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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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

“Women of Tory Row” Tour, 20 Sept.

Saturday, 20 September, is this year’s Cambridge Discovery Day. The city’s historical commission has organized a series of walking tours, exhibits, and lectures, most of them free.

I’m leading a tour of Brattle Street called “The Women of Tory Row.” We’ll start at 3:00 at the Tory Row historical marker on the corner of Brattle and Mason Streets. That means we won’t see the Brattle House, now part of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, so I’ll talk about the ladies in that house now.

William Brattle was a militia general who triggered the “Powder Alarm” of 1-2 September 1774. As soon as he realized his neighbors knew he’d told Gen. Thomas Gage about gunpowder in the county powderhouse, and that those neighbors saw his action as a betrayal, Brattle fled into Boston.

Brattle’s widowed daughter, Katherine Wendell, remained in Cambridge, and remained determined to keep the family property from being damaged or confiscated. Her method, according to descendants, was to obtain “the favor of men in power civil and military.”

During the siege of Boston, when Cambridge housed thousands of Continental soldiers, Mrs. Wendell hosted two teen-aged girls in that house:
  • Her daughter, Martha-Fitch Wendell (1762-1835).
  • Abigail Collins (1757-1832), daughter of a Rhode Island Patriot and an Avery from Boston.
Collins’s son later described them as “two young ladies whose personal qualities rendered them the centre of attraction among the officers of the army.” Not least because there probably weren’t any other upper-class young women around.

By August, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania had accepted the post of quartermaster-general of the army and chose the Brattle house to be his home and office. I suspect Mrs. Wendell moved herself and the girls into back rooms, accommodating the quartermaster to curry his favor and make sure people understood that she still claimed the house.

That month, Abigail Adams sent her husband in Philadelphia a word to pass on to Mifflin’s wife Sarah (shown with him above): “tell her I do not know whether her Husband is safe here. Belona and Cupid have a contest about[.] You hear nothing from the Ladies, but about Major Mifflins easy address, politeness, complasance &c. &c.”

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

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