Weird History
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Strange Stories You Might Not Know About Colonial Americans

Updated June 11, 2020 389.6k views10 items

It's not too much of a stretch to assume we live in a strange time, but there are plenty of strange stories about early Americans too. From sad tales of intolerance to clownish buffoons, this is not your typical history lesson about colonial America. 

This list examines what it was like to live in colonial America, from the weird political landscape to the difficulties of not fitting in the (very stringent) mold. You may not have heard these weird stories about colonial life and American history, but you won't soon forget them.

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  • Photo: Asher Brown Durand / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He could hardly control himself. As a young man in Worcester, MA, John Adams was teaching school and studying law. But he knew he had problems. "He began a lifelong conversation with his internal demons," wrote Joseph J. Ellis in First Family: Abigail and John Adams

    When he was on a roll, he felt his passions made him explode like an "erupting volcano" and his emotions ran like "Lawless Bulls that roar and bluster, defy all Control, and sometimes murder their proper owner." Ellis wrote, 

    "Whether the source of John's periodic bursts of vanity, insecurity, and sheer explosiveness was mental or physical - there is some scholarly speculation that he had a thyroid imbalance - remains a mystery. There is no question, however, that he was susceptible to swoonish emotional swings, especially when under extreme stress, and he would struggle with this problem throughout his life."

    Even though Adams was a great leader, he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

    #13 of 44 Which US Presidents Do You Wish Were In Charge Right Now?#10 of 45 The Greatest US Presidents Of All Time#468 of 1,355 The Greatest Minds of All Time

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Jemmy Led One Of The First Colonial Slave Rebellions

    The Stono Rebellion of 1739 was an uprising that took place in the British colony of South Carolina, led 20 slaves toward Florida, where the Spanish had promised freedom and land to slaves who fled the British.  

    Margaret Washington of Cornell University speculates on Jemmy, the rebellion's leader: "He may have come from a leadership family in Africa. He had some skills, some cultural skills, that were European. But at the same time, his sense of himself, his sense of identity, his sense of his community, was African." 

    The Stono Rebellion was the first slave revolt documented in the South. Some believed other slave uprisings were inspired by Stono. Others, however, say the slaves were reacting independently to the same harsh conditions that drove Jemmy and his allies to rebel. Still, in response to the rebellion, South Carolina's legislature quickly enacted the Negro Act in the hopes of disincentivizing slave rebellions.  The act penalized and punished masters who abused their slaves, since they felt there was a connection between poor treatment and rebellion, as well as issued a temporary ban on importing slaves. This, however, was because white colonists feared the possibility of a larger African population than European. The act also made it illegal for slaves to learn to read or write.

  • William Beadle Killed His Family And Then Himself

     

    Sometimes things aren't what they seem, but sometimes they are. Take the case of William Beadle, a resident of Wethersfield, CT, during the Revolutionary War and the early years of American independence.   

    Beadle had been a successful merchant but accepted Continental dollars even as they depreciated as demanded by the rebel government. Other merchants were not so patriotic and disobeyed the law to their financial advantage. Continental dollars were at one point worthless, then exchanged for new currency at a rate of 1 percent. That led to Beadle's financial downfall.

    During the last year of his life, he seldom spoke to his wife or his four children. Meanwhile, he also developed a curious habit: he never slept without his ax and his carving knife. On a December morning in 1783, Beadle killed his entire family and slit his own throat. It was the first documented mass murder-suicide in the history of the United States.

     

  • Photo: Louis Le Breton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Even In Colonial Days, Men Did Stupid Things For Love

    Alexander White was a young Irish immigrant who came to America in the mid-1700s. He left his hometown of Tyrone on the Emerald Isle and landed in Boston. No sooner had he arrived than he fell in love with a local woman and proposed. 

    As a new arrival, he had barely enough money to support himself, let alone afford to wed. He decided to solve that problem not through patience and hard work, but through crime. He was working as a ship's mate aboard a cutter and tried to rob his captain when the ship was anchored in Cow Harbor on Long Island. The attempt went bad, however, and White killed the captain during a struggle. 

    A passenger witnessed the dramatic event and dove off the ship before White could kill him, too. The passenger then hurried to authorities and reported the crime. An arrest, trial, and conviction on charges of piracy and murder followed quickly. White was brought back to Massachusetts where a jury sentenced him to death by hanging in 1784.