When it comes to South Carolina’s Revolutionary War history, the men get all the credit. The most famous patriot of them all is, of course, Frances Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, the inspiration behind Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot. But as I so often point out, a lot of women during this time didn’t just sit around doing needlepoint while Rome burned, so to speak. On numerous occasions, they took matters into their own hands.
The Martin family of upstate South Carolina was made up of nine children, seven of whom were old enough to enlist in the war in the late 1770’s. Their mother was an ardent supporter of the patriotic cause and must have been beside herself with joy when William and Barkly Martin married Rachel and Grace. These two young ladies were raised with a love of liberty and a hate for the monarchy. British troops had on numerous occasions worked to earn the ladies’ ire.
With their husbands off fighting tyranny, the women kept their ears to the ground for news. And having earned a reputation as steadfast patriots, they often accumulated information that was relevant to the Colonial Army. One evening, they were alerted that a British messenger with dispatches and two guards would be passing nearby. The girls’ husbands were off fighting with Maj. Nathanael Greene, who along with his troops, had 1000 loyalists under siege. There were no men available, therefore, to stop the courier.
Rachel and Grace were having none of that. Those dispatches could well result in the deaths of husbands and brothers. Without delay, they donned their husbands’ clothes, loaded their pistols and waited beside the road. The story goes that the British soldiers were so completely taken by surprise, they never even had a chance to draw their weapons. Without any argument, they surrendered their dispatches and rode off at a gallop, perhaps trying to outrun their humiliation.
Rachel and Grace then delivered the classified papers to a trusted courier who carried them to Major Greene. All in a patriot girl’s day. Feeling pretty satisfied with themselves, as well they should, they changed clothes in the barn and entered their mother-in-law’s home…only to find the three British soldiers sitting around the kitchen table licking their emotional wounds.
But a pretty patriot gal in a well-lit kitchen looks a lot different than a scruffy rebel in a dark forest. The girls weren’t recognized and the soldiers left the next morning.
As always, there is so much more to the story of these girls and their husbands, but they fought hard for the cause, sacrificed much, and lived to see Independence. I thank them both and wonder if I would have the cajones to do the same…
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The study of our heroes and heroines is more often than not like trying to track a rabbit. The critter turns, runs, spins, leaves confusing tracks, and then disappears. But if you try hard, put yourself in your prey’s mind, and look outward, some compelling paths reveal themselves.
Agent 355 was a female agent in George Washington’s famous Culper Spy ring. Absolutely nothing concrete is known about her other than when British leaders were in New York, information funneled to Washington fast and furious. When they left town, the information slowed to a trickle.
So who was this totally unsung heroine who willingly risked it all for God and country? Walk with me as we make some educated guesses.
Technically, she didn’t actually have her own identity, like, say, “Agent 99.” The number “355” simply meant female spy. But this lady never disappointed Washington. Her intelligence was always spot on. Some documents indicate 355 may have provided the intelligence that suggested Benedict Arnold was going to betray his country and that the famously personable British soldier John Andre was his contact.
Scholars speculate that 355 was a well-bred lady from New York society, the member of a Loyalist family. Such a position would have certainly given her access to officers and their “attentions.” How easy to simply ignore boring talk of troop movements whilst you bat your eyelashes at a handsome, young soldier. No one would know you were actually soaking up the intelligence in that pretty little head of yours.
Or perhaps she was a maid in a house where British soldiers bivouacked. What better cover for rifling through papers on a desk than to say you’re dusting the furniture? Or cleaning up a mess on the floor so you could drop to your hands and knees and put your ear to the cracks?
Robert Townsend was the head of the Culper spy network and rumors have persisted for almost 300 years that 355 was his common-law wife. A female spy was arrested and incarcerated on the prison ship Jersey in 1780. This woman gave birth to a son whom she supposedly named Robert Townsend, Jr. Most academics debunk this story as mere legend, but here is a tantalizing piece of information. Robert Townsend, Jr., a “son” of James Townsend (brother of Robert Sr.) became a lawyer and went into politics. Strangely, one of his pet projects was the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial Fund which eventually became the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at Fort Green Park in New York. This monument, nearly 150 feet tall commemorates the men and women who lost their lives aboard these horrible prison ships.
Could Robert Townsend have asked his brother to raise a bastard son, to give him a chance at a respectable life? Why didn’t Robert Townsend ever marry, or re-marry?
Whoever 355 was, she is not forgotten; she is honored and she lives on to inspire us all in the fight for liberty. She did nothing for fame or glory. Her name was never written down anywhere. George Washington didn’t even know who she was. She did it all for fledgling America.
But what do you think? Am I on this rabbit’s trail or have I lost the scent?
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One of America’s greatest mysteries is that of The Lost Colony. Most people know the story of how, in 1587, a group of English settlers were abandoned on Roanoke Island and they were never seen again.
I wonder who they were, why they were there, what did they hope to find in America? I am especially fascinated by Eleanor White Dare. Why would a woman leave the comfort and safety of her European home for the wilds of the New World, especially knowing she is pregnant! If the name Eleanor Dare doesn’t ring a bell, then surely you know her daughter: Virginia Dare—the first English child born in America. We don’t know much about the child, but there is much to appreciate about her mother.
If we can’t say anything else about Eleanor, we must attribute to her stunning courage, savage determination, and an audacious belief in the possibilities of a New World. That’s why it is improbable she died on a desolate, 12-mile spit of land covered with windswept pines and sand spurs. Eleanor was a survivor. She would have made the best of her circumstances and worked tirelessly to find some way to let her father know her whereabouts.
In his diaries, John White, governor of the Lost Colony, speaks lovingly and respectfully of his daughter. I believe she was his confidant and that he hid nothing from her. When things went awry and the colonists were marooned on Roanoke, the group made a plan. If they were to survive, they absolutely had to get off Roanoke. They were down to practically zero provisions and it was already August—past planting season; not to mention, farming the soil on Roanoke isn’t for amateurs. Therefore, they were going to move 50 miles inland. Since the pilot would only allow one or two colonists to return to England, the group unanimously agreed that White should make the return trip. If they were in distress or under attack when they left the island, they would carve crosses on the trees.
So, here are the facts: for whatever reasons (ostensibly the war with Spain, but, this certainly debatable), John White did not return to Roanoke for three years. When he finally did make it back, the colonists were gone, their buildings had been removed (not raised—that’s important), and the word “Croatoan” had been carved into two different locations at the settlement, but no crosses were found. The colonists had in their company an Indian named Manteo, of the Croatoan tribe, who had in the past acted as an emissary and translator for the English.
Also, just within the last month, a map by John White has been discovered to hold some intriguing information. A patch hides a drawing of what looks very similar to a fort on a piece of land where the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers meet. Even more startling, on top of the patch are markings done with invisible ink! These marks seem to show something larger and more significant than a fort. The site is approximately 50 miles west.
Fact: a stone was discovered in this area in 1937 by a tourist. Upon this stone was carved the date of Ananias (Eleanor’s husband) and Virginia Dares’ deaths: 1591. On the back, addressed to “Father,” the writer relays the sorrowful tale of how the English settlers endured two years of war, followed by two years of sickness, only to be nearly annihilated in a savage Indian attack. This rock is signed with the initials “EWD.”
Probabilities: White’s map was made to hide the location of where Sir Walter Raleigh wanted to found the settlement of Raleigh. Invisible ink may have been used to hide such details if map was captured by the Spanish. When the colonists discovered that their pilot would not take them on to Chesapeake Bay, this location was a likely and logical plan B.
The stone was carved by Eleanor. I could see a grieving wife and mother, who had hung on through unimaginable degradations and hardships, sitting down, gritting her teeth against her hopelessnes, and carving. Carving a good-bye to her husband and daughter and a message of hope to her father. Scholars agree, the Olde English used in the message is perfect.
According to Eleanor’s note, only 7 English survived the Indian attack.
Rumors: for years after John White discovered his ghostly, empty fort, rumors circulated of sightings of whites living among Indians. Members of the Jamestown Company reported seeing a young white child playing along the river, but he or she quickly disappeared into the woods. There were stories of English slaves sold to tribes as far west as the mountains of North Carolina. A missionary recounted meeting Indians who were familiar with the Welsh language—there was a Welsh family among the Lost Colony. Eleanor was rumored to have married a chief and had another child. In another version, she was sold as a slave to a chief and had a child with him. These haunting, fleeting stories persisted for decades.
Eleanor would have kept going. I believe it was in her nature. Other rocks with messages on them have been found, but most likely those are hoaxes. Still, that doesn’t mean Eleanor stopped writing. We just haven’t found the rest of her story. We will; it’s in our nature.
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“Sugar and spice and everything nice
That’s what little patriots are made of.”
My curiosity about our Founding Mothers has certainly led me to one inarguable conclusion: the above statement just ain’t so. Our Founding Mothers each had an iron will, the patience of Job, and perseverance and stubbornness enough to shame a mule.
In researching Betsy Ross, I truly came to respect those last two traits.
One of seventeen children and born into a Quaker home, Elizabeth Griscom married her first husband, John Ross, in 1773. The young man she had fallen in love was NOT a Quaker and therefore, the union was not sanctioned. Wisely or not, the couple took the matter into their own hands and eloped. Upon her return, the 21-year-old Betsy was “read out” of her congregation. Clearly not one to curl up like a wilted flower, she instead rolled up her sleeves and helped her husband open an upholstery shop in Philadelphia.
She also supported John’s decision to join the Philadelphia militia in 1775, since their love of liberty was one of the things that had brought them together. Sadly, less than a year later, he was killed in a munitions explosion. The couple had no children. Once again, Betsy rose to the occasion. She squared her shoulders, rolled up her sleeves and took over the business. Surely, this fiery widow had to be the talk of Philadelphia. A pretty woman and a patriot running her own business amidst turbulent political times. It was unheard of.
Not long after the death of her husband in 1776, George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross (her husband’s uncle), made their historic request of Betsy. History confirms that Betsy and her husband probably knew George Washington as all three attended Christ Church, plus she had sewn some flags for the Navy, and her husband’s uncle knew George, as well. The couple was married by William Franklin, son of Benjamin, so it’s pretty obvious they moved in the right circles for Betsy to have received this request. Not to mention, she could sew like a fiend. Personally, for me, I believe the story of Betsy’s contribution to the Rebel Cause is legit. Two hundred years later, no one has offered an alternative seamstress.
Whispers down through history have also suggested Betsy may have been the “beautiful young widow” who distracted Carl Von Donop. Donop was the Hessian commander who lost the opportunity to reinforce the troops at Trenton on Dec 26, 1776, allowing George Washington a resounding victory. Quite the morale booster for the Colonial Army. Was it due in part to Betsy?
Besty married again in 1777 to mariner Joseph Ashburn. He was in Betsy’s life long enough to father two children with her. In 1780, his ship was captured by the British and Ashburn was thrown into prison, charged with treason. Not only would Betsy never see him again, but she lost her nine-month old daughter Zilla during this time, while she was pregnant with their second child Eliza.
Betsy had to have been an incredibly strong woman to keep forging ahead the way she did. She never stopped running her business and even managed to sew uniforms for the Colonial Army for several years. In 1783, she married again (this time for the last time). John Claypoole, an old friend of her family, had actually been imprisoned with her husband and was the one who delivered the news of his death.
Prison took the starch out of Claypoole, though, and he suffered from poor health for years. Still, the couple did manage to bless the world with 5 daughters. I think there is some poetic justice in that, considering all that Betsy had been through and lost to the war. Claypoole passed away in 1817 and Betsy ran the family business for another 10 years, before turning it over to her daughters.
Betsy Griscom Ross Ashworth Claypoole lived to be 84 years of age, but, of course, her story is immortal.
Some plants die in the shadow of a larger, more powerful plant. Others thrive. Take Sarah Franklin Bach. You might know her father, Ben. He was involved in politics. Worked on that little thing called a Constitution. Liked to fly kites in electrical storms. Yes, that Ben.
Sarah was a chip off the old block. At a time when women were barely more than wives and mothers, the war for independence called to them. And American men, being smarter than their counterparts elsewhere, recognized the value of the feminine contribution to the effort. Even Lord Cornwallis grudgingly accepted that his men weren’t fighting just farmers with pitchforks and sickles, but that they were fighting the wives as well. He didn’t say that jokingly. American women were different. They were feisty and uncontrollable. England mocked them, but always with a nervous tug at the collar.
Sarah, of course, grew up in an educated, opinionated household. Often acting as the hostess for her father’s gatherings, she picked up more than her womanly share of political information. When war finally broke out between the Colonials and their King, Sarah was one of the first women to jump into the fray. She immediately joined The Ladies Association of Philadelphia, a patriotic organization aimed at raising funds for Gen. Washington’s pitifully outfitted army. When the group’s organizer passed away, again Sarah stepped up. As the new leader of this unsung group, Sarah motivated the ladies to raise over $300,000! That’s money even politicians today wouldn’t snub. Back then, it was the equivalent of well over $3 million!
Perhaps Sarah’s greatest contribution is the fact that her group managed to sew over 2,000 shirts AND deliver them to the troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.
Samuel Adams, of the Sons of Liberty, the group responsible for the Boston Tea Party, reportedly said, “With ladies on our side, we can make every Tory tremble.” Now that’s a heritage to be proud of. Jump in the fray, ladies, and make your voices heard on Tuesday, November 2!