Jacob Frost cannon ball. Photo courtesy of Norway Historical Society

 

This heavy cast iron orb, at first glance, may not look like much more than a very large paper weight. But, as with many historical artifacts, there is a backstory. You can see from the picture that the cannon ball is roughly six inches in diameter. What you can’t see is an arrowhead type mark like that used to mark British military items. This ball is very like the type fired from ships at fortifications on land.

The Town of Norway has never been fired on by a ship at sea. So, why is a Revolutionary War cannon ball in the collection of the Norway Historical Society?

The message painted on this projectile tells us that it was “Found on the battlefield of the Battle of Bunker Hill”. And then the date, “June 17, 1775”. The name Jacob Frost also appears.

But first the background to the story of this battle. The economic component: the British saw Boston as an important city and seaport. Just outside the city were two hills, Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, which, if taken by the British, would give them an advantage for maintaining control of the port and city.

The American militia, upon learning of the British intent to take this tactical location, secretly moved their forces to the hills. The night before the battle the troops built earthen barricades. There is some speculation that in the dark they were unsure of their location causing them to build the six foot redoubts or fortifications on Breed’s Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Technically, it should have been called the Battle of Breed’s Hill.

Military tactics of the 1700s were very different to the approach today. Infantry carried single shot muskets with bayonets. After each firing, a new paper-wrapped load of powder and ball had to be inserted in the muzzle and rammed down; reloading, including adding powder to the firing mechanism, could take up to twenty seconds.

Field cannon were mostly of a small size bore and fired a ball of about two pounds. These were discharged in a flat trajectory with the intent that the ball would bounce or skip around the ground until it hit a line of infantrymen. As you can imagine, anyone hit by one of these projectiles would suffer gruesome injuries or become a casualty.

Although the colonial force was short of ammunition, the British had to make three charges up the hill before sending the militia into retreat. During the battle, the militiamen would retrieve cannonballs fired by the British, load them in their own cannons and fire them back. It would seem reasonable that the ball on display was fired from a British ship in Boston Harbor as cannon balls of that size were used to attack and break down battlements like those quickly produced by the militia.

Let’s get back to Jacob Frost. According to David Noyes’ History of Norway during this battle Frost was wounded in the hip by a musket ball, then taken prisoner and transported by an English ship to Halifax where he remained in filthy conditions for several months. Though he was lame due to inadequate medical treatment of his bullet wound, Jacob and two other prisoners escaped, hiding by day and traveling by night. Their story is worthy of a mini-series.

When the escape was planned there were four would-be escapees. They were able to remove a stone and, undetected, dig under the prison wall. On the night of the escape it was discovered that one of the group was too big to get through the hole and had to be left behind.

The three headed for the woods, hiding out as daylight approached. Jacob was quite lame and had to be assisted by his loyal companions, sometimes to the point of being carried. When the escape was discovered on that first morning, a search party was dispatched. Before hiding themselves that first day, his two companions placed Jacob under the trunk of a large fallen tree and covered him with leaves and debris. As it happened, the search party decided to take a break, resting on that very same overturned tree and discussing the escape. Imagine what Jacob must have been feeling as he listened!

Under cover of darkness, the three continued. The small amount of dry bread they had saved from their prison rations was quickly gone. Hunger became a significant survival issue. At one point the only thing they could find was an old shoe which they ripped apart and chewed. Once in a while a chicken was liberated from a farm yard and eaten raw because the men were afraid that a cooking fire would reveal their location.

One time, as hunger fueled their desperation, the travelers decided to approach a house and seek the generosity of whoever was there. When a woman came to the door, they asked for food. The lady “eyed them closely”, invited them in, and quickly provided sustenance which she suggested they consume quickly and take what they could carry before her husband returned. With determination and perseverance, the three made it home, which in the case of Jacob Frost, was Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

In 1800 Jacob and his wife, the former Lydia Shedd, also of Tewksbury, relocated to Norway where he worked as a tanner. Jacob and Lydia had ten children, only one of whom was born in Norway. The musket ball which caused discomfort and stiffness was removed from his hip in later years. He died in January of 1839 at the age of 84. Jacob Frost was one of several Revolutionary War veterans who were early settlers of Norway.

Did Jacob find the cannon ball on a visit to the former battleground when he returned to Tewksbury or was it presented to him by a person or persons unknown? If anyone reading this has information that might answer this question, please contact the Historical Society.

This piece of our country’s history is on display at the Norway Museum and Historical Society. Although we must be closed to the public now, we look forward to welcoming you when we can reopen. To view some of our past programs visit us at www.norwayhistoricalsociety.org.

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