For 20 years, Sam Jones has dedicated himself to the intersection of history and performance within Boston’s Freedom Trail Foundation.
About four days a week, Jones donned colonial dress and led groups for a three-quarter mile stretch of the Freedom Trail while in character as William Dawes, Paul Revere’s lesser-known counterpart on the Midnight Ride.
“I used to like to try and play that for laughs a little bit,” Jones said. “I’d puff myself up like I’m upset that Paul got a poem and I didn’t, and then I’d confess that I showed up half an hour late, fell off my horse, and lost my watch.”
With a penchant for public speaking and a longtime affection for history and architecture, Jones found that being a Freedom Trail player suited his skills. He worked as a guide for seven years before accepting a position as the foundation’s creative manager, but that doesn’t stop him from sometimes getting out of the office and back onto the trail.
“Every now and again I’ll pull out the old tricorn and put it on because someone is late or called in sick,” Jones said. “At the last minute, I’m kind of a spare tire.”
In this role, he oversees recruitment, hiring, and training of Freedom Trail guides. Players must be interviewed and audition for the part so they can find the right people to make good on the foundation’s tagline of “bringing history to life.”
“I regard what we do as interpreting history. You’re guiding people along the Freedom Trail, delivering history in an accurate way, but we want to put some more flare and color and life into our presentation,” Jones said. “What I’m looking for is someone who has a foot in both worlds — someone who can be a performer out on the Freedom Trail and also become an amateur historian while working here.”
You won’t find Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, or any other historical figure of such mythic fame portrayed on the Freedom Trail. The tours instead attempt to spotlight oft-ignored revolutionary players, like William Dawes, Mary Clapham, and John Gill.
“What I think is fascinating is that when you learn more about the revolution, you learn about a lot of people who were instrumental in the American Revolution, who people don’t know their names. We lovingly call them B-listers,” Jones said. “It’s so much fun to share that with people and have them come away knowing more about this incredible generation of Bostonians who had a big role in everything that happened, besides the ones they already know.”
The job is a physically taxing one. Players walk up and down the trail in thick costume and hot weather multiple times a day, maneuvering guests along crowded sidewalks and across busy streets. According to Jones, guides often deal with harassment from catcallers who mockingly call out or insult them.
“It’s a bit like a nerdy kid with Dungeons and Dragons,” Jones said. “People make fun of them, but secretly they think it’s interesting and would maybe want to try it themselves. It’s really because they want to interact but can’t find another way.”
Jones described fifth-graders as a large “backbone” of the foundation’s business. According to him, they give tours to about 40,000 fifth-graders each year, usually around May and June.
“By and large, the fifth-graders are the most receptive. They’re the ones making those connections, like, ‘Wait a minute. This is the building that I read about where they got ready to dump the tea!’” Jones said. “We all get so jaded so quickly these days, but to see that level of wonder for this stuff, to see it light up in someone’s face for the first time, it becomes new for you, too. And that makes this job beautiful.”
The end of the school year isn’t the only hectic time for Freedom Trail tours. While the Fourth of July is a fairly busy day for the players, Jones says July 3 is the real monster. Most people who are in town for the holiday do their historical endeavors on this day, so they can picnic and watch the fireworks the next, he said.
Jones recalled being a guide around July 4, when there were often more people out and about in colonial dress as a part of the holiday’s celebrations and special events.
“Frequently around the Fourth of July, I would get myself arrested by redcoats. I would get my group to chant, ‘Red coats go home. Lobsters go home,’” Jones said. “There’s just more stuff going on, and everyone’s there in the right kind of mood. Frightfully crowded, of course. Noisy, of course. But the spirit of it carries you along.”
Historical tours are common across the country, but Boston finds itself in an exceptional position to host them, and this isn’t lost on Jones and his fellow historical interpreters at the Freedom Trail Foundation.
“There’s just nowhere that has the combination of historic events, the buildings where those events took place, the preservation efforts that went into saving those buildings, and the fact that you can walk to a large portion of them in a day or less,” Jones said. “Certainly in American history it’s unique, and to be the conductor of that, it’s a pretty amazing responsibility.”