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, August 30, 2010

Prudence Wright and Her Brothers

Yesterday I quoted an 1848 anecdote about women in Pepperell seizing a Loyalist suspected of carrying “despatches from Canada to the British in Boston” in April 1775. Over the next half-century, other authors added to that story.

In an 1873 address in Dunstable, New Hampshire, Samuel T. Worcester filled in some information:

The maiden name of Mrs. David Wright, the heroine of the bridge guard, was Prudence Cumings, a daughter of Samuel Cumings, one of the first settlers of Hollis, and first town clerk. It appears from the Hollis records of “births and marriages,” that Prudence Cumings was born at the parish of West Dunstable, now Hollis, Nov. 26, 1740, and married to David Wright, of Pepperell, Dec. 28, 1761.
In 1899, Mary L. P. Shattuck delivered a talk to the local D.A.R. called “The Story of Jewett’s Bridge,” which she published in 1912. (Here’s the text in P.D.F. form.) This appears to be the most comprehensive telling of the bridge story.

Shattuck collected two versions of the tale, one each from descendants of:
  • the suspected Loyalist, Leonard Whiting (1740-1807) of Hollis; unlike some other men arrested for favoring the Crown, he stayed in the U.S., moving only as far as Cavendish, Vermont.
  • Prudence Wright (1740-1823), the leader of the women at the bridge.
Generally, Shattuck’s additions to the story make it more dramatic. For example, the earliest version reported that Whiting was detained at the home of Oliver Prescott (1731-1804), Groton’s Patriot political leader. Shattuck played up how Whiting’s daughter Nancy married Prescott’s son Oliver—which gives the tale overtones of “How I Met Your Mother.”

Another addition to the original tale isn’t possible to confirm through town records. It says Whiting was riding with another suspected Loyalist named Samuel Cumings, who recognized the voice of the woman shouting at them to stop—because Prudence Wright was his sister. Shattuck even quoted Samuel as saying, “Hold, that’s Prue’s voice, and she would wade through blood for the rebel cause.”

Yet a third addition to the tale was that Prudence Wright had actually overheard her brother (either Samuel or another one, Thomas Cumings) and Whiting discussing how they would ride to Boston and tell the British authorities about what the Patriots were doing. In this version, she organized the guard specifically to block them. And after hearing her voice, Thomas (in one version) left the area for good. That telling plays up family ties the most, and provides an even stronger justification for Wright’s actions.

I’m always dubious about stories that grow better over time without supporting documentation. And this tale strikes me as missing a particular type of evidence.

TOMORROW: The missing documents.


Pvt.Willy said...

Expect a MInutewoman's Company to storm the North Bridge next April 19th.I'm certain they were there,just ignored by history.

Bob said...

Prudence Wright's "lieutenant" that day was Sarah (Hartwell) Shattuck, whose husband, Capt. Job Shattuck, would become well known a decade later as the eastern Massachusetts leader of Shays' Rebellion.

One of the early accounts of the women's capture of Leonard Whiting comes from Lemuel Shattuck's "Memorials of the Descendants of William Shattuck" (1855). It is clearly based on Butler, but makes no mention of Oliver Prescott, saying instead that Whiting was taken to the house of Solomon Rogers (which Butler implied in a footnote).

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that citation from the Shattuck book. It seems to say the women took Whiting (who in this version they were expecting to see) to Rogers’s house locally, then to Groton where Prescott was the main Patriot organizer. I wonder if Rogers had a tavern.

Judy said...

Actually, Pvt Willy, we did have an all women's minute company, The Female Brigade and Guard which was modeled after Prudence Wright's company. We did some promo photos at the North Bridge around 1978 and did the Arlington parade on Patriot's Day.