Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Old Burying Ground near Harvard Square is part of a Saturday tour by History Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The leafy, brick-lined sidewalks of Brattle Street provide visitors and residents alike with ample opportunities to admire the lush gardens, manicured lawns and architectural grandeur of one of Cambridge’s oldest streets. Long known as Tory Row for its many residents with Loyalist sympathies during the Revolutionary War, Brattle Street has been home to some of the city’s most notable residents, including the Brattle, Royall and Vassall families, as well as the temporary headquarters of Gen. George Washington while he was in Cambridge to command the Continental Army in 1775-1776. But Revolutionary-era Brattle Street was also home to many men, women and children whose stories are lesser known but whose contributions provided the underpinnings of the economic, political and cultural life of 18th-century Cambridge.

History Cambridge explores the diverse stories of Revolutionary Brattle Street in a Saturday tour designed specifically for children and families. “Trouble on Tory Row” begins at the History Cambridge offices at 159 Brattle St. (also known as the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House), and will travel down Brattle Street toward the Cambridge Common, ending at the Old Burying Ground in Harvard Square. Along the way, we will delve into the stories of the ordinary people whose lives and work helped to create the stately homes of Brattle Street and kept them running during the Revolution and beyond.

One of the most notable of these Tory Row residents was Darby Vassall. Darby’s parents, Tony and Cuba Vassall, had been enslaved by the white Vassall family on Brattle Street before they (the white Vassalls) fled Cambridge in 1774 to escape persecution for their Loyalist sympathies. Darby was born at 105 Brattle St. (now known as the Longfellow House) around 1769 and was about 6 years old when George Washington arrived to take command of the Continental Army.

A Darby Vassall doll, circa 1850. (Photo: Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site and Cambridge Historical Commission)

Later in his life, Darby told the story of the time he met Washington. He was swinging on the gate of 105 Brattle when Washington walked up to him and asked him to send a message to someone. Darby replied, ‘Well, I’m free now – what are you going to pay me?’ Washington didn’t take kindly to that and told him to do as he was told. Darby recalled for the rest of his life that “George Washington was no gentleman, to expect a boy to work for no wages.” He lived to be 91 years old and was a prominent figure in the early Black community of Cambridge and Boston, known for his stories about life in Cambridge during the Revolution and the years after Independence.

The tour will also highlight the contributions of women and children to the Revolutionary effort, including those who worked as cooks, laundresses and pages for the Continental Army and in the various Brattle Street properties that were confiscated during the war and repurposed as hospitals, supply stations and military quarters. 

“Trouble on Tory Row” is made possible by a grant from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, whose mission is to promote research on the legacy of the American Revolution. As we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, History Cambridge is embarking on a project to better understand the ways in which families engage with the history of the Revolutionary Era and how we can help to provide resources for children and families to learn about this period in our city’s history in ways that highlight the stories of a wide range of participants. This hourlong tour will be followed by refreshments and a chance to chat with History Cambridge staff about what you know – and want to know – about Revolutionary Cambridge. Information about the tour, including registration, is here. Bring your curiosity and join us on Saturday!


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at

History Cambridge is a nonprofit organization. Our activities rely on your financial support. If you value articles like this one, give today.

Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.