John Scollay

John Scollay
  • Born:

    Boston MA, 1711

  • Died:

    Boston MA, 1790

  • Father:

    James (?) Scollay

  • Mother:

  • Married:

    Mercy Greenleaf, great-aunt of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier

  • Children:

    William, Mercy, Priscilla, seven others

John Scollay, author Herman Melville's great-grandfather, was deeply involved in the American Revolution: chairman of the Boston Selectmen from 1772 to 1790, a member of the Sons of Liberty and a friend of Samuel Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States.


There are one or two different versions of John Scollay's Orkney connections but they agree that he is descended from Malcolm Scollay and Barbara Elphinstone of Hunton in Stronsay. He is probably a son of James (born about 1680) who either emigrated from Orkney himself or is a son of John Scollay who emigrated sometime before 1667 and leased the ferry between Boston and Winnisimmet for seven years.


Whoever first came to America, the family clearly did well, because John Scollay was a prominent citizen of Boston and a merchant comfortably enough off to commission portraits of himself and his wife, Mercy Greenleaf, by the best known colonial artist, John Singleton-Copley. His portrait is in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and his wife's is at Harvard University.


The elected officials of Boston were called Selectmen and the Selectmen's Minutes were published in 1894 and are available online. John Scollay was Chairman from 1772 until his death in 1790, apart from the hiatus in 1775-6.


The book of the Selectmen's Minutes 1769-1775 ends abruptly. "At this point the record is suspended until May 20, 1776, for reasons readily apparent." The next book explains, "There are no entries on the Selectmen's Minutes from April 19 1775 to May 20 1776, the control of affairs being, of course, in the hands of the British general. On March 13, 1775 the town chose seven Selectmen, viz.: John Scollay, John Hancock, Timothy Newell, Thomas Marshall, Samuel Austin, Oliver Wendell and John Pitts; the same seven were re-elected March 29, 1776. Contemporaneous papers show that the selectmen were of much service in making representations to the military authorities, and as intermediaries in the dealings with the American forces surrounding Boston".


There was a lot to be done when they reconvened: the schools were opened, a report was prepared on the state of the fire engines, a Town Watch was appointed and a committee formed to regulate the market. A note was inserted between the minutes of the meetings in June and July 1776 that "The United American Colonies are declared to be Free and Independent States, by the united States of America in General Congress assembled, at Philadelphia." but business went on as usual for the Selectmen, dealing with the perennial concern of preventing the spread of smallpox and fixing the price of wheat.


Then on 3 December the War of Independence forced itself on the business of the town. "The Committee of Correspondence Inspection & Safety attended by desire, in order to confer relative to this Towns furnishing a quarter part of their Militia for the reinforcement of the Army to the Westward."


In a series of meetings it was agreed that a bounty of £10 would be given to those who enlisted and members of the militia who paid £10 would be exempt from the draft. On 28 January a meeting was held to consider what was proper to be done regarding the Persons drafted as a ¼ part of the Militia who refuse to go, or pay their Fines. It doesn't say what was decided but a return was then made of all men over sixteen in the town. There were 2863 but 985 was taken off this total, 11 Quakers, 7 belonging to Harvard College, 36 belonging to Charlestown, Falmouth & Newport, 188 Negores and Molattoes, 543 in the army and 200 at sea. Of the remaining 1878 the Committee noted "many are old infirm & decriped"


Over the next few years the business of the town goes on, especially measures dealing with smallpox, but the war intrudes regularly in small ways: increasing watchmen's pay by 50% to allow for the increased price of provisions; providing shoes and socks for their proportion of the Continental Army.


John Scollay was also a fire-marshall throughout this period, in fact for 35 years, 1747 to 1782. This was an important position in the wooden towns of New England; in March, 1784, the town voted "Thanks unto John Scollay, Esqr. for his good and faithful Services as a Fire Ward for thirty-five years past."


In 1761 Scollay had been one of 50 signatories to a petition to George III protesting about the illegal actions of British revenue officers and had become a member of the Sons of Liberty, the organisation founded by Samuel Adams to oppose the Stamp Act of 1765.


Several letters Samuel Adams wrote to John have been preserved. One letter, written from the first Continental Congress, in April 1776, is held by the US Library of Congress and in the catalogue Scollay is described as a brazier and merchant, political ally of Samuel Adams and perennial Selectman. Adams ends another letter, …"may assure yourself I shall endeavour to promote your interest as far as it may be in my power for I am your unfeigned friend, Samuel Adams.


The Boston Tea Party in December 1773 was preceded by public meetings, discussing what they should do with the unwanted tea. Feelings were running so high that about 5000 attended the first meeting on 29 November. The meeting was reconvened the following day to give an opportunity to ask the consignees of the tea if they would send it back. At nine am the following morning, the reply from the consignees, that they had no power to send the ships back, but that they were willing to store the tea until a decision had been reached, was addressed to John Scollay.


A first hand account of the series of public meetings leading up to the Boston Tea Party lists 13 men who attended them all. These included three of the most important figures of the revolution, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Joseph Warren as well as John Scollay and his brother-in-law William Greenleaf. In the Memorial History of Boston, Rev Edward G Porter described Scollay as an actor in the scene and quoted from the letter Scollay wrote to Arthur Lee, the Massachusetts agent in London, on 23 December, "We do console ourselves that we have acted constitutionally."


One of the great heroes of the early days of the Revolution was Dr Joseph Warren. He was President of the Provincial Congress and is credited with holding the army together between Lexington and the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he was killed. He was a widower and father of four and, when he died, he was engaged to John Scollay's daughter Mercy. The Scollays took in the three youngest orphans until their uncle married and adopted them two years later. Letters written to Mercy by Samuel Adams and Benedict Arnold about support for the orphans have been preserved.


John and Mercy Scollay had ten children and another of their daughters, Priscilla, married Major Thomas Melville. He was a member of the Boston Tea Party and the tea leaves that Priscilla found in his shoes were preserved as a family heirloom. Melville was also a friend of John Hancock, aide to General Joseph Warren, and a representative for Boston in the first State legislature. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem about him, "The Last Leaf". The Melvilles' son Allan was the father of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick.


The Scots Charitable Society, founded in Boston in 1657, is the oldest charitable organisation in America and Scollay was its president in 1788. The Society was probably founded at least partly to help destitute Scots who had been captured by Cromwell at the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester in 1651 and 52. Prisoners were sent to the Iron Works at Lynn, now Saugus, in Massachusetts, and were required to complete seven years of labour for the company. It seems the indentures began to expire between 1655 and 1657. One of the prisoners from the Battle of Worcester, who were taken to Boston on the John and Sara was William Clewston (Clouston?).


John Scollay's signature is the first on a formal complaint to John Hancock from the Selectmen of Boston about the actions of the Sheriff during a formal visit by George Washington. In their complaint, they said that when the procession formed up, as agreed beforehand,


"Mr Henderson the Sheriff, in a very rude & insolent manner approached us, and publicly & repeatedly declared with great contempt, that we should not precede the President, and when he was told that we should take our station, even if he rode over us, he declared if we attempted it, he would do it…After disputing the matter nearly half an hour and finding the Sheriff obstinately determined to bring on confusion & disorder at that critical moment, if we did not retire, and considering the disagreeable situation of the president, in his delicate state of health, so long exposed to the cold and piercing wind on the neck, we very reluctantly submitted to the mortifying alternative of giving place to a number of persons…such unparalleled ill-treatment from one of your officers, who has since made his boast "that if we had contended longer with him, he would have made a hole through some of us""


In an article written on the Scollays in 1906, Alexander Porter writes,


"Among the prominent men mentioned by Frothingham in his Siege of Boston, John Scollay is spoken of as a man "of much public spirit, energetic and firm."… At the evacuation, he was among the prominent men of the town in the rejoicings of the people at the deliverance of Boston, and his social correspondence with General Washington on that occasion is still preserved in the family." Porter ends by saying, "By their loyalty and conservatism they have always been honored citizens, and have taken the first place in every movement that would promote the welfare of the community in which they have been so beloved."