“Israel Bissell’s Ride” and “I. Bissell’s Ride”

In the 1950s, two Berkshire Eagle columnists published verses responding to “Paul Revere’s Ride” that focused on another man, Israel Bissell. That was the rider named on the Massachusetts Committee of Safety’s early report on the fight at Lexington. As Bissell carried it along the Boston Post Road and south into Connecticut, people copied that message and spread the news further.

Unlike Revere, Dawes, Prescott, and other alarm riders on the night of April 18-19, Bissell was a professional postrider, carrying letters on a regular schedule. He was spreading public news, not trying to warn people about advancing troops, and he was in no danger of being stopped by the British military. On the other hand, Bissell’s total ride was longer than those three men’s combined.

There are many historical questions about Bissell, including his actual first name (Israel or Isaac?), home town in Connecticut (Suffield? East Windsor?), when he was born and died (1752-1823? 1749-1822?), and how far he rode (to Philadelphia? New York? Saybrook? Hartford?). An article based on documents in the Massachusetts Archives is here. The tradition that prevails in Berkshire County, which gave birth to these verses, is presented here.

Israel Bissell’s Ride
by Gerard Chapman

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of Israel Bissell of yesteryear:
A poet-less patriot whose fame, I fear,
Was eclipsed by that of Paul Revere.

He lacks the renown that accrued to Revere
For no rhymester wrote ballad to blazon his fame;
But Bissell accomplished—and isn’t it queer?—
A feat that suggested Revere’s to be tame.

And yet is unknown to all but the few
Who, intrigued by the hist’ry of exceptional deeds,
Wish now to pay homage to Bissell long due
To him who filled one of the colonies’ needs.

’Twas the nineteenth of April in ’seventy-five,
The day that Paul’s ride was brought to a pause
(That war-warning which was made to survive
By Longfellow’s preference for him over Dawes),

That Bissell went south to carry the post
To patriot folk in Jersey and Penn.
And despite that his route was much longer than most
(It passed over hill, through valley and fen),

He carried the news of Britain’s attack
And the Middlesex farmers’ resolute stand,
And asked that the faraway colonists back
Their Boston compatriots’ stout-hearted band.

Down through Connecticut, down through New York,
He spread the alarm far and wide.
Across the wide Hudson he passed like a cork:
He rode through New Jersey, and on the far side

Attained Pennsylvania at last.
His trip cost two horses that under him died;
Never before had man gone so fast
The distance that Bissell made on his long ride.

He reduced the trip time from six to four days
To take to the men on the Delaware’s shore
The Patriots’ call for a blaze
Of resistance to Britain and war!

So men from New York, Philadephia too,
Joined men from New Jersey in telling the King
That henceforth the Colonists wanted their due
In matters of government, and everything

That affected the lives of men who required
The unfettered right to control their own fate.
When such was denied them, these men were inspired
To proclaim to all mankind a newly-formed state.

We all know the fruit of the joining of forces:
How King George and Great Britain were defeated in war;
To Israel Bissell and his galloping horses
We now render tribute that was due him before.

I. Bissell’s Ride
by Clay Perry

Listen, my children, to my epistle
Of the long, long ride of Israel Bissell,
Who outrode Paul by miles and time
But didn’t rate a poet’s rhyme.
A postman was this Israel Bissell.
Who on his horse, sped like a missile
On April nineteenth, seventy-five,
And few there are who are now alive
Who’ve read of that ride with the “Call to Arms”
Which summoned men with war’s alarms.
At Watertown where the Call was writ
And Bay State Congress then did sit.
He started out at ten o’clock
With words that all the world would rock;
He galloped on from town to town
His steed, exhausted, fell to the ground.
New Haven, first, where Arnold’s force
Of Yale militia took to horse,
And sped to Cambridge for the fight
Against the British, day and night.
Next to the farm where Putnam plowed
To whom he read the Call, aloud;
“To arms, to arms!” to all he cried
A second horse fell down and died.
And still he rode; another steed
Was saddled swiftly for his need.
Four days and nights he sped along,
And eight hours more, still going strong,
Until at Philly’s City Hall
He came and handed in the Call.
Now Continental Congress knew
The war was on, and those words flew
Afar and wide, the Colonies o’er
And warned the Redcoats from our shore,
The Call was relayed here and there.
Its winged words flew through the air
Were heard in Wall Street at New York,
And mustered many for the work.
When the war ended, Bissell came
To Berkshire where he made his claim
To land in Hinsdale, on a hill
And lived and labored there until
Death came, and on another hill
His grave is kept most tenderly
Because his ride helped make us free.
But on the simple marble stone
His name and dates are carved, alone;
No record of his daring ride,
But only that he lived and died
So here’s a tribute, poor and plain,
To him who dashed through April rain
And roused more Minute Men to arms
From town and city, shop and farm,
Than any other man alive.
In the year seventeen-seventy-five,
Two hundred twenty years ago
He outrode Paul and Will Dawes too.