Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured 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 issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

On December 18, 237 Years Ago

Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker kept a diary from 1758 until a day before her death in 1807. Her entries provide intimate glimpses of life during the heady period of the Revolution and the establishment of the new nation. The daughter of a well-to-do Quaker family in Philadelphia, Elizabeth received an education unusual for women of the time: she attended Anthony Benezet’s Friends school. In 1761 she married Henry Drinker and the two continued to be active members of the Quaker community.

With the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the war for independence Quakers came under intense scrutiny because of their belief in nonviolence. In Pennsylvania those who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new state government were suspected of being Tories. Many of the so-called “disaffected” were detained in “an illegeal, unprecedented manner,” according to Elizabeth Drinker, and sent into exile. Her husband was one of these, leaving Elizabeth and their children to manage as best they could in the house on the corner of Front Street and Drinker’s Alley.

When the British occupied Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, Elizabeth, as a lone woman, feared for the safety of her family and herself. Imagine her anxiety when, with winter approaching, she had to deal with a British officer seeking lodgings on December 18, 237 years ago.

An Officer who calls himself Major [Crammond], call’d this Afternoon, to look for Quarters for some Oiffecer of distinction, I plead off, he would have preswaded me that it was a necessary protiction at these times to have one in the House; said I must consider of it, that he would call in a day or two, I desir’d to be excus’d, and after some more talk we parted, he behaved with politeness, which has not been the case at many other places; they have been very rude and impudent at some houses,—I wish I may come off so; but at same time fear we must have some with us, as many Friends have them, and it seems likely to be a general thing. This has been a trying day to my Spirits. . . . I have just finish’d a Letter to my dearest tis now past 12 o’clock, and Watch [a dog] has put me in a flutter, by his violent barking, as if some one was in the Alley, which I believe was the case—hail since Night.

The next day, December 19, Elizabeth noted:

. . . Major Crammond came to know if I had consulted any of my friends on ye matter. I told him my sister was out on that business; that I expected that we, who were at present lone women, would be excused. He said he feared not, for tho’ I might put him off (as it was for himself he applied); yet, as a great number of foreign Troops were to be quartered in this neighborhood, he believed they might be troublesome. We had a good deal of talk about the mal-behavior of British officers, which he, by no means, justified. I told him how I had been frightened by ye officer, that thief-like stole my servant Girl over ye fence, and of many other particulars of their bad conduct that had come to my knowledge. He said, that yesterday I had told him what sort of a man would suit in my Family; if I was obliged to take any, he was conscious that some of those qualities were his (which were early hours, and little company); that there were very few of ye officers he could recommend . . . and that he would call again tomorrow to know my mind further. So he went off. I am straitened how to act, and yet determined. I maybe troubled with others much worse, for this man appears to be much of a Gentleman—but while I can keep clear of them, I intend to do so. They have marked ye doors of Houses against their consent, and some of ye inhabitants have looked out for officers of reputation, (if any such be), to come into their Families, by way of protection, and to keep off others.

The entry for December 18 can be found on page 114 of In the Words of Women. The subsequent entry is from Extracts from the Journal of Elizabeth Drinker, from 1759 to 1807, A.D. edited by Henry Biddle (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1889), page 74. It can be found online HERE.

posted December 18th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Philadelphia, Quakers

“Pleased, on reflection, to have made this journey”

Henrietta and Robert Liston spent a week in Charleston before beginning the return trek to Philadelphia. (See previous posts here, here, and here). Heading for Camden, South Carolina, they now found it necessary to use the letters of introduction more frequently. Mrs. Liston noted rice and indigo plantations but commented, “Cotton seems in some measure to have succeeded to Indigo, in this part of the Country. The process of Cotton requiring fewer hands, & being less prejudicial to health, & at present, even a more profitable produce.” One night they stayed with Colonel Johann Senf*,

a native of Germany & the superintendent of a Canal, the most considerable work of that kind yet attempted, in America; it is intended to join the Santee river to the Coopers river. . . . we found Col. Sinf [sic] & his Wife [Johanna van Berckel] living on a pretty little Spot, created & Beautified by themselves, it was laid out with peculiar neatness & Taste.

As they traveled north, the roads became worse as did the weather. In the region of the Catawba River, South Carolina, the Listons visited elders of the Catawba Nation**:

The Colonel & a few of the older Men spoke a little bad English, He apologized for the smallness of their numbers saying, the Young Men had not yet come in from hunting. We had, indeed, met some of them selling their Deerskins a hundred miles to the South. On the Colonels fire stood a pot, & there was a hoecake on the hearth; I asked what was in the Pot; he said Deerflesh for breakfast, but did not offer us any.

The travelers had to deal with bad roads, rainy and cold weather, a near drowning in a swollen stream, a sick servant and a “doctor” who also was the local parson and schoolmaster. By the time they crossed the Roanoke River in Virginia, one of the horses was lame and had an eye infection. It is no wonder that once the Listons arrived in Richmond, Virginia, “we were obliged to take places in the Mail Coach, The only mode of conveyance to be found for love or money.”

Seven days later on 7 February, 1798, they arrived home in Philadelphia, having been on the road for just over three months. Once again safely ensconced by her fireside, Mrs. Liston wrote, “Pleased, on reflection, to have made this journey, but feeling that few things could tempt me to repeat it.”


* Johann (John) Senf (c. 1740-1806), engineer of the Santee Canal, begun in 1793 and opened in 1800.
** The Catawba Nation was confined to a region of 15 square miles around Catawba River, their numbers decimated by small pox and wars with the Cherokee Nation.


Nonetheless, over the next three years, Henrietta and Robert Liston continued to explore the East Coast as far north as Quebec, and Portland, Maine. Mrs. Liston’s Journals show her to be an intelligent and discerning guide to the country and people of the United States. Her openness to new experiences, her adventurous spirit, and the zest of her language will certainly delight all readers.

Excerpts are taken from “1797. Tour to the Southern States—Virginia, North & South Carolina” in The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, published in hardcover and eBook. The illustration is of the ruins of the Santee Canal.

posted December 15th, 2014 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Farming, Henrietta Liston, Philadelphia, The South, Travel

“we passed Christmas day very agreeably”

Henrietta and Robert Liston were genuinely curious about the New World. (See previous posts here and here.) In her journals, Henrietta noted facts that she found interesting, described the foods they ate, and was astounded at the natural beauties, particularly the flora, of the countryside. Traveling on the east coast of North America was a challenge but one that the 45-year-old Mrs. Liston and her 55-year-old husband met with aplomb, courage, and even laughter.

The first night after leaving Mr. Jones’s Hospitable roof, we were obliged to take up our quarters, in what was called an Inn, Consisting of one room containing two Beds, one for the family, the other for Strangers; there were two young Men travelling on Horseback, besides several Inferior Guests, & I found that all the Party, except our Servants who were in a ruinous outKitchen, must lodge in this Chamber. . . .
One of the Group around the fire appearing intoxicated, & seemingly disposed to amuse himself with a Pistol, I took the Daughter of the House aside, & declared our readiness to be contented with any place, in order to Sleep in a separate apartment from these Men. She regretted that there was nothing but an empty Garrat, used for keeping Corn, without fire or door, & an open window. it was frost & snow, but we had taken our resolution, & we repaired to an old flat Bed, that happened to be in this miserable Place &, indeed, we were within a very little of being frozen to Death, notwithstanding an Eddadown [Eiderdown] Green silk Bedcover with which we travelled, & it was with some difficulty the Girl, next morning, could prevail on the Savages to let me approach the fire so as to thaw my fingers.

On Christmas eve, the Listons reached Fayetteville:

it is a flourishing Town, upon a Branch of the Capefear River & nearly at the head of the navigation—before the [Revolutionary] War it was called Cross Creek. We were visited by a Scotch Gentleman, named [Robert] Donaldson, with whose family we passed Christmas day very agreeably.

No doubt they were happy to spend the day with a fellow Scot, but Mrs. Liston does not give any details of the festivities. On New Year’s Eve, they arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. Two hundred years ago, Christmas and New Year’s Day—unlike today with its frenzied gift buying—were spent quietly at home or in paying social visits to friends; special foods for the occasion would have been served. Perhaps the Donaldsons prepared one of Mrs. Liston’s newly discovered favorites:

our most frequent food, & infinitely the best of its kind, was Pork & Corn bread . . . it was fresh & most excellent meat, . . . always broiled upon the Coals, & when we happened to get a few fryed Eggs to it, it was the best food possible & with Corn bread (no other is known) baked upon a hoe, in general, & call[ed] hoe cake.

(More about the Listons’ travels in the next post.)

Excerpts are taken from “1797. Tour to the Southern States—Virginia, North & South Carolina” in The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, published in hardcover and eBook.

posted December 11th, 2014 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Charleston, Food, Henrietta Liston, Holidays, The South, Travel

“letters of recommendation to private Houses”

Arriving in Norfolk (see previous post), Henrietta Marchant Liston and her husband enjoyed a few weeks there, where they were royally entertained by local residents and officers of the British Navy. Mrs. Liston’s family members departed for home in Antigua, and Henrietta and Robert set off again in a

light Post Chaise, four good Horses, & one for a Servant, (for to our surprise we found that Norfolk did not afford Carriages or Horses to hire, & the land Carriage to Carolina is so little in use, that no Public Stages are established) having heard only formidable accounts of this journey we . . . hired three free Mulattos, two as Postillions, & one as a riding Servant, these Men know the Country, & could submit to its inconveniences.

There are three roads through the Carolina’s, the High, the Middle, & the Low; we chose to set out by the Middle one, having fewer Ferries & Swamps to engage with, than in the Lower, & we reserved the High one, for our return, in perhaps worse weather.

The post chaise and horses not only carried the Listons and their servants, but also their belongings: clothes for travel and formal visits, their eiderdown quilt and sheets—probably a good idea considering the likelihood of lice and other bugs found in mattresses at inns. The servants carried their own clothing and bedding. Somewhere in this small vehicle were stowed provisions, including a cocoa pot. The Listons quickly established their routine: rising at about 5 A.M., on the road by 6, and traveling some miles before stopping for breakfast. In the early afternoon, they would stop for dinner and, with any luck, find supper and a bed in the evening. While there were many inns or taverns on roads near cities such as Philadelphia, this was not the case in the South.

It is common through the Southern States to have letters of recommendation to private Houses, there being often no Inns, & when there are, the accommodations very wretched. it is not, indeed, an uncommon thing, even without Introduction, to drive up to a Gentleman’s House & to be always well received. We were rather pleased sometimes to avail ourselves of this custom, in order to observe the manner of living of an Independent Country Gentleman in a New Country.

Taverns, as Mrs. Liston carefully pointed out, differed from inns by being the “Houses of little Planters, who, from their own poverty, & for the conveniency of a few travellers, take money for giving what they have to you & your Horses nothing can be found fault with, for nothing can be mended.”

In Halifax, North Carolina, they used one of the letters of recommendation to stay with the planter Willie Jones:

[his] character was singular, & his Politics inimical to the English, He was from Principal a republican, & even thought the authority of the President [John Adams] approached too near the Kingly power. He told us himself of having once refused to receive Gen. Washington, George the first being nearly the same to king as George the third. . . .

The Listons so much enjoyed their visit with Jones and his wife Mary that they stayed an extra day.

(More to come in the next post.)

Henrietta’s commentary is taken from “1797. Tour to the Southern States—Virginia, North & South Carolina” inThe Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, published in hardcover and eBook. The 1795 map of North Carolina is from NCSA.

posted December 8th, 2014 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Henrietta Liston, The South, Travel

The travels of Henrietta Marchant Liston

My friend and colleague Louise North—we collaborated on both In the Words of Women and the Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay—has compiled and written a new book, The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, that will be available on December 15. Louise has compiled a travelogue for this blog to run during the month of December based on materials from her book.


Today, travelers do not hesitate to make journeys of many miles “over the river and through the wood.”* on (mostly) decently marked roads, innumerable places at which to eat or stay, and emergency help available if necessary. But have you ever wondered what such journeys would have been like in the late eighteenth century? How might you travel or procure a bed for the night and food for yourself and your horses when no inn is to be found?

Consider the tale of Henrietta Marchant Liston who, with her husband Robert (the second minister from Great Britain to the young United States), began a trip southward from Philadelphia to Charleston, South Carolina on 1 November 1797 on “one of those fine days the American autumns so often present bright clear Sun & elastic air.” They traveled in their own carriage accompanied by family members and one servant.

Crossing the Susquehanna River by ferry, the Listons spent two days in Baltimore before continuing south on 6 November: “the worst peices of road we had travelled.—but an excellent Breakfast at Spurriges, a fryed chicken, tea, Coffee & eggs &c recruited our spirits.” Arriving in Washington City the next day (it was then under construction), they

found this beautiful spot almost a desert, in appearance, though now containing more than six hundred Houses, but so scattered as to give the look of Country ones, Horses & Cows feeding sumptuously in the Principal streets, & Partridges are shot in the very Centre of this future great City.

The travelers then visited at Mount Vernon with George and Martha Washington for several days. They sent their carriage back to Philadelphia as they would continue to Norfolk, Virginia

in a small Sloop . . . [and] found no difficulty setting out from Mount Vernon, Vessells drawing thirty feet water can lye within a hundred yards of the House.

This Voyage which is generally made in forty eight hours, & for which Mrs. Washington’s kindness seemed amply to have supplied us with provisions was not, from accidents, completed till the ninth day, two days we were aground on a Sand Bank, on which we were driven during a short severe Storm, two days in the Rappahanock River, where we took shelter during a violent fog, & the last night nearly lost in a Gale.

The Listons reached Norfolk on 24 November and “found our friends much alarmed about us.” When Mrs. Washington heard about this near disastrous voyage, she wrote [22 Feb. 1798]: “Your voyage from hence to Norfolk was of a length hardly ever known before, this accompanied by bad weather, and short allowance of provisions . . . must have rendered your situation very unpleasant.**

* Line from poem by Lydia Maria Child published in 1844.
** Martha Washington’s words are from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

More to come in the next post.

Henrietta’s comments are taken from “1797. Tour to the Southern States—Virginia, North & South Carolina” in The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, published in hardcover and eBook. The portrait of Mrs. Liston is by Gilbert Stuart (1800); it is at the National Gallery, Washington, DC. The illustration of the crossing of the Susquehanna River titled Wright’s Ferry (ca. 1812) is by Pavel Svinin and is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

next page

   Copyright © 2014 In the Words of Women.