By Special Request: The Colorful Life of Israel Putnam

In an earlier post, commenter George W. asked about the namesake for Putnam Avenue; technically it’s a toss-up whether Putnam is part of Clinton Hill or Bed Stuy, but Israel Putnam was just plain interesting.  So, George W., this is for you. I found a lot of info, but had to weed out what seemed like tall tales.  Born in Danvers, Massachusetts -- the town that used to be called “Salem” -- in 1718, Putnam was a Revolutionary War hero who was prone to acting rashly, and so some of his biographies are somewhat…exaggerated.  One biography claims that once when he was a child he was climbing a tree, and got stuck on a branch – and instead of panicking, calmly asked a friend to shoot at the branch until it fell, bringing him with it to the ground.

The stories about his early adulthood are a little more believable.  Putnam moved to Eastern Connecticut when he was 22 (in fact, he lived very near the town where I grew up).  The winter he was 24, Putnam and his neighbors had trouble with a wolf in the nearby woods preying on their sheep each night; the wolf killed as many as seventy sheep on one occasion.  Settlers set out traps, but she escaped them all.  One night, a team finally got fed up enough to spend all night tracking the wolf, and were able to find her den.  They spent the next twelve hours trying to drive her out so she could be shot, or urging their own dogs in to attack her, to no avail.  Finally, Putnam decided he would crawl into the den HIMSELF.  Tying a rope around his waist -- so the others could haul him out in a hurry, if need be -- he lit a makeshift torch and crawled into the wolf’s den, where he shot her at point-blank range.  The town celebrated for a full two days afterward, and Putnam’s nickname was “Old Wolf” for years afterward.

Putnam later went on to fight in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, and got into similarly hair-raising scrapes.  During the French and Indian War, Putnam’s squad was ambushed, and a Mohawk warrior captured Putnam; rather than taking him to the POW camp right away, the warrior tied him to a tree and returned to battle.  Then the field of battle shifted – to the very field where Putnam’s tree stood smack in the center. For an hour Putnam dodged the musket balls from both directions as best he could.

Then another Mohawk warrior, discovering him trapped, started tormenting him by throwing his tomahawk towards his head, scaring Putnam with several near-misses.  A French officer coming on the scene then tried three times to shoot Putnam, but his gun jammed each time, and the officer gave up, taking the Mohawk warrior with him and leaving Putnam there.  Putnam’s original captor returned when the battle died down and took him to the prisoner of war camp, where later that night a group of other Mohawk warriors tied him to a stake and tried to burn him alive.  Putnam dodged the flames for a good five minutes before a passing French officer rescued Putnam, and kept him safe until he was returned home to Connecticut during a prisoner exchange.

The next twenty years were quiet for Putnam; then in 1775, he was plowing with his son Daniel when a messenger rode through town, spreading word about the outbreak of battle in Lexington, Massachusetts, and the beginning of the war for Independence. Putnam immediately dropped his plow, got a horse, and spent the rest of the afternoon spreading the news through two counties.  Putnam also formally enlisted at the home of the governor, and then – without even changing out of his work clothes – set out that night on the eighteen-hour ride to Concord, reporting for duty the next morning.

Putnam became a General in the Revolutionary War – he is best known for giving the famous command, “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” at the battle of Bunker Hill. Less famous – at least to the layman -- was Putnam’s solo ride to rally reinforcements during a surprise British attack on a site near Greenwich, Connecticut. Putnam’s 150 soldiers were only one-tenth the size of the attacking British force, and after defending their position a while, Putnam led his men to safety in the nearby woods, then set out alone to nearby Stamford for reinforcements; four British officers followed him in pursuit.

After about a mile, Putnam lost the officers by urging his horse down a steep and rocky hillside; the thwarted British soldiers, whose horses refused to follow, shot after him out of frustration, and one of the musket balls pierced through Putnam’s hat.  He responded by turning back to the British officers and taunting them before continuing to Stamford.  By the time he returned, the attacking British troops had withdrawn, but Putnam’s men had taken a few prisoners.  Perhaps recalling his own treatment in the French and Indian War, Putnam insisted on decent treatment and medical care for the prisoners, and looked after their safety until a later prisoner exchange.  As a reward for his decency and his bravery, the governor of Connecticut presented him with a new hat to replace the one with the bullet hole.

Very soon afterward, Putnam suffered a stroke, ending his military career.  He retired to his home in Brooklyn, Connecticut, dying there in 1790.

In addition to being the namesake for Putnam Avenue, Israel Putnam has also had counties in nine states named for him; there are also towns named Putnam in both Connecticut and New York.  PS 44 in Bed-Stuy, now named for Marcus Garvey, was at one time also named after Israel Putnam.

An amateur historian has created a whole tribute site to Israel Putnam ( ), where you can read more details about his exploits.  The site also has modern photos of the wolf’s den, the battlefield where Putnam was tied to a tree, and other landmarks (although, fair warning that the site also has a MIDI music file that can get fairly annoying after a while).