Some British Camp Followers on Trial

An article I would like to recommend to your attention appears in The Journal of the American Revolution —WOMEN ON TRIAL: BRITISH SOLDIERS’ WIVES TRIED BY COURT MARTIAL by Don N. Hagist. It is a reminder that British soldiers in America during the Revolution frequently married American women. It also describes the lives of camp followers, in this case wives, who followed their men on marches and campaigns. The particular women that the author writes about are those who were accused of committing certain crimes; they were tried at court martials and were either acquitted or punished. An interesting read.

posted March 2nd, 2018 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: British soldiers, Camp followers

“he inhumanly order’d her thrown over board”

For one last entry before the end of Black History Month the story related by JANE PRINCE ROBBINS is worth remembering. Jane was married to Chandler Robbins, minister of the First Congregational Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts. On October 5, 1792, she wrote to her daughter, Hannah Robbins Gilman, what she had heard of an outbreak of smallpox on board a ship and the fear it inspired.

I read a letter to day that come from Hannah LeBaron. she is in the West Indias, went there with a Capt De Wolf that married a daughter of Gov Bradford. He has accumulated a fortune, in the African trade, the last voyage he made, one of the poor negros broke out with the small Pox a day or 2 after he saild. upon which he inhumanly order’d her thrown over board; when he got home, search was made for him, upon which he was obliged to fly the country.

At a young age James DeWolf of Rhode Island became a sailor on an American privateer during the American Revolution; he participated in several battles and was twice captured by the British. After the war as captain of the ship Polly he joined his uncle and father in the slave trade, becoming wealthy in the process. On a voyage from Africa to Cuba in 1789 his vessel contained 142 slaves and 14 crew. When one of the enslaved women became ill with smallpox she was separated from the others, brought on deck and tied to a chair. Because she did not respond to treatment the captain asked for a volunteer to push her overboard. When no-one was forthcoming, he had her blindfolded and gagged so her screams could not be heard and with the aid of a sailor he raised her with a grappling hook and had her lowered her into the sea where she sank and drowned. One of the crew later testified that DeWolf bemoaned the loss of a good chair.

DeWolf was indicted for murder in 1791 by a grand jury in Newport, Rhode Island. Murder on the high seas was a federal offense. When a warrant was issued for his arrest he fled to the Carribean island of St. Eustatius, leaving his wife and children behind in Bristol. Charged with murder in the West Indies, DeWolf got off again when the prosecuting attorney declined to move forward with the case, two crewmen testifying that he had drowned the slave girl to protect his crew and “valuable cargo” from smallpox. DeWolf relocated to St. Thomas where he was also charged with murder; when no one appeared as a witness, the charge was dropped.

Back in Rhode Island, relatives of his well-connected wife—Nancy Ann Bradford—managed to get the arrest warrant against him dropped. DeWolf then rejoined his family in Bristol where he continued to prosper from the illegal slave trade, from privateering, and his many investments. He became a state senator and in 1821 was elected to the United States Senate. When James DeWolf died in 1837 he was considered to be the second wealthiest man in the United States. (The first was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland.) It is estimated that members of the DeWolf family over the years were responsible for bringing 11,000 enslaved workers into the United States.

The letter is from In the Words of Women p. 177. Two other sources can be viewed HERE and HERE, though there are errors in the latter. John Jay was not the attorney general. He was the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. At that time (1791), the justices rode circuit. Jay presided over federal courts in the northern circuit. It was in his jurisdiction that the case against DeWolf was brought. The book shown can be ordered HERE.

posted February 28th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: DeWolf, James, Jay, John, Robbins, Jane Prince

“my spirits. . . . are not as I would wish when with you”

In addition to rather fragile physical health SARAH LIVINGSTON JAY seems to have been subject to periods of “despondency” which afflicted her throughout her life, but especially when she was parted from her husband. When John Jay served as president of Congress from December 1778 through the end of September 1779, he was in Philadelphia while Sarah was in various locations in New Jersey with their young son Peter Augustus. Sarah looked forward to his letters and as she put it: “I will not trouble you with repetition of my anxiety to see you.” In a letter of 12 February 1779 she reported:

Our dear little boy has had two severe fits of illness occasioned by worms. During his indisposition my suffering I think was little inferior to his as he was only affected by immediate pain & not by any apprehension of future consequences, happy negligence of disposition that attends the state of child-hood!

I have been blessed with a great share of health the whole winter. The weather is very dull at present. Perhaps the transition from such lovely weather as we have been accustomed to lately may effect my spirits. Whatever it is, they are not as I would wish when with you. I will therefore bid you adieu. Perhaps . . . a letter from you . . . (should the depression of my spirits continue till then) will effectually chear the gloom & for the time banish every disagreeable sensation.

John Jay often expressed concern for his wife’s health and well being. In a letter of 18 February Sarah thanked him for his “kind letters.”

[B]e assured the advice contained in them was as welcome as indeed it was requisite. Continue I beseech you your friendly admonitions, for really no one ever required that aid from friendship more than I do in my present circumstances. For am I not prevented from indulging the pleasing prospect of the reunion of my family lest the frowns of disappointment check my innocent expectations? And if I contract my views to my present situation, what consideration can compensate for the loss I suffer by the absence of my friend, & that for God knows how long a time, since who can tell when this unhappy war shall cease. But avaunt painful reflections! Pardon my dear these emotions of discontent. I know they are wrong & discourage as much as possible sentiments of despondency. . . .

Why enjoin me my dear so frequently to be particular about my health? I remember Papa once told William [her brother] when at school that he would always take it for granted that he was well, provided William mentioned nothing to the contrary. Will not that be a sufficient assurance likewise for you if I promise to inform you if I am indisposed.

You can’t imagine what satisfaction I receive from the increasing fondness of my little boy who frequently inquires where his papa stays so long & if you never intend to return. In telling him stories & teaching him to spell I deceive many hours that would otherwise linger on unamused & sometimes unemployed. . . .

Adieu my dear: May providence smile upon your endeavours for the public weal & reward your constancy.
I am most affectionately
YoursSa. Jay

Don’t you find the practice of referring to one’s spouse as “my friend” charming? Sarah would be reunited with her husband in October when they sailed for Madrid where John Jay was to represent the United States as minister plenipotentiary to Spain. Their child, Peter Augustus, was left in the care, for the most part, of his Livingston grandparents and aunts.

The LETTER is in The Papers of John Jay at the Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscript Library.

posted February 24th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Jay, John, Jay, Peter Augustus, Jay, Sarah Livingston

“mutually engaged in the same agreeable employment”

Sometimes writing a letter to someone seems like communing with the intended recipient. When it turns out that the recipient had been writing to you at the same time, the question of ESP comes into play. Strange, mystical perhaps. This is what SARAH LIVINGSTON JAY observes in a letter to her husband John who is in Philadelphia participating in the Continental Congress. She is pensive and sad. The ending is poignant.

Eliz[abeth town]. Town Jany 18th 1779 A thousand thanks are due to my ever amiable friend for the many marks of your distinguishing esteem; among which your favors of the 26th of Decr. & 3d. of Jany. are recent instances. I could not but observe with pleasure by the date of yr. last that we were at the same time mutually engaged in the same agreeable employment. How often, could we observe each other’s thoughts should we find them in quest of ourselves, tho’ you must allow mine to be more frequently employed in recollections of that nature; since ye business of your station demands a greater share of your attention than is claimed of mine by any other objects. I wrote you a short bill of health as I may style it (since little else did it contain) on the 9th or 10th inst. . . .
Mr. Ferguson is at Eliz. Town on a visit to his lady who has travelled quite from Philadelphia un-accompanied at this inclement season of the year to take leave of her husband who is soon to sail for England—poor lady, I fear it’s a final adieu, for I am told she is in a declining way. How few in these calamitous times are exempt from trouble. Fervently, very fervently do I wish for the restoration of peace & tranquility to these unhappy States. Then my dear, among the numerous blessings that such an event would be the means of dispensing may I not indulge the pleasing expectation that we shall no more be thus seperated, that I shall not again be deprived of my friend & counsellor: In short my love when you are absent I distrust my discretion so far that I even decline visiting lest by acting with impropriety I lessen the general opinion of your discernment. Hasten therefore my love to take again under your own wi[ng] your
ever affectionate Wife

To clarify for those not familiar with 18th century dates and abbreviations: inst. means “this month,” from the Latin “instante mense,” while “ult.” is “last month” and derives from “ultimo mense.”

Sarah’s letter is in the Digital Library of the Papers of John Jay at Columbia University and can be found HERE.

posted February 15th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Jay, John, Jay, Sarah Livingston

“great severities from the Frigidness”

John Jay, having been named minister plenipotentiary to Spain, sailed for Europe on October 20, 1779, accompanied by his wife Sarah. Their ship Confederacy met with severe weather and barely made it to Martinique where there was a considerable layover until another vessel could be secured. Catharine (Kitty) Livingston wrote, on 13 February 1780, to her sister from Philadelphia, expressing her concern.

How my dear sweet Sister was you supported in the hours of trial and danger; the appearance of death in so terrible a manner must have awaken[ed] every fear. You have indeed seen the wonders of the deep, and experienced in a remarkable manner the goodness and mercy of an indulgent providence. Your Friends have all reason to bless and thank God for his interposition in your favor, and it ought to console and encourage us to trust in the Author of your Salvation—For he spoke and it was done. he commanded and it stood fast.

Kitty continued, recounting details of the severe winter the country was enduring, envying (when she had thought Sarah was safely in Spain) “the temperance of your climate, whilst we were exposed to great severities from the Frigidness of ours.”

Our Winter set in earlier and with more Severity than is remembered by the Oldest liver among us. The year thirty five, and forty is agreed from circumstances not [to] be compared to this; in neither of those severe Seasons was the Chesapeake at & twenty Miles below Anopolis a firm bridge as is and has been a long time the case. In Virginia it has impeded all Trade, several of there Vessels have been cut to peices and sunk by the ice. The Merchants here think many of there Vessels that they expected in have perished on our coast, the last that got in was the Jay*; and that was in November, and she was much injured by the Ice and it was expected for several days that she and her cargo would be lost.

To the Eastward the Snow impeded all traveling to the State of New York—it cut of[f] Communication from Neighbour to Neighbour. The last accounts from Fish Kill it was four feet deep on a level. Numbers of Families in this City have suffered from its severity altho many among them made great exertions for their releif. In New York the want of fuel was never known like it, they cut down every stick of timber on Mr. Byard’s place** and would not permit [him] to keep any tho he offered to buy it. Several gentlemen went upon long Island and felled the trees, and after bringing it to town with their own horses it was seized for the Kings Troops [New York was occupied by the British], its reported of two families that the want of wood obliged them to lay a bed a week . . . .

You shall hear from me by every opportunity; at least I will write by every one. This letter is going to New London. I shall write to morrow by a Vessel that is to sail from Boston—till then I bid you adieu

* The ship, the Jay, was a Pennsylvania vessel of eighteen guns. There were three other vessels in the Continental service named Jay. One was Lady Jay. They saw action in the Revolution.
** William Bayard was a New York merchant who, initially sympathetic to the Patriot cause, ultimately became a firm Loyalist.

And we complain of the frigid weather and snow we have had recently (and, no doubt, more to come) when most of us are comfortable in our heated houses and can stay warm under our electric blankets!!

Kitty Livingston was not exaggerating in her description of the winter of 1779-80. George Washington, from his winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey, wrote to Lafayette in March 1780, “The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before.” There were twenty-six snow storms in New Jersey, six of which were blizzards. The illustration shows the type of hut soldiers encamped at Jockey Hill near Morristown occupied.

According to historian Ray Raphael, writing in the American History Magazine 2/4/2010:

In January 1780 . . . Mother Nature transformed America into a frigid hell. For the only time in recorded history, all of the saltwater inlets, harbors and sounds of the Atlantic coastal plain, from North Carolina northeastward, froze over and remained closed to navigation for a period of a month or more. Sleighs, not boats, carried cords of firewood across New York Harbor from New Jersey to Manhattan. The upper Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and the York and James rivers in Virginia turned to ice. In Philadelphia, the daily high temperature topped the freezing mark only once during the month of January, prompting Timothy Matlack, the patriot who had inscribed the official copy of the Declaration of Independence, to complain that “the ink now freezes in my pen within five feet of the fire in my parlour, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Kitty’s letter is in The John Jay Papers in the Columbia Digital Library Collections and can be seen HERE.

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