Paul Revere Heritage Project


One if by Land Two if by Sea

The origin of the phrase

“One, if by land, and two, if by sea” phrase was coined by the American poet, Henry W. Longfellow in his poem, Paul Revere’s Ride. It was a reference to the secret signal orchestrated by Revere during his historic ride from Boston to Concord on the verge of American Revolutionary War. The signal was meant to alert patriots about the route the British troops chose to advance to Concord.

Few days before the historic ride, Revere was preparing his mission and arranged with three fellow patriots to set up a light signal in case if British troops started their advance to Concord. To give even more information, it was agreed that one lantern meant that the troops chose the longer land route and two lanterns meant the shorter route by water, leaving less time for patriots to react. On the night of April 18, 1775 Dr. Warren dispatched his most trusted messenger to alert patriot leaders in Concord, John Hancock and Samuel Adams that British plan to attack to arrest them and destroy the ammunition supplies prepared to stage armed struggle against the authorities.

Revere being rowed across the river

When P.R. started his ride, Robert John Newman, the sexton (custodian) of the Old North church and Captain John Pulling carried two lanterns to the steeple of the church while Thomas Bernard kept the watch outside on the street. The two lanterns were meant as the message that the British forces left from Boston Common, which then bordered the Charles River, and rowed over to Cambridge.

The place for the signal, the Old North Church in Boston’s North end was chosen for two reasons. One was that the Old North was at the time the tallest building in Boston. Even today its steeple is easily visible from far away in many directions standing high at 191 ft (58 m). The second reason why Revere chose this specific church was because of the cooperation of Robert John Newman, the sexton (custodian) of the church who was a fellow patriot and had access to church in the middle of the night.

Despite its historical significance, the “One if by Land Two if by Sea” signal was just a backup plan. It was meant to warn patriots in Chalrestown, a borough across the river from Boston in case if the messenger himself could not make it there from Boston to start his ride. With so many British troops present in Boston at that time P.R. could easily be arrested by patrols. But at the end he was able to safely leave Boston by boat and ride himself so the signal was in fact redundant. With this a popular myth was created that the lanterns were intended for Revere himself who was waiting for the signal across the river.

The original Paul Revere's lantern

This is how P.R. himself described his plan to use “Lanthorns” in a letter to Jeremy Belknap, Corresponding Secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society dated in 1798.
The Sunday before, by desire of Dr. Warren, I had been to Lexington, to Mess. Hancock and Adams, who were at the Rev. Mr. Clark's. I returned at Night thro Charlestown; there I agreed with a Col. Conant, and some other Gentlemen, that if the British went out by Water, we would shew two Lanthorns in the North Church Steeple; and if by Land, one, as a Signal; for we were aprehensive it would be dificult to Cross the Charles River, or git over Boston neck.

If one were to think of a perfect symbol of American Revolutionary War, perhaps short of the Declaration of Independence itself, if would probably be the Paul Revere’s lanterns. In an interesting twist, the “Official Paul Revere Lantern” currently displayed in the Old North Church is historic but not the original. It was created many year later for a commemorative ceremony that since then had been held annually in Boston on the day of the ride. To see the real lantern, one will have to take a trip to Concord like Revere himself and visit the Museum of Concord where one of the lanterns is now on display.