Welcome to In the Words of Women, a new blog and a newly published book.

Like a trailer for the primary source material collected in the book, this blog serves as an invitation … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

These women lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and which issues are being featured. To subscribe via email, click here. Click the many topics to the right to learn more. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your explorations.

“the worst figure . . . can kill . . . even a General Wolfe”

The Scotswoman Janet Schaw, visiting her brother in North Carolina, had occasion to see the drilling of the local militia in Wilmington. Past posts from her Journal can be seen here, here, and here, and here. Schaw is scathing in her description of the poorly clad men, inebriated, and sloppy in their performance, but cautions her reader not to underestimate them.

We came down this morning in time for the review which the heat made as terrible to the spectators as to the soldiers, or what you please to call them. They had certainly fainted under it, had not the constant draughts of grog supported then. Their exercise was that of bush-fighting, but it appeared so confused and so perfectly different from any thing I ever saw, I cannot say whether they performed it well or not; but this I know that they were heated with rum till capable of committing the most shocking outrages. We stood on the balcony of Doctor Cobham’s house and they were reviewed on a field mostly covered with what are called here scrubby oaks, which are only a little better than brushwood. They at last however assembled on the plain field, and I must really laugh while I recollect their figures: 2000 men in their shirts and trousers, preceded by a very ill-beat drum and a fiddler, who was also in his shirt with a long sword and a cue at his hair, who played with all his might. They made indeed a most unmartial appearance. But the worst figure there can shoot from behind a bush and kill even a General Wolfe.

In the following incident Schaw describes how a man who incurred the wrath of the militia barely escaped being tarred and feathered. This punishment is indeed horrifying. It is important to note, however, that the “tar” was not the hot substance we associate with the repair of roads. It was pine tar which is soft at normal temperatures. This is not to imply that being tarred with this substance was not unpleasant even though it was usually applied to someone who was clothed. Feathers clung to the tarred victim who was often carried around town on a rail, which was certainly painful. If the victim was tarred unclothed removing the substance undoubtedly tore away skin with it. A “dreadful operation” indeed.

Before the review was over, I heard a cry of tar and feather. I was ready to faint at the ideal of this dreadful operation. I would have gladly quitted the balcony, but was so much afraid the Victim was one of my friends, that I was not able to move; and he indeed proved to be one, tho’ in a humble station. For it was Mr. Neilson’s poor English groom. You can hardly conceive what I felt when I saw him dragged forward, poor devil, frighted out of his wits. However at the request of some of the officers, who had been Neilson’s friends, his punishment was changed into that of mounting on a table and begging pardon for having smiled at the regt. He was then drummed and fiddled out of the town, with a strict prohibition of ever been seen in it again.

Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the years 1774 to 1776, edited by Evangeline Walker Andrews, in collaboration with Charles McLean Andrews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921) pages 190-191. The Journal can be found online HERE.

posted July 31st, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Patriots, The South

The only drawbridge in the colonies

Janet Schaw’s Journal of a Lady of Quality is a rich source of information about North Carolina just prior to the Revolution. Schaw had set out from Edinburgh in 1774 with her brother and the children of another brother in North Carolina to whom she was delivering them. A description of her sea voyage on a ship that she calls her “little wooden kingdom” appeared in this post, and her encounter with an alligator was described here, and her description of local inhabitants here. Below Schaw describes a trip from Wilmington, North Carolina, on a road that crosses a river on a drawbridge.

The road begins at Wilmington and goes clear across the country to Virginia on one side and South Carolina on the other, and as its course lies across the river, it is crossed by a bridge, which tho’ built of timber is truly a noble one, broader than that over the Tay at Perth. It opens at the middle to both sides and rises by pullies, so as to suffer ships to pass under it. The road is sufficiently broad to allow fifty men to march abreast, and the woods much thinner of trees that anywhere I have seen them. The pasture under these trees is far from bad, tho’ the hot season has parched it a good deal. Off from this wood lie many plantations, which however are hid amongst the trees from the view of the road, and not easy of access from it. Point Pleasant lies about four miles off from it—part of the way is thro’ the woods, where the path is devious and uncertain to those that are unacquainted with it. About a mile or little more from Point Pleasant, begins a most dismal swamp thro’ the middle of which there is a road made with infinite labour, raised on piles covered with branches, and over all sods; and it is by no means comfortable to drive a carriage over it, as the swamps on either hand appear unfathomable, and I would really believe them so, did not the noble Magnolias, the bays and a thousand Myrtles convince me it had a bottom from which they spring. (p202-203)

The bridge Schaw describes is thought to be the only drawbridge in the colonies. There had been a ferry over the river until 1766 when the owner of the land on both sides of the river, Captain Heron, was authorized to build a bridge. The ferry was discontinued and Heron was allowed to erect a gate and collect tolls.

Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the years 1774 to 1776, edited by Evangeline Walker Andrews, in collaboration with Charles McLean Andrews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921) pages 202-203. The Journal can be found online HERE.

posted July 28th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: The South

“this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures”

Though the following letter is dated somewhat earlier than 1765, I found it interesting because it concerns the subject of indentured servants. A young woman, without monetary means, wishing to relocate to the American colonies, could finance her passage by agreeing with the ship’s captain that he could “sell” her on arrival in exchange for a term of service, generally seven years. This arrangement was called an indenture and was supposedly a legal contract with the “employer” providing food, clothing, and shelter. In 1756, Elizabeth Sprigs, a indentured servant in a Maryland household, wrote a letter to her father in London complaining of terrible treatment. Apparently she had left home under unpleasant circumstances but was reduced to begging for some assistance from her family. An indentured servant generally had little recourse if the arrangement proved unsatisfactory. In the South, indentured servants were being replaced by slaves.

Maryland, Sept’r 22’d 1756Honored Father
My being for ever banished from your sight, will I hope pardon the Boldness I now take of troubling you . . . my long silence has been purely owning to my undutifullness to you, and well knowing I had offended in the highest Degree, put a tie to my tongue and pen, for fear I should be extinct from your good Graces and add a further Trouble to you, but too well knowing your care and tenderness for me so long as I retain’d my Duty to you, induced me once again to endeavor if possible, to kindle up that flame again.

O Dear Father, believe what I am going to relate the words of truth and sincerity, and Balance my former bad Conduct my sufferings here, and then I am sure you’ll pity your Destress Daughter, What we unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that I one of the unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the Horses drudgery . . . and then tied up and whipp’d to that Degree that you’d not serve an Animal, scarce any thing but Indian Corn and Salt to eat and that even begrudged nay many Negroes are better used, almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear, and the comfort after slaving during Masters pleasure, what rest we can get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground. [T]his is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures, and now I beg if you have any Bowels of Compassion left show it by sending me some Relief, Clothing is the principal thing wanting, which if you should condiscend to, may easily send them to me by any of the ships bound to Baltimore Town Patapsco River Maryland, and give me leave to conclude in Duty to you and Uncles and Aunts, and Respect to all Friends
Honored Father
Your undutifull and Disobedient Child
Elizabeth Sprigs

Source: Elizabeth Sprigs, “Letter to Mr. John Sprigs in White Cross Street near Cripple Gate, London, September 22, 1756,” in Isabel Calder, ed., Colonial Captivities, Marches, and Journeys (New York: Macmillan Company, 1935).

posted July 24th, 2014 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Employment, Immigrant servants

“I have spent this morning in reading . . . “

Fragments of the Journal of a Young Lady of Virginia, written by Lucinda Lee Orr to her friend Polly on visits to relatives and friends in Lower Virginia in 1782, show that reading novels had become a pastime of young women and a subject of their correspondence.
From “The Wilderness”, residence of John Grymes, Esq.(one of this family was Gen. Robert Lee’s grandmother) Orr writes to “my dearest Polly” on September 20.

I have spent this morning in reading Lady Julia Mandeville, and was much affected. Indeed, I think I never cried more in my life reading a Novel: the stile is beautiful, but the tale is horrid. I reckon you have read it. Some one just comes to tell us A Mr. Masenbird and Mr. Spotswood is come. We must go down, but I am affraid both Sister’s and my eyes will betray us.

Orr writing from “Belleview”, residence of Thomas Ludwell Lee to Polly

Sept. 25
The Company is all gone, and I have seated myself to converse with my Polly. Mrs. A. Washington has lent me a new Novel, called Victoria. I can’t say I admire the Tale, though I think it prettyly told. There is a verse in it I wish you much to read. I believe, if I a’n't too Lazy, I will copy it off for you: the verse is not very butifull, but the sense is, I assure you.

Lucinda writing from Chantilly, the residence of Richard H. Lee.

October 6
I have been very agreeably entertained this evening, reading a Novel called Malvern Dale. It is something like Evelina, though not so pretty.

I have a piece of advice to give you, which I have before urged—that is, to read something improving. Books of instruction will be a thousand times more pleasing [after a little while] than all the novels in the World. I own myself, I am too fond of Novel-reading; but, by accustoming myself to reading other Books, I have become less so, and I wish my Polly to do the same.

Writing from Lee Hall, the residence of Richard Lee.

To-day is rainy and disagreeable, which will prevent their comeing from Bushfield. I have entertained myself all day reading Telemachus. It is really delightful, and very improveing. Just as I have seated myself they are come to tell me tea is ready. Farewell.

Nov. 5
I have, for the first time in my life, just read Pope’s Eloiza. Just now I saw it laying in the Window. I had heard my Polly extol it frequently, and curiosity lead me to read it. I will give you my opinion of it: the poetry I think beautiful, but do not like some of the sentiments. Some of Eloiza’s is too Ammorous for a female, I think.

Nov. 12
We are going to seat ourselves and hear Mr. Pinkard read a Novel.

Lucinda Lee Orr’s Journal had been printed and published For the benefit of the Lee Memorial Association of Richmond ( Baltimore: John Murphy and Company, 1871). The Journal can be found online HERE.The History of Lady Julia Mandeville by Frances Brooke is written as a series of letters by the widow Lady Anne Wlmot and Harry Mandeville. It was published in 1763. The book can be read HERE. You can read hear it read HERE. The illustration is on the cover of a recent edition.

posted July 21st, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Amusements, Poetry

“my heart . . . almost burst through my bosom, to meet him”

Charlotte Chambers (see previous post) wrote a particularly interesting letter to her mother on February 25, 1795. In it she describes the celebrations in Philadelphia on the 22nd in honor of George Washington’s birthday as well as her introduction to both the President and his wife.

The morning of the ” twenty-second” was ushered in by the discharge of heavy artillery. The whole city was in commotion, making arrangements to demonstrate their attachment to our beloved President. The Masonic, Cincinnati, and military orders united in doing him honor. Happy republic! great and glorious! . . . Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, with Dr. Spring, called for me in their coach. Dr. Rodman, master of ceremonies, met us at the door, and conducted us to Mrs. Washington. She half arose as we made our passing compliments. She was dressed in a rich silk, but entirely without ornament, except the animation her amiable heart gives to her countenance. Next her were seated the wives of the foreign ambassadors, glittering from the floor to the summit of their head-dress. One of the ladies wore three large ostrich-feathers. Her brow was encircled by a sparkling fillet of diamonds; her neck and arms were almost covered with jewels, and two watches were suspended from her girdle, and all reflecting the light from a hundred directions. Such superabundance of ornament struck me as injudicious; we look too much at the gold and pearls to do justice to the lady. However, it may not be in conformity to their individual taste thus decorating themselves, but to honor the country they represent.

The seats were arranged like those of an amphitheatre, and cords were stretched on each side of the room, about three feet from the floor, to. preserve sufficient space for the dancers. We were not long seated when General Washington entered, and bowed to the ladies as he passed round the room. ” He comes, he comes, the hero comes!” I involuntarily but softly exclaimed. When he bowed to me, I could scarcely resist the impulse of my heart, that almost burst through my bosom, to meet him. The dancing soon after commenced. Mr. John Woods, Mr. John Shippen, Lawrence Washington, and Col. Hartley enlivened the time by their attentions, and to them I was much indebted for the pleasure of the evening.

Next morning I received an invitation by my father from Mrs. Washington to visit her, and Col. Hartley politely offered to accompany me to the next drawing-room levee.

On this evening my dress was white brocade silk, trimmed with silver, and white silk, high-heeled shoes, embroidered with silver, and a light blue sash, with silver cord and tassel tied at the left side. My watch was suspended at the right, and my hair was in its natural curls. Surmounting all was a small white hat and white ostrich-feather, confined by brilliant band and buckle. Punctual to the moment, Col. Hartley, in his chariot, arrived. . . . The hall, stairs, and drawing-room of the President’s house were well lighted by lamps and chandeliers. Mrs. Washington, with Mrs. Knox, sat near the fire-place. Other ladies were seated on sofas, and gentlemen stood in the centre of the room conversing. On our approach, Mrs. Washington arose and made a courtesy—the gentlemen bowed most profoundly—and I calculated my declension to her own with critical exactness.

The President soon after, with that benignity peculiarly his own, advanced, and I arose to receive and return his compliments with the respect and love my heart dictated. He seated himself beside me, and inquired for my father, a severe cold having detained him-at home. . . .
C. C.

Subsequently, Charlotte was invited to spend the day with Mrs. Washington.

I have but few moments to spare. Engagements abroad and company at home occupy my time; and such is the variety of Philadelphia, every day brings some new pursuit, and is passed in the perpetual rotation of what is termed pleasure. Everywhere I experience those attentions which render my excursions from the city, and my visits in it, invariably pleasing.

In a previous letter, I wrote of being at the President’s, and my admiration of Mrs. Washington. Yesterday, Col. Proctor informed me that her carriage was at the door, and a servant inquiring for me. After the usual compliments and some conversation, she gave me a pressing invitation to spend the day with her; and so perfectly friendly were her manners, I found myself irresistibly attached to her. On taking leave, she observed a portrait of the President hanging over the fire-place, and said ” She had never seen a correct likeness of General Washington. The only merit the numerous portraits of him possessed was their resemblance to each other.” . . . I must finish this letter to-morrow, as the carriage has arrived, and I am engaged to accompany Dr. Bedford, Gen. and Mrs. Neville, and my father to the theatre.
Adieu, devotedly,
C. C.

Charlotte’s letter can be found in her Memoir by her grandson Lewis H. Garrard (Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, 1856), pages 14-16.

posted July 17th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Clothes, Entertaining, Fashion, George Washington, Martha Washington, Philadelphia

next page

   Copyright © 2014 In the Words of Women.