Two days after the battle, more news appeared in the New-Hampshire Gazette of Friday, April 21, published 60 miles to the north in Portsmouth. Usually the front pages of Colonial newspapers contained foreign news, essays, or advertisements. But the New-Hampshire Gazette’s printer, Daniel Fowle, not only put the breaking story from Massachusetts on his front page but gave it a rare centered headline: “BLOODY NEWS.” His report was a collection of rumors, many inaccurate, reflecting the fog of war. Tucked away at the bottom of the fourth page Fowle printed a disclaimer: “The Publisher of this Paper Has been in such perpetual Confusion by the different and contrary Accounts of the late Bloody Scene, that all Mistakes must be overlook’d.”
American Revolutionaries knew the limits of their newspapers better than anybody, but they also saw them as valuable sources, both during and after the war. Thomas Jefferson considered their preservation “a duty.” Massachusetts Spy printer Thomas went on to found the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, a leading repository of the nation’s early print culture.
For the two centuries since, historians have relied on these period newspapers as sources. But to look at them is to realize that the news has never truly been as black and white as we imagine. These early news reports are a “first draft of history”—and a reminder that when it comes to what the big events mean, it has always taken time for the story to settle.
Todd Andrlik is a Revolutionary War newspaper archivist, and J.L. Bell is the proprietor of boston1775.net, about New England’s Revolutionary history. Andrlik is the main author of and Bell contributed to “Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News” (Sourcebooks), which reproduces American Revolution-era newspapers with modern analysis (www.beforehistory.com).