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, 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.

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