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.

“I love a Garden and a book”

In 1745, when Eliza Lucas was twenty-three, she married Charles Pinckney of Charleston. They lived for a time in England where Pinckney served as a colonial agent. In 1758 they returned to South Carolina, where one month later Charles died of malaria. Once more it fell to Eliza to manage the family plantations. Her two sons remained in school in England; her daughter was with her. It became quickly apparent that the plantations were in financial difficulty: there had been a severe drought and the overseers were found to be incompetent or dishonest. She found a new overseer and wrote to a family friend in England in 1760 that “if it please God to prosper us and grant good Seasons, I hope to clear all next year.” She continued:

I find it requires great care, attention and activity to attend properly to a Carolina Estate, tho’ but a moderate one, to do ones duty and make it turn to account, that I find I have as much business as I can go through of one sort or other. Perhaps ’tis better for me, and I believe it is. Had there not been a necessity for it, I might have sunk to the grave by this time in that Lethargy of stupidity which had seized me after my mind had been violently agitated by the greatest shock it ever felt. But a variety of imployment gives my thoughts a relief from melloncholy subjects, tho ’tis but a temporary one, and gives me air and exercise, which I believe I should not have had resolution enough to take if I had not been roused to it by motives of duty and parental affection. . . .

In another letter to an English friend that same year Eliza Pinckney expresses some concerns: “A great cloud hangs over this province. We are continually insulted by the Indians on our back settlements, and a violent kind of small pox rages in Charles Town that almost puts a stop to all business.” In the last letter in this letterbook dated February 1762 she writes rather wistfully to a family friend in England:

What great doings you have had in England since i left it. You people that live in the great world in the midst of Scenes of Entertainment and pleasure abroad, of improving studies and polite amusement at home, must be very good to think of your friends in this remote Corner of the Globe. I really think it a great virtue in you . . . writing now and then to an old woman in the Willds of America. . . .

How different is the life we live here; vizeting is the great and almost only amusement of late years. However, as to my own particular, I live agreeable enough to my own taste, as much so as I can separated from my dear boys.

I love a Garden and a book; and they are all my amusement except I include one of the greatest Businesses of my life (my attention to my dear little girl) under that article. For a pleasure it certainly is &c. especially to a mind so tractable and a temper so sweet as hers. For, I thank God, I have an excellent soil to work upon, and by the Divine Grace hope the fruit will be answerable to my indeavours in the cultivation.

For information on Eliza Lucas Pinckney during and after the Revolution see In the Words of Women, pages 144 and 150-51. Her Letterbook can be found HERE.

posted April 17th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Britain, Daily life, Death, Farming, Indians, London, Smallpox

“on the business of the plantations”

I have always liked diaries and letters that describe “a day in the life of” a particular girl or woman. Here is one by the amazing Eliza Lucas who, while she was still in her teens, was responsible for managing three plantations in South Carolina for her father, a British army officer posted in Antigua. (See another post here.) With her mother ill (she died in 1759), her two brothers at school in England, and her younger sister Polly at home, Eliza was the one who took upon herself the business of operating the plantations and making them profitable. To this end, she carried on an extensive correspondence with her father who provided instructions and advice, and considered Eliza’s suggestions for improvements. Eliza’s life wasn’t all business as her letter describing her daily routine, ca. April 1742, to Miss Bartlett indicates.

In general I rise at 5 o’ Clock in the morning, read till Seven, then take a walk in the garden or field, see that the Servants [slaves] are at their respective business, then to breakfast. The first hour after breakfast is spent at my musick, the next is constantly employed in recolecting something I have learned least for want of practise it should be quite lost, such as French and short hand. After that I devote the rest of the time till I dress for dinner to our little Polly and two black girls who I teach to read, and if I
have my paps’s approbation (my Mamas I have got) I intend [them] is for the rest of the Negroe children—another scheme you see.

But to proceed, the first hour after dinner as the first after breakfast at musick, the rest of the afternoon in Needle work till candle light, and from that time to bed time read or write. . . . Mondays my musick Master is here. Tuesdays my friend Mrs. Chardon (about 3 miles distant) and I are constantly engaged to each other, she at our house one Tuesday—I at hers the next and this is one of the happiest days I spend at Woppoe [one of her father's plantations]. Thursday the whole day except what the necessary affairs of the family take up is spent in writing, either on the business of the plantations, or letters to my friends. Every other Fryday, if no company, we go a vizeting so that I go abroad once a week and no oftener. . . .

Eliza was especially interested in botany and experimented with methods of growing and processing indigo which was much in demand for dying cloth by England’s textile industry. Her success in cultivating the plant and processing it in cake form suitable for export added to the wealth of southern planters and was especially important at a time when the price of rice, the cash crop, was falling. Indigo production was very labor intensive and contributed to the perpetuation of slavery in the South.

For information on Eliza Lucas Pinckney during and after the Revolution see In the Words of Women, pages 144 and 150-51. Her Letterbook can be found HERE.

posted April 14th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Daily life, Farming, Slaves

“slavery an indirect means of great good”

The story of Chloe Spear continues. She eventually does learn to read, though not well, becomes a devout Christian, marries, and is manumitted. She became the mother of seven children, all of whom died before she did. This pious woman led such an exemplary life of industry and faith that the author felt her story should be told.

Her person was rather above the common size; her countenance open, and interesting; her disposition placid and cheerful, though at a great remove from levity. Her language was extremely broken; so much so, she could never pronounce many words which are in common use. In attempting sometimes to speak, and perceiving by a restrained smile on the countenances of those present, that she was incorrect, she would very pleasantly laugh at herself, with a view to give others the opportunity to do so, without the fear of hurting her feelings.

It may indeed be said of her, she grew in grace and in knowledge, and in favour with God and man. Her case was a striking instance of sovereign, distinguishing goodness; and she frequently spoke of it with devout gratitude, that she, an ignorant, defenceless child, should have been taken from country and kindred, and subjected to slavery in a strange land, that she might be made acquainted with the gospel, be redeemed from the more cruel bondage of sin, and brought into the liberty of the children of God. “They,” she would say, “meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. To his name be the glory.”

The author expatiates further on this point:

The subject of Slavery affords a melancholy evidence of the wickedness of man. It is probably true, that almost ever since this fallen world has been peopled, especially since the replenishing of the inhabitants of the earth after the general deluge some portions of our race have been held in bondage by others.

We are permitted, however, to rejoice in the power and grace of God, who, notwithstanding the depravity of human nature, has, in his infinite wisdom, so overruled and controlled events, as to make even slavery an indirect means of great good. Without any design on the part of those who have been engaged in the traffic, thousands, perhaps millions, have been brought under the sound of the gospel, and have repented, believed, and become the freeborn children of God. Multitudes of them, and among this happy number, our friend CHLOE, of whom we have just been reading, are at this moment, we trust, bowing with the holy company above, before the throne of the Eternal. Many more will yet be welcomed in that happy world, while some, perhaps many, of those who have been their oppressors on earth, will be forever shut out!

Chloe worked hard, took in laundry, and managed her household carefully; she was able to save some money, buy a house, and acquire some possessions. She had a will drawn up and, on her death in 1815 at the age of 65, she left $500 to her grandson, some $330 to the church, and various small bequests to its black members: wearing apparel, beds, bed and table linen. The inventory pictured gives some idea of what her daily life was like; it includes not only utilitarian household objects but also some luxury items like an ebony tea table.

Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, A Native of Africa, Who was Enslaved in Childhood, and Died in Boston, January 3, 1815. . . . Aged 65 Years by A Lady of Boston. 108 p., 1 ill. (Boston: Published by James Loring, 1832) DIGITAL EDITION, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000. In this LINK Professor Margot Minardi discusses the significance of Chloe Spear’s inventory.

posted April 10th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Religion, Slaves

“poor defenceless children . . . arrested by cruel hands”

In the previous post black scholar Henry Louis Gates referred to a verse of Phillis Wheatley’s as “one of the most reviled poems in African-American literature” because in it Wheatley excuses the system of slavery on the grounds that it allowed her to become a Christian. This view seems to have been fairly common among slaves who became devout Christians, and among white Christians as well. I came across a memoir recently which expresses this same sentiment. Chloe Spear was a slave whose memoir was written in 1832, some seventeen years after Chloe died, by “A Lady of Boston”, a member of The Second Baptist Church in that city, tentatively identified as Rebecca Warren Brown. It describes how Chloe became a slave and what happened to her. The author had known Chloe and her story, but she editorializes throughout her account making it difficult to distinguish truth from conjecture and opinion.

About seventy years ago, on the coast of Afriac, the subject of the following memoir, in company with four neighbouring children, herself the youngest, according to the statements from her own lips to the writer, resorted to the shore for amusement, either by bathing in the cooling stream, or other playful sports to which they were accustomed, with the full expectation of returning to their several homes, as usual, after such seasons of childish diversion.

While engaged in these innocent and healthful recreations, they were suddenly surprised by the appearance of several persons, who had secreted themselves behind the bushes: they knew not what to imagine they were, having never seen a white man; from whose frightful presence they attempted to shrink away, but from whose cruel grasp they found it impossible to escape. Not withstanding the piteous cries and tears of these poor defenceless children, they were arrested by cruel hands, put in to a boat, and carried to the dismal Slave Ship, which lay off a few miles in the river, the horrid receptacle of a living cargo, stolen from its rightful soil, by barbarous hunters of human prey for the purposes of traffic. Terror and amazement, as may be supposed, took full possession of their minds. Every thing around them was as novel as it was dreadful. A ship, they had never before seen; the language of these strange intruders was perfectly unintelligible to them and their intentions they were unable to comprehend: and no tender mother, no avenging father near, to know or to alleviate their wretchedness. Ah! little did these hapless children realize, when they quitted their native huts and frolicked, away to the woody beach, that they had left, for the last time, the places of their birth, and the fond embraces of their parents and brothers and sisters. . . . We can better conceive than express the feelings of their parents and friends when night came on, and the looked for children returned not. Silence has ensued, from that to the present hour. From their injured children, they heard no more. . . .

The cruel separation being made, and the terrified, weeping victims packed on board the floating prison, her sails are bent, and she bears them from Africa’s romantic wilds, never to return. . . .

The length of the passage is not known; the end of the voyage, however, brought them to Philadelphia. . . . Here, another painful separation was to take place. Hitherto the children had remained together, nor does the writer recollect to have understood that they were beaten, or otherwise cruelly treated, as many others have been. But now they were to be disposed of like cattle taken to a Fair, to the highest bidder. At the time they were exhibited in the market, the subject of our little history, whom, she said, the sailors used to call Pickaninny, on account of her being the smallest of the lot, was sick; consequently she did not meet a ready sale. The others were sold, she knew not to whom, and carried she knew not whither. . . . She . . . was subsequently purchased by Mr B. and brought to Boston, Massachusetts. Foul stain on the character of our beloved New-England!

She did not know her age, but from her appearance she was judged, she said, to be about twelve, at the time of her arrival. But, young as she was, she remembered various particulars respecting her country, such as climate, fruits, traditions, &c. And having always been accustomed to warm weather, she could not be made to understand what was meant by winter; and when told that, at that season, water sometimes became so hard that it could be cut with an axe, she was astonished and quite incredulous. When winter came on, and she first saw the falling flakes of snow, she was highly amused and playful. And as the season advanced, and produced to her senses the solid ice, she found, by ocular demonstration, that the assertions she had heard were indeed true!

Although enlightened and good people must always have known, that it was a barbarous and wicked thing to take their fellow-beings from their native land, and bring them to ours, to sell or buy them for slaves; yet it is well known that then there was less knowledge of its wickedness than there now is. Hence we are willing to believe, that if the master and mistress of this poor, oppressed girl, whose story is here related, and whom they named Chloe, had lived in our day, they would have dealt very differently by her from what they then did. But at that time, here, as now in many parts of the world, slaves were considered property, and their owners thought themselves under no more obligations to instruct them, otherwise than to do their work in such a manner as best to subserve their own interests, than farmers do, to take, their horses and oxen into their houses, instead of the pasture or the barn. With such views, it is not singular that Chloe was taught nothing, comparatively, of her duty to God, nor to read the blessed Bible. . . .

More about Chloe in the next post.

Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, A Native of Africa, Who was Enslaved in Childhood, and Died in Boston, January 3, 1815. . . . Aged 65 Years by A Lady of Boston. 108 p., 1 ill. (Boston: Published by James Loring, 1832) DIGITAL EDITION, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000. The illustration is the frontispiece in the book.

posted April 7th, 2014 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Boston, New England, Religion, Slaves

“the most reviled poem in African-American literature”

April is National Poetry Month which means that I can post another verse by Phillis Wheatley. In 1761, a girl of about seven was kidnapped in Africa and put aboard a slave ship bound for Boston. There merchant John Wheatley purchased her as a companion for his wife. Phillis was the name of the ship that brought her to that city; her surname was that of her master. (See other posts about Wheatley here, here, and here.) Phillis’s interest in and aptitude for learning was soon recognized and encouraged. Her first poem was published in a Newport newspaper when she was about thirteen. She continued to write poems, and an English benefactor agreed to underwrite the publication of a book, Poems on Various Subjects, in London in 1773. Wheatley’s poems are full of classical references as was typical at the time. Religion also figures prominently: Phillis became a devoted Christian. The following verse by Wheatley has been described by the African-American historian Henry Louis Gates as “the most reviled poem in African-American literature” because it justifies slavery if it is the means whereby slaves become Christian.

Information about Wheatley including the quoted verse can be found HERE.

posted April 3rd, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Boston, Poetry, Religion, Slaves

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