Israel Keith
Papers, 1767-1803


Quantity: 1 box (0.25 cubic ft.)
Access: Open to research
Acquisition: Collation of documents originally accessioned separately; the original accession number is indicated in parenthesis following the description
Processed by: Fred Basset, Senior Librarian, Manuscripts and Special Collections, October 2011

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Biographical Note:

Israel Keith was born in Easton, Massachusetts, in 1750. He graduated from Harvard College in 1771 and studied law before the Revolution. In 1776 Keith joined the Continental Army, serving primarily as an aide-de-camp to Major General William Heath. He accompanied General Heath's forces during the campaign on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley of New York State in 1776. Later, Keith became deputy adjutant in Boston, where he kept watch of a prison camp that detained British Army officers and soldiers captured in battle. After the war, Keith resumed his study of law and was admitted to the bar in 1780. During Shays' Rebellion, he was adjutant general of the Massachusetts militia with the rank of brigadier general. In the 1790s he moved to Pittsford, Vermont, where he ran an iron furnace and continued to practice law until his death in 1819.

Scope and Content Note:

The papers consist chiefly of letters to and from Israel Keith related to his experiences of military service during the Revolutionary War and Shays' Rebellion. His views on political and social issues, as well as personal and family matters, are also frequent topics of discussion in his letters. Approximately half the letters were retained copies Keith had sent to family and friends. The letters related to the Revolutionary War include information on military operations of the Continental Army in the battles of Long Island and White Plains, Burgoyne's invasion, the Saratoga campaign, and the Penobscot expedition. Also, a number of letters concern Keith's position as deputy adjutant of a prison camp near Boston, Massachusetts, where British soldiers and officers were detained after being taken prisoner by the Continental Army. Beyond the dry details of battles and troop movements, the letters are remarkable for their emotional depth and their evocative depictions of life during the revolution. Correspondents include Cyrus Keith, James Bowdoin, Joseph Pearse Palmer, Samuel Holden Parsons, William Heath, Francis Dana, and John Hancock.

Related Resources:

The New York State Archives holdings include an edited typescript, possibly intended for publication, titled "Papers of Colonel Israel Keith" by State Historian James Austen Holden. The transcript consists of two parts. Part I, a biography of Israel Keith highlighting his activities as aide-de-camp and deputy adjutant to Major General William Heath, 1776-1778, includes extracts from many of the letters in these papers. Part II contains transcripts of letters to and from Keith, 1767-1800, collected by the State Historian held by other repositories. (Call no. A0071)

Inventory of Documents:

Box Folder Description
1 1 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Harvard College, to Zephaniah Keith, September 11, 1767. Letter to his father regarding the arduous demands of his studies at Harvard and his need for more money to buy books and clothing.  He also requests that a horse to be sent to him so he can come home. (1380)
1 2 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Cyrus Keith, Bridgewater, [Mass.], May 21, 1770.  Letter to his brother offering advice for correct living and expressing his love for his brother. (1377)
1 3 A.L.S. (copy): Zephaniah Keith, Easton, [Mass.], to Israel Keith, September 9, 1772.  Letter concerns a hired schoolmaster who has made an assertion that "This life is only a Journey to the next November." He writes that he has invested £300 sterling into education and desires to hear his son's response to the schoolmaster's prediction. (1378)
1 4 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Cambridge, [Mass.], to John Eliot, Roxbury, [Mass.], December 17, 1772.  Somewhat humorous recounting of his education and studies at Harvard. (8695)
1 5 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Theodore Parsons, Byfield, [Mass.], July 22, 1775.  Keith comments on his current situation and the state of affairs relative to the siege of Boston. Includes a facetious comment on George Washington's failure to subdue the British: "General Washington, tis true has been here three weeks, but has done but little towards subduing Great Britain, and I should guess by the present appearance of things 'twould take us the whole winter to do it."  (290)
1 6 A.L.S.: William Winthrop, Boston, to Israel Keith, August 23, 1776. Letter opens with a request that Keith return his violin. Then Winthrop expresses his concerns about the impending attack upon New York City by British troops under the command of General Sir William Howe. He did not hold much hope of success for the Continental Army although he believed it to be superior. (291)
1 7 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Kingsbridge, [N.Y.], to Cyrus Keith, September 16, 1776.  In this letter Keith offers his brother advice on social manners and other "indelicate" acts. Then he describes at length the Continental Army's retreat from Long Island and New York City. The letter closes with a somewhat lengthy discussion of Keith's relationship with a vivacious ten-year-old girl, who was the niece of Colonel Cortlandt. (292)
1 8 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Kingsbridge, [N.Y.], to [John Pearse] Palmer, September 18, 1776.  A letter regarding their friendship and other matters.  Keith thought it was good that he and Palmer were not in the same unit of the Continental Army, since he felt it would destroy their friendship. Keith also discusses the army's retreat from Long Island and George Washington's reaction to it. (293)
1 9 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Kingsbridge, [N.Y.], to Cyrus Keith, September 27, 1776.  Letter to his brother detailing his philosophy of courtship and of how to conduct oneself in the company of women. Keith discloses his preference for beauty over intelligence when choosing a woman: "The knowledge of Sir Isaac Newton in any girl, can never compensate for absolute ugliness, as you will not marry one to give you lectures in philosophy or jurisprudence, let her be delightful to the eye, soft to the touch, and sweet to the taste; let her voice be music to the ear and her breath like the breath of the rose, and you shall kick the world and dull care behind you." (294)
1 10 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Kingsbridge, [N.Y.], to Cyrus Keith, October 1, 1776.  Another letter to his brother dispensing advice on the "act" of courting women. Keith also relates a story of his brief romance with a woman named Locky Davis, while he was ill with the small pox. Miss Davis visited him a number of times and Keith apparently fell in love with her. The final sentence of the letter expresses his feelings: "But I shall never think of her without pain, the name of Locky Davis will forever rack my soul." (295)
1 11 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Kingsbridge, [N.Y.], to [Joseph Pearse] Palmer, October 20, 1776.  Letter details the current situation of the Continental Army as it builds defenses above the City of New York, and having spent all summer engaged in the construction of fortifications.  He also expresses some concern relative to the lack of discipline and low morale among Continental Army troops and mentions valuable lessons learned from the evacuation of New York City and Long Island. (296)
1 12 A.L.S.: Nathan Rice, Ticonderoga, [N.Y.], to Israel Keith, Kingsbridge, N.Y., October 21, 1776. Letter discusses news he received relative to the battle at New York City and other matters of interest to Keith. Relates specifics of General Benedict Arnold's campaign around Lake Champlain and expects the British to make a determined effort to reach Albany by winter. (1382)
1 13 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Camp at White Plains, [N.Y.], to [Joseph Pearse] Palmer, November 7, 1776. Letter dispatched immediately following the battle of White Plains, in which Keith describes the battle and states that the Americans have inflicted heavier losses on the British than they have sustained. He also states that the Hessians are sick with scurvy and apprehensive about losing more men. Keith believes that the British may go to Georgia and that, if they do, the Americans will follow. (297)
1 14 A.L.S.: William W. Winthrop, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Israel Keith, November 10, 1776. Letter to Israel Keith regarding personal matters. Winthrop assures Keith that his violin is safe and will be returned in good stead. Winthrop also requests that Keith include more facts such as dates and places in his reports about the progress of the war. (298)
1 15 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Peekskill, [N.Y.], to [Joseph Pearse] Palmer, November 13, 1776. Letter describes the Battle of White Plains and how the Americans halted the British advance and protected their supplies. Keith also contrasts the Hudson Valley with his native New England, in particular the social life and customs:  "the Dutch girls are generally pretty well looking and entertaining, but have large ankles."  Keith then comments at length on the manor system and the centralization of land ownership in the Hudson Valley. (299)
1 16 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Peekskill, [N.Y.], to Cyrus Keith, November 15, 1776.  Letter to his brother discusses to his philosophy of attracting women. He urges his brother to respect the innocent nature of women and to make sure that ladies are not harmed by some callous act.  He illustrates his point with a story about a certain Major Austin who, after the battle of White Plains, went into the village of White Plains and began to burn the courthouse and several homes. One home in particular housed an elderly woman, a young girl and a cat. The major burned the house despite the pleas of the ladies. (300)
1 17 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Peekskill, [N.Y.], to [John Pearse] Palmer, November 19, 1776. Letter describes the capture of Fort Washington by the British. Keith indicates that over a thousand American troops were killed or taken prisoner and a substantial arsenal of weapons and other supplies were seized during the sudden and surprising British attack. Despite this loss Keith reiterates his dedication to the cause of American freedom. (301)
1 18 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Peekskill, [N.Y.], to Cyrus Keith, November 15, 1776. Letter to his bother that continues the discussion relative to courtship, love and marriage. He states a number of particulars that he believes are essential to keep harmony in a marriage and ensure the union will long remain blissful. (302)
1 19 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Peekskill, [N.Y.], to [John Pearse] Palmer, December 1, 1776. Letter describes serious setbacks suffered by Americans troops at the time: casualties were greater at Fort Washington than he had initially reported, and a significant store of supplies was lost when the British captured Fort Lee. Keith also discusses the state of American prisoners of war held by the British in New York City. (303)
1 20 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Peekskill, [N.Y.], to Cyrus Keith, January 4, 1777. Letter concerns the course of the war. He writes of acts of "barbarity" committed by British troops in regards to an incident in which they herded a number of "pretty girls" into a barn, stripped them of their clothes and turned them out to the street in the winter cold. He also discusses the victory of Washington over the Hessians at Trenton; reports that General Howe's army was headed back to New York; and writes of rumors of twenty thousand Russian mercenaries poised to join the fray against them. A final point of discussion by Keith is the fur trade, in which his brother is occupied. (304)
1 21 A.L.S.: Gen. [John] Morin Scott, Kings Street, to Col. [William] Malcolm, January 15, 1777. Letter recommends that Israel Keith, General Heath's aide-de-camp, be promoted to major. (1390)
1 22 A.L.S.: Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons, Williamsbridge, to Col. William Malcolm, January 21, 1777. Letter eports that the British still hold Fort Washington, but the passage to Kingsbridge is still open. Also discusses Major Keith's desire to serve in a regiment under the command of General Parsons. (305)
1 23 A.L.S.: Gen. William Heath, Roxbury, [Mass.], to Maj. Israel Keith, April 20, 1777.  Letter inquires about the nature of cannon fire heard in the distance and asks that a report be sent back to Heath via his courier. (1409)
1 24 A.L.S.: William Hoskins, Hartford, [Conn.], to Israel Keith, Boston, [Mass.], June 22, 1777.  Letter concerns the settlement of an account. (8696)
1 25 A.L.S.: [James] Brickett, Waltham, [Mass.], to [Israel] Keith, Cambridge, [Mass.], November 5, 1777. Brickett informs Keith that he will march his troops into Cambridge the next day, and also on that day Keith should expect to be meeting with the British quartermaster general. (1389)
1 26 A.L.S.: Gen. William Heath, H.Q. Boston, to Col. [Israel] Keith, Cambridge, [Mass.], November 7, 1777.  Letter gives instructions relative to keeping watch of British troops and Hessian mercenaries taken prisoner by American troops. Also mentions that General Burgoyne was to be brought in the next day. (1383)
1 27 A.L.S.: Jotham Loring, to Col. [Israel] Keith, Cambridge, [Mass.]. November 20, 1777. Letter requests that General Burgoyne be advised of all orders that apply his troops that were being detained by American forces.(1392)
1 28 A.L.S.: William R. Lee, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Israel Keith, Boston, [Mass.], November 21, 1777. Letter concerns the treatment of British troops and Tories being held as prisoners under Keith's watch. (1393)
1 29 A.D.S.: Israel Keith, to Dr. [William] Burke and Lt. Matthews, Cambridge and Boston, November 20, 23, and 27, 1777. Orders given by Keith relative to the arrest and confinement of Burke and Matthews for allegedly having abused the wife and daughter of Elkanah Welch. Upon orders of Gen. Heath, the accused were released four days later when the family neglected to appear against them. (1398)
1 30 A.L.S.: Capt. Edward Barron, Bradford, [Mass.?], to Col. [Israel] Keith, November 31, 1777. Letter requesting that the enclosed letter (not included) be forwarded to a British officer after being read first by General Heath. (1388)
1 31 A.L.S.: Job Sumner, Albany, [N.Y.], to [Israel Keith], December 7, 1777. Letter concerns discontentment among Continental Army troops relative to lack of good clothing and extremely difficult working conditions. Also remarks that Albany merchants overcharge and dislike the soldiers, and also are reputed to be trading with the British. (1400)
1 32 A.N.S.: [Job] Sumner, Albany, [N.Y.], to [Israel Keith], December 8, 1777; "Col. Wilkeson arrived here from Genl. Washington's camp yesterday and contradicts the report of Cornwallis and his men being taken prisoners at the [?] of Red Bank Fort." (306)
1 33 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, H.Q. Boston, to Francis Dana, at Congress, December 25, 1777. Letter concerns the destruction of fence and trees on Dana's property by the Continental Army troops. Keith details the means by which reparations would be made concerning the fence, but considers the loss of trees a consequence of war.  (1376)
1 34 A.D.S.: John Cutter, petition to Col. [Israel] Keith, near Boston, December 31, 1777. (Cutter was a captured British Army courier who was under the watch of Keith.) The petition seeks the return of his sword and scabbard which were seized when he was taken prisoner. (1399)
1 35
  1. A.N.S.: Lord Napier, Lieut. 31st Regiment, to [Israel] Keith, Adjutant General, Boston, Wednesday morning, 1778. (Lord Napier, a captured British Army officer, was being held under the watch of Colonel Israel Keith.) The note concerns the possibility of being part of a prisoner exchange deal. (1386)
  2. A.N.: Lord Napier, to Col. [Israel] Keith, Deputy Adjutant General, Boston, [Mass.], [1778]. Postal cover containing a handwritten note from Lord Napier to Colonel Israel Keith asking him to forward the enclosed [document] (not included) to General Pigot at the first opportunity. (1387)
1 36 A.L.S.: Andrew Brown, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Col. [Israel] Keith, January 5, 1778. Letter discusses the capture of several British soldiers and confiscation of forged documents found with them. Also mentions certain vices causing discord among troops and civilians alike in Cambridge. (1384)
1 37 A.N.S.: Maj. [?] Kingston, to Col. [Israel Keith], January 1778. "Major Kingston compliments to Col. Keith [and] General Burgoyne has no objection to Mr. Theobald the Chaplain going to Canada." (1405)
1 38 A.L.S.: Andrew Brown, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Israel Keith, January 22, 1778.  Letter concerns problems related to desertions among his troops and the fact that muster rolls were found to be incomplete and inaccurate. (1385)
1 39 Draft of letter: [Israel Keith], H.Q. Boston, to Lt. Col. Kingston, January 27, 1778. Letter concerns matters relative to inspection and security of mail. (1381)
1 40 A.N.S.: William Heath, Roxbury, [Mass.], to Col. [Israel] Keith, February 8, 1778. Note indicates the change in wording of an order that he had issued. (1391)
1 41 A.L.S.: Alexander Scammell, H.Q., to [Israel] Keith, March 11, 1778. Letter requests information relative to judgments in court martial cases be inserted into the record and printed. Also inquires about the delivery of letters and articles of clothing sent to Major Pollard.  Concludes with postscript requesting a subscription to a Boston newspaper (1407)
1 42 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Boston, to Gen. [William] Heath, March 18, 1778. Letter details the inspection of the barracks of Burgoyne's troops on Prospect and Winter hills in which there was not found any hidden firearms. (1372)
1 43 A.L.S.: J. Poe, Lt. 47th Regt. British, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Col. [Israel] Keith, March 18, 1778. Letter offers his gratitude to General Heath for allowing him to return Europe on his parole, and requests that passports for himself and his servant be sent as soon as conveniently possible.  (1394)
1 44 A.L.S.: Andrew Brown, Cambridge, [Mass.], to Col. [Israel] Keith, April 15, 1778. Letter requests more passes for British prisoners and to borrow Keith's order book "to revise and enforce the orders contained therein." (1406)
1 45 A.D.S.: [William] Heath, honorable discharge of Israel Keith, May 3, 1778.  "Colonel Israel Keith having served in the Army of the United States of America, as one of my aides de camp, from the 13th of August 1776 to the 2nd of November 1777 and from that time to this day as Deputy Adjutant General, in which capacity he has served with fidelity and being now desirous to leave the army and pursue the study and practice of the law, I do therefore hereby discharge Colonel Keith from further service in the army, thank him for his past good service and recommend to the notice civilities and confidence of all gentlemen civil and military." (307)
1 46 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Boston, to Gen. [William] Heath, July 14, 1779. Letter discusses the British invasion of Penobscot Bay, civic affairs of Boston, and his visit at Heath's home in Roxbury. (1374)
1 47 A.L.S.: Gen. [William] Heath, [Hudson] Highland, [N.Y.], to Col. [Israel] Keith, Boston, August 1. 1779. Letter mentions the landing of British troops in New Jersey and reminisces about the times when he and Keith worked together. (308)
1 48 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Boston, to Gen. [William] Heath, Camp along the Hudson River, [N.Y.], September 26, 1779. Letter discusses the scarcity of provisions in Boston which has caused civil unrest and violent commotions occurring almost every night. He also comments on the ill-fated battle at Penobscot Bay in which the Continental army was routed and its naval fleet was destroyed. (1373)
1 49 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Sublime Porte, to Joseph Pearse Palmer, October 13, 1779.  Letter indicates he has closed his business in Boston and has embarked on journey to Philadelphia. (3697)
1 50 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Willington, to Mrs. [William] Parker, October 18, 1779, and from Kent, October 18, 1779. Letter written on two separate days in regards to his travels through Connecticut. He describes the places he visited, accommodations, meals, and the people he met. (1396)
1 51 A.N.S.: James Keith, West Point, [N.Y.], to Israel Keith, Boston, October 24, 1779. "Sir, I am very unhappy, I had not the pleasure of seeing you when you was in camp at the point, but expect to see you in person in a short time, I shall be much obliged to you if you will send on the inclosed [sic] letter (not included) to my girl as soon as possible the most trustest [sic] way, and you will oblige your old friend." (309)
1 52 A.L.S.: [Israel] Keith, Boston, to Gen. [William] Heath, November 18, 1779.  Letter opens with details of his brief sojourn in Albany and the surrounding area and his journey back to Boston. He then comments on Heath's prediction that the "Southern Affair" will be the last campaign. In closing, he asks that should Heath get so far as Morrissania, that he should call on his "Quaker Girl." (1375)
1 53 D.S.: John Tucker; Certificate of Israel Keith's admission to practice as attorney of law before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, February 21, 1790. (8698)
1 54 A.L.S.: [Israel] Keith, Boston, to Joseph Palmer, Germantown, [Pa.], April 11, 1780. Letter concerns plans to organize and charter an Annuitant Society. He expresses hope that once the revolution is over, people will be more interested in supporting the arts and sciences. (1401)
1 55 A.L.S.: [Israel] Keith, Boston, to Col. John Crane, November 17, 1780. Letter comments on the perceived lack of gratitude and neglect of the needs of Continental Army troops by fellow citizenry: "I am a humble member of the community, [and] can do nothing myself, only admire a number of brave men whom virtue places them above the neglect of an ungrateful Country." (8699)
1 56 A.L.S.: [Israel Keith], Boston, to Gen. [William] Heath, West Point, [N.Y.], November 24, 1780. Letter discusses the current state of affairs in Boston, particularly civil and economic. Then it elaborates on the depreciation of currency by the Massachusetts Assembly and its effects on trade and the men in the military. This is followed by a lengthy discussion of matters relative to law and justice and his vision of good government for the American Republic. (310)
1 57 A.L.S.: [Israel] Keith, Boston, to Thomas Chase, September 19, 1781.  Letter acknowledges the receipt of orders delivered by Thomas Chase Jr. (aide-de-camp), and that he would be obliged to carry them out. (1397)
1 58 Draft: Circular letter of the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to the officers of the militia, November 30, 1786. Letter to the officers and soldiers of the state's militia praises their skillful handling of insurrections and reminds the major generals to report on all activity of the militia in aiding civil authority and to be ready in the event of foreign invasion. He also comments on the rights of soldiers to elect most of their officers and the necessity of discipline in training. (1402)
1 59 A.N.S.: James Bowdoin, Boston, to Gen. [Benjamin] Lincoln, January 23, 1787; with copy of memorandum to Governor's Council, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, January 24, 1787. Note from the governor advises General Lincoln to consider the above memorandum as "additional orders and [that he] should act accordingly." The memorandum advises General Lincoln relative to deploying the state militia in suppressing the [Shays'] rebellion: '"the safest and most effectual means to apprehend, disarm, and secure by all fitting ways and means all persons" involved in the rebellion.  (1404)
1 60 Concurrent resolution of the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, February 7, 1787. Resolution authorizes the governor to raise and deploy troops as needed to quell the insurrection. (1408)
1 61 Draft: [James Bowdoin]. Boston, to [Gen. Benjamin Lincoln], February 17, 1787, with memorandum relative to a resolution of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Document details the formation of two regiments of one hundred public service troops "for the purpose of suppressing this [Shays'] rebellion" and gives the terms of payment for the troops. Also refers to an enclosed document (not included), which was a resolution from the General Court of the state calling for the regiments and pledges the support of the major generals if necessary.  (1403)
1 62 A.L.S.: John Hancock, Boston, to Brig. Gen. [Israel] Keith, March 11, 1788.  Letter to Brigadier General Israel Keith, Adjutant General of Massachusetts, informing him of his removal of Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Farrington and requesting him to designate a replacement. (312) (Original stored in the vault; photocopy files with the collection)
1 63 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Boston, to Gov. [John] Hancock, March 28, 1788. Letter of resignation from the office of Adjutant General of Massachusetts.  (8700)
1 64 D.S.: N. Goodale; Certificate enabling Israel Keith to practice law before the United States Circuit Court, 1790. (8701)
1 65 A.L.S.: Israel Keith, Boston, to Joseph Goodwin, Lenox, [Mass.?], July 19, 1791. Letter comments on building an iron furnace at Pittsford, Vermont. (8702)
1 66 A.L.S.: Jeremiah Fogg, Kensington, [N.H.], to Israel Keith, Sheldon, Vt., January 27, 1800.  Fogg comments on Keith's move from Boston to Vermont and the circumstances of his own career in politics and government. He also discusses the state of affairs in national politics. (1395)
1 67 A.L.S.: Daniel Howard, Bridgewater [Vt.?], to Zephaniah Keith, Pittsford, Vt., December 28, 1803.  Letter relative to Keith family genealogy and history. (1329)


Last Updated: May 24, 2021