Henry Knox: Self-made Man, Patriot and Entrepreneur
Henry Knox was an ordinary man who rose to face extraordinary circumstances. He was born into poverty in Boston in 1750. He left Boston Latin Grammar School at a young age to apprentice to a bookbinder, helping to support his widowed mother and younger brother. He eventually worked his way to opening his own bookshop in Boston at the age of 21, little suspecting the important role that he would play in the birth of our nation. His keen interest in military strategy led him to do a lot of reading on the subject, and when he joined the local militia, his talent was noticed.
In 1775, as the situation between Great Britain and the American colonies was heating up, General George Washington inspected a rampart at Roxbury designed by Knox and was instantly taken with the young man's abilities. Knox soon became Washington's Chief of Artillery, and earned a place in history in the winter of 1776 by carting sixty tons of captured cannon from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Dorchester Heights, driving the British from Boston Harbor. Throughout most of the war he was by Washington's side, and eventually rose to Major-General. Following the war he was Washington's choice for the first Secretary at War. They remained life-long friends.
George Washington was not the only person to take particular notice of the dashing patriot in the time leading up to the American Revolution. Lucy Flucker, the seventeen year-old daughter of the Royal Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts, frequently visited Knox's bookstore, and it soon became obvious that books were not the main attraction for her. Ignoring her wealthy parents' vehement protests and warnings of impending poverty and political ruin, Lucy cast her lot with Henry. They were married in June of 1774, and when Henry escaped Boston to join the Revolutionary forces late one night the following spring, Lucy rode beside him, his sword sewn inside her cape. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, theirs was a happy marriage, marred only by the fact that ten of their thirteen children did not live to adulthood.
After ten years serving his country as Secretary of War, Henry Knox began to long for the life of a gentleman farmer, like the lives his friends George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were living on their country estates. Fortunately for him, Lucy had inherited a vast tract of land in the District of Maine through her mother, the daughter of Brigadier General Samuel Waldo. In 1795, newly retired, Knox bade farewell to Philadelphia and moved his family to his newly-built nineteen-room mansion Montpelier in Thomaston, Maine. There he was to dedicate his "all to the development of the District of Maine."
He dabbled in many of the emerging businesses in midcoast Maine: He shipped timber, quarried lime, made bricks, experimented with agriculture, built canals on the Georges River and got involved with land speculation. Most in Thomaston welcomed him, despite what was perceived as his wife's haughtiness and fondness for gambling, as well as his struggles with squatters. Cyrus Eaton, a local historian, observed that Knox "loved to see everyone happy, and could sympathize with people of every class and condition, rejoice in their prosperity, and aid them in adversity." He welcomed over 500 townspeople to an open house at Montpelier, helped establish a local church, was instrumental in starting local militia groups and employed many people.
All too soon though, and before any of his ventures were truly successful, this military hero finally fell -- according to traditional accounts, the victim of swallowing a chicken bone. Knox was buried on his estate in 1806, deeply mourned by a town that had come to love him and a country that always had.
More information on General Knox is available at the Maine Memory Network website. Click the following link to view the online exhibit: Major General Henry Knox
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