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.

Follow by Email

Friday, January 31, 2014

How to Dress at the Hive

Federal budget cuts mean that there won’t be a big battle and camp reenactment at Minute Man National Historical Park around Patriots Day this year. But there will be smaller events, especially on the town level, and it’s still valuable for reenactors to deliver an accurate period impression.

Once again, therefore, the Ladies of Refined Taste & Friends and Minute Man N.H.P. are offering free Hive workshops on Revolutionary War topics and artifacts for reenactors and other interested folks. I’m too late for the first, but the next two are scheduled for Sunday, 9 February, and Sunday, 2 March.

In addition, on Saturday, 8 February, there’s an advanced Hive workshop on sewing Revolutionary War knapsacks with Henry Cooke IV. On that day and Saturday, 8 March, there’s an advanced workshop on constructing an English gown with Hallie Larkin and Stephanie Smith.

In addition, Larkin & Smith have just issued a pattern for an eighteenth-century English dress for sale. Their webpage says, “This pattern is drafted from an original open front gown c 1760s-1770s. It has a stomacher front and robings, with a pleated enfourreau back.” If I’d been to more Hive sessions, I might know what that means!

The pattern comes with an impressive quantity of instructional material, including “variations for simple working and middling class gowns,” “20 pages of color plates,” a “pleating template,” and a “documentation card with details of the original.”

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Women at Old South Meeting House in February

Old South Meeting House’s “Middays at the Meeting House” talks resume on Thursdays in February with presentations on eighteenth-century women.

February 6
Sarah Prince: A Life in Meditations and Letters
Sarah Prince Gill (1728-1771, shown here courtesy of R.I.S.D.), daughter of influential Old South Meeting-House minister Thomas Prince, kept a spiritual diary for twenty-one years and maintained a friendship and correspondence with her “dearest Friend” Esther Edwards Burr, daughter of famed theologian Jonathan Edwards. Historian and Wheelock professor Laurie Crumpacker will discuss what the journal and letters reveal about women’s roles in the Great Awakening, the astonishing spiritual revival that swept the colony.

February 13
Abigail Adams: Life, Love, and Letters
Abigail Adams claimed to write with an “untutored stile,” and asked her husband John to destroy her letters. He saved them anyway, giving posterity a unique look into the life and times of this iconic wife, mother, and Patriot. Living history interpreter Patricia Bridgman uses the couple’s correspondence to bring Abigail to life, from the Adamses’ courtship in 1764, through the tumultuous years of the American Revolution, to 1778 on the eve of her husband and son’s voyage to France. Bridgman’s Mrs. Adams is serious about such issues as women’s education and rights, but she’s saucy, too, and enjoys poking gentle fun at those who deserve it, including Mr. Adams!

February 20
Petticoats at the Revolution
Join us to hear a remarkable story of tea and Revolution from the woman who rode through life with Paul Revere. Actor and storyteller Joan Gatturna portrays Rachel Revere sharing the story of the Boston Tea Party, the Midnight Ride, and the Siege of Boston through the eyes of a woman who kept the home fires burning while her husband fanned the flames of rebellion. Her characterization of Rachel Revere was developed with assistance from the staff of the Paul Revere House.

February 27
“Lett No Country Grants to be Laid Upon our Lands”
The lives and perspectives of Native women are often left out of histories of colonial New England. In 1723, Eastern Pequot leader Mary Momoho submitted a petition to the Connecticut General Assembly, demanding tribal recognition and the preservation of her community’s reservation in Stonington. In this illustrated lecture, anthropologist and UMass Boston professor Amy Den Ouden will explore what we can learn about indigenous women’s daily lives from 18th-century land petitions, and will draw parallels between these historical realities and contemporary issues in indigenous communities involving land, voice, and power.

Each session starts at 12:15 P.M. and lasts for about an hour. They are free to Old South members, $1-6 for others.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mr. Redwood’s Wig

Scott Stephenson alerted me to this delightful entry from the diary of William Ellery (1727-1820, shown here), Rhode Island delegate to the Continental Congress.

In 1778 Ellery was traveling to Philadelphia with William Redwood (1726-1815), a Philadelphia merchant who had been born in Newport:
Nov. 5th. Took the route through Paramus and breakfasted at a Dutchman’s about 7 miles from Coe’s, and were well-entertained.

A little diverting affair took place here: The Children who had never before seen a Gentleman with a wig on, were it seems not a little puzzled with my friend’s head-dress. They thought it was his natural hair, but it differed so much from mine and theirs in its shape that they did not know what to make of it. The little boy after viewing it some time with a curious eye, asked his mother, in Dutch, whether it would hurt my friend if he should pull his hair. The mother told us what the boy had said, whereupon my friend took off his wig put it on the head of the boy and led him to the looking-glass. The mixture of Joy and Astonishment in the boy’s countenance on this occasion diverted us not a little. He would look with astonishment at Mr. Redwood’s bare head, and then survey his own head, and the droll figure he made with the wig on, made him and us laugh very heartily. It is not a little remarkable that children who had lived on a public road should have never before seen a wig.

From thence to Newark is 9 miles and to Elizabeth Town 6 miles, where we lodged at one Smith’s. A Detachment of the Army under Ld. Stirling was here. The Officers had a ball at Smith’s and kept up the dance till three o’clock in the morning. Drum, fife and fiddle, with an almost incessant saltation drove Morpheus from my Pillow.
Ellery’s diary was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1888.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Massachusetts Got Its Constitution

Yesterday I quoted a letter from Alexander McDougall discussing the Massachusetts Convention of 1780 (shown courtesy of Springfield Technical Community College).

Here’s how Samuel Eliot Morison described the ratification of that document in A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts, published in 1917.
The mode of ratification adopted by the Convention was peculiar. Profiting by the experience of 1778 [when voters strongly rejected the legislature’s draft constitution], it did not submit the Constitution as a whole to popular vote. Instead, it asked the adult freemen to convene in their town meetings to consider and debate the Constitution clause by clause, to point out objections, if any, to particular articles, and to send in their returns to the secretary of the Convention, with the yeas and nays on every question. The people were then asked to empower the Convention at an adjourned session on June 5 to ratify and declare the Constitution in force if two-thirds of the voters were in favor of it, or, if not, to alter it in accordance with the popular will as expressed in the returns, and ratify it as thus amended. . . .

On June 5 the Convention convened for its fourth and last session at the old Brattle Street Church in Boston. . . . A committee was appointed to canvass the returns and report the result to the Convention. This committee adopted a system of tabulation which to-day would be called political jugglery. The towns had not voted on the Constitution as a whole, but article by article; and in many cases they proposed a substitute for an article they objected to, and voted on that instead of on the original. These votes on amended articles were either thrown out or counted as if cast for the original article. Hence it was made to appear that every article of the Constitution had well over a two-thirds majority, although a fair tabulation would have shown only a bare majority for at least two.
This sort of manipulation in Boston didn’t help relieve the unrest in the western counties which had made MacDougall doubt that Massachusetts would accept any sort of government. Nonetheless, the state constitution took effect, John Hancock took office as the first governor since Thomas Gage, and we still govern ourselves on the basis of that document. We even proudly boast that our constitution was a model for the federal Constitution adopted later in the decade.

Monday, January 27, 2014

“A constitution to be offered to the people”

Here’s an unusual discussion of the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 between two New Yorkers, published in (of all places) The Cincinnati Miscellany in 1846.

That Ohio periodical stated, “The following letter, published now for the first time, was written by Gen. [Alexander] M’Dougal [shown here] to Judge [William] Goforth of New York, afterwards one of the first settlers of Columbia” in the Northwest Territory:
Fish Kill, February 7th, 1780.

My Dear Sir:—

This will inform you that I have been at quarters here, since the 6th of December last, in order to get rid of an old complaint of the stone. The symptoms have so far yielded to medicine, as to render them more tolerable than they were.

I have seen the report of the committee of the convention of Massachusetts Bay of a constitution to be offered the people for their approbation. From some sentences in it, I think they have not wholly lost sight of an establishment [i.e., state support for one favored religion]. I am inclined to believe this was occasioned by their dread of the clergy; for if the convention declared against such a measure, they would exert themselves to get a negative put on it when it should be proposed to the people. But independent of this subject, I think the people will not approve of it, or any other form, which gives energy to the government or social security to the people. To give security to a people in the frame of a government, they must resign a portion of their natural liberty for the security of the rest. There is a large county in that state that will not suffer a court of justice to sit to do any business. These very people have become so licentious that they have taken flour by force of arms from a magistrate in this state, who was retaining it here according to law to supply the army, which has been frequently distressed for the want of that article. From this specimen you may form a judgment what kind of constitution will suit that people. There is a great deal of good sense among them; but I have my doubts of its having effect in the frame of govemment.

I want some small articles from your town. I shall be much obliged to you to inform me how much higher dry goods are than they were before the war for hard money? What can the best leather breeches be bought for in like specie? Your old subaltern is well.

I wish to hear from you by post on the subject of my request as soon as possible.

I am, dear sir, your humble ser’t,
ALEX. M’DOUGAL.

Judge W. Goforth, New York.
Massachusetts towns did end up approving that constitution of 1780, which is still the basis of the state government today. However, I believe the approval came only after the legislature defined the rules in a fashion that Samuel Eliot Morrison later called “political jugglery.”

TOMORROW: What exactly did that mean?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Council Chamber at the Old State House, 28 Jan.

On Tuesday, 28 January, the Bostonian Society will unveil its makeover of the Old State House’s Council Chamber, where the Massachusetts Council considered legislation and met with the governor. This was considered the most opulent public space in colonial Boston and the center of imperial power in Massachusetts.

Working with craftspeople trained at the North Bennet Street School, the society has furnished the room as it appeared in 1764, when the building was still called the Town House and Britain’s North American empire was at its peak.

The event announcement explains:
Although the original Council Chamber table and chairs were lost or destroyed long ago, records kept by the colony have made it possible to identify in detail how the room was furnished and decorated. In several cases, the names of specific craftsmen are known and similar pieces by them survive in museums where they may be examined and then carefully reproduced. . . .

North Bennet Street School’s master faculty and alumni are expert in eighteenth-century cabinetmaking techniques. The results of this unique collaboration are now visible in the meticulous furniture reproductions on display in the Council Chamber at the Old State House.
The result includes “lavish, ruby-colored curtains, hand-crafted reproductions of the original furnishings and carefully selected pieces from the Bostonian Society’s collection of rare artifacts from the American Revolution.” There are paintings of kings on the walls. Visitors will be able to sit at the Council table and even in the Royal Governor’s chair.

The Bostonian Society invites the public to the official opening of this Council Chamber on Tuesday, 28 January, at 6:00 P.M. Launching a new exhibit titled “A British Town,” Prof. Jane Kamensky of Brandeis will speak about Boston’s happy place within the British Empire in the early 1760s.

The following weekend, 1-2 February, the Bostonian Society will offer programs for children and families, including special tours and scavenger hunts in the Council Chamber and throughout the Old State House.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Come to History Camp, Saturday, 8 March

On Saturday, 8 March, Lee Wright of The History List is organizing a “History Camp” at the I.B.M. Innovation Center in Cambridge. This event is designed to be an “unconference,” or self-organizing, non-hierarchical conference, for anyone in greater Boston interested in history.

The program will depend on who signs up to speak in the next few weeks. The presentations are supposed to be short and lively. The only requirement is that they not be just a sales pitch for a book, tour, class, or other product. I imagine those presentations falling into two categories:

  • neat stories and findings about the past.
  • practical tips about researching, writing, and teaching history.
I proposed two topics to Lee, one in each of those categories: “The Boston Bankruptcy That Led to the American Revolution” and “Google Books Changed My Life, and You Can, Too!” In addition, Lee drafted me for a tentative panel on “Becoming a Published Author” because I was once an acquiring editor for a book publisher.

Lee had the idea for History Camp after last fall’s RevWar Schmoozer. That informal social event brought together people from our city’s historic sites, reenacting organizations, libraries, museums, tour companies, colleges, and other institutions. It would be great to an even broader turnout at this event, which isn’t confined to the Revolutionary period. Given its setting, this History Camp might be an especially good place to talk about using new technology to improve the study or presentation of history.

As a self-organizing conference, History Camp will take shape over the next few weeks based on the interests of the folks who volunteer their time or ideas. So check out the website, think about the stories you might have to tell or would like to hear, and start signing up!

Friday, January 24, 2014

From Paper to Pixels

John Fea’s blog alerted me to an excerpt from Nicholas A. Basbanes’s On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History describing a visit to the Massachusetts Historical Society and a look at the documents it preserves. Among the paper treasures that Basbanes highlights are the Adams Family Papers, which the society is gradually digitizing and putting on the web.

Speaking of digitization, the Massachusetts State Library now offers P.D.F. files of Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolution, seventeen volumes that transcribed all the state’s surviving records about men serving in the Revolutionary War. A lot of those records come from scraps that happen to have been preserved—a pay record for one month, a clothing allowance for another, and so on. You often have to seek the same man under different spellings, and men with similar names can be combined into one entry. But I think it’s the most comprehensive record of individual service in that war from any state. The text is already available for subscribers at Ancestry.com; now you can download your own digital set.

And in Worcester, the American Antiquarian Society has honored its founder Isaiah Thomas by offering a digital look at the typeface catalogue he received from the London manufacturer Thomas Cottrell (d. 1785) in 1774. Graphic design histories credit Cottrell with popularizing oversized display type in the British Empire.

Ironically, all those links are about written and printed records, and yet we can now read all the information without a scrap of paper.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Looking for New Chemung

This month Binghamton University reported on some interesting work by its archeology faculty:
Experts from the Public Archaeology Facility recently took their shovels to a cornfield about 45 miles west of Binghamton, searching for evidence that could earn that site — the scene of a small but significant Revolutionary War battle — a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Four days of digging beneath the corn stubble yielded project director Michael Jacobson and his Binghamton University colleagues just a few modest items, including a charcoal smudge and the possible remains of a wooden post. But if test results show that those artifacts date from the late 18th century, that could be enough to convince National Register staff that the location of the Battle of Chemung should be preserved for further study.
Reading between the lines suggests that there might be as much interest in preserving that landscape from development as in its historical significance. As for that history:
Once home to the Village of New Chemung, the site is a few miles east of the better-known Newtown Battlefield. Historians often treat the Newtown and Chemung encounters as one event, although they occurred two weeks apart. . . .

The Continentals [under Gen. John Sullivan] stormed New Chemung on Aug. 13 [1779], only to find that all the occupants had fled. Heading west in pursuit, a detachment of soldiers encountered a group of Delaware warriors waiting in ambush about a mile away. The Continentals fought off the Delaware and then returned to New Chemung, where they burned the village to the ground.

To locate New Chemung in the landscape, the Binghamton archaeologists used a geographic information system (GIS) to lay an image of the Sullivan expedition’s official map over a present-day topographical map. They also used written accounts from the time of the battle, taken from Continental soldiers, loyalists and the Delaware, to pinpoint landmarks.

Finally, the archaeologists, guided by specialists from Ithaca College, walked the field with a magnetometer, a sensing device mounted on a cart. That exercise produced a printout that resembles a moonscape. The many dark splotches set against the gray background indicate disturbances in the soil that might — or might not — point to artifacts buried below.

At each of several spots that seemed most promising, the archaeologists dug a rectangular trench about 30 centimeters deep. In November, one of those test trenches produced the charcoal smudge, and another the traces of what perhaps was a post.
Newtown Battlefield is already a New York State park, as well as a federally recognized National Historic Landmark. There’s a push to add it to the National Park Service.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

“A young female coming out from the city”

This month’s discussion about the Deborah Champion legend expressed more than a little skepticism about that story of a young woman carrying important military information on horseback.

That tale, and similar stories of riders like Abigail Smith, Sybil Ludington, and Emily Geiger, have strong narrative and cultural appeal. Each offers an individual protagonist and a beginning, middle, and end. Such adventures show young women being active for America—though not, heavens forbid, using weapons themselves.

But just because those particular stories have little evidence to support them doesn’t mean that no young women were active during the war. In fact, there’s good evidence that some were, but, alas, that evidence doesn’t necessarily come neatly packaged as a story.

Here’s a first-person account from Benjamin Tallmadge (1754-1835), an officer in the Continental Army light dragoons from Long Island, New York. It was published first in Jeptha R. Simms’s History of Schoharie County and Border Wars of New York (1845) and then in the Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge (1858). In December 1777 Tallmadge (shown above in a portrait based on a sketch by John Trumbull) was a twenty-three-year-old major attached to the Continental Army at Valley Forge. His mounted unit received an assignment that called on their ability to travel fast and light. Tallmadge wrote:
being informed that a country girl had gone into Philadelphia, with eggs, instructed to obtain some information respecting the enemy, I moved my detachment to Germantown, where they halted, while, with a small detachment, I advanced several miles towards the British lines, and dismounted at a tavern called the Rising Sun, in full view of their out-posts.

Very soon I saw a young female coming out from the city, who also came to the same tavern. After we had made ourselves known to each other, and while she was communicating some intelligence to me, I was informed that the British light horse were advancing. Stepping to the door, I saw them at full speed chasing in my patrols, one of whom they took.

I immediately mounted, when I found the young damsel close by my side, entreating that I would protect her. Having not a moment to reflect, I desired her to mount behind me, and in this way I brought her off more than three miles up to Germantown, where she dismounted.

During the whole ride, although there was considerable firing of pistols, and not a little wheeling and charging, she remained unmoved, and never once complained of fear after she mounted my horse.

I was delighted with this transaction, and received many compliments from those who became acquainted with it.
That was apparently Tallmadge’s introduction to the world of intelligence. Eventually Gen. George Washington asked him to run the spy ring inside New York. Tallmadge was extremely circumspect about those activities when he composed that memoir for his children. Though his other papers include documents revealing his intelligence activities, including a codebook, in his memoir he wrote only that Gen. Washington “requested me to take charge of a particular part of his private correspondence.”

The Rising Sun tavern between Philadelphia and Germantown may have been a regular rendezvous point for exchanging intelligence in the winter of 1777-78. Commissary of prisoners Elias Boudinot wrote in his journal about going there to meet “a little poor looking insignificant Old Woman” who passed him important news hidden in “a dirty old needle book, with various small pockets in it.” John Nagy’s Spies in the Continental Capital offers strong evidence to support the family tradition that woman was Lydia Darragh, born in Ireland in 1729.

As for the young woman Tallmadge met, we don’t know her name. We don’t know the information she provided. At that stage in his career, Tallmadge probably wasn’t privy to the details, and later he learned to keep his mouth shut.

Since we don't know that young woman’s name or her mission or the results, we don’t have quite enough information make a compelling true story out of her three-mile ride with “considerable firing of pistols, and not a little wheeling and charging.” Which is a pity, because it seems to have really happened.

[This is an updated version of the posting that appeared on 1 Dec 2006.]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Wainwright on New England Meetinghouses, 29 Jan.

On Wednesday, 29 January, the Congregational Library in Boston will host an illustrated noontime lecture by Paul Wainwright about his photographs of the region’s oldest surviving religious buildings.

Wainwright’s photographs are collected in A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England, which was named best photography/art book of 2010 at the New England Book Festival. His website describes his work this way:

Paul Wainwright is a photographer based in Atkinson, New Hampshire, who works in a traditional manner utilizing sheet film, a large-format camera, and silver gelatin printing. His work has appeared in numerous juried competitions and solo exhibitions, and is included in the permanent collections of both private and corporate collectors, including Fidelity Investments, the Boston Public Library, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. . . . Wainwright holds a Ph.D. in physics from Yale University.
The library invites people to bring a brown-bag lunch to Wainwright’s talk, but it’s more than a lunchtime lecture: it’s scheduled to start at noon and last until 2:00 P.M. The Congregational Library is at 14 Beacon Street. Reserve a space through the library’s website.

ADDENDUM: This event was originally scheduled for 22 January. Because of the bad weather, it was postponed for a week, and this post was updated accordingly.

Monday, January 20, 2014

“A Tale of Muskets and Masquerade”

Earlier this month David M. Shribman reviewed the novel Revolutionary by Alex Myers for the New York Times. It’s a fictional treatment of the person who enlisted in the Continental Army late in the Revolutionary War under the name of Robert Shurtliff:
Deborah Samson is 22 and free of indenture, but addicted to adventure. She has left the church, and yet she is a believer of sorts, in independence for the American colonies and for herself. She recoils at orders to serve at table, and yet she yearns to serve in arms. . . .

So she cuts her hair and her ties with her Massachusetts village, a rebel against the restrictions imposed by her town and her time, and most of all by her gender. These are enduring themes, as old as the country.

That the tensions in this 18th-century tale—based on a true story—are explored in a 21st-century novel is, in a way, unsurprising. That this story—the tale of a woman who dresses like a man to live the life of a man and to do what’s considered the work of a man—is woven by a female-to-male transgender author is, even the writer has acknowledged, more than a coincidence.
Myers is also a distant relative of Deborah Sampson, the review says. Shribman is quite taken with the novel, acknowledging some “rookie” mistakes but calling it “remarkable.” Myers will read at the Harvard Book Store on 31 January.

If you’d prefer a nonfiction study of Sampson, look for Alfred F. Young’s Masquerade. It was Myers’s main source during his research.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

“Most People Don’t Know That”

Politifact rarely ventures into the politics of the eighteenth century, but its editor couldn’t resist one story last week:
Fox News co-host Andrea Tantaros…and other The Five panelists were talking about a new report from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which ranked America only 12th in terms of economic freedom. Tantaros said countries ahead of the United States, like Estonia, are more economically free because they “actually know their history, and they study their history, and they study ours and what we’re doing here.”

Americans, on the other hand, have gotten lazy and complacent, she suggested.

“If you ask most people, they don’t even know why we left England,” she said. “They don’t even know why some guy in Boston got his head blown off because he tried to secretly raise the tax on tea. Most people don’t know that.”
There’s a good reason very few Americans “know that”—because nothing like that ever happened.

Politifact checked with Ben Carp, author of Defiance of the Patriots; Sam Forman, author of Dr. Joseph Warren; and Guy Chet, author of Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in Colonial New England, which is actually about the seventeenth century. All of them confirmed that Tantaros, for all her scolding about American ignorance, was spouting nonsense.

Had Tantaros’s brain melded the Tea Party of 1773 with the Massacre of 1770, in which Samuel Gray was fatally shot in the head? Does she get her history from the Assassin’s Creed 3 videogame, which lets players fight redcoats on a tea ship (shown above)? Or was she just stringing together tough-sounding buzzwords for an uncritical audience?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Survey Course Conference in D.C., June 2014

In June, the Community College Humanities Association will run a workshop on teaching a college-level U.S. history survey course on “From the American Revolution to the American Jubilee 1776-1826.” This is the first of what the organization calls its “Survey Courses Project,” designed to improve the experience of introductory history classes for all concerned.

The goal of this conference is to:
provide college and university faculty members an intensive learning experience that will enable them to gain immediately fresh insights and rich content to enhance their survey courses and scholarship. . . . Participants will hear presentations and interact with exceptional scholars of the Revolution and Early Republic at key historical and cultural institutions in Washington, D.C. so as to infuse their survey courses with insights into recent scholarship surrounding this period of American history. Moreover, it will feature research opportunities at the Library of Congress.
Among the scholars involved:
  • Peter Onuf, author of Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood
  • Fergus Bordewich, author of Washington: The Making of the American Capital
  • Pamela Scott, author of Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation
  • William Seale, author of The White House: The History of an American Idea
  • William Bushong, author of Inside the White House
  • Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of the A Slave in the White House
  • William Allman, White House Curator
  • Julie Miller, Historian, Early America, Library of Congress
  • Dorothy Moss, Historian and Assistant Curator, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
  • Steve Livengood, US Capitol Historical Society’s Chief Capitol Guide
The White House Historical Association and the United States Capitol Historical Society are co-sponsoring this project.

The first workshop is scheduled for 22-27 June 2014 in Washington, D.C. The deadline for registration is 1 May. The registration fee is $799, and “low-cost apartment housing” has been arranged at George Washington University at approximately $50 per night per person. The costs of meals and travel to Washington are not included. Visit the Community College Humanities Association’s website for more information and the registration form.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Deborah Champion Story Today

Yesterday’s posting brought the tale of the Deborah Champion letter up to the present, with versions of the text appearing on websites as well as books as an authentic historical source about a young Connecticut woman early in the Revolutionary War. It’s linked to authoritative institutions like the Library of Congress and the University of Connecticut. And now that it’s appearing online, the Deborah Champion story can reach more people more quickly than ever.

Yet, as I laid out before, the letter’s historical details, language, and narrative style strongly suggest that it’s a fiction created around 1900. No one has ever come forward with an original document. The two divergent transcriptions are both said to be accurate, but I suspect the second to surface was created to correct the more obvious problems of the first.

The letter was probably inspired by a tradition among descendants of Deborah’s father, Henry Champion. As put into print in 1891, that tradition implied Deborah had undertaken at least two rides, one to bring dispatches to Gen. George Washington and the other to carry a payroll past British patrols. The letter gathers all those details into one mission.

Unfortunately, the family lore had already become garbled as to Deborah’s age and marital status by the time it was printed. There doesn’t seem to be concrete evidence or independent strains in separate family lines to support the story. Thus, though there might have been a kernel of truth in the tradition of Deborah Champion’s ride, it’s impossible to sift that out in a convincing way.

Some scholars I know have taken one look at the Deborah Champion letter and recognized it as inauthentic. They’re historians used to reading real eighteenth-century correspondence, versed in the events and customs and language of that period. There are so many unreliable tales from the Colonial Revival that they weren’t surprised to encounter one more, and simply moved on to more promising material.

On the other hand, researchers with less specific experience might come across the text, look for Deborah Champion’s name in other books, find an increasing number of authors accepting the story, and conclude that the letter is reliable. After all, some fine historians have accepted it.

This series of postings appears to be the first thorough analysis of the Deborah Champion letter as a historic source. It’s the first to unearth the most dubious version of the text, the 1926 newspaper publication that said it was dated 1776, and to trace the links among the Champion descendants who shared the story in the early 1900s. Dr. Sam Forman deserves the credit for initiating the project and leading the research team, including myself, Rachel Smith, Derek W. Beck, Tamesin Eustis, and the timely assistance of Kevin Peel and Will Brooks.

Our work was possible only because of all the digital resources we’ve all gained in recent years: Google Books, newspaper scans, genealogical sites, and of course email. The internet also made it possible to publish such a detailed debunking economically. A print journal would probably be able to justify only a couple of pages warning scholars off (as the William & Mary Quarterly did with Mary Beth Norton’s warning about the Dorothy Dudley diary in 1976).

So now the question is whether the worldwide availability of the two texts of the letter, information about their publication, and our analysis can catch up to the books and websites that promulgate the letter as authentic reliable. Once someone raises doubts with a few strong points, people’s skepticism usually kicks in and they can spot a lot more holes for themselves.

At least I hope so.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Critical Mass of Deborah Champion Retellings?

In recent years, an increasing number of books have referred to Deborah Champion’s experience carrying dispatches. Usually those are brief mentions, such as her name dropped in Liberty’s Daughters (1980), by Mary Beth Norton, a landmark in American women’s history. Holly A. Mayer describes Champion’s trip in a footnote of Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution (1996), citing the Library of Congress typescript.

The most prominent recent description seems to be two pages of Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (2007). It appears in a chapter on stories that have “come down to us only through family tales, told and retold, exaggerated and embellished in the process, but with a kernel of truth nevertheless.” Despite that warning about the retellings being less than fully reliable, Berkin then retells the story in full, including the easily refuted statement that “the British were already at Providence” and praise from Gen. George Washington.

Revolutionary Mothers doesn’t cite any primary source directly. Rather, its note points to:
  • Sally Smith Booth’s The Women of ’76 (1973), which I quoted yesterday.
  • the 1986 Connecticut report Great Women in Connecticut History, which in turn relied on the Bicentennial report described yesterday,
  • the one-sentence mention of Deborah Champion in Ray Raphael’s A People’s History of the American Revolution (2002).
That approach reflects how Revolutionary Mothers is a summary work for a popular audience. But it gains its authority because Berkin is a respected pioneer in women’s history.

As the Deborah Champion story has appeared in more such books, it appears more reliable. With each brief mention in an authoritative book, the story has gained more critical mass, making it seem more credible to the next author.

The Deborah Champion story seems to be especially popular in textbooks and reference books, which can have the names of major historians on the cover but are usually composed by committees working from secondary sources. In these, the tale can become even more dramatic and less accurate. Berkin and Wood’s Land of Promise (1983) told students, “Deborah Champion of Massachusetts was captured and interrogated as she carried a message for General Washington.” Sue Heinemann’s Timelines of American Women’s History (1996) included, “Deborah Champion gallops two days through enemy lines…” A Reader’s Digest book called The American Story (1998) declared, “Twenty-three-year-old Deborah Champion Gilbert of Connecticut rode more than 100 miles through enemy lines to deliver army payroll and dispatches…”

A few recent books quote some form of the Deborah Champion letter at length. David C. King’s American Heritage, American Voices: Colonies and Revolution (2003) uses the text published by Mary R. Beard. Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present (2005), by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, prints the entire Library of Congress text. Jeanne Munn Bracken’s Women in the American Revolution (2007) quotes Grunwald and Adler but omits the description of “Uncle Aristarchus” as a slave and his stereotypical trembling and dialect.

In addition, the University of Connecticut’s Early American Women Writers website quotes the Library of Congress version of Deborah Champion’s adventure. And it’s increasingly easy to find other websites quoting the letter or retelling its story.

TOMORROW: The Deborah Champion myth in an online world.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Second Look at Deborah Champion and “Uncle Aristarchus”

Yesterday I brought the story of the Deborah Champion letter into the 1970s, when the Bicentennial and the search for female heroes in American history brought her back into print. The rise of women’s history not only brought more attention to the experiences of women in the American Revolution, but also new rigor to the study of that history.

Apparently around that time—we don’t know exactly when—another version of the letter arrived at the Library of Congress. That document offered a more plausible October 1775 date and cut some of the more dubious details about the siege of Boston in the 1912/1926 text. It was also the first transcript to mention an original document, supposedly owned by descendants. And of course the Library of Congress Manuscripts Department carries a lot of authority in a footnote.

One of the major differences between the two texts of the letter is the figure of Aristarchus, the enslaved man who supposedly accompanied the young woman on her ride from Connecticut to Massachusetts. Aristarchus appears twice in the text first published in 1912:
So, dear Patience, it was finally settled that I should start in the early morning and Aristarchus should go with me. He has been devoted to me since I made a huge cake to grace his wedding with Glory and found a name for the dusky baby which we call Sophronista. For a slave he has his fair share of wits, also. . . .

Suddenly, I was ordered to halt; as I could n’t help myself I did so. I could almost hear Aristarchus’ teeth rattle in his mouth, but I knew he would obey my instructions and if I was detained, would try to find the way alone.
In the text at the Library of Congress, Aristarchus is more prominent. In fact, most of the passages that appear only in that version refer to him in some way. In addition, that text changes his wife’s name from Glory to Chloe.

The Library of Congress text also turns Aristarchus into even more of a comic character. At the outset of the journey, the letter states: “Uncle Aristarchus looked very pompous, as if he was Captain and felt the responsibility.” But when a British sentry appears out of nowhere, the narrator says, “I really believe I heard Aristarchus’ teeth chatter as he rode to my side and whispered ‘De British missus for sure.’” This version has no suggestion that Aristarchus might complete the journey on his own.

I suspect that the Library of Congress text is the later one, revised to fix some glitches in the text that Mary Rebecca Adams Squire had written out before 1912. The changing treatment of Aristarchus also suggests that the person who revised the letter thought readers would expect more comedy from the figure of a black slave. Ironically, those same parts of the letter feel most dated and discomfiting now, and since the 1970s authors have often edited them out while quoting other passages.

A final note on the man’s name: Deborah (Champion) Gilbert had a nephew named Aristarchus, born 23 Oct 1784 to her brother Henry, the Continental Army officer. Aristarchus Champion graduated from Yale in 1807, settled in Rochester, and had a long career in law, real estate, and philanthropy before dying a bachelor in 1871.

It would be quite remarkable for an upper-class family like the Champions to name one of their sons after a man they had kept as a slave. (To be sure, naming your twin sons Aristarchus and Aristobulus was remarkable to begin with.) I see the real, well documented “Uncle Aristarchus” as another reason to think that the Deborah Champion letter was concocted from a stew of half-remembered lore and details that seemed old-fashioned to someone in the early 1900s.

TOMORROW: A critical mass of Deborah Champion.

[The photograph above is Jacksonville Stumpe’s picture of the Township Hall in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Aristarchus Champion inherited a considerable part of the land in that area, and in 1848 endowed the construction of this building as a town library. Champion never lived in Ohio, though.]

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The First and Second Wave of Deborah Champion

The dubious Deborah Champion letter I’ve been discussing for more than a week appears to be a product of the Colonial Revival and the first wave of American feminism. It was first noted in 1902 and read at meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the New Haven Colony Historical Society. Two similar versions of the text were printed in The Pioneer Mothers of America (1912) and the Jefferson County Journal (1926).

Mary Ritter Beard, the progressive historian, quoted an undated version from the Adams, New York, chapter of the D.A.R. in America Through Women’s Eyes (1933, reprinted 1969). Trying correct past misinformation, Beard stated that Deborah Champion undertook her ride in 1775 at the age of twenty-two.

American historiography went into a “debunking” period after the Colonial Revival, more skeptical about tales founded on family or local tradition. (Beard’s work on women actually fit into that revisionist trend because it pushed back against the field’s almost-exclusive focus on heroic men.) Then academic scholars came to dominate the study of history. Both trends worked against the idea of passing on heroic stories with little evidence. At the same time, in mid-century there was no longer such a strong push in American culture for active female role models. We haven’t found mentions of Deborah Champion’s ride in those decades.

The Deborah Champion story regained traction with the second wave of American feminism. As the movement for sexual equality grew in the 1970s and the Bicentennial approached, authors became more eager to find examples of women participating in the American Revolution—particularly participating in ways that we admire today. And unlike stories based only on family or local traditions, this story came with a dramatic account in what appeared to be Deborah Champion’s own voice.

We can see those forces coming together in the 1970s. The revival might have been kicked off by Sally Smith Booth in The Women of ’76, published in 1973. Booth devoted three pages to Deborah Champion, calling her “the eighteenth century woman’s answer to Paul Revere,” and the book’s back cover listed her as one of eight exemplars discussed inside. Booth’s retelling of the ride quoted selections from the 1912/1926 text (thereby removing much of the suspicious language). It stated Deborah’s age as twenty-two but suggested she rode in early 1776 and didn’t acknowledge her marriage at all. Booth’s book included a long bibliography but didn’t indicate a specific source for those quotations.

The American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut and Pequot Press published Catherine Fennelly’s Connecticut Women in the Revolutionary Era in 1975. That short book also described Deborah Champion’s ride without citing sources. Rachel Smith notes that Fennelly referred elsewhere to Beard’s work, suggesting she’d found the story there.

Three years later, in A History of Women in America, journalists Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman wrote:
Early on in the war a young woman from Connecticut, twenty-two-year-old Deborah Champion, was able to carry vitally needed intelligence dispatches to General Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because it never occurred to the British that a sweet-faced woman might be a spy. Champion, cool and easy, rode for two days through enemy territory and past enemy sentries to safely complete her mission. Champion, who has been called the female Paul Revere, was unlike the famous silversmith in that she was not captured by the British—her “night ride” was a success.
Again, Hymowitz and Weissman didn’t cite a source. (Their endnotes cover only direct quotations.)

TOMORROW: And eventually what looked like an even better source surfaced.

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.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

“For Adams’s Sake” Talk in Medford, 15 Jan.

I’m breaking away from the last act of the Deborah Champion saga to note an event this week at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford.

On Wednesday, 15 January, the site will host an illustrated talk by Allegra di Bonaventura, an assistant dean at Yale, on her book For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England.

Di Bonaventura studied the diary that Joshua Hempstead, an established farmer, tradesman, and magistrate in New London, Connecticut, kept from 1711 to 1758—one of the most remarkable records of daily life in colonial New England. In particular, she looked at what that document reveals about the life and work of Adam Jackson, who was Hempstead’s slave for more than thirty years. He was part of the household, and by some definitions part of the family, but also part of Hempstead’s assets and estate.

Here’s an article about the Hempstead diary, and here’s a link to the 1901 edition, open to the page on which Hempstead recorded buying Adam for £85. He seems to have done so as part of settling an estate, but some sort of lawsuit followed. The story is undoubtedly easier to read in Di Bonaventura’s book.

The talk starts at 7:30 P.M. It’s free to Royall House members, $5 for others. There’s on-street parking around the site, and it’s also on the 96 and 101 bus lines.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Other Dubious Documents about Revolutionary Women

Over the past several days, I’ve been sharing the judgment of a group of researchers about the letter attributed to Deborah Champion of Connecticut in 1775 or 1776. We concluded, as others have less loudly before us, that this text was composed and revised in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The letter was probably inspired by the Champion family’s tradition about Deborah undertaking rides for her father, first published in 1891. That might have been an accurate memory, but there’s no reliable evidence to back it up.

Did author of the letter intend for people to take it as a genuine historic document? There are examples of American women in late nineteenth century composing fictional historic diaries or letters about Revolutionary figures, apparently not expecting them to be treated as authentic. Isabella James composed a “letter from Lydia Biddle” during the siege of Boston that the Boston Daily Advertiser published in 1875. Mary Williams Greeley wrote the “Diary of Dorothy Dudley” published by the Ladies’ Centennial Committee of Cambridge in 1876. Both women were reportedly surprised when readers took their fictions as authentic. But by then the damage had been done: for decades authors have been rediscovering those publications and citing them as genuine.

That sort of story might have been part of the genesis of the Deborah Champion letter: composed by one of her descendants as a fictional recreation of the family traditions about her, and then taken by other descendants to be real. I suspect that a lot of myths about the Revolution started as inspiring fables for children about their ancestors, not meant to be repeated or taken as fact. But those children grew up into adults who believed those stories were both accurate and of national importance, and put them into the public record.

In the case of Deborah Champion, however, we have not just the tradition put into print in 1891 but a document said to support that tradition. And that document was changed at least once, possibly to remove obvious anachronisms and holes. Each revision was presented to readers as an accurate transcription of an authentic document. So there was some knowing chicanery along the way.

Again, there are precedents for that. In 1900 Helen Evertson Smith published Colonial Days and Ways, as Gathered from Family Papers, presenting it as a series of accurate transcriptions of historical documents from her family. In particular, the book quoted letters and a diary it said were written by Juliana Smith during the Revolutionary War. Juliana Smith is a documented person, and her home and family were real.

Helen Evertson Smith did inherit and collect historical documents; her papers are now at the New-York Historical Society. But her book fictionalized those documents in both details and language, where she didn’t simply make up texts. Ives Goddard discussed the problems with relying on Colonial Days and Ways in a 2005 paper (P.D.F. download). The In the Words of Women blog lists it among “Dubious Sources” on women during the Revolution. Nevertheless, the book continues to be reprinted and cited as a historical source.

Of course, there are also plenty of precedents for fables, falsehoods, and fake documents about men in the Revolutionary War. These examples stand out because they were created by women about other women when there were relatively few historical sources and limited educational and professional opportunities for that half of the population.

COMING UP: The question of motive—for telling the story, and for retelling it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Deborah Champion Letter as Historical Fiction

One quality of the Deborah Champion letter, in either version, that struck everyone on the team of researchers that Joseph Warren biographer Sam Forman assembled is its novelistic detail. In short, it reads like fiction. What’s more, Tamesin Eustis wrote, “Not only is it an extraordinarily well-organized ‘narrative’ that doesn’t read true for most letter-writing, it has the tone, style, and language of something written in a later era.”

Derek Beck said:
The letter is written to someone she is close to, but there seems to be language in the letter that is really meant as exposition to us the audience, as if the letter is not truly personal. One example: “John and Jerry are both good saddle horses as you and I know.” Well, if both “you and I know,” why I am explaining it? I see this in movie scripts all the time: crappy dialogue that feels unreal, and is the result of bad writing produced by a writer who is attempting to pass exposition to the audience but couldn’t find a natural way to do so.

In fact, this letter doesn’t really feel very familiar between the two at all. There’s nothing that seems to require insider knowledge between the two. I don’t feel like I’m a voyeur snooping on a personal letter, I feel like I’m reading a story, with words too polished for a mere personal letter.
In particular, I think the texts—especially the version published in 1912 and 1926—spotlight details that were quaint and historic to readers around the turn of the last century. For instance, the writer has a habit of mentioning garments and often even the cloth they’re made of: “small clothes for father,” “my linsey-woolsey dress,” “my camlet cloak,” “my close silk hood,” “her calash.” Almost all of those fabrics and garments had gone out of fashion by the early twentieth century. The letter says nothing about a straw hat or a linen gown or anything else that would still be familiar.

The letter—again, the earlier published version in particular—offers a lot of verbatim dialogue for verisimilitude, but again that conversation is made to seem antique. The Champions weren’t Quaker, but this is the way the letter has them speaking:
“Deborah, I have need of thee; hast thou the heart and the courage to go out in the dark and in the night and ride as fast as may be until thou comest to Boston town?”

“Surely, my Father, if it is thy wish, and will please thee.”

“I do not believe, Deborah, that there will be actual danger to threaten thee, else I would not ask it of thee, but the way is long and the business urgent. The horseman that was here awhile back brought dispatches which it is desperately necessary that General Washington should receive as soon as possible. I cannot go, the wants of the army call me at once to Hartford, and I have no one to send but my daughter. Dare you go?”

“Dare! father, and I your daughter,—and the chance to do my country and General Washington a service. I am glad to go.”
In short, the Deborah Champion letter reads like deliberately written historic fiction, albeit poorly researched.

TOMORROW: The Colonial Revival context.

[The appearance of The Turning of Anne Merrick above isn’t meant to suggest that Christine Blevins’s historical fiction is poorly researched. I just liked the cloak.]

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Rachel Smith on the Deborah Champion Letter

As I’ve described, a couple of months back Dr. Samuel Forman asked a bunch of Revolutionary-history contacts to assess a letter attributed to Deborah Champion of Connecticut describing a trip to Gen. George Washington’s headquarters early in the war. 

One member of that team is Rachel Smith, Assistant to the State Historian at the University of Connecticut, Hartford. I’m sharing her assessment of the Library of Congress text as a “guest blogger” posting.

Tone: If all the references to the Revolutionary War were removed and I were asked to date this letter, I would have placed it in the second quarter of the nineteenth century by its language and tone alone. The overwrought, flowery prose of the letter reeks of the popular writing sensibilities of the early-to-mid-1800s. Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of colonial documents I’ve read were written by men, but I’d still suspect this kind of over-the-top, hyper-descriptive, “sentimental” prose wasn’t commonly used by women until after the advent of female academies (last decade of the eighteenth century/early nineteenth century).

Also, the disconnect between the author’s writing style and the style of her father’s almost comically archaic speech strikes me as very odd—certainly unlike anything I’ve seen in correspondence of other young adults in that period (Quakers excepted). (I have seen slave/African dialects written out in the eighteenth century, but that was always to underscore their otherness; something one wouldn’t do with one’s respected father.)

Internal logic: There seems to be a lot of totally unnecessary description—e.g., “You know our Continental bills are so small you can pack a hundred dollars very compactly”; a contemporary wouldn’t need to be told any of that, but it sure is a wonderful (and convenient) visual for a Victorian audience totally unfamiliar with colonial paper money.

Timing: I’m not familiar with the context of this letter, but I wonder why Deborah would write such a long and explicitly detailed letter to her friend describing her “dangerous mission” when the wartime atmosphere was still an extremely volatile one in October of 1775. The liberal use of the phrase “The British” is anachronistic for late 1775 for the same reasons it would have be anachronistic for Paul Revere to yell “The British are coming” a few months earlier.

Specific language: Perhaps the most quantifiable evidence for this letter being suspect. The writer’s use of “family room” instead of “parlor” is an immediate red flag; according to the Oxford English Dictionary that term didn’t come into popular use in the United States until well into the mid-nineteenth century. Other anachronisms include “keeping-room” (O.E.D.: 1790s) and “stay-at-home” (O.E.D.: 1806). Many other phrases, like “a nice hot breakfast,” also strike me as extremely anachronistic, but those aren’t as easy to pin down chronologically.

Our thanks to Rachel Smith for her contribution to this inquiry. Things aren’t looking good for the letter’s credibility, are they?

TOMORROW: Novelistic detail.

[The photo above shows the Prudence Crandall Museum, a Canterbury, Connecticut, house that in the 1830s became one of those female academies.]

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Deborah Champion Encounters the Army

This week I’m dealing out an analysis of the Deborah Champion letter about traveling from Connecticut to Massachusetts in October 1775. Dr. Samuel Forman, who launched this inquiry, has posted the two variant transcriptions of the letter on his website. (There is no known original.)

After offering an extraordinarily level of detail about Deborah Champion’s journey through Connecticut, the letter omits nearly all details about her important destination, Gen. George Washington’s headquarters. Despite being addressed to a friend whose brother was in the American army, the letter says nothing about the condition of those soldiers.

The version of the letter at the Library of Congress offers an explanation for this reticence:
Just as I finished that sentence father came into my room and said “My daughter if you are writing of your journey, do not say just how or where you saw General Washington, nor what you heard of the affairs of the Colony. A letter is a very dangerous thing these days and it might fall into strange hands and cause harm…”
But nothing like that sentence appears in the transcriptions published in 1912 and 1926.

Nevertheless, the Deborah Champion letter does offer a glimpse of the military—the other military. The high point of suspense is when the writer and her elderly slave encounter a royal army patrol. “The British were at Providence, in Rhode Island,” the letter says. I quote from the 1912 version:
I heard that it would be almost impossible to avoid the British unless by going so far out of the way that too much time would be lost, so I plucked up what courage I could and secreting my papers in a small pocket in the saddle-bags, under all the eatables mother had filled them with, I rode on, determined to ride all night. It was late at night, or rather very early in the morning, that I heard the call of the sentry and knew that now, if at all, the danger point was reached, but pulling my calash still farther over my face, I went on with what boldness I could muster.

Suddenly, I was ordered to halt; as I could n’t help myself I did so. I could almost hear Aristarchus’ teeth rattle in his mouth, but I knew he would obey my instructions and if I was detained, would try to find the way alone. A soldier in a red coat proceeded to take me to headquarters, but I told him it was early to wake the captain, and to please to let me pass for I had been sent in urgent haste to see a friend in need, which was true if ambiguous. To my joy, he let me go on, saying: “Well, you are only an old woman anyway,” evidently as glad to get rid of me as I of him. Will you believe me, that is the only bit of adventure that befell me in the whole long ride.
Again, the text at the Library of Congress differs on significant details, quoting Aristarchus as saying, “De British missus for sure.” Really.

As Derek W. Beck and I both saw immediately when we read this text, this is bunk. There were no British redcoat checkpoints in New England during the siege of Boston. The Royal Navy was operating gingerly along the coast, but all the king’s troops were inside Boston—that’s why there was a siege. Providence was the site of Rhode Island’s rebellious Patriot government and never in redcoat hands. Far from it being “almost impossible to avoid the British” troops on the road in October 1775, it was impossible to find them.

Conversely, the 1912 letter repeatedly refers to going to Boston:
  • The writer says she’s been “To Boston! Really and truly to Boston.”
  • Her father tells her, “ride as fast as may be until thou comest to Boston town.”
  • “When I arrived in Boston, I was so very fortunate as to find friends who took me at once to General Washington…”
  • “I stayed a week in Boston, every one was so kind and good to me, seeming to think I had done some great thing…”
  • “Did I tell you that I saw your brother Samuel in Boston?”
(The text at the Library of Congress offers a completely different description of meeting Washington and no statement about staying a week in Boston.)

Again, the whole point of the siege of Boston is that it was impossible for Gen. Washington, his troops, and their family visitors to get into that town. Washington was in Cambridge. The Connecticut troops were camped there and in west Charlestown and in Roxbury. If Deborah Champion’s father had really been so worried about her, he would have made sure she knew which towns to visit and which to avoid.

TOMORROW: More anachronistic details.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Deborah Champion and Samuel Gilbert in 1775

I’ve been analyzing the text(s) of the Deborah Champion letter describing that young woman’s adventurous trip from Connecticut to Cambridge in September 1775—or, according to another transcription, June 1776.

More discrepancies arise when we try to situate this letter into what we know about Deborah Champion’s life. When Mary Rebecca Adams Squire sent the letter to the ladies of Adams, New York, she wrote:
The letter seems to be a copy of one written at the age of 17, by Deborah Champion, daughter of Commissary General [Henry] Champion of the Continental Army, to her dear friend, Patience Gilbert of East Haddam [Connecticut].
The name “Gilbert” doesn’t actually appear in the letter. It’s addressed “My Dear Patience” and closes with a postscript “P. S.—Did I tell you that I saw your brother Samuel in Boston? He desired his love if I should be writing to you.” (The Library of Congress typescript says: “I saw your brother Samuel in Boston. He sent his love if I should be writing you.”)

Those details combine to produce what we might now call a little “Easter egg” for romantic readers to uncover—a glimpse of young Deborah Champion’s courtship with Patience Gilbert’s brother Samuel, the man she married, during the siege of Boston. Squire drove that home by appending a final line to the transcript she sent to New York: “Deborah Champion afterward married Samuel Gilbert.” The book Pioneer Mothers of America states: “It was only a short time afterward that Miss Deborah became Mrs. Samuel Gilbert.”

Except the dates don’t add up. Local and family records say that Deborah Champion married Samuel Gilbert of Gilead, Connecticut, on 3 Sept 1775. Even at the earliest date to appear on the Deborah Champion letter, therefore, she was no longer Deborah Champion during her trip—she was Deborah Gilbert. To be sure, no version is signed with a full name. But there’s no indication in those texts that the writer is a recently married woman beholding to and living with a husband rather than a father.

What’s more, in the autumn of 1775 Samuel Gilbert wasn’t serving with the Continental Army “in Boston.” He was in Hartford as a member of the Connecticut legislature. (Deborah’s brother Henry was part of the American army, but the letter says nothing about visiting him.)

Lastly, I couldn’t find any evidence in genealogies that Samuel Gilbert had a sister named Patience. To be very charitable, I could entertain the possibility that Mary Squire simply guessed wrong about who “Patience” was, and this letter went to another acquaintance of Deborah Champion who really did have a brother named Samuel in the army. But this document isn’t putting me in the mood to be very charitable.

TOMORROW: Deborah Champion’s view of the siege of Boston.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Sorting Out the Deborah Champion Letters

Sam Forman has posted the two distinct surviving texts of Deborah Champion’s letter about traveling to Boston during the siege to deliver dispatches to Gen. George Washington for her father.

The first major difference between those texts is when and where the letter was apparently written.
  • The text published in 1912 does not include a dateline.
  • The similar text published in 1926 gives the date of “New London, June 14, 1776.”
  • The typescript at the Library of Congress is dated “Westchester, Conn. Oct. 2nd, 1775.” That text also says Deborah Champion had been back home for ten days, meaning her ride occurred in September.
The June 1776 date is clearly impossible for a letter written soon after Deborah Champion returned from visiting Gen. Washington in Cambridge. More than two months before then, he had left Massachusetts and moved his army to New York. The October 1775 date is historically feasible, but that copy of the letter was the last to surface.

Alongside the two different dates are two different places from which the letter was apparently sent. Contemporaneous sources say that in 1775 her father, Henry Champion, lived in Westchester, Connecticut (in the house shown above), so that seems the more likely place for Deborah to sit down and write down her adventure. When Sarah E. Booth Champion, the widow of a later Henry Champion, read some version of this letter in New Haven in 1916, she stated that Deborah Champion had started her ride in Westchester. There’s no clue about whether the widow had a copy of the letter datelined “Westchester” or was applying her own knowledge of the family to the 1912 text.

It’s conceivable that Deborah Champion wrote her letter from Westchester in October 1775 and then, because it was so interesting, she or someone else wrote out a copy in New London the following June. A later copyist might have mistaken the date on the copy for the date of the original. Mary Rebecca Adams Squire sent the Deborah Champion Chapter of the D.A.R. a copy of the letter labeled “New London, June 14, 1776,” but no one seems to have doubted that date.

Someone in the Deborah Champion Chapter apparently supplied the text of its letter to the authors of Pioneer Mothers of America. If so, that person might have suppressed the dubious dateline. Alternatively, the authors could have done so, but they had an eye for discrepancies and plenty of other material to print. When the D.A.R. chapter’s local newspaper published its copy of the letter in 1926, it included the June 1776 dateline, suggesting again that no one recognized its oddity.

Meanwhile, someone working with an October 1775 original might have produced a more accurate transcript of the letter which eventually went to the Library of Congress. One that also referred to Deborah Champion’s father as “Colonel Champion,” for example, rather than “General Champion” as in the other versions. (He became a commissary general, but that wasn’t a military rank.)

Of course, another scenario is that people were quietly revising the text as time passed, realizing that it contained anachronistic details and hoping that nobody noticed.

TOMORROW: And frankly the second scenario appears more likely.