Archive for the ‘New England’ Category

More about Deborah Sampson Gannett

To support her family, with a man named Herman Mann as her “agent”, Deborah Gannett undertook lecture tours—a first for a woman. Mann, a hack writer, put together a memoir, an assemblage of fact and fiction, and published it in 1797 as The Female Review or Memoirs of an American Lady. He even commissioned a painting by Joseph Stone, an engraving of which appeared in the frontispiece (see previous post). A small print run sold relatively well. Mann booked and orchestrated Deborah’s “performances”: first she delivered an address to her audience (written by Mann) then, in soldier’s attire and armed with a rifle, she presented the exercise from the soldiers’ manual of arms, the conclusion being the singing of “God Save the Sixteen States.”

With the help of the poet and editor Philip Freneau—he wrote a poem in her honor—Deborah petitioned Congress in 1797 for a pension. Her claim was denied. In 1803 she submitted another petition and was granted $4 per month as an “invalid pensioner” because of her war wounds. In spite of the award she and her family still struggled. Several times during her married life Deborah was compelled to apply to friends for loans to keep the family going. Here is one of two surviving letters, this written in 1806 to Paul Revere, who was acquainted with the Gannetts.

Honoured Sir—After my unfeigned regards to you and your family, I would inform you that I and my son have been very sick—though in some measure better—I hope Sir that you and your family are all in the injoyment of helth which is one of the greatest of blessings.—My own indisposition and that of my sons causes me again to solicit your goodness in our favour though I with Gratitude confess it rouses every tender feeling and I blush at the thought that after receiving ninety and nine good turns as it were—my circumstances require that I should ask the Hundredth—the favour that I ask is the loan of ten Dollars for a Short time—as soon as I am able to ride to Boston I will make my remittance to you with my humble thanks for the distinguished favour—from your Humble Servent—Deborah Gannett.

Deborah subsequently submitted other petitions to Congress seeking pensions and assistance. It was a struggle. Historian Alfred F. Young noted that: “. . . from the time of her discharge late in 1783, it had taken eight years to win back pay (1792), twenty-two to get a pension as an invalid veteran (1805), and thirty-eight to get a general service pension (1821).” He further observed that “it was only after repeated, angry appeals that she had gotten anywhere. . . . She received a pension because she fought for it; no one handed it to her, and at that it was paltry.” Deborah Gannett died in 1827. Her passing was not much noticed at the time. However, the advent of feminism and the accompanying interest in women’s history led Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, in 1983, to proclaim Deborah Sampson Gannett the official heroine of the state.

Back to Alex Myers and his book The Revolutionary. A couple of twists should be mentioned here. Interestingly, Myers is a distant descendant of Deborah Gannett. Further, this book about a woman who disguised herself as a man is by a woman-to-man transgender author, Alice to Alex. And that’s quite revolutionary, don’t you think?

Check out the author’s website and buy his book HERE. For those whose interest in Deborah Sampson Gannett has been piqued, read the excellent biography Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, by Alfred F. Young (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) available HERE. Deborah’s letter appears on page 230, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Alex Myers conferred extensively with Mr. Young on historical background and other details in writing his novel.

posted January 27th, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off on More about Deborah Sampson Gannett, CATEGORIES: American soldiers,Military Service,New England,Patriots

The “gender-bending” Deborah Sampson

In The New York Times of January 13, 2014, there was a review of a novel by Alex Myers called Revolutionary. I was interested because Myers based his work of historical fiction on the true story of a 22-year-old Massachusetts woman named Deborah Sampson who cut her hair, bound her breasts, donned men’s apparel, and, as Robert Shirtliff, enlisted in the Continental Army in 1782. She lied about her age, claiming to be in her teens, which would account for the lack of facial hair, and collected the bounty paid to those who volunteered.

Deborah Samson (her name was later misspelled as Sampson) was one of seven children of Jonathan Samson, Jr. and Deborah Bradford, both of whom had ties to the earliest settlers in Massachusetts. The family was poor and when the father left when Deborah was five, her mother had to place some of the children with friends, relatives or employers. As soon as possible Deborah was “bound out,” that is indentured, and worked until she was freed at age 22. Tall for a woman, and strong and muscular from doing farm chores, she was, to put it mildly, plain, with a prominent nose and bulky jaw. Sent to West Point with other recruits, she was outfitted (there were no physicals), trained, and participated in skirmishes in Westchester County where there, and elsewhere, guerilla warfare still went on after the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781. She was wounded near Tarrytown, New York, but managed to maintain her disguise. Eventually, however, she was revealed to be a woman and was honorably discharged in 1783.

Returning to Massachusetts she discarded men’s clothes and married Benjamin Gannett. The couple lived on a small farm in Sharon and had three children. But Benjamin was not a good provider and in 1792 Deborah petitioned the state of Massachusetts for compensation for her service in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. A resolution granted her back pay of £34 and stated “that the said Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism, by discharging the duties of a faithful gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished.”

More in the next post.

posted January 23rd, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off on The “gender-bending” Deborah Sampson, CATEGORIES: American soldiers,Military Service,New England,Patriots

Belinda’s Petition

Belinda was a slave, the property of Isaac Royall, Jr. in Medford, Massachusetts, from 1768 to 1778. The Royalls, one of the richest families in New England, had moved from Antigua to Medford in the early 1700s bringing 27 slaves with them. The home they built was a splendid example of eighteenth century architecture at its best; it included Slave Quarters, the only such building in the Northern United States. Three days before the battle of Lexington, Isaac Royall, Jr. fled first to Nova Scotia and then to England. His estate was confiscated and his home occupied by several notable personages during the Revolution. In 1783, after Royall’s death, Belinda filed a petition to the Commonwealth claiming she was entitled to a per annum payment by his estate for her service. In it she recounted how, as a child of twelve, she had been seized in Africa and transported to New England.

The Petition of Belinda an Affrican, humbly shews: that seventy years have rolled away, since she on the banks of the Rio de Valta, received her existence – the mountains Covered with spicy forests, the valleys loaded with the richest fruits, spontaneously produced; joined to that happy temperature of air to exclude excess; would have yielded her the most compleat felicity, had not her mind received early impressions of the cruelty of men, whose faces were like the moon, and whose Bows and Arrows were like the thunder and lightning of the Clouds. – The idea of these, the most dreadful of all Enemeies, filled her infant slumbers with horror, and her noontide moments with evil apprehensions! – But her affrighted imagination, in its most alarming extension, never represented the distress equal to what she hath since really experienced – for before she had Twelve years enjoyed the fragrance of her native groves, and e’er she realized, that Europeans placed their happiness in the yellow dust which she carelessly marked with her infant footsteps. – even when she, in a sacred grove, with each hand in that of a tender Parent, was paying her devotions to the great Orisa who made all things – an armed band of white men, driving many of her Countrymen in Chains, ran into the hallowed shade! – could the Tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from Tortured Parental affliction, have blunted the keen edge of Avarice, she might have been rescued from Agony, which many of her Country’s Children have felt, but which none hath ever described, – in vain she lifted her supplicating voice to an insulted father, and her guiltless hands to a dishonored Deity! She was ravished from the bosom of her Country, from the arms of her friends – while the advanced age of her Parents, rendering them unfit for servitude, cruelly separated her from them forever!

Scenes which her imagination never conceived of, – a floating World – the sporting Monsters of the deep – and the familiar meetings of the Billows and the clouds, stove, but in vain to divert her melancholly attention, from three hundred Affricans in chains, suffering the most excruciating torments; and some of them rejoicing, that the pangs of death came like a balm to their wounds. Once more her eyes were blest with a Continent – but alas! How unlike the Land where she received her being! Here all things appeared unpropitious – she learned to catch the Ideas, marked by the sounds of language only to know that her doom was Slavery, from which death alone was to emancipate her – What did it avail her, that the walls of her Lord were hung with Splendor, and that the dust troden underfoot in her native Country, crowded his Gates with sordid worshipers – the Laws had rendered her incapable of receiving property – and though she was a free moral agent, accountable for her own actions, yet she never had a moment at her own disposal!

Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, until!, as if Nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of the freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human Race, the present war was Commenced – The terror of men armed in the Cause of freedom, complelled her master to fly – and to breathe away his Life in a Land, where, Lawlless domination sits enthroned – pouring bloody outrage and cruelty on all who dare to be free.

The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole ugmented by her servitude.

WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry – she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives.

The Medford Historical Society, in whose possession the petition is, suggests that it be read with caution, moving though it is. As Belinda describes it, her home in Africa was inland not on the coast, so it is more likely that she was kidnapped by black rather than white traders. Noted abolitionist Prince Hall, a free black who helped Belinda draft her petition, may have wanted to draw attention to those who he thought bore the moral responsibility for the slave trade—white men. Another curious matter: the names of the deities Belinda uses were not known in the Volta region she claims to have come from. Belinda or Hall, the Society speculates, may have wished to show that Africa had civilizations and religions that deserved the respect of white Christians. At any rate, the Massachusetts House and Senate were sufficiently impressed by Belinda’s plea to award her 15 pounds, 12 shillings per year. According to the Medford Historical Society, “the pension awarded to Belinda might be regarded as one of the first cases of reparation for slavery and the slave trade.”

The Royall House and Slave Quarters (shown) are National Historic Landmarks. Additional information about the family and its enslaved workers can be found HERE. If you are within striking distance of Medford, Massachusetts, you may wish to hear historian Lois Brown give a talk called “Marked with the furrows of time”: Belinda, the Royalls, and Accounts of Freedom, on Saturday, June 8, 2013 – 3:00-5:00 p.m. More information about this event can be found HERE. Credit goes to J.L. Bell for his blog ENTRY alerting me to the Royall House and Belinda’s petition.

posted May 13th, 2013 by Janet, Comments Off on Belinda’s Petition, CATEGORIES: New England,Slaves/slavery

a Generous Madness

In 1769, Sarah Prince Gill, the wife of a Boston merchant, using the pseudonym “Sophronia,” wrote to the renowned English historian, Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay, urging her to write a history of America and offering to put her in touch with American intellectuals.

It is with Pleasure Madam, I hear of your design to treat of the settlement of these Northern Collonies. I hope you will have the aid of the most accurate Peices that give Light on the Subject. …

When I reflected on the Quallities you are endowed with for Works of this Nature, I feel regret that you are not on the Field where the history was Acted; for give me leave to say, no Person can form a full Idea of the American Spirit & Love of Liberty, but those who dwell in or visit the Clime; it is inwrought in their Frame; transpires in every breath; and beats in every Pulse. …

I would not, I hope I do not, carry my notion of Patriotism beyond the Standard of Truth, yea, of Truth confirmed by Fact. Souls there have been, Souls there are, who have Sacrificed darling Interests for their Countries Good. Even in this Age of Corruption Venality and Dissipation I am frequently the Wittness of Such a Conduct. I Glory in my Country, I Glory in Boston my native Town on this Account.—And tho the Pathetic Writings and warm Addresses of Some have been termed Enthusiastic Raphsody, high Flights of a raised Imagination &c., and the Spirited United Conduct of Others deem’d Madness and Faction, yet in my humble Opinion these are the Genuine results of a Rational Enthusiasm, a Generous Madness, and a truly Loyall Faction. What more Generous than the Merchant who depends on Commerce, stopping the resource of his own gain to procure the Liberty of his Country? What Online Pokies more Loyall than to prefer the good of the Empire to that of a Few mercenary Place-Men* Pensioners &c? What more Rational than to employ the Powers of Genius, and of Eloquence, in stating and defending the rights of Humanity?—Yes, My Dear Madam, there are among Us of Men very many, of Women not a Few animated with this Philosophy.

You Lament the want of such a spirit in “Our Sex.” I have Observed and Mourned it Also, but I find this is chiefly among our City Ladies: that it takes rise from that Levity of Manners, that dissipation of Thought, that Low Ambition of Title and Show which Characterises our Modern Women; Amusements and Pageantry have absorbed their every Care and destroyed the Noblest Feelings of the Humane Heart! When sick of Contemplating this, and Conversing with these, I turn me to those who think and Act more becoming Rationals. And many do I know who are warm Assertors and steady Friends of Liberty; Especially is this evident among the most serious religious Women of New England. … Our Ancestors wisely took care to instill the principles of Liberty into the minds of their Children, to this provident care it is owing that America hath made such a Noble stand against the inroads of Despotism, and produced such Able Defenders of her Rights.

*Place-man: one appointed by the sovereign to a remunerative public office as a reward for service or loyalty, usually a derogatory term.

Gill offered to transmit any information to Macaulay that could be of use in writing a history. “Happy shou’d I think myself if in any instance I cou’d serve the Cause, tho’ as the smallest spring in the Grand Machine.”

Gill’s letters are from In the Words of Women, pages 16-18; the portrait is at the National Gallery, London.

“Oh! How many wretched families were made that day.”

Mary Gould Almy, with her children and mother, lived in Newport, Rhode Island during its occupation by the British (1776-1779). As happened in so many families, the Revolution divided husband and wife. Mary opposed the war while her husband Benjamin sided with the Americans, serving under General John Sullivan. Having signed a treaty of alliance with the Americans, France sent a fleet under Count d’Estaing to Newport in July 1778, to prepare for a joint assault on that city with the Americans. Almy described for her husband what took place. She explained her motivation for keeping a record.

By your desire and my own inclination, I am to give you an account of what passes during the siege; but first let me tell you, it will be done with spirit, for my dislike to the nation that you call your friends, is the same as when you knew me, knowing there is no confidence to be placed in them, and I foresee that the whole will end, as this maneuvere did, in taking this island, to the discredit of the Americans. You will not be surprised at my warmth when you will find how I suffered, nor wonder at my freedom when you find this comes sealed and wrote for your perusal alone.

Saturday August 8.
At one o’clock, signals for unmooring throughout the French fleet, a brisk gale blew, and entirely fair. One hour, the longest time that could be thought, then we should all be prisoners. Heavens! what distress! what consternation seize me! where to fly for shelter! … Then that precious comforter to the female, came to my relief, a silent shower of tears behind the haystack, for my poor friends in town, who never were in half the danger as myself, and cousin C.’s cherry rum being brought, I grew more and more enabled to bear my sorrows.

Sunday, August 16.
Still carting, still fortifying; your people encroaching nearer, throwing up new works every night. Our people beholding it every morning, with wonder and astonishment. And … my curiosity was so great, as to wish to behold the entrenchment that I supposed you were behind; and a good young man … took me in a chaise to the hospital … [where] we had an excellent view of … all the encampments around it. Believe me, my dear friend, never was a poor soul more to be pitied, such different agitation as by turns took hold upon me. Wishing most ardently to call home my wanderer, at the same time, filled with resentment against those he calls his friends, so that I returned home more distressed, my spirits more sunk than when I went out.

Monday, August 17.
Nothing happened worth notice. … the day was spent in exchanging shots; in the evening they entertained us with throwing shells. It would have been an agreeable sight, had we not been sure it was meant to carry death along with it. I sat upon the top of the house till twelve, beholding and admiring the wonderful contrivances of mankind to destroy one another.


posted September 6th, 2012 by Janet, Comments Off on “Oh! How many wretched families were made that day.”, CATEGORIES: Battles,British soldiers,Hessians,Loyalists,Marriage,New England,Patriots

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