By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
If I asked you to name American writers who stirred hearts and passions during the American Revolution, most likely you’d mention Thomas Pain or Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. Surely, each man made his invaluable contribution to the fight for independence.
Lesser known, though, is the crisp, satirical wit of Mercy Otis Warren. Her plays pricked the pride of pompous Tories and entertained the likes of John and Abigail Adams.
Mercy was a determined woman and I believe she exemplified the kind who struck fear in Cornwallis’ heart. Born to a somewhat wealthy family in England, her father didn’t care to educate her. To most, this would have been a high barrier. To Mercy, it was merely an inconvenience. Focused and self-disciplined, she learned to read by sitting in on her brother’s lessons when she could, and going through his text books on her own. Her perseverance prompted more familial support and an education was provided.
Mercy was quite intelligent, clearly, and a mind like hers was always inquiring. Her family moved to Massachusetts in 1754 and when she married James Warren, found herself surrounded by pro-American voices. Her husband and her brother both were passionately in support of the colonies throwing off the yolk of a tyrant king. Her home was a popular meeting spot for the local revolutionaries and Mercy became lifetime friends with several of our Founding Fathers and their wives.
But standing around serving tea wasn’t all she wanted to do. Mercy knew there was a reason for her quick wit and sharp tongue. So did her husband. She married a remarkably open-minded man who appreciated that she was a gifted writer. James often sent her works to friends, and even submitted some for publication. Mercy’s first play, The Adulateur, was published anonymously in 1772. It unabashedly criticized the lieutenant governors attacks on personal freedoms in Boston. This was the first of several plays that had the indignant Tories throwing their tea cups across the room.
After the war, Mercy wrote a comprehensive history of the Revolution, a book of valuable insights even today. In it, however, she slighted John Adams, or so that is how he took it. His response? He chastised by Mercy by telling her, “History is not the Providence of Ladies.”
It was for this Lady in Defiance.
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2013 Heather Blanton
“Sugar and spice and everything nice
That’s what little girls 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 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. This is not a legend. History confirms that Betsy and her husband 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.
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. She was a true lady in defiance!
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2013 Heather Blanton
Elizabeth and Thomas Poindexter lived in Yadkin county, North Carolina, eventually having 12 children total. Ardent patriots, when the revolutionary war began Thomas Poindexter served as a captain in charge of a regiment of farmers and shop owners. Talented soldiers, they were critical to the American forces in the skirmishes around the Yadkin River, especially in the battle of Shallowford.
Since Thomas Poindexter was away with the revolutionary forces, Elizabeth was left alone at home with the British in close proximity. To aid the war effort, crafty Elizabeth sewed secret messages and military correspondence into her daughters’ dresses, and then would send them on “errands” right through British lines. She did this throughout the conflict and neither she nor her daughters were ever even questioned.
The rumor was was she was a sweet, pretty thing with such well-behaved daughters that she and her girls were simply above suspicion. Reason for cultivating a positive, lady-like reputation (MIley Cyrus, are you listening?).
After the war, Elizabeth was recognized for her bravery in wartime. Today she is an official hero of the Daughters of the American Revolution and they, as well, have recognized her contribution in the revolutionary war in the North Carolina region.
There is a rock in Philadelphia along the Wissahickon Creek made famous by a little old lady who was one of George Washington’s best spies. No blond bombshell who blinded the British with her shocking good looks, she was merely an innocuous-looking little ol’ lady.
One of the complaints against King George listed in the Declaration of Independence was
“…For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us”
Troops could and often did simply move in and take-over a family’s home. Understandably, this didn’t sit well with the property owners who weren’t in favor of the King’s rule in the first place. Molly “Mom” Rinker was one such dissatisfied English subject willing to fight for her independence. She didn’t sit idly by while British soldiers took over her family’s inn and planned their attacks. An older, matronly woman, who would ever suspect her of being a raging patriot and spy?
No one … and she planned to keep it that way. While soldiers banned the male members of her family from the dining area, Mom was kept at hand so she could wait on the redcoats. She waited on them, all right, and made sure to keep jugs of liquor and ale in the dining room so she had fewer excuses for leaving.
Then this clever little Granny-like lady would pass intelligence to Washington’s men. She was never caught; her identity never revealed. So how did she do it?
Each night after gathering her intelligence, she wrote the information on a small piece of paper and wrapped it around a tiny stone. She then wrapped yarn around the stone until she had a normal, mundane looking ball of yarn. Every day, Mom would go to a lovely little spot along her favorite creek and seat herself on a rock. From this rock, she had a pleasant view of the woods.
She would then subtly drop the ball of yarn and watch it roll down the small cliff. One of Washington’s men would retrieve the note and disappear into the brush. No one was ever the wiser. The British never saw her converse with anyone. Granny sat upon her rock and knitted stockings for her beloved Colonial soldiers. She couldn’t be the spy; had to be someone else.
The British never even searched her basket. Probably wouldn’t have found the messages anyway. Not all spying during the American Revolution required complicated cloak-and-dagger techniques. The beauty of this deception was its simplicity, an idea born of wisdom and experience. Talk about a woman who could truly say, “Mom knows best.”
by Heather Frey Blanton
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As I have often said, I discover the most fascinating things about the women who built this country by reading between the lines.
Case in point, Dorothy Sinkler Richardson. You’ve probably never heard of her unless you delve deep into South Carolina history. But you’ll recognize some of the names in her story.
Dorothy was the second wife of General Richard Richardson. Both were ardent patriots. Richardson, however, died in British custody after the fall of Charleston in 1780. No shrinking violet, Dorothy kept her head about her and ran her home. She also continued to support the cause of liberty. She seemed to have at least a passing acquaintance with Frances Marion, the Swamp Fox.
Unfortunately for Dorothy, Banistre Tarleton opted to bivouac in her home in 1781. He made no secret he was after Marion and felt that he and his men were close. Knowing what was at risk, as Tarleton’s reputation for butchery was well-documented, she still opted to send her 10-year-old son James to warn Marion. The boy succeeded, Marion changed directions, and Tarleton got a very angry.
He forced Dorothy to prepare his dinner and then serve him. Several accounts also report that he had her husband’s body dug up just so he could see a “real” American general (I certainly wouldn’t put this past him). And if all this wasn’t enough, Tarleton then burned her home to the ground.
Banistre Tarleton may have left Dorothy’s farm that night giddy and giggling with great satisfaction. It was quite premature, though typical of his arrogance. He destroyed Dorothy’s home. He did not destroy her spirit. They say the proof of a life well-lived is in your children. She raised two boys who became governors of South Carolina.
Her son James had the following inscription carved onto her tombstone:
Relict [widow] of Gen. Richard Richardson Who died July 1793 Aged 56 years
She was pious & exemplary, distinguished in mind & manners and eminently discernible in the highest societies in which she associated. This marble which designates the place where her remains rest is erected to her memory by her eldest son James B. Richardson Who early bereft of paternal care feels that he is indebted to her maternal care & attention, to her vigorous & preserving mind of firmness & determination surpassing description and to her vigilant and enlightened instructions for being all that he is in life.
Respect the lace. She earned it.
by Heather Frey Blanton
Some women during the Revolutionary War did amazingly brave things. These women warriors rose to the level of their challenges and met them head on. But not every woman took a rifle in hand to make a fight. Mary Katherine Goddard, arguably the first female journalist of the Revolutionary War, fought with ink and paper.
In 1762, 24-year-old Mary Katherine moved with her younger brother and mother to Rhode Island. Brother William had finished an apprenticeship in printing and planned on starting a print shop and newspaper. Together the family published the Providence Gazette. Mary Katherine was a quick study, though. After William established an additional shop and newspaper in Philadelphia, he turned that store over to his sister in 1764.
Philadelphia was a hot-bed of Colonial rebellion. Mary Katherine reported it with a fair and balanced approach, despite the fact that her brother was rabidly anti-British. He was repeatedly jailed for outbursts and printed tirades against the crown. In 1774, Mary Katherine took over her brother’s paper in Baltimore while he attended to other interests, including trying to set up a postal system in opposition to the official British mail service.
In January of 1777, Mary Katherine courageously used her press to print copies of the Declaration of Independence, only the second publisher to do so and the first to print all the names of the signatories. Considering the times, this was arguably a treasonous act. She was also the first female appointed as a postmaster in Colonial America. She served in that capacity for the city of Baltimore from 1775 to 1789. It’s worth mentioning that Mary Katherine never missed an edition of the Maryland Journal from 1775 to 1784. In the midst of war, when lesser papers folded or went into hiding, the city’s government switched hands, and battles raged, she kept the presses rolling, so to speak.
It wasn’t all daisies and sunshine for May Katherine, though. In 1784, her name disappeared from the masthead of the Maryland Journal, and in 1789 she was forced to step down from her position as Postmaster (despite a petition signed by over 200 Baltimore merchants to keep her). The issues? Her brother was jealous of her success (he hadn’t accomplished a thing in his life that Mary Katherine didn’t bring about), and she was a woman without the appropriate friends in high places. Infuriating, yes, but I suspect Mary Katherine did all right. She ran her own bookstore in Baltimore till her death in 1816. Nobody really remembers her brother or the man who replaced her as Postmaster. There’s some justice in that.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If that’s true, then Margaret Corbin was one of the strongest women of the Revolutionary War.
Her life started out with a fairly bad omen. Around the time of her fifth or so birthday, she and her brother went to visit her uncle. While the two were gone, the family farm in Pennsylvania was attacked by Indians. Her father was scalped and killed. Her mother was taken captive and disappeared into the pages of history.
Margaret trudged on however and developed a keen dislike for King George. In 1775 she married John Corbin. When he enlisted in the Continental Army, Margaret went along, as women often did, to sew and cook. Not being stupid, however, they also picked up on military drills, routines and protocol.
This would explain why women were able to jump into battles alongside their husbands and actually make valued contributions. So, like Molly Pitcher, when Margaret and John went into their first battle (the Battle of Fort Washington), she was ready to assist. John was a matross (he loaded the canon) and when his partner was killed, he took his position. Unflinchingly, Margaret then took on the duty of matross. Shortly thereafter, however, John was killed. Unbroken, defiant, and completely alone, Margaret “manned” the canon herself. She loaded and fired the thing repeatedly with deadly accuracy! Hers was the last canon firing, which eventually made her an easy target.
Margaret was discovered after the battle alive but in critical condition. She had three musket balls in her, her chest and jaw were damaged by grapeshot and her left arm was quite literally hanging by shreds of skin. Surely this is the woman who gave Lord Cornwallis nightmares!
An amputee, she continued to serve in the cause of Liberty in the invalid regiment at Westpoint. She even remarried, but her second husband passed away a year later. On her own, Margaret wasn’t able to stay well-coiffed due to her injuries and therefore alienated a lot of folks. Not to mention, she was a bit rough and unrefined; given to drinking (a lot) and smoking. The Philadelphia Society of Women thought to erect a statue to her until they met her and then they called off the whole idea. I wonder how many of them ever jumped behind a canon?
But good men in the military did not forget Margaret and eventually, after spending many years destitute and poor, she became the first woman to receive a military pension. Eventually she was even reburied at West Point with full military honors.
Dear Philadelphia Society of Women, it just goes to show that well-behaved women rarely make history. Respect the lace.
Elementary students around the country often get their first dose of female patriots through the legendary quagmire of Molly Pitcher. Several women have acquired this handle through the centuries, but where does legend end and truth begin?
Most scholars agree the true identity of “Molly Pitcher” is confused because there were several “camp followers” involved in the Revolutionary War’s battle of Monmouth. Back then, these ladies tended the sick, cooked for their soldiers, repaired the uniforms, and even manned a cannon if the occasion called for it. Hence, the confusion. One of the best candidates, though, is Mary Ludwig Hays. Even if she’s not the actual “Molly Pitcher,” she is well-deserving of the fame.
Mary, born in 1754 to German immigrants, took a position as a domestic servant at the age of 15. A year later she married John Hays. In 1776, Hays, a barber, soldiered up and joined Pennsylvania’s artillery. Two years later, Mary appears in the military paperwork for the first time. She joined the same company as her husband mere months before the battle of Monmouth. She swore, she chewed tobacco, and expected no quarter just because she was a woman. During the battle, Mary hauled water under furious enemy fire and sweltering conditions. Both the rag-wrapped cannon ramrods needed continual soaking as did the over-heated soldiers. Mary and the others like her were angels of mercy or war, depending on your perspective.
As cannons and muskets thundered in the blazing sun, Mary’s husband John collapsed from heat stroke (some reports indicate he may have been injured). Mary gave him some water then heroically took over his cannon, repeatedly packing the barrel and sighting in on the enemy. The enemy, however, was also sighting in on her. An eye witness (the diary of a Colonial private), reported seeing a cannon ball literally shoot between her legs, removing a terrifying portion of her petticoat! Mary never missed a beat. She kept loading and firing.
The result of the battle: Lord Cornwallis withdrew and his army slipped away in the darkness. George Washington thanked Mary and the other women for their service. And with typical government efficieny, the state of Pennsylvania awarded Mary a pension of $40 a year, specifically for her heroism at Monmouth, forty years later.
Better late than never to respect the lace.
In my wanderings to discover Patriots in Lace, the women who settled and built America, I have rarely gone any later in history than the 1880’s. However, this weekend I discovered a frontier that I didn’t really know existed and a woman who explored it. No, she’s not an American, but because I respect her, I wanted to tell you her tale.
Ethel Brilliana Tweedie was born in 1862 in London. From a family of wealth and privilege, she had the finest education accompanied by unlimited opportunities to explore life. A prolific writer, photographer, and illustrator, she seemingly experienced very few boundaries. However, there was one thing Ethel couldn’t do: ride a horse like a man. Good heavens, Victorian society would have come to a complete, screeching halt should a woman attempt such a crass, vulgar thing.
If you don’t know much about side-saddles, suffice it to say they are uncomfortable, unnatural, and downright dangerous. They afford very little control over the horse and if something goes wrong, you’re in the soup. A true horse love and recognized Long Rider, Ethel never let the saddle hold her back. In 1888 she went exploring in Iceland with her brother and several friends. She was astonished to see the local ladies—gasp—riding astride their horses. The riding in Iceland was difficult, treacherous because of ice, and a real slog. Imagine doing it in a side-saddle. Ethel wrote a book about her adventures (A Girl’s Ride in Iceland) and is famous for the following quote: Society is a hard task-master, yet for comfort and safety, I say ride like a man.
The 20-something socialite had no idea the firestorm her book and her comment would ignite. So much so, that when in England, to save her family from complete disgrace, she returned to the abhorrent side-saddle. Still, while she may have bent, she did not break, and became an advocate for women’s rights. Ethel survived the loss of her husband after only nine years together. She then lost a son in the World War I and her only other son in 1926 in an aircraft accident. She never re-married. Ethel had been given the freedom by her husband to pursue her interests in painting, photography, and writing and these probably helped heal her losses. And whenever she could, she rode alone and astride.
Thank you, Ethel, for trying to cut a path through some very deep horse do-do.
by Heather Frey Blanton
Sibbell Ludington Ogden was the daughter of Henry Ludington, the man appointed Militia Captain by the British to protect to Duchess County, New York. Rather than fight for England, John resigned the commission the same evening he received it. Then he openly and defiantly accepted a commission as a colonel in the Colonial army. That tells us about the politics of the Ludington family, and Sibbell was her father’s daughter.
On the evening of April 26, a rider shared the disheartening news that Danbury had fallen to the British. Ludington was horrified as he had just released his men to tend to spring planting. The entire Duchess County Militia was farming and the Her Majesty’s soldiers were preparing to roll through the area like a juggernaut.
The messenger and his horse were done in from the ride. The Ludington’s had no close neighbors. Someone had to take it upon himself to make a midnight ride and rally the troops or Upstate New York was going to be serving tea and crumpets for breakfast.
Without hesitation, pretty little sixteen-year-old Sibbell stepped up. She was the oldest of twelve children. I dare say, she was eager to get out of the house! So, with the audacity that comes with the teenage years, she saddled her horse and hit the trails! Zig-zagging across the dark country-side, Sibbell put in a good forty miles, riding hell-bent for leather, banging on doors and windows, yelling, “The British are burning Danbury! Muster at Ludington’s!”
The British showed no particular grace to women. Their prison ships were populated with Liberty’s daughters. Sibbell knowingly took her life in her hands that night to rouse the sleepy farmers. She did her job well, as nearly 400 militia members were at her father’s house by dawn.
I can’t grasp the kind of courage this young lady embodies. I can only hope I share some of it.
Respect the lace.
P.S. Sibbell’s name has been spelled over time in various ways: Sybil, Sibyl, etc. “Sibbell” is on her tombstone. I seriously doubt it would be misspelled there.