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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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.

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