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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Thursday, January 02, 2014

Introducing the Story of Deborah Champion

This is the story of two documents that Sam Forman, author of the recent biography Dr. Joseph Warren, just posted on his website. This story (and it’s a long story) is the product of work by a team that Sam assembled virtually late last year, including Rachel Smith, Tamesin Eustis, Derek W. Beck, and myself, along with helpful friends.

In 1891, Francis Bacon Trowbridge published The Champion Genealogy, tracing the descendants of Henry Champion of Connecticut. He was a militia colonel and commissary during the Revolutionary War. The book included this stirring story of a young woman during the Revolutionary War:
“Mrs. Deborah (Champion) Gilbert,” says a descendant, “was sent by her father at the age of seventeen to carry dispatches from New London to General Washington at Boston. She made the journey there and back on horseback, attended only by an old slave named Aristarchus. At one time she passed through the lines of the British soldiers carrying funds to pay the American army, her sex enabling her to pass without suspicion. I am proud to be able to remember her as a stately old lady of ninety-three years.”
That unnamed descendant’s account seems to describe two significant journeys: one by Deborah Champion as a seventeen-year-old from New London to Boston, and one through British lines carrying a Continental Army payroll.

The same genealogy—indeed, the same page—said that Deborah Gilbert was born in 1753 and died in 1845. Those dates appear on the Gilberts’ gravestone, shown above (courtesy of FindaGrave.com). That presents two glitches for the unnamed descendant’s story:
  • Deborah Gilbert died at the age of ninety-two and thus was never “a stately old lady of ninety-three years.”
  • When Deborah Champion was “at the age of seventeen,” the year was 1770, five years before she could have met “General Washington at Boston.” (Her sister Dorothy was seventeen in 1775, though that might just be coincidence.)
Clearly the details of this story had gotten foggy as it was passed along. Trowbridge the genealogist didn’t call attention to those discrepancies. After all, Champion descendants were the primary market for his book.

TOMORROW: Outside the family.

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