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after being warned that if she came back she would be executed. Once she
was sentenced to death and was saved only by the intercession of her
husband; but, having returned, she was again sentenced, and this time
put to death. The Quakers were whipped, disfigured by having their ears
and nose cut off, banished, or even put to death; but fresh recruits,
especially women, adorned in "sack cloth and ashes" and doing "unseemly"
things, constantly took the place of those who were maimed or killed.
Why they should so persistently have invaded the Puritan territory has
been a source of considerable questioning; but probably Fiske is correct
when he says: "The reasons for the persistent idea of the Quakers that
they must live in Massachusetts was largely because, though tolerant of
differences in doctrine, yet Quakerism had freed itself from Judaism as
far as possible, while Puritanism was steeped in Judaism. The former
attempted to separate church and state, while under the latter belief
the two were synonymous. Therefore, the Quaker considered it his mission
to overthrow the Puritan theocracy, and thus we find them insisting on
returning, though it meant death. It was a sacred duty, and it is to the
glory of religious liberty that they succeeded."[299]

_II. Commercial Initiative_

More might be said of the initiative spirit in religion, of at least a
percentage of the colonial women, but the statements above should be
sufficient to prove that religious affairs were not wholly left to the
guidance of men. And what of women's originality and daring in other
fields of activity? The indications are that they even ventured, and
that successfully, to dabble in the affairs of state. Sewall mentions
that the women were even urged by the men to expostulate with the
governor about his plans for attending a certain meeting house at
certain hours, and that after the good sisters had thus paved the way a
delegation of men went to his Excellency, and obtained a change in his
plan. Thus, the women did the work, and the men usurped the praise.
Again, Lady Phips, wife of the governor, had the bravery to assume the
responsibility of signing a warrant liberating a prisoner accused of
witchcraft, and, though the jailer lost his position for obeying, the
prisoner's life was thus saved by the initiative of a woman.

That colonial women frequently attempted to make a livelihood by methods
other than keeping a dame school, is shown in numerous diaries and
records. Sewall records the failure of one of these attempts: "April 4,
1690.... This day Mrs. Avery's Shop ... shut by reason of Goods in them
attached."[300] Women kept ordinaries and taverns, especially in New
England, and after 1760 a large number of the retail dry goods stores of
Baltimore were owned and managed by women. We have noticed elsewhere
Franklin's complimentary statement about the Philadelphia woman who
conducted her husband's printing business after his death; and again in
a letter to his wife, May 27, 1757, just before a trip to Europe, he
writes: "Mr. Golden could not spare his Daughter, as she helps him in
the Postoffice, he having no Clerk."[301] Mrs. Franklin, herself, was a
woman of considerable business ability, and successfully ran her
husband's printing and trading affairs during his prolonged absences. He
sometimes mentions in his letters her transactions amounting at various
times to as much as £500.

The pay given to teachers of dame schools was so miserably low that it
is a marvel that the widows and elderly spinsters who maintained these
institutions could keep body and soul together on such fees. We know
that Boston women sometimes taught for less than a shilling per day,
while even those ladies who took children from the South and the West
Indies into their homes and both boarded and trained them dared not
charge much above the actual living expenses. Had not public sentiment
been against it, doubtless many of these teachers would have engaged in
the more lucrative work of keeping shops or inns.

In the South it seems to have been no uncommon thing for women to manage
large plantations and direct the labor of scores of negroes and white
workers. We have seen how Eliza Pinckney found a real interest in such
work, and cared most successfully for her father's thousands of acres. A
woman of remarkable personality, executive ability, and mental capacity,
she not only produced and traded according to the usual methods of
planters, but experimented in intensive farming, grafting, and
improvement of stock and seed with such success that her plantations
were models for the neighboring planters to admire and imitate.

When she was left in charge of the estate while her father went about
his army duties, she was but sixteen years old, and yet her letters to
him show not only her interest, but a remarkable grasp of both the
theoretical and the practical phases of agriculture.

"I wrote my father a very long letter ... on the pains I had taken to
bring the Indigo, Ginger, Cotton, Lucern, and Cassada to perfection, and
had greater hopes from the Indigo...."

To her father: "The Cotton, Guiney corn and most of the Ginger planted
here was cutt off by a frost."

"I wrote you in former letters we had a fine crop of Indigo Seed upon
the ground and since informed you the frost took it before it was dry.
I picked out the best of it and had it planted but there is not more
than a hundred bushes of it come up, which proves the more unlucky as
you have sent a man to make it."

In a letter to a friend she indicates how busy she is:

"In genl I rise at five o'clock in the morning, read till seven - then
take a walk in the garden or fields, see that the Servants are at their
respective business, then to breakfast. The first hour after breakfast
is spent in musick, the next is constantly employed in recolecting
something I have learned, ... such as french and shorthand. After that I
devote the rest of the time till I dress for dinner, to our little
Polly, and two black girls, who I teach to read.... The first hour after
dinner, as ... after breakfast, at musick, the rest of the afternoon in
needlework till candle light, and from that time to bed time read or
write; ... Thursday, the whole day except what the necessary affairs of
the family take up, is spent in writing, either on the business of the
plantations or on letters to my friends...."[302]

And yet this mere girl found time to devote to the general conventional
activities of women. After her marriage she seems to have gained her
greatest pleasure from her devotion to her household; but, left a widow
at thirty-six, she once more was forced to undertake the management of a
great plantation. The same executive genius again appeared, and an
initiative certainly surpassing that of her neighbors. She introduced
into South Carolina the cultivation of Indigo, and through her foresight
and efforts "it continued the chief highland staple of the country for
more than thirty years.... Just before the Revolution the annual export
amounted to the enormous quantity of one million, one hundred and seven
thousand, six hundred and sixty pounds. When will 'New Woman' do more
for her country?"[303]

Martha Washington was another of the colonial women who showed not only
tact but considerable talent in conducting personally the affairs of her
large estate between the death of her first husband and her marriage to
Washington, and when the General went on his prolonged absences to
direct the American army, she, with some aid from Lund Washington,
attended with no small success to the Mount Vernon property.

_III. Woman's Legal Powers_

Just how much legal power colonial women had is rather difficult to
discover from the writings of the day; for each section had its own
peculiar rules, and courts and decisions in the various colonies, and
sometimes in one colony, contradicted one another. Until the adoption of
the Constitution the old English law prevailed, and while unmarried
women could make deeds, wills, and other business transactions, the
wife's identity was largely merged into that of her husband. The
colonial husband seems to have had considerable confidence in his
help-meet's business ability, and not infrequently left all his property
at his death to her care and management. Thus, in 1793 John Todd left to
his widow, the future Dolly Madison, his entire estate:

"I give and devise all my estate, real and personal, to the Dear Wife of
my Bosom, and first and only Woman upon whom my all and only affections
were placed, Dolly Payne Todd, her heirs and assigns forever.... Having
a great opinion of the integrity and honorouble conduct of Edward Burd
and Edward Tilghman, Esquires, my dying request is that they will give
such advice and assistance to my dear Wife as they shall think prudent
with respect to the management and disposal of my very small Estate....
I appoint my dear Wife excutrix of this my will...."[304]

Samuel Peters, writing in his _General History of Connecticut_, 1781,
mentions this incident: "In 1740, Mrs. Cursette, an English lady,
travelling from New York to Boston, was obliged to stay some days at
Hebron; where, seeing the church not finished, and the people suffering
great persecutions, she told them to persevere in their good work, and
she would send them a present when she got to Boston. Soon after her
arrival there, Mrs. Cursette fell sick and died. In her will she gave a
legacy of £300 old tenor ... to the church of England in Hebron; and
appointed John Hancock, Esq., and Nathaniel Glover, her executors.
Glover was also her residuary legatee. The will was obliged to be
recorded in Windham county, because some of Mrs. Cursette's lands lay
there. Glover sent the will by Deacon S.H. - - of Canterbury, ordering
him to get it recorded and keep it private, lest the legacy should build
up the church. The Deacon and Register were faithful to their trust, and
kept Glover's secret twenty-five years. At length the Deacon was taken
ill, and his life was supposed in great danger.... The secret was

It is evident that the colonial woman, either as spinster or as widow,
was not without considerable legal power in matters of property, and it
is evident too that she now and then managed or disposed of such
property in a manner displeasing to the other sex. As shown in the above
incident of the church money, trickery was now and then tried in an
effort to set aside the wishes of a woman concerning her possessions;
but, in the main, her decisions and bequests seem to have received as
much respect from courts as those of the men.

A further instance of this feminine right to hold and manage
property - perhaps a little too radical to be typical - is to be found in
the career of the famous Margaret Brent of Maryland, the first woman in
the world to demand a seat in the parliamentary body of a commonwealth.
A woman of unusual intellect, decisiveness, and leadership, she came
from England to Maryland in 1638, and quickly became known as the equal,
if not the superior, of any man in the colony for comprehension of the
intricacies of English law dealing with property and decedents. Her
brothers, owners of great estates, recognized her superiority and
commonly allowed her to buy and sell for them and to sign herself
"attorney for my brother." Lord Calvert, the Governor, became her ardent
admirer, perhaps her lover, and when he lay dying he called her to his
bedside, and in the presence of witnesses, made perhaps the briefest
will in the history of law: "I make you my sole executrix; take all and
pay all." From that hour her career as a business woman was astonishing.
She collected all of Calvert's rentals and other incomes; she paid all
his debts; she planted and harvested on his estates; she even took
charge of numerous state affairs of Maryland, collected and dispersed
some portions of the colony's money, and was in many ways the colonial

Then came on January 21, 1648, her astounding demand for a vote in the
Maryland Assembly. Leonard Calvert, as Lord Baltimore's attorney, had
possessed a vote in the body; since Calvert had told her to take all and
pay all, he had granted her all powers he had ever possessed; she
therefore had succeeded him as Lord Baltimore's attorney and was
possessed of the attorneyship until Baltimore saw fit to appoint
another; hence, as the attorney, she was entitled to a seat and a voice
in the Assembly. Such was her reasoning, and when she walked into the
Assembly on that January day it was evident from the expression on her
face that she intended to be seated and to be heard. She made a speech,
moved many of the planters so greatly that they were ready to grant her
the right; she cowed the very acting governor himself, as he sat on the
speaker's bench. But that governor's very fear of her rivalry made him,
for once, active and determined; he had heard whispers throughout the
colony that she would make a better executive than he; he suddenly
thundered a decisive "No"; a brief recess was declared amidst the
ensuing confusion; and Margaret Brent went forth for the first time in
her life a defeated woman. Her power, however, was scarcely lessened,
and her influence grew to such an extent that on several occasions the
governor who had refused her a vote was obliged to humiliate himself and
beg her aid in quieting or convincing the citizens. The story of her
life leads one to believe that many women, if opportunity had offered,
would have proved themselves just as capable in business affairs as any
woman executive of our own times.

Many another example of feminine initiative might be cited. There was
that serious, yet ridiculous scene of long ago when the women of Boston
pinned up their dresses, took off their shoes, and waded about in the
mud and slush fortifying Boston Neck. Benjamin Tompson, a local poet,
found the incident a source of merriment in his _New England Crisis_,
1675; but in a way it was a stern rebuke to the men who looked on and
laughed at the women's frantic effort to wield mud plaster.

"A grand attempt some Amazonian Dames
Contrive whereby to glorify their names.
A ruff for Boston Neck of mud and turfe,
Reaching from side to side, from surf to surf,
Their nimble hands spin up like Christmas pyes,
Their pastry by degrees on high doth rise ...
The wheel at home counts in an holiday,
Since while the mistress worketh it may play.
A tribe of female hands, but manly hearts,
Forsake at home their pastry crust and tarts,
To kneed the dirt, the samplers down they hurl,
Their undulating silks they closely furl.
The pick-axe one as a commandress holds,
While t'other at her awk'ness gently scolds.
One puffs and sweats, the other mutters why
Can't you promove your work so fast as I?
Some dig, some delve, and others' hands do feel
The little wagon's weight with single wheel.
And lest some fainting-fits the weak surprize,
They want no sack nor cakes, they are more wise..."

That simple-hearted, kindly French-American, St. John de Crevecoeur, has
left us a description of the women of Nantucket in his _Letters from an
American Farmer_, 1782, and if his account is trustworthy these women
displayed business capacity that might put to shame many a modern wife.
Hear some extracts from his statement:

"As the sea excursions are often very long, their wives in their
absence are necessarily obliged to transact business, to settle
accounts, and, in short, to rule and provide for their families.
These circumstances, being often repeated, give women the
abilities as well as a taste for that kind of superintendency to
which, by their prudence and good management, they seem to be in
general very equal. This employment ripens their judgment, and
justly entitles them to a rank superior to that of other wives;
... The men at their return, weary with the fatigues of the sea,
... cheerfully give their consent to every transaction that has
happened during their absence, and all is joy and peace. 'Wife,
thee hast done well,' is the general approbation they receive,
for their application and industry...."

"...But you must not imagine from this account that the Nantucket
wives are turbulent, of high temper, and difficult to be ruled;
on the contrary, the wives of Sherburn, in so doing, comply only
with the prevailing custom of the island: the husbands, equally
submissive to the ancient and respectable manners of their
country, submit, without ever suspecting that there can be any
impropriety.... The richest person now in the island owes all his
present prosperity and success to the ingenuity of his wife: ...
for while he was performing his first cruises, she traded with
pins and needles, and kept a school. Afterward she purchased more
considerable articles, which she sold with so much judgment, that
she laid the foundation of a system of business, that she has
ever since prosecuted with equal dexterity and success...."

_IV. Patriotic Initiative and Courage_

It was in the dark days of the Revolution that these stronger qualities
of the feminine soul shone forth, and served most happily the struggling
nation. Long years of Indian warfare and battling against a stubborn
wilderness had strengthened the spirit of the American woman, and when
the men marched away to defend the land their undaunted wives and
daughters bravely took up the masculine labors, tilling and reaping,
directing the slaves, maintaining ship and factory, and supplying the
armies with the necessities of life. The letters written by the women in
that period reveal an intelligent grasp of affairs and a strength of
spirit altogether admirable. Here was indeed a charming mingling of
feminine grace, tenderness, sympathy, self-reliance, and common sense.

It required genuine courage to remain at home, often with no masculine
protection whatever, with the ever-present danger of Indian raids, and
there, with the little ones, wait and wait, hearing news only at long
intervals, fearing even to receive it then lest it announce the death of
the loved ones. No telegraph, no railroad, no postal service, no
newspaper might offer relief, only the letter brought by some friend, or
the bit of news told by some passing traveller. It was a time of
agonizing anxiety. There were months when the wife heard nothing; we
have seen from the letters of Mrs. Adams that three months sometimes
intervened between the letters from her husband. In 1774, when John
Adams was at Philadelphia, such a short distance from Boston, according
to the modern conception, she wrote: "Five weeks have passed and not one
line have I received. I would rather give a dollar for a letter by the
post, though the consequences should be that I ate but one meal a day
these three weeks to come."[305]

Again, these women faced actual dangers; for they were often near the
firing line. John Quincy Adams says of his mother: "For the space of
twelve months my mother with her infant children dwelt, liable every
hour of the day and the night to be butchered in cold blood, or taken
and carried into Boston as hostages. My mother lived in unintermitted
danger of being consumed with them all in a conflagration kindled by a
torch in the same hands which on the 17th of June [1775] lighted the
fires of Charlestown. I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard
Britannia's thunders in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and witnessed the
tears of my mother and mingled them with my own."

In 1777, so anxious was the mother for news of her husband, that John
Quincy became post-rider for her between Braintree and Boston, eleven
miles, - not a light or easy task for the nine-year-old boy, with the
unsettled roads and unsettled times. Even the President's wife was for
weeks at a time in imminent peril; for the British could have desired
nothing better than to capture and hold as a hostage the wife of the
chief rebel. Washington himself was exceedingly anxious about her, and
made frequent inquiry as to her welfare. She, however, went about her
daily duties with the utmost calmness and in the hours of gravest danger
showed almost a stubborn disregard of the perils about her.
Washington's friend, Mason, wrote to him: "I sent my family many miles
back in the country, and advised Mrs. Washington to do likewise, as a
prudential movement. At first she said 'No; I will not desert my post';
but she finally did so with reluctance, rode only a few miles, and,
plucky little woman as she is, stayed away only one night."[306]

During the first years of the war nervous dread may have composed the
greater part of the suffering of American women, but during the later
years genuine hardships, lack of food and clothing, physical
catastrophes befell these brave but silent helpers of the patriots.
Especially was this true in the South, where the British overran the
country, destroyed homes, seized food, cattle, and horses, and left
devastation to mark the trail. In 1779 Mrs. Pinckney's son wrote her
that Provost, the British leader, had destroyed the plantation home
where the family treasure had been stored, and that everything had been
burned or stolen; but her reply had no wail of despair in it: "My Dear
Tomm: I have just received your letter with the account of my losses,
and your almost ruined fortunes by the enemy. A severe blow! but I feel
not for myself, but for you.... Your Brother's timely generous offer, to
divide what little remains to him among us, is worthy of him...."[307]

The financial distress of Mrs. Pinckney might be cited as typical of the
fate of many aristocratic and wealthy families of Virginia and South
Carolina. Owner of many thousands of acres and a multitude of slaves,
she was reduced to such straits that she could not meet ordinary debts.
Shortly after the Revolution she wrote in reply to a request for payment
of such a bill: "I am sorry I am under a necessity to send this
unaccompanied with the amount of my account due to you. It may seem
strange that a single woman, accused of no crime, who had a fortune to
live genteely in any part of the world, that fortune too in different
kinds of property, and in four or five different parts of the country,
should be in so short a time so entirely deprived of it as not to be
able to pay a debt under 60 pound sterling, but such is my singular
case. After the many losses I have met with for the last three or four
desolating years from fire and plunder, both in country and town, I
still had some thing to subsist upon, but alas the hand of power has
deprived me of the greatest part of that, and accident of the

It was indeed a day that called for the strongest type of courage, and
nobly did the women face the crisis. In the South the wives and
daughters of patriots were forced to appear at balls given by the
invading forces, to entertain British officers, to act as hostesses to
unbidden guests, and to act the part pleasantly, lest the unscrupulous
enemy wreak vengeance upon them and their possessions. The constant
search on the part of the British for refugees brought these women
moments when fear or even a second's hesitation would have proved
disastrous. One evening Marion, the famous "Swamp-Fox," came worn out to
the home of Mrs. Horry, daughter of Eliza Pinckney, and so completely
exhausted was he that he fell asleep in his chair while she was
preparing him a meal. Suddenly she heard the approaching British. She
awakened him, told him to follow the path from her kitchen door to the
river, swim to an island, and leave her to deceive the soldiers. She
then met at the front door the British officer Tarleton, who leisurely
searched the house, ate the supper prepared for Marion, and went away
with several of the family treasures and heirlooms. On another occasion
when Mrs. Pinckney and her grand-daughter were sleeping in their
plantation home, distant from any neighbor, they were awakened by a
beautiful girl who rushed into the bedroom, crying, "Oh, Mrs. Pinckney,
save me! The British are coming after me." With the utmost calmness
the old lady arose from her bed, placed the girl in her place, and
commanded, "Lie there, and no man will dare to trouble you." She then
met the pursuers with such quiet scorn that they shrank away into the

What brave stories could be told of other women - Molly Stark, Temperance
Wicke, and a host of others. What man, soldier or statesman, could have

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Online LibraryCarl HollidayWoman's Life in Colonial Days → online text (page 21 of 23)