Needham History Center & Museum

The Norfolk Rifle Rangers

They all knew what it meant to be ready, and what was potentially at stake.  They were just fortunate to have come of age in a time when MA was not involved in armed conflict.

The United States Army was founded on 14 June 1775, when the Second Continental Congress created a unified force to fight the British. George Washington was appointed its first commander.  Washington rode to Cambridge to take control of the Army, arriving on July 3, 1775.  Washington assumed his command on the Cambridge Common – it is said, under the large elm tree that once grew in the middle of the intersection of Garden and Mason Streets.   The elm tree died in 1923 (by then it was in the way of traffic anyway), and is represented by another elm at the nearby edge of the Common.

However, before the Army was founded, there was the Militia. And after the Army was founded, there was the Militia.  The Army was not that large in the 18th and early-19th centuries, and much of the local defense was the responsibility of civilian town militias.  The first militias were organized in Salem, MA on December 13, 1636. This is also the origin story (and therefore origin date) of the National Guard – the descendant of the old militias.

We are all familiar with the role of the militias in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but tend to ignore them in the times between wars.  What did militias do when there were no conflicts?  The laws of the Commonwealth required military training for all able-bodied men in the early 1800s, so they drilled to maintain their readiness and gathered in Boston for the two mandatory annual muster and training days. But sometimes, there was just not all that much for them to do.  Which brings me to the story of the Norfolk Rifle Rangers.

The Norfolk Rifle Rangers were Needham’s only uniformed military outfit.  They were formed in 1832 when forty-nine men petitioned the Governor for permission to form “an independent corps of Rifle-men by the name of the Norfolk Rifle Rangers” under the auspices of the MA Militia. They noted that Needham had only one militia company, since its other had disbanded a few years after the War of 1812.

The petition was granted a few months later, and the new corps of Rangers gathered as Estes Kimball’s tavern in West Needham to organize and elect their officers.  Taverns were among the few places that had enough space for a large gathering.  A month later they met at Myrick’s inn (the former McIntosh’s tavern) to organize uniforms and rifles. It was proposed that “each member have a privilege of owning and keeping his Rifle” (militia arms were normally kept in the town’s armory/powder house). Uniforms were to have frogged coats and full pantaloons, with patent leather belts, a cap with an eagle-shaped brass insignia on the front, and plumes that were 16 inches high. The uniform buttons would be inscribed with “N.R.R.” and their motto, “On Hand.”

Reenactors wearing early 19th century militia uniforms, similar to what the Rifle Ranger would have worn.
There are no images of the Rangers, and nothing of their uniforms survives. The re-enactors are wearing early 19th century MA militia uniforms, similar in appearance to what the Rangers would have worn.

The Rangers had hoped to debut their company on the 4th of July, but the uniforms were not ready so this was postponed until September. They spent the summer practicing their drill and tweaking the uniform design; the plumes were reduced to 13 inches.  Finally in September, outfitted in their complete and brand-new kit, they marched to Lower Falls, where they “partook of a colation served up by Peter Lyon, and then March’d to the Uper Falls and partook of another served up by Owen Colburn.”  Following these two breakfasts, they marched across town to Estes Kimball’s tavern in West Needham, where they “partook of a dinner served up by E. Kimball and Furnised by some of our Townsmen.” A full day. Pun intended.

This became the pattern of their work – they drilled, and then went out to eat.  They paraded in town celebrations, and then went out to eat.  Their records (now kept by the Town Clerk) seem to show an endless record of drills and parades, accompanied by the music of their small band, and always followed by a meal in one or another of the local taverns.  They mustered for the State, and they mustered with militias from the surrounding towns. They met their fellow militias for – yes – meals (“Your tavern or mine?”). 

The Rangers kept themselves in readiness, but ultimately there was nothing for them to be ready for.  By 1840, their enthusiasm was waning.  The natty uniforms had become plainer (and the plumes were shortened to 10 inches). Fines had to be levied for skipping drill and not keeping the equipment in good repair. Members had begun to leave, and it was increasingly difficult to afford the arms, shot, and powder that they needed.  Finally, in May 1845, the company disbanded and its arms and equipment were returned to the state armory.

Looking at this in summary, it seems rather comic.  But the intention here is not to ridicule the Rangers, because they were not ridiculous.  These men had seen their fathers and grandfathers called up repeatedly for many years of service – the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the War of 1812 (1812-1815). They knew what it meant to be ready, and what was potentially at stake.  They were just fortunate to have come of age in a time when MA was not involved in armed conflict, so the rituals that held the units together became pretty much their only job.  Their sons would not be so lucky.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum