Every schoolchild knows about Paul Revere’s 20-mile ride to warn that the British were coming. Far fewer know that 16-year-old Sybil Ludington rode twice as far to help her father, Colonel Ludington, muster his scattered troops to fight a marauding enemy. Few know about Martha Bratton, who blew up a supply of gunpowder to keep it from approaching British troops and boldly claimed, “It was I who did it!” Susan Casey gives Ludington, Bratton, and 18 other remarkable girls and women of the Revolution the spotlight they deserve in this lively collection of biographical profiles. Drawing on interviews with historians and descendants as well as primary source material, this is an invaluable resource for any student’s or history buff’s bookshelf.
About the Author
Susan Casey is the author of Kids Inventing! and Women Invent! and a journalist whose work has appeared in Fast Company, Women's Sports, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.
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Women Heroes of the American Revolution
20 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Defiance, and Rescue
By Susan Casey
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Susan Casey
All rights reserved.
RESISTERS, SUPPORTERS, AND RESCUERS
STEEPING THE BREW
In 1774, before the start of the Revolution, Penelope Barker, a charming and capable woman, was the leader of one of the first women's political actions in the American colonies: the Edenton Tea Party.
Edenton, a town of only 15 streets and about 500 residents, was, according to The Historic Tea-Party of Edenton, October 25th, 1774, "charming in its refinement and culture" and had been earlier in the century (1722–1743) the colonial capital of North Carolina.
At that time, tea parties were "one of the most fashionable modes of entertaining" in Edenton. After drinking tea, "the ladies would gossip and spin, and reel [dance]" while the gentlemen would smoke their long-stemmed pipes and "discuss the political issues of the day."
By August 1774, though, the Edenton men, like men across the North Carolina colony, announced their protest of what they viewed as unfair tax acts on English tea and also their support of a boycott of British imports including English tea. They gathered on August 4 for the first provincial convention and voted that they wouldn't buy British tea or cloth until what they viewed as unfair taxes were repealed.
Penelope Barker, called "one of those lofty, intrepid, high-born women peculiarly fitted by nature to lead," took note of the men's actions and decided to circulate a petition to support their vote and ask other Edenton women to sign it as well. She was by then seasoned by her experiences and "a brilliant conversationalist."
The Edenton women she approached were as experienced and world-wise as she. Elizabeth King, who lived in a Colonial Avenue home that was edged by creeks and faced the courthouse green, was the wife of a prominent merchant. Another signer was Winifred Wiggins Hoskins, who, after marrying Richard Hoskins, a patriot (one who rebelled against British control over the colonies), had traveled with him to Edenton on an open boat down the Roanoke River. Then together they had mounted his horse and ridden along paths and through trees to Richard's farm, which the two called Paradise. Another was Miss Isabella Johnston, the fiancée of Joseph Hewes, who two years later would sign the Declaration of Independence for North Carolina.
Did Penelope approach each woman to ask if she would sign a petition to boycott British goods? How Penelope organized the effort is not known. Many versions of the story note that the ladies met for a tea party at the home of Elizabeth King, yet plans of her home reveal that it couldn't accommodate that many guests. (The notion that the ladies met and signed a petition at the tea party arose after a cartoon depicting the women at a tea party appeared in a London publication.) Perhaps Penelope or Penelope and Elizabeth organized tea parties for small groups in their homes or perhaps visited women at their own homes. However it happened, Penelope organized the effort and presented the underlying topic to the women: how can Edenton women participate in the stirring colonial revolution? Fifty-one Edenton women decided to sign a petition agreeing to stop buying English tea or clothes until what they felt were unfair tax acts were repealed. They also vowed to spin their own yarn and weave their own cloth as had women in other colonies. Thereafter, the ladies drank alternative forms of tea, including one type made by steeping the leaves of a raspberry vine.
The petition reads:
Edenton, North Carolina, Oct. 25, 1774
As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears nearly to affect the peace and happiness of our country, and as it has been thought necessary, for the public good, to enter into several particular resolves by a meeting of Members deputed from the whole Province, it is a duty which we owe, not only to our near and dear connections who have concurred in them, but to ourselves who are essentially interested in their welfare, to do every thing as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same; and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this paper, as a witness of our fixed intention and solemn determination to do so.
The petition doesn't mention tea. It does mention "our near and dear connections." They were speaking of their husbands. The petition also states that they wanted to "do every thing as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same" — the same boycott as their husbands had agreed to two months prior.
While many women in the colonies had agreed to boycott English goods, the Edenton women went further. By writing and signing their own petition, vowing to support their husbands' boycott, they boldly and publicly asserted their right to their own voice in policy matters that affected the common good, the first American women on record to do so.
* * *
Who was the woman who engineered this political tea party? Who was Penelope Barker? She was born Penelope Pagett in Edenton on June 17, 1728, the daughter of Samuel Pagett, a physician and a planter, and Elizabeth Blount, herself the daughter of a planter. When she was in her teens, after her father and older sister, also named Elizabeth, died in the same year, it fell to Penelope to manage her sister's household and care for her three children. Not long after, she married her sister's widower, John Hodgson. By age 19, she had given birth to one son, Samuel, and was expecting another when John unexpectedly died.
Penelope struggled with the responsibilities of raising her five children and managing John's estate. When she was 21, the court, asserting that she wasn't caring for the children in terms of education and guidance, threatened to take both the children and the property away from her. Her family stepped in. Her uncle paid some of her debts, and other family supported her in the care of the children.
In spite of her challenges, Penelope persisted, learned about finances, and managed to purchase six commercial lots on Broad Street, a main street in Edenton, from James Craven, a local planter and political leader. Then she married him. Two years later James died and Penelope inherited his estate. She was 27.
A third marriage, to Edenton's Thomas Barker — a widower, attorney, and member of the assembly who was 16 years her senior — lasted longer, but all three of their children died before reaching the age of 10. As a commercial agent of the North Carolina colony, Thomas was often away in London for long stretches of time, and Penelope managed his two plantations and other property. During those years, Penelope emerged as "a society leader of her day" and became the hostess of Edenton's most infamous tea party.
* * *
News of the Edenton ladies' petition was published in colony after colony. The petition and a letter were sent to London anonymously and appeared on January 16, 1775, in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser. The letter read:
The Provincial Deputies of North Carolina having resolved not to drink any more tea, nor wear any more British cloth, & c. many ladies of this Province have determined to give a memorable proof of their patriotism, and have accordingly entered into the following honorable and spirited association. I send it to you, to shew your fair countrywomen, how zealously and faithfully American ladies follow the laudable example of their husbands, and what opposition your Ministers may expect to receive from a people thus firmly united against them.
How was the news received in England? With laughter and sarcasm!
London resident Arthur Iredell wrote the following letter to his brother James Iredell, one of Edenton's leading patriots. Their sister was one of the signers.
London Queen Square, January 31, 1775
I see by the newspaper the Edenton ladies have signalized themselves by their protest against tea drinking. The name of Johnston I see among others; are any of my sister's relations patriotic heroines? Is there a female congress at Edenton too? I hope not, for we Englishmen are afraid of the male congress, but if the ladies, who have ever since the Amazonian era been esteemed the most formidable enemies; if they, I say, should attack us, the most fatal consequence is to be dreaded. So dextrous in the handling of a dart, each wound they give is mortal; whilst we, so unhappily formed by nature, the more we strive to conquer them, the more we are conquered. The Edenton ladies, conscious, I suppose, of this superiority on their side, by a former experience, are willing I imagine, to crush us into atoms by their omnipotency; the only security on our side to prevent the impending ruin, that I can perceive, is the probability that there are but few places in America which possess so much female artillery as Edenton.
Pray let me know all the particulars when you favor me with a letter.
Your most affectionate friend and brother,
Arthur asked sarcastically, "Is there a female congress at Edenton too? I hope not." He was referring to the ruling body of the colonies, the Continental Congress, then saluted in Edenton for possessing women who "are willing to crush us into atoms."
All of London was witness to such mockery in the form of a widely circulated political cartoon published there in March 1775.
During and after the war years, Penelope's strong will persisted despite setbacks. As a result of the British blockade of American ports, her husband, Thomas, was prevented from returning home from England and was away before and during the early years of the Revolution. When the Continental Congress began requiring landowners to sign oaths of allegiance to the patriot cause, Penelope was at risk of losing all of their property. Why? Married women didn't have the legal right to take oaths, and her husband was not there to sign. Fortunately for her, he was able to arrange for a pass from the ambassador from the court of the king of Spain to leave England. Thomas had been gone for 17 years when he and Penelope were reunited.
In 1782 Thomas and Penelope built what is still called the Barker House. He died in 1789, leaving her property in town and two plantations, carriages and horses, and many chairs and books. Penelope lived another seven years until 1796 and was buried alongside him in a family graveyard near Edenton.
THE SLAVE WHO PROCLAIMED A REVOLUTION
One summer day in Boston in 1761, John Wheatley, a prosperous merchant, and his wife, Susanna, arrived at a slave auction at Beach Street wharf. The Phillis, a slave ship that had traveled from an area near Gambia in West Africa, was docked there. Its human cargo was on the dock for all to see or buy.
According to the 1838 publication Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave, Susanna Wheatley saw "several robust, healthy females" and could have bid on them, but her attention was caught by a slender, naked girl who was likely seven or eight since she was losing her baby teeth. Susanna was taken by the "humble and modest demeanor and the interesting features of the little stranger." As suggested by Vincent Carretta in Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, perhaps the girl evoked thoughts for Susanna of her own daughter, Sarah, who was almost that same age when she died on May 11, 1752. She chose the girl and named her Phillis Wheatley — Phillis for the ship, and Wheatley to match her own last name.
Phillis was frail. Perhaps it was the result of conditions on the nearly eight-month voyage she made with the 75 other enslaved Africans — men, women, and children. Given her age and gender, Phillis would have been allowed to spend much of her time on deck to breathe fresh air because she posed no threat, while the rest of the time she and the others would have been in the dark hold of the ship, below deck, without sanitary facilities. Most likely she saw some of the men chained to the bottom or sides of the hold. When she went to sleep, she would have leaned on one of the other women, many would have been ill from the voyage. Had she died, she would have been tossed overboard.
Susanna Wheatley's intention that day at the Beach Street wharf had been to select a young house servant. Her slaves were getting older and she, at age 52, was aging as well. Susanna introduced Phillis to her 18year-old twin children, Mary and Nathaniel. In the weeks and months that followed, the family heard Phillis saying words in English. They saw her trying to write out individual letters — a or b or c — imitating what she saw Susanna or Mary or the others doing. Mary soon became Phillis's tutor. Within a year and a half, Phillis was able to read complex passages from the Bible. She attended church at Old South Meeting House and later became a full member of that church.
Five years later, at age 12, Phillis was writing poems. Her first one was written to a minister of the Old South Meeting House. When she was 14 years old, her first published poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," appeared in the Newport Mercury newspaper on December 21, 1767. She was also studying religion with Rev. Dr. Richard Sewell, a man whose family was well known for its antislavery beliefs. While Phillis was a slave, she wasn't living like most slaves but was more like a member of the Wheatley family. Susanna didn't ask her to do many household tasks and intentionally kept her isolated from the other slaves.
Phillis later wrote of the dramatic events of her life and of her religious beliefs in a poem: "On Being Brought from Africa to America."
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too ...
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew, ...
Phillis also used her poems to comment on the events occurring in Boston leading up to the American Revolution. One was a poem to King George III, ruler of Britain: "Rule thou in peace, our father, and our lord."
Another poem, "On the Death of Mr. Snider Murder'd by Richardson," criticized British actions in 1770 when 11-year-old Christopher Snider was killed when customs informer Ebenezer Richardson fired into a crowd: "With unexpected infamy disgraced / Be Richardson for ever banish'd here."
When Phillis was 16 or perhaps 17, she wrote a poem on the death of Boston evangelist George Whitefield that brought attention to her talent as a poet. The notice prompted Susanna to take action to have Phillis's poems published in a book. A prospective publisher, however, had some doubts, wondering if Phillis actually wrote the poems herself, without any help.
Again Susanna stepped in. She arranged for 18 prominent Bostonians to attest to her talent. The men included Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress and later a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and 15 others, most of whom were already familiar with her poems. The men agreed that, yes, Phillis was capable, and they believed her to be the author of her poems.
Susanna wanted to see Phillis's poems in print and took the next step. She knew that if a book — any book — was dedicated to a person of importance, it could help with the book's success. She asked Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon if Phillis could dedicate the book to her. Selina, impressed with Phillis's poems, agreed and also agreed to become her patron and requested an engraving be done of Phillis for the book. It was presumed to have been done by enslaved African American artist Scipio Moorhead.
Susanna also placed ads in Boston newspapers telling of Phillis's talent and of the upcoming book. Phillis, however, was ill, suffering from asthma, and the Wheatley's family doctor thought an ocean voyage might improve her poor health. Since Susanna's son, Nathaniel, was about to sail for London on family business, Susanna decided to send Phillis along on the voyage. It would give Phillis the opportunity to meet Selina Hastings and to be in London for the publication of her book. The Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter of May 13, 1773, included the announcement:
Boston, May 10, 1773 Saturday last Capt. Calef sailed for London, in [with] whom went Passengers Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley, Merchant; also, Phillis, the extraordinary Negro Poet, Servant to Mr. John Wheatley.
In turn, the 20-year-old Phillis expressed her emotions about her failing health and Susanna's sadness about the upcoming trip in "Farewell to America," a poem she dedicated to Mrs. Susanna Wheatley.
I mourn for Health deny'd ...
Susannah mourns, nor can I bear
To see the Christal Show'r
Fast Falling — the indulgent Tear
In sad Departure's Hour.
Excerpted from Women Heroes of the American Revolution by Susan Casey. Copyright © 2015 Susan Casey. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note vii
Introduction: The American Revolution ix
Part 1 Resisters, Supporters, and Rescuers
Steeping the Brew Penelope Barker 3
The Slave Who Proclaimed a Revolution Phillis Wheatley 14
A Patriotic Publisher Mary Katherine Goddard 24
Mother to the End Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson 33
Supporters of the Troops Esther Reed Sarah Franklin Bache 40
The Rescuer Who Became a Fugitive Elizabeth Burgin 52
Part 2 Spies
The Listener Who Alerted the General Lydia Darragh 63
Petticoats and Handkerchiefs Anna Smith Strong 74
A Whig in a Land of Tories Dicey Langston 81
Part 3 Saboteurs
Leader of the Pitchfork Brigade Prudence Wright 89
On Star Under the Stars Sybil Ludington 100
Wine, Cake, and a Getaway Mary Lindley Murray 112
Masquerading Hostesses Grace Rachel Martin 121
Part 4 Soldiers and Defenders of the Home Front
Fleet-Footed Girl to the Rescue Elizabeth "Betty" Zane 129
Undercover Soldier Deborah Sampson Gannett 136
A Straight-Arrow Heroine Rebecca Motte 144
"It was I who did it." Martha Bratton 154
Part 5 Legendary Ladies
"Possible Mollies" Mary Ludwig Hayes and Margaret Cochran Corbin Molly Pitcher 165
Unlikely Rescuer Mammy Kate 177
The War Woman Nancy Hart 186