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, June 22, 2015

Widow Marsden’s Marriage Claim

I’ve been writing about George Marsden, who went from a deserter from the British army in early 1774 to a lieutenant in the Continental Army in January 1776. He served a couple of years, including service at Saratoga, before retiring at an uncertain date. Marsden died in 1817.

His widow was born Wilmot Lee, reportedly in Nova Scotia on 21 Jan 1757, to Edward and Ann Lee or Leigh. She may therefore have been named after the British army commander Montague Wilmot. She probably met George Marsden while he was stationed in Halifax from 1769 to 1774, and she might even have been the reason for his desertion just before the 59th Regiment sailed for Boston.

Wilmot Marsden died in 1850, and she spent her last three decades trying to secure a federal pension as the widow of a Continental Army officer. The issue for the U.S. government was whether Wilmot and George had married before or after his army service. If they were legally a couple when he was an active officer, then she qualified for a pension. If not, then the government owed her nothing.

Unfortunately for Wilmot Marsden, she couldn’t provide documentary proof of their wedding on 25 Nov 1775 “at the house of Henry Putnam” in Mystic, as she wrote. Mystic was an old word for Medford, and Henry Putnam was a prominent landowner there, but that town’s records had no mention of the Marsdens’ marriage.

On 10 Oct 1839, Wilmot Marsden filed an affidavit describing her wedding in more detail. She said:
both her husband & herself came to Massachusetts, from Nova Scotia, Just previous to the revolutionary war, that she had resided but a few months at Mystic (now Medford) at the time of her marriage, & had few acquaintances, & not known out of the immediate neighborhood in which she lived, that her husband was with the army, and as little known at Mystic as herself,

that the persons present at the wedding are reported to have died long since, their names were Roger & Eli [?] Putnam & wives, Capts. Darby & Nowell from Cambridge, of Col Scammons Regiment, Edward Lee, Watson, Pool, Hall, Bracket, Gallop, Temple & Fisk [?].—
(Curiously, although Wilmot Marsden’s signature appears on her previous affidavit of 16 April, on this document she simply put her mark.)

Samuel Darby was indeed a captain in Col. James Scamman’s regiment at that time. In January 1776, Marsden became a lieutenant under him in Col. William Prescott’s regiment. Some other surnames in this affidavit also appear on the list of men in Scamman’s 1775 regiment. In addition, the alleged host Henry Putnam had younger brothers named Roger and Elijah Putnam.

Most interesting is the name of Edward Lee. Wilmot had a brother of that name (as well as a father). Had he accompanied his sister from Nova Scotia? The Medford town records include the death of a woman surnamed Lee, wife of “a Soldier in Army,” on 30 Sept 1775. Was that Edward Lee’s wife, and thus Wilmot Marsden’s sister-in-law?

Marsden clearly recalled her wedding as occurring during the siege of Boston. But there was still the problem of there being no legal record of that marriage to confirm her memory. A man from Rome, New York, looked into Marsden’s claim for her and offered an explanation for why the marriage may not have been recorded locally. At the time Massachusetts law recognized only marriages performed by ministers resident in that town; preachers without settled pulpits didn’t have the authority to marry couples. The New York man wrote:
the marriage of Mrs. Marsden was in the parish of the Revd. Doct. David Osgood, who was pertinacious of his priviledge, & was in the habit of exacting fines when he learned by the record of the town or otherwise, that a marriage had been consummated in his parish by a non-resident minister, & that such marriages were seldom recorded.
The minister who married her, Wilmot Marsden recalled, was not connected to the town of Medford. Rather, he was “the Revd. Mr. Martin of Cambridge a professor in the Harvard University.” She couldn’t say “to what denomination he belonged.”

Unfortunately for the widow Marsden, Harvard archivists told the federal government that the college had no professor or other official named Martin in 1775.

TOMORROW: Tracking down Mr. Martin the minister.


Josh@TheUSPresidents said...

So is the question, was she married prior to the Revolutionary War and was it a legally recognized marriage? Or is the question of legal recognition just semantics? [I guess define "legal" during the Boston seige right?!?]

This is very fascinating as I have several similar type validation issues related to the Civil War in South Carolina with records thanks to Sherman’s March.


J. L. Bell said...

My impression is that the federal government cared only about whether George and Wilmot Marsden were married before he left the Continental Army. That date isn't certain, but it's clear their first child came later, leaving no indication they had gotten married before.

I don't think the federal government of the 1800s cared about whether the Marsdens' marriage would have been allowed under Massachusetts's 1775 law without a fine or what the local minister thought about it. That came up only because one of Wilmot Marsden's supporters proposed it as an explanation for why the marriage wasn't recorded in Medford's vital records.

I should finish the story: the U.S. government eventually did recognize Wilmot Marsden as a Continental Army officer's widow and grant her money, but only after she had died. The money she would have received as a pension instead went into her estate.