and his family lived in Brattleboro. 

 

Instead, Daniel Shays and his wife stayed in Pelham, where Abigail was only a day’s ride away from her family in Brookfield, and Daniel was also close to his parents’ Scots-Irish people.

A reluctant leader

When the government ignored the people's petitions in the summer of 1786, and the people decided to stage direct actions at the courts, the leading farmers of Pelham asked Daniel Shays to lead their first protest.  Shays had only lived in Pelham since 1780, but this may have been part of his appeal as a leader, for he did not have deep ties that might create conflicting political loyalties in the small farming town.

Shays declined to take responsibility for the men in the first protest, and he let Deacon John Thompson lead Pelham's contingent of 70 men.  When the government responded to the first round of protests with threats, hundreds of angry farmers volunteered for the next round of protests, and this time Daniel Shays did not decline.  In September he marched out of Pelham with 700 men.  He maintained a force of about 300-350 until January, when he led a force of 1,200 from Pelham to Springfield. 

 

Shays complained that "importunities" had been used that he could not resist.  Without better documentation of the times, he will continue to be an enigma whose story applies to people on every side of the political spectrum.