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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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Elizabeth Chapman’s Revolution

This afternoon I’m leading my new “Children of the Revolution: Boys & Girls in Cambridge During the Siege of Boston” walking tour for Cambridge Discovery Day, as described here.

One of the young people I’ll speak about is Elizabeth Chapman, born in Charlestown in March 1758 and thus seventeen years old when the war broke out. When she was seven, Eizabeth’s father had died while sailing to Surinam, leaving eight children with his widow Jemima.

I don’t know how the family supported themselves for the next decade, but Elizabeth’s older brother Jonathan went to sea four days before his nineteenth birthday, sailing in May 1775 from Gloucester. He returned a month later to find Charlestown “in Ashes” after the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Elizabeth, her other siblings, and their mother had “fled (with some little furniture to the Country)”—specifically to the house of Jonas Green in Malden. Massachusetts’s rebel government was scrambling to find homes for war refugees and ways they could support themselves.

Around the start of October 1775, Elizabeth Chapman went to work in a household in Cambridge. Not just any household—she became a maid at Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in the mansion left behind by the Loyalist John Vassall, shown above. Elizabeth reported to the household steward Timothy Austin, his wife, and the other women he had hired to cook the meals and clean the building.

On 4 April 1776, the day Gen. Washington headed south to New York, Austin paid “Eliza. Chapman 6 months wages” amounting to £2, 3s., and 4d. Not much cash, but Elizabeth had found food and shelter through the winter and relieved some of the burden on her family.

Eight years later, in 1784, Elizabeth Chapman married a Hartford-born sea captain named Ozias Goodwin. The couple settled in Boston and raised a family. Ozias became a merchant and served as an Overseer of the Poor, a respected public office. He died in 1819, and Elizabeth on 18 December 1831, fifty-five years after she had helped to look after the Washington household.

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