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NH Women in the Revolution

Women of the American Revolution

We see so few females faces in the American Revolution. Finding images of revolutionary women is difficult even today. But they were there, participating at nearly every level and dominating the work behind the scenes. Seacoast historian Olive Tardiff offers this survey of the women from the Granite State who participated in the birth of America.



INCLUDES: Abigail Cilley Butler, Mrs. Thomas Morison, Polly Locke, Anna Sibley, Molly Stark, Abigail Marston, Mary Bartlett, Sarah Rawlings, Martha Harris, Mary Hall, Sarah Rawlings, Abigail Butler, Abigail Reid and others.

WHEN THE DREAD CRY, "The British are out!" rang throughout the countryside after the fighting at Lexington and Concord, patriotic women immediately set to work getting their men ready to leave for battle. They had no idea that long years of loneliness, sacrifice, and hard work lay ahead. They saw that a job had to be done and went at it with their usual vigor.

On the very day that news of fighting came to Antrim nearly all the men left for Cambridge. The women of the town had to work all night preparing food and clothing to be taken next day to husbands and sons. Perhaps it was fortunate that Col. Stark already had his quota for the First New Hampshire Regiment by the time the Antrim men arrived at Winter Hill, for he promptly sent them home to finish planting their crops.

Matthew Patten, judge of probate and justice of the peace in Bedford, wrote in his diary that after receiving the news, his oldest son John was determined to fight; and added, "our Girls sit up all night baking bread and fitting things for him and John Dobbin." Abigail Cilley Butler, wife of the keeper of Butler Tavern in Nottingham, with the help of her daughters carded, spun, wove and sewed through the night so that her husband and two sons would have enough clothes for their march toward Cam bridge, which began at four in the morning.

Mrs. Thomas Morison's husband, son, and hired man left on foot from Peterborough leading a horse that carried saddlebags stuffed with her freshly baked bread and a good supply of pork. The wife of Capt. Levi Spaulding of Lyndborough helped make paper cartridges for the sixty men in his company to take with them on their journey.

Polly Locke of New Ipswich, later known as New Hampshire's champion weaver, was determined that her 16 year-old brother John should have the new pantaloons he needed in order to set out for military service. Legend says she cut fleeces from a white sheep and a black sheep, cleansed and carded the wool, spun the yarn, washed and then dried it. Within forty hours from the time she began to shear the sheep, John was on his way, suitably dressed for soldiering.



Homefront Battles

In any season, there was much to be done on a New Hampshire farm. Sowing and reaping crops, cutting and storing firewood, haying and butchering were normally tasks for men. Once the master of the household had gone to war, these jobs had to be taken care of by old men and inexperienced boys --or left for the soldiers' leaves from military service. Women pitched in when they could.

"We finished husking our corn, our women folks all helped us husk . . . a little over forty bushels," wrote Judge Patten on October 17, 1776. When Anna Sibley's husband went away to work on Fort Constitution in Portsmouth in the same year, Anna, pregnant with her third child, managed to hoe three acres of corn on the Sibleys' burnt-over land in Hopkinton.

Revolutionary NH WomenAfter Capt. James Aiken of Bedford enlisted in June, 1775, his wife carried on the whole work of the farm, including the harvesting. She was assisted only by her children, the oldest of whom was eleven. Alice Glidden, who had settled with her husband in Northfield in 1769, used his old flintlock gun to hunt game for the family table. She cut her own firewood, felling the trees herself, and used a team of steers to haul the logs home, with only her young children to help.

Most women would have agreed with Abigail Adams of Massachusetts who said, "I am willing to do my part. I believe I could gather corn and husk it, but I should make a poor figure at digging potatoes." Women had enough to do with maintaining their own kitchen gardens, making soap and candles, spinning and weaving, preserving and baking food and taking care of their large families. One soldier complained on leaving for war, "The hay is not cut, corn not hoed, winter grain not sowed. No one is left to take care of sick families."

It was the mother, of course, who usually nursed the family through illnesses. The services of a midwife, spinster aunt, or grandmother were not always available. Women learned to endure suffering and death, but it must have been doubly hard to sit alone holding a child that was choking to death with diphtheria or burning with typhoid fever. The strong religious faith that had brought their forebears to this country sustained them.

Sometimes a husband, son or brother died in the action of the Revolution with no word of his death for months afterward. It was nearly a year before the Pattens learned of John's death in Canada from smallpox. Those away fighting, moreover, were not likely to learn of a tragedy at home. Mary Bartlett of Kingston wrote to her husband, Dr. Josiah Bartlett, who was serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, "Mrs. Tilton buried their only daughter--four or five years old. The father is gone to Canada --heavy news for him."

Mary's letters were filled with accounts of death and disease in Kingston and Exeter. She must have felt that Dr. Bartlett would be especially interested; then, too, as a woman at home alone, she would want to confide in him all the things that were troubling her. "Ezra has canker and scarlet fever," she wrote. "Lois has pain in the head and sore throat," and in another letter, "Sally was Very sick with Chocick or worms, better now." Less serious was the news that "Miriam has been poorly, probably because she took a cold bath in the sea," or that Mary herself had suffered from sick headaches.

Mail was a long time on the road between Kingston and Philadelphia. The Bartletts must have worried each other with their complaints. Mary, who was expecting a child in December, 1776, implored her husband, in her letter of September 9, "Pray do come home before Cold weather as You know my Circumstances will be Difficult in the winter If I am alive."

When Josiah wrote that he had frequent coughs and colds, his wife immediately dispatched a cordial made of cinnamon and saffron mixed with sugar and rum, and also a warm "gownd." By the time these comforts reached him, however, he had probably recovered. He advised Mary to hold his letters "over the smoke a little before handling them too much as the Small Pox is very frequent in the City." Even in Exeter, Mary wrote in 1778, two people had died of smallpox and two hundred had been inoculated.

Although Edward Jenner had not yet discovered a safe way to vaccinate against smallpox, people were willing to risk inoculating themselves with an unreliable serum obtained from human victims of the disease. In 1778 Elizabeth Page Stark of Derryfield (Manchester), whose husband always called her Molly, asked the General Court for permission to inoculate her family and servants. The petition was denied, perhaps because she was a woman, When Gen. Stark himself later sent a similar request, it was approved The general is said to have brought home victims of smallpox, both his own men and prisoners of war, to be nursed back to health by Molly Stark.

A lighter approach to this dread disease was that of the wealthy people of Portsmouth who chose to visit Shapley Island for their inoculations. There, after inoculation with the serum, they spent three or four weeks in quarantine as gaily as if on vacation at a fashionable watering place. Portsmouth women sometimes invited friends to "take smallpox" at their homes and stay until well enough to leave.

There was no such levity in poorer homes where money for food, clothing and medicines came in pitifully small amounts from men serving their country. Many women became wards of their communities, with public funds being raised each year for their support. North Hampton records show that on April 1, 1776, voters agreed in town meeting to take care of Widow Abigail Marston and her four children. At an Exeter town meeting on January 19, 1778, it was voted that "the selectmen be a committee to supply such families of the non-commissioned officers and private soldiers belonging to this town as now are or shall be engaged in the continental service, with such necessaries of life as their circumstances require." Similar assistance was given to families of those who had died in the war.

Town governments were not always so charitable. Spinster Sarah Rawlings, who had no visible means of support and no legal residence in North Hampton, had been forcibly returned in 1774 to Greenland, her former home. Judge Patten noted on November 1, 1775, "I spent the day in framing a complaint for the Selectmen to the Committee of Safety for Mrs. Heppers casting her Daughter Hannahs child on the town and a warrant to the Constable to seize her goods to maintain the child and going with the Constable & Selectmen to seize the goods."

In farming communities, private purses and public funds were drained by heavy taxes to support the war effort and by inflationary prices. During the siege of Boston, a soldier wrote to his wife, "Gat 2 or 3 Bushel of Salt as quick as you can for it will Bee Dear." Salt, so essential for preserving meats, rose during the war from 30 cents a bushel to almost 30 dollars. When Mary Bartlett complained to her husband that prices were "extravagant," he advised, "Lay in a good stock of wood, buy hay or corn. Will be cheaper now than next year." Then he warned her to save seed corn for the next year's planting.

Women with special skills fared better than most. The demand for cloth for uniforms set many to work at their looms and wheels. A woman could spin from two to five skeins (about 120 yards apiece) of wool or linen in a day and receive five or six pence a skein. Martha Harris of Salem supported herself during the absence of her husband by weaving cloth to sell. Mary Thomson of Durham and her household made enough clothing to outfit an entire company in the Army.

A widow was lucky if she had a chance to remarry, Otherwise she faced the prospect of living on welfare unless she was skilled enough to work as seamstress or nurse. The income was minimal in either case. "Mrs. Deely came," wrote Judge Patten on July 24, 178Z, "made 2 dresses for Betsey & Polly and fitted a pair of stays." Mrs. Deely worked three days and was paid half a dollar, less a few shillings which Mrs. Patten promised to pay when she had more cash on hand.

Some women showed unusual competence in managing their husbands' affairs. In Londonderry Molly Reid, mother of five children, took entire charge of the farm during the eight years her husband, Gen. George Reid, was in the Continental Army. She learned everything she could about crops and stock, asking and getting advice in the letters she exchanged with Gen. Reid. She was highly praised by Gen. John Stark who once said, "If there is one woman in New Hampshire fit for governor, 'tis Molly Reid."

Abigail Reed of Fitzwilliam successfully took over the handling of family finances when her husband returned home from the war with his eyesight gone. Since the youngest of her nine children was nine years old when the Revolution began, she could depend on their help in running the household. Molly Stark managed her large family in Derryfield with the help of servants and her older children, but had to let the sawmill John Stark had established in 1760 lie idle.



Patriotic Acts

Not all wives of Revolutionary soldiers stayed at home working and worrying. Those who could afford to travel and who had plenty of house hold help joined their husbands when possible. In a letter of February 26, 1776, Dr. Bartlett refers to Mary's forth coming visit to Philadelphia. Such a journey would be quite an undertaking, and it is presumed that Mary would have stayed there for a few weeks to make the expense and effort worth while.

Possible portrait of Molly SThere is a persistent and romantic legend that soon after John Stark left for the scene of fighting in Massachusetts, his wife Molly followed, carrying extra clothing and money. She is said to have ridden on horseback through the woods, guided only by spotted (blazed) trees. It is unlikely that Molly, pregnant with her ninth child, would have started out on a journey of 60 miles in such a fashion. The wife of the newly elected colonel of the First New Hampshire Regiment would probably have driven in a high wheeled chaise over main roads, spending the night en route with relatives in Atkinson or at a respectable inn.

Molly visited her husband several times at his headquarters at the Royall House in Medford. There she observed both British and American maneuvers from a third-story window high above the Mystic River. When hundreds of people rushed to rooftops and high ground to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill, Molly climbed Pasture Hill to see the smoke and flames rising above Charlestown and to listen to the sound of cannon fire, no doubt fearing for the life of her gallant husband.

There are no accounts of wives at Ticonderoga, Albany, or Trenton, but they clearly were in their husbands' thoughts . After a trip to Albany, Judge Patten wrote, "Brought back to Mrs. Newman a pair of silver shoe and knee buckles and eight dollars," and "To Lieutenant McCalley's wife ten dollars in cash." From Philadelphia Dr. Bartlett sent chintz for three gowns for Mary, and silver sleeve buttons for the children.

While families of other communities were enduring hardships, those of Portsmouth and Exeter were enjoying a measure of prosperity, thanks to the trading and shipbuilding activity in the coastal city and the location of the new inland capital. Long accustomed to fine silks and furnishings in elegant mansions, some women continued their luxurious living, to the displeasure of those who were willing to sacrifice for the patriotic cause. The majority of housewives had given up imported tea after the tax controversy, taking what pleasure they could in Liberty Tea made of ribwort or other herbs.

Mrs. Abigail Butler of Nottingham felt strongly about tea drinkers. According to a poetic account published a century later, she was so incensed when a traveler staying at Butler Tavern attempted to take a package of tea from his pocket that:

Then quickly she darted forward,
Her plate of meat she let fall,
And with one deft stroke of the carver,
Cut coat-tails, pocket and all,
Threw them into the blazing fire-place
Before he had time to think,
While she said in a voice triumphant,
"That tea you shall never drink. "

Another ardently patriotic group of women met in Portsmouth in the summer of 1777 to piece together an American flag for John Paul Jones's ship, the Ranger. A popular legend says Mary Langdon, Caroline Chandler, Augusta Pierce and Dorothy Hall cut up their best gowns for the stars and stripes, while Mrs. Helen Seavey sacrificed the white silk dress in which she had only recently been married.

New Hampshire was the only state in which no actual battles were fought, but throughout the state women proved they were ready to defend themselves and their homes if necessary. Prudence Wright of Hollis led a group of women dressed in men's clothes in the capture of a local Tory who was found to be carrying dispatches to the enemy in his boots. When a false rumor of attack from the sea reached Greenland, Elinor Johnson started out on the road to Rye with her musket, ready to meet the enemy.

Colonial women had learned early how to handle firearms. When only fifteen, Molly Stark had used a musket to guard the fort built by her father, Capt. Caleb Page, in Starkstown (Dunbarton), while men were working in the fields. Later, when the mother of several children, she is said to have shot a bear.

Bears and even wolves were constant threats to rural families. Mrs. Mary Hall of Mason thought wolves were about to enter her cabin while her husband, Deacon Hall, was absent. With her children's help, she pushed every piece of furniture against the door and spent a sleepless night waiting for morning light to drive the animals away.

Mary Bartlett, Molly Stark, Polly Locke, Molly Reid and others showed what women were willing to do to support the efforts of their men at war. Their courage and capability made it possible for New Hampshire soldiers to fight for their country without fearing excessively for the safety of those at home.

Mary Bartlett expressed their awareness of the gravity of the times when she wrote to her husband on July 6, 1776, "I believe this Year will decide the fate of america.'' And so, with the help of the women of the Revolution, it did.

by Olive Tardiff. Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976. Reprinted by permission of the author.  First published online here in 1997.

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