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NH Women in the Revolution


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.


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