January 2, 2014

Position Entails Some Travel

Sarah Kimble was born in Boston, and about 1689 married Mr. Knight, an agent and shipmaster. It’s commonly thought that her husband was considerably older than she was, and that she must have taken charge of a bit of her husband’s business, because she possessed substantial business skills.  It was to settle the estate of her cousin that she undertook the journey from Boston to New York, a distance of some two hundred miles, in October 1704 alone, on horseback.  Her journal of this trip, published first in 1825, is a series of stories about her experiences while traveling.

For a woman to travel alone, even today, is a risky proposition. While the dangers of the road in 1704 may not have been as dramatic as high-speed crashes or road-rage violence, there were certainly numerous ways in which a woman could come to harm.  The roads were treacherous; bridges were sometimes unavailable at river crossings, and the threat of being robbed by highwaymen ever-present.

To say that Sarah was alone on her journey is only partly true. She joined with other travelers and went along with them much of the way. Her journal is a colorful account, interspersed with writings of poetry, describing the people she met along the way. Her first guide was the son of an innkeeper; she frequently traveled along with “the post,” the person who carried mail from town to town, and at one point traveled with a physician, who found himself cornered by the innkeeper’s wife, telling him all about her medical problems.

"But our Hostes, being a pretty full mouth’d old creature, entertain’d our fellow travailer, the french Dofter with Inumirable complaints of her bodily infirmities; and whisperd to him so lou’d, that all the House had as full a hearing as hee: which was very divirting to the company, (of which there was a great many,) as one might see by their sneering. But poor weary I slipt out to enter my mind in my Jornal, and left my Great Landly with her Talkative Guests to themselves."

Sarah’s writing style is entertaining even by today’s standards. She describes the people she meets graphically, without a nod to delicacy. She expresses her fears of river crossings and dark swamps, her disgust with inadequate food and lodgings, her relief when reaching a comfortable place to stay.
She wrote poetry to entertain herself along the way. On the second evening, finding herself kept awake by carousers in the inn, she wrote a poem in “my old way of composing my Resentments.”

I ask thy Aid, O Potent Rum!
To Charm these wrangling Topers Dum.
Thou hast their Giddy Brains possest—
The man confounded with the Beast—
And I, poor I, can get no rest.
Intoxicate them with thy fumes:
O still their Tongues till morning comes!

Sarah not only left a record of American Colonial life, but she provides us with entertainment as well. It’s interesting that her journal was not published until 1825, almost a hundred years after her death. With her not inconsiderable financial resources and business knowledge, she probably could have published the book herself during her own lifetime. But the journal waited a century to be brought to public attention.

Sarah is an outstanding example of an independent woman for any age. She persevered on her journey in spite of the obstacles and her fears, because she had a job to do, and without conveniences and comforts that we modern softies take for granted--such as hotel rooms with hair dryers and cars with air-conditioners. If you are thinking of starting your own business and are afraid of the risks,or if you simply lack motivation to go to your job, perhaps Sarah's determination will inspire you.

March 24, 2011

Will the Real Pocahontas Please Stand Up?

We all know the Disney version of the story of the Indian princess Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. This story is told by John Smith himself. Smith describes her in his accounts as a tom-boy, romping about her village, and describes her generosity and kindness to the settlers of Jamestown when their resources were scarce. He also tells of the time she saved him from execution, but we can't be sure that it really happened; Smith was evidently a bit of a blowhard and also claimed to have been rescued previously by a Turkish princess on an expedition to Hungary. Of course we know that a romantic relationship between the two of them would have been (we hope) impossible, as she was only ten years old at the time they met.

Pocahontas did, however, mingle with the Jamestown settlers and experience European culture, learning English and, eventually, Christianity. She and Smith saw each other frequently, and it's possible that their friendship fostered friendly relations between Powhatan and the colonists, for after Smith left the colony, the friendliness began to deteriorate.

What isn't addressed in the popular version is that after Smith had returned to England in 1609, Pocahontas was married to a Native man, Kocoum. This marriage ended after three years, presumably by her husband's death. Shortly afterward, another ship's captain, Samuel Argall, lured Pocahontas onto his ship and held her for ransom, demanding corn, weapons, and the return of European prisoners. By the familiar legend, our impression of Pocahontas’ relationship with her father might lead us to think that Powhatan doted on his child and would give her anything she wanted; yet he did not immediately put up the ransom. He waited awhile, then sent part of the ransom, requesting of Argall that his daughter be well-treated. Pocahontas remained in captivity for nearly a year.

During this time she was baptized as a Christian, and fell in love with John Rolfe. With the permission of the governor and Powhatan, Pocahontas and John were married in 1614, a political alliance that resulted in a peace between the colonists and the natives that lasted until Pocahontas' death.

Like her life, Pocahontas' story is a short one. Looking from our modern perspective, we may wonder if perhaps she was an opportunist, using the situations she found herself in to her own advantage; or if perhaps she was an adventurer at heart. I myself wonder many things: What happened to her first husband? Was she still grieving over that loss when she was kidnapped? Did she have children from her first marriage? She was only a girl when she died; she must have been young indeed when she was married the first time, perhaps as young as fifteen. Had Powhatan arranged that first marriage, as he had encouraged the second one? Was Pocahontas only a pawn in the political game, to be moved about by the men who controlled society at the time?

We really cannot know what the daily lives of Powhatan's wives and daughters were like, and wondering about them stirs my imagination. These are the questions which inspire the legends we recognize, the fictionalized stories we find irresistible, the movies that thrill us. We have no way of knowing what Pocahontas felt or thought. So when someone like Disney takes legendary characters and gives them feelings and thoughts that we can relate to, I get excited. Surely Pocahontas had the same feelings as any other teenage girl, any young wife and mother. She is not only a legend, she was a living, breathing person with the same joys and fears as you and I, a real walking, talking, crying, laughing woman.

November 20, 2010

America's First Newspaper Woman

When Elizabeth Timothy's husband died in an accident a few days before Christmas, in 1738, she had five children, the oldest thirteen, and a baby expected "hourly." I don't know about you, but I cannot imagine myself in a worse situation. Christmas time is hard enough for me having only two children. To be hit with the loss of a husband would be unbearable.

Lewis Timothy was partners with Benjamin Franklin and operated the South Carolina Gazette in Charleston. The contract that he had made with Benjamin Franklin still had a year left on it when he died; the boy Peter was named to take over the business. But Peter was only thirteen years old. Elizabeth calmly stepped into the printing room and made a statement to the public: She would now be managing the publication of the newspaper, listing her son Peter Timothy as publisher. Elizabeth ran the South-Carolina Gazette for eight years, until Peter turned twenty-one. After that, she published other books and pamphlets and ran a shop which sold writing materials and books. She is now known as the first woman publisher in America.

The women in those days had a lot to do. Many probably had help with the cooking and housework, if they had husbands in business and weren't living in a cabin scratching out a living from a cornfield and a garden; nonetheless, the wives of businessmen had a busy life. Not only were they managing a household, bearing and tending their children, who were often numerous (when they survived), but they were acting as bookkeepers and assistants to the businessmen themselves.

Of course that hard work was necessary for the success of the business and the family. From our perspective today, maybe Elizabeth's life wasn't that different from ours; we and our husbands both work jobs, and we women take most of the responsibility of managing the children and the household.

But what if we lost our partner? How many of us would be able to step into our husband's shoes and do his job in addition to our own? And do it while pregnant or with a nursing baby? I know I wouldn't have the energy—physical or mental.

Elizabeth Timothy is an important character in the history of Charleston and the publishing business in America. She was inducted into the South Carolina Press Association Hall of Fame in 1973 and the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2000.

November 11, 2010

Plantation Management

At the age of sixteen tender years, Eliza Lucas became the manager of her father’s 600-acre plantation in South Carolina. Her mother was ailing, and the work involved in the management of the entire operation fell upon her shoulders. She was also supervisor of the overseers of her father’s two other plantations, one which produced tar and consisted of fifteen hundred acres, the other a three-thousand acre rice plantation. Eliza Lucas is known for her research and development of indigo as a major crop in the American colonies.

Eliza was born in Antigua, in approximately 1722, and, when she was fifteen years old, moved with her family to South Carolina, where her grandfather had owned land since the early part of the century. The following year her father, Colonel George Lucas in the British army, was obliged to return to his post due to conflict between England and Spain. Three years later he was appointed lieutenant governor of Antigua and never returned to his plantations.

Having the “business of 3 plantations to transact, which requires much writing and more business and fatigue of other sorts” would be beyond the range of ability for the average modern sixteen-year old, male or female, but Eliza was a capable and determined young woman. Under her father’s guidance, which she received by way of letters sent to and from him at his post in Antigua, she developed the cultivation of a variety of indigo that ultimately increased the export of indigo dye from the colonies nearly thirty-fold and caused indigo to become a major economical resource in the Carolinas.

Eliza also asserted her will and intelligence in standing up to her father when she felt the need to do so for her own peace of mind. One of the first entries in her letter book is a letter to her father telling him plainly that under no conditions would she marry the man he had suggested for her. “…and [I] beg leave to say to you that the riches of Peru and Chili if he had them put together could not purchase a sufficient Esteem for him to make him my husband.” This was an unusual girl for the times; and her father must have also been an unusual gentleman to take such back-talk from his daughter. She softens her strong stance in the last paragraph of the letter:

You are so good to say you have too great an Opinion of my prudence to think I would entertain an indiscreet passion for any one, and I hope heaven will always direct me that I may never disappoint you;

Her letters to her father were almost always addressed to “Honored Sir:” She clearly felt very attached to her father and appreciative for her upbringing and his continued guidance, though she carried the largest load of responsibility. The day to day problems and tasks of the plantations were hers to deal with and she would wait weeks for answers from him to her questions.

She was responsible not only for the management of the three farms, but also the care of her mother and younger sister. Eliza’s parents believed in education for girls as well as boys. She had attended school in England, studying French, music, and other subjects, but she wrote her father in 1740 asking that her young sister Polly not be sent to England for school, instead offering to teach her at home. However, in 1742, she wrote to her father saying that she had “prevailed on Mama to send Polly to school.” We can only imagine what events or circumstances caused her to change her mind.

Eliza was passionate about gardening, and in addition to her work with indigo, embarked upon various other horticultural experiments. Reading the work of Virgil inspired her to plant a cedar grove, and she planted an orchard of figs with the intent to dry and export the fruit.

In her letter book Eliza describes a typical day in her life to a friend as full but also fulfilling. Rising at five o’clock in the morning, she read until seven. Then she would take a walk outside to supervise the employees of the plantation, and after that have breakfast. After breakfast she practiced her “musick.” After music came French so it would not “be quite lost,” and then until lunchtime she taught her sister and slave children to read. After lunch she would spend another hour practicing her music, and the afternoon with needlework until dusk made it difficult to see. After dinner was spent reading or writing until time for bed. On Tuesdays the music teacher came, and on Thursday she spent the entire day writing, “either on the business of the plantations, or letters to my friends.” Every other Friday, she went visiting.

This description, from the letter book, sounds somewhat relaxing to us who are used to eight to ten-hour work days away from home. But at that time, a girl as young as this, had she not had the responsibilities that Eliza did would have undoubtedly led a much lazier life, sleeping late in the mornings, and having not much to do except for her own lessons and letter-writing.

Eliza left an invaluable chronicle of American Colonial life, and the fact that the letter book was begun by a sixteen-year-old girl is especially interesting. The will, intelligence, and perseverance of Eliza Lucas provide an example that modern women will find inspiring.

October 30, 2010

Benjamin Franklin had a Wife?

Yes, her name was Deborah Read.

While still a teenager, Benjamin was a boarder in Deborah's mother's house, and while there fell in love with Deborah, who was then fifteen years old. He asked Deborah's mother's permission to marry her (her father was already deceased) but the mother said no because she wanted a husband for her daughter who was more financially secure. In The Autobiography, Franklin says Deborah's mother thought it most prudent to prevent the young people "going too far at present," and that if a marriage was going to take place it would be more convenient after his return from London, when he would be set up in his own business. "Perhaps too," he says, "she thought my Expectations not so well founded as I imagined them to be."

Ah, the wisdom of mothers! Indeed his Expectations were not so well-founded, for the man who had promised to set young Ben up in business did not come through for him, and he stayed in London longer than he had planned.

Meanwhile, Deborah's mother talked her into marrying a local man, John Rodgers, who's financial situation seemed secure; but he soon took off for the Caribbean with Deborah's dowry, and left behind rumors that he had already been married in England. So much for the wisdom of the mother.

Now imagine Deborah's problem. A teenage girl, in love with her teenage boyfriend (who is across the Atlantic in London, trying to improve his fortunes), abandoned by this loser who takes off with her money and leaves her neither married nor single!

I hate to think of my daughters dealing with that kind of embarrassment even today; it's easy to imagine how awful it must have been in Colonial Philadelphia. Nowadays being married or not is no reflection on a young woman's character; but for Deborah the situation must have been demoralizing. She never knew what became of John Rodgers, if he died or lived; and the laws relating to bigamy prevented her from marrying again unless and until her husband was dead.

But our young hero returns; five years later Benjamin and Deborah married under common law, meaning that their marriage wasn't approved by any Church or State, but that they had agreed to live together as husband and wife. By this time, Ben has a printing business and the means to support a family.

Benjamin Franklin in The Autobiography brags about his wife and how fortunate he was that she was "as much dispos'd to Industry and Frugality" as he himself was. She was his cheerful assistant in his businesses, kept a simple table, lived in a house full of cheap furniture. But as fortunes increased, Deborah improved upon the furnishings and accoutrements of the house, and one day he found a porcelain bowl and silver spoon to eat his bread and milk from, instead of his old earthen and pewter.

"What's this?" said Ben.

"I believe, sir, that it is a China bowl and silver spoon!" answered Deb.

"And what, may I ask, has this cost me?" he asked.

"Three and twenty shillings," was her reply.

"Three and twenty shillings!" he roared. "Why on earth, woman, would you spend such a fortune on trifles?"

"Because my husband deserves a silver spoon and China bowl as well as any of his neighbors," she said, patting him on the shoulder. "Now eat your victuals."

That's how I imagine the scene, anyhow. He says that this was the first time china and silver was seen in their house, but over the years their inventory of dishes increased so much that it eventually amounted to the value of several hundred pounds. This means that, if by "several hundred" he meant 300, their china and silver came to be worth the equivalent of about $72,000 in today's economy. That's a lot of dishes to wash.

The story of Deborah Read is one example of Herstory being told through History.

April 13, 2010

Welcome to my Colonial Women blog.

You won't find scholarly writing here (well, not very often, anyway) but you will find, I hope, an interesting take on the daily lives of the women who shaped the beginning of our American experience.

I just love history, don't you? Okay, maybe you don't. Maybe to you history means dozing against the wall during long, dull lectures, memorization of names and dates you don't care about, or reading long chapters in tiny print the night before an exam. Maybe you even studied hard and got As and Bs, but you don't remember a single thing from your courses, because it was something you did because you had to--certainly not because you wanted to.

But I'm here to tell you: History is anything but dull. When you leave the classroom and the textbooks and start looking for stories about people, history becomes interesting, even--dare I say?--exciting.

What fascinates me most when studying history are the everyday lives of the people. This aspect is scarcely addressed in high school and undergraduate History courses; it's something that I have studied outside of school. I was fortunate to have been given an independent research project on the subject of my choice; I chose to study the role of women in American Colonial society.

I wondered about the everyday lives of women prior to the American Revolution. Women like Pocahontas. When we read the history, we find that Pocahontas was only about ten years old when she met John Smith; unlikely that they were the lovers portrayed in popular cinema. And what about Dorothy Bradford, the wife of the first governor of Plymouth Colony. Did she really kill herself? or did she fall off the Mayflower accidentally? The more I research, the less I seem to know; I feel that I could spend the rest of my life looking for the answers to my questions. After all, the records of the women of history are sketchy. Much of what we "know" of these women is surmised from the brief references made by the men who were so busy recording their own exploits they seemed to have had little space left for documenting the day to day affairs of their women folk.

And of course we know why the women weren't documenting their own history. Even if they had realized how important their roles were, they were deep into those roles; they were living their lives. They were working for their own and their families' survival. How many of us today have the energy to keep records of our days? Besides, what do I have to say that anyone will care about two hundred years from now? In what way is my life remarkable?

Like women of today, the women in Colonial America were busy, often working to make a living as well as raising and educating children, and not least, supporting the men in their lives, who, from the text book point of view, seem to have had the most important influence on the history of the world.

I intend to present a different point of view.

Nowadays, we don't think it's unusual for women to have important roles in society. We don't blink when Sara Palin runs for vice-president, or Sue Grafton makes the New York Times bestseller list again. Thankfully, women nowadays have the same opportunities as men--for the most part. We have the freedom and the right to pursue happiness in any and all ways we choose.

It hasn't always been this way, of course; we think of the women of history, and how they were "owned," first by their fathers, and then by their husbands, much like livestock, and we shudder to think how awful it must have been.

But there are women who stand out from the herd, so to speak. Like many of us today, some women back then found themselves in unexpected roles, roles they may have never imagined for themselves, roles which stretched their mental and physical abilities far beyond the expectations of the society in which they lived; and no doubt their own private expectations as well.

I have found so many interesting people, so many stories! There is Elizabeth Timothy, the first female newspaper publisher in America. There is Coosaponakeesa, also known as Mary Musgrove, who was a key player in the founding of the state of Georgia. There is Eliza Lucas, who as a sixteen-year-old girl was given the management of three South Carolina plantations, and developed indigo as an important Colonial product.

I've also found stories about unknown women that I find fascinating--for example, a girl who leapt a fence in her underclothes to stop a bull-baiting. I can't wait to find out more about this story. Such an escapade even today would raise eyebrows--and probably get you on the evening news. (Imagine, if you will, a scantily-clad young woman running into a rodeo arena to stop a calf-roping.)

I have begun a journey of discovery that I expect will lead me to many more fascinating places. I hope you enjoy reading about these characters as much as I enjoy finding them.