J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Deborah Champion, Cloaked Crusader

Last week’s postings showed how descendants of Henry Champion, particularly women who had joined the Daughters of the American Revolution, promulgated the dubious Deborah Champion letter in the early 1900s. They told the story at meetings, sent copies to other chapters, and probably shared a copy to the authors of The Pioneer Mothers of America.

This week’s postings have shown how the text of that letter changed over time, how its details don’t conform to facts about the siege of Boston, how it reads like historical fiction. Most of the Champion relatives could have been sincerely duped about the letter’s authenticity. But someone was working to maintain the fraud.

Interestingly, those women didn’t need the evidence of the Deborah Champion letter to join the D.A.R. Their common ancestor Henry Champion is well documented as a commissary general for the Continental Army, qualifying all his descendants for membership. His son, also named Henry, was a high officer in the army, mentioned in George Washington’s correspondence. The Champion men already offered an authentic Revolutionary heritage.

What’s more, the Champion family remained prominent in Connecticut. The commissary general’s house is preserved as the headquarters of the Colchester Historical Society. The Connecticut Historical Society holds a collection of his and his son’s papers. (More are at the Litchfield Historical Society.) Deborah Champion’s husband, Samuel Gilbert, was a respected state legislator and jurist, and their son Peyton R. Gilbert’s papers are at Yale.

But this letter provided a Revolutionary heritage for the Champion women—not just Deborah, who supposedly performed a ride to rival Paul Revere’s, but also the women who preserved and shared her story over a century later. It might have been particularly meaningful for women in branches of the family who had moved away from Connecticut. The most likely candidate for writing the letter was Mary Rebecca Adams Squire of Ohio and Pennsylvania, who first received praise for sharing the “charming tale” in 1902 and supplied a version to another branch of the family in the following decade.

The letter portrays Deborah as brave, patriotic, dedicated to her father and General Washington, and active. She’s not a “stay at home” focused wholly on feminine handcrafts. She steps into the traditionally male role as rider. In that respect, the Deborah Champion story is similar to the stories of Emily Geiger (first published in 1832, no contemporaneous documentation), Abigail Smith (first published in 1864, refuted by family documents), and Sybil Ludington (first published in 1880, no contemporaneous documentation).

The story of her ride to Boston made Deborah Champion a heroine that later generations of Americans could relate to: a seventeen-year-old loyal daughter undertaking a dangerous mission for Gen. Washington. No matter that she was actually twenty-two years old and married by the (earliest) date of the letter. No matter that the letter is full of improbable details and language.

In 1980, two of Deborah Champion’s descendants donated a fur-lined red cloak to the Connecticut Historical Society. In its newsletter the society reported the “family tradition” that Deborah “wore it when she rode through British lines in 1775, carrying dispatches to General Washington.” Yet even with all its detailed descriptions of clothing, the letter doesn’t describe that fur-lined red cloak.

I asked Lynne Bassett, an expert on historic textiles, about that garment. She replied that it appears “entirely authentic. It’s made of red wool broadcloth with shag trimming the edges. All of the construction details are right.” It’s a much more impressive artifact than we have from the vast majority of eighteenth-century American women. But without the dramatic story provided by the dubious letter, it would still be an empty cloak.

TOMORROW: The Deborah Champion revival.


Chaucerian said...

This tradition doesn't even make narrative sense. "Let me think, what shall I wear to pass through the [actually, non-existent] British lines nearly undetected? I know, I'll wear my bright red bulky voluminous cloak! They'll never see me!"

J. L. Bell said...

The letters discuss clothing in detail but never mention a red velvet cloak. I therefore think that whoever wrote those texts has never seen this cloak, though she (?) may have heard that some cousins owned a cloak that Deborah Champion wore. I think that the family line who owned the cloak made their own assumption that this was the very cloak Deborah wore on the journey because, after all, what other cloak of hers did they have?

John L. Smith said...

Regardless of her controversy, I'm beginning to see Deborah Champion as the subject of a female action heroine film. Why, she even has the real name of a Champion! Add in the (real) fur-lined red cloak and she's ready made for the big screen!

G. Lovely said...

If we're looking for female Revolutionary War 'action' subjects, my vote's for Jane (Franklin) Mecom over Deborah Champion. Pehaps not as sensational a tale as Champion's, but I suspect a bit more grounded in the everyday reality of the siege of Boston.

J. L. Bell said...

From a narrative point of view, Jane Mecom's story presents some problems. She was certainly active all her life, working to maintain her household and raise her children. But she doesn't have triumphs, at least long-lived ones. She confronted mentall illness in her family, which storytellers have a tough time dealing with because we want it to be caused by something or mean something or be overcome, and that's not always how life works.

In contrast, the Deborah Champion story is a well-shaped story with an unlikely protagonist, a clear goal, obstacles, somewhat surprising setbacks, and a triumph through wits and preparation. Too bad it's too good to be true.

Joanq said...

Sarah Bradlee Fulton of Medford also smuggled letters to Washington. She only had to travel a few miles but still had to avoid the British. He later came to Medford to visit her.

J. L. Bell said...


Actually, I've done a lot of poking around in the stories of Sarah Bradlee and her brothers. They date from this same period and were promoted by a dogged descendant. They have little supporting evidence, and some tales are contradicted by contemporaneous evidence. On the other hand, contemporaneous evidence puts David Bradlee on the site on three political riots between October 1769 and March 1770, so he was definitely a street-level Whig.