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Exeter author Olive Tardiff
surveys the critical roles of NH
women in the Revolutionary Era.
THE DREAD CRY, "The British are out!" rang
throughout the countryside after the fighting at
Lexington and Concord, patriotic women immediately
set to work getting their men ready to leave for
battle. They had no idea that long years of loneliness,
sacrifice, and hard work lay ahead. They saw that
a job had to be done and went at it with their
On the very day that news of fighting came
to Antrim nearly all the men left for Cambridge.
The women of the town had to work all night preparing
food and clothing to be taken next day to husbands
and sons. Perhaps it was fortunate that Col. Stark
already had his quota for the First New Hampshire
Regiment by the time the Antrim men arrived at Winter
Hill, for he promptly sent them home to finish planting
Matthew Patten, judge of probate and justice
of the peace in Bedford, wrote in his diary that
after receiving the news, his oldest son John was
determined to fight; and added, "our Girls sit up
all night baking bread and fitting things for him
and John Dobbin." Abigail Cilley Butler, wife of
the keeper of Butler Tavern in Nottingham, with the
help of her daughters carded, spun, wove and sewed
through the night so that her husband and two sons
would have enough clothes for their march toward
Cam bridge, which began at four in the morning.
Mrs. Thomas Morison's husband, son, and
hired man left on foot from Peterborough leading
a horse that carried saddlebags stuffed with her
freshly baked bread and a good supply of pork. The
wife of Capt. Levi Spaulding of Lyndborough helped
make paper cartridges for the sixty men in his company
to take with them on their journey.
Polly Locke of New Ipswich, later known
as New Hampshire's champion weaver, was determined
that her 16 year-old brother John should have the
new pantaloons he needed in order to set out for
military service. Legend says she cut fleeces from
a white sheep and a black sheep, cleansed and carded
the wool, spun the yarn, washed and then dried it.
Within forty hours from the time she began to shear
the sheep, John was on his way, suitably dressed
In any season, there was much to be done
on a New Hampshire farm. Sowing and reaping crops,
cutting and storing firewood, haying and butchering
were normally tasks for men. Once the master of the
household had gone to war, these jobs had to be taken
care of by old men and inexperienced boys --or left
for the soldiers' leaves from military service. Women
pitched in when they could.
"We finished husking our corn, our women
folks all helped us husk . . . a little over forty
bushels," wrote Judge Patten on October 17, 1776.
When Anna Sibley's husband went away to work on Fort
Constitution in Portsmouth in the same year, Anna,
pregnant with her third child, managed to hoe three
acres of corn on the Sibleys' burnt-over land in
After Capt. James Aiken of Bedford enlisted
in June, 1775, his wife carried on the whole work
of the farm, including the harvesting. She was assisted
only by her children, the oldest of whom was eleven.
Alice Glidden, who had settled with her husband in
Northfield in 1769, used his old flintlock gun to
hunt game for the family table. She cut her own firewood,
felling the trees herself, and used a team of steers
to haul the logs home, with only her young children
Most women would have agreed with Abigail
Adams of Massachusetts who said, "I am willing to
do my part. I believe I could gather corn and husk
it, but I should make a poor figure at digging potatoes." Women
had enough to do with maintaining their own kitchen
gardens, making soap and candles, spinning and weaving,
preserving and baking food and taking care of their
large families. One soldier complained on leaving
for war, "The hay is not cut, corn not hoed, winter
grain not sowed. No one is left to take care of sick
It was the mother, of course, who usually
nursed the family through illnesses. The services
of a midwife, spinster aunt, or grandmother were
not always available. Women learned to endure suffering
and death, but it must have been doubly hard to sit
alone holding a child that was choking to death with
diphtheria or burning with typhoid fever. The strong
religious faith that had brought their forebears
to this country sustained them.
Sometimes a husband, son or brother died
in the action of the Revolution with no word of his
death for months afterward. It was nearly a year
before the Pattens learned of John's death in Canada
from smallpox. Those away fighting, moreover, were
not likely to learn of a tragedy at home. Mary Bartlett
of Kingston wrote to her husband, Dr. Josiah Bartlett,
who was serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, "Mrs.
Tilton buried their only daughter--four or five years
old. The father is gone to Canada --heavy news for
Mary's letters were filled with accounts
of death and disease in Kingston and Exeter. She
must have felt that Dr. Bartlett would be especially
interested; then, too, as a woman at home alone,
she would want to confide in him all the things that
were troubling her. "Ezra has canker and scarlet
fever," she wrote. "Lois has pain in the head and
sore throat," and in another letter, "Sally was Very
sick with Chocick or worms, better now." Less serious
was the news that "Miriam has been poorly, probably
because she took a cold bath in the sea," or that
Mary herself had suffered from sick headaches.
Mail was a long time on the road between
Kingston and Philadelphia. The Bartletts must have
worried each other with their complaints. Mary, who
was expecting a child in December, 1776, implored
her husband, in her letter of September 9, "Pray
do come home before Cold weather as You know my Circumstances
will be Difficult in the winter If I am alive."
When Josiah wrote that he had frequent coughs
and colds, his wife immediately dispatched a cordial
made of cinnamon and saffron mixed with sugar and
rum, and also a warm "gownd." By the time these comforts
reached him, however, he had probably recovered.
He advised Mary to hold his letters "over the smoke
a little before handling them too much as the Small
Pox is very frequent in the City." Even in Exeter,
Mary wrote in 1778, two people had died of smallpox
and two hundred had been inoculated.
Although Edward Jenner had not yet discovered
a safe way to vaccinate against smallpox, people
were willing to risk inoculating themselves with
an unreliable serum obtained from human victims of
the disease. In 1778 Elizabeth Page Stark of Derryfield
(Manchester), whose husband always called her Molly,
asked the General Court for permission to inoculate
her family and servants. The petition was denied,
perhaps because she was a woman, When Gen. Stark
himself later sent a similar request, it was approved
The general is said to have brought home victims
of smallpox, both his own men and prisoners of war,
to be nursed back to health by Molly Stark.
A lighter approach to this dread disease
was that of the wealthy people of Portsmouth who
chose to visit Shapley Island for their inoculations.
There, after inoculation with the serum, they spent
three or four weeks in quarantine as gaily as if
on vacation at a fashionable watering place. Portsmouth
women sometimes invited friends to "take smallpox" at
their homes and stay until well enough to leave.
There was no such levity in poorer homes
where money for food, clothing and medicines came
in pitifully small amounts from men serving their
country. Many women became wards of their communities,
with public funds being raised each year for their
support. North Hampton records show that on April
1, 1776, voters agreed in town meeting to take care
of Widow Abigail Marston and her four children. At
an Exeter town meeting on January 19, 1778, it was
voted that "the selectmen be a committee to supply
such families of the non-commissioned officers and
private soldiers belonging to this town as now are
or shall be engaged in the continental service, with
such necessaries of life as their circumstances require." Similar
assistance was given to families of those who had
died in the war.
Town governments were not always so charitable.
Spinster Sarah Rawlings, who had no visible means
of support and no legal residence in North Hampton,
had been forcibly returned in 1774 to Greenland,
her former home. Judge Patten noted on November 1,
1775, "I spent the day in framing a complaint for
the Selectmen to the Committee of Safety for Mrs.
Heppers casting her Daughter Hannahs child on the
town and a warrant to the Constable to seize her
goods to maintain the child and going with the Constable & Selectmen
to seize the goods."
In farming communities, private purses and
public funds were drained by heavy taxes to support
the war effort and by inflationary prices. During
the siege of Boston, a soldier wrote to his wife, "Gat
2 or 3 Bushel of Salt as quick as you can for it
will Bee Dear." Salt, so essential for preserving
meats, rose during the war from 30 cents a bushel
to almost 30 dollars. When Mary Bartlett complained
to her husband that prices were "extravagant," he
advised, "Lay in a good stock of wood, buy hay or
corn. Will be cheaper now than next year." Then he
warned her to save seed corn for the next year's
Women with special skills fared better than
most. The demand for cloth for uniforms set many
to work at their looms and wheels. A woman could
spin from two to five skeins (about 120 yards apiece)
of wool or linen in a day and receive five or six
pence a skein. Martha Harris of Salem supported herself
during the absence of her husband by weaving cloth
to sell. Mary Thomson of Durham and her household
made enough clothing to outfit an entire company
in the Army.
A widow was lucky if she had a chance to
remarry, Otherwise she faced the prospect of living
on welfare unless she was skilled enough to work
as seamstress or nurse. The income was minimal in
either case. "Mrs. Deely came," wrote Judge Patten
on July 24, 178Z, "made 2 dresses for Betsey & Polly
and fitted a pair of stays." Mrs. Deely worked three
days and was paid half a dollar, less a few shillings
which Mrs. Patten promised to pay when she had more
cash on hand.
Some women showed unusual competence in
managing their husbands' affairs. In Londonderry
Molly Reid, mother of five children, took entire
charge of the farm during the eight years her husband,
Gen. George Reid, was in the Continental Army. She
learned everything she could about crops and stock,
asking and getting advice in the letters she exchanged
with Gen. Reid. She was highly praised by Gen. John
Stark who once said, "If there is one woman in New
Hampshire fit for governor, 'tis Molly Reid."
Abigail Reed of Fitzwilliam successfully
took over the handling of family finances when her
husband returned home from the war with his eyesight
gone. Since the youngest of her nine children was
nine years old when the Revolution began, she could
depend on their help in running the household. Molly
Stark managed her large family in Derryfield with
the help of servants and her older children, but
had to let the sawmill John Stark had established
in 1760 lie idle.
Not all wives of Revolutionary soldiers
stayed at home working and worrying. Those who could
afford to travel and who had plenty of house hold
help joined their husbands when possible. In a letter
of February 26, 1776, Dr. Bartlett refers to Mary's
forth coming visit to Philadelphia. Such a journey
would be quite an undertaking, and it is presumed
that Mary would have stayed there for a few weeks
to make the expense and effort worth while.
There is a persistent and romantic legend
that soon after John Stark left for the scene of
fighting in Massachusetts, his wife Molly followed,
carrying extra clothing and money. She is said to
have ridden on horseback through the woods, guided
only by spotted (blazed) trees. It is unlikely that
Molly, pregnant with her ninth child, would have
started out on a journey of 60 miles in such a fashion.
The wife of the newly elected colonel of the First
New Hampshire Regiment would probably have driven
in a high wheeled chaise over main roads, spending
the night en route with relatives in Atkinson or
at a respectable inn.
Molly visited her husband several times
at his headquarters at the Royall House in Medford.
There she observed both British and American maneuvers
from a third-story window high above the Mystic River.
When hundreds of people rushed to rooftops and high
ground to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill, Molly
climbed Pasture Hill to see the smoke and flames
rising above Charlestown and to listen to the sound
of cannon fire, no doubt fearing for the life of
her gallant husband.
There are no accounts of wives at Ticonderoga,
Albany, or Trenton, but they clearly were in their
husbands' thoughts . After a trip to Albany, Judge
Patten wrote, "Brought back to Mrs. Newman a pair
of silver shoe and knee buckles and eight dollars," and "To
Lieutenant McCalley's wife ten dollars in cash." From
Philadelphia Dr. Bartlett sent chintz for three gowns
for Mary, and silver sleeve buttons for the children.
While families of other communities were
enduring hardships, those of Portsmouth and Exeter
were enjoying a measure of prosperity, thanks to
the trading and shipbuilding activity in the coastal
city and the location of the new inland capital.
Long accustomed to fine silks and furnishings in
elegant mansions, some women continued their luxurious
living, to the displeasure of those who were willing
to sacrifice for the patriotic cause. The majority
of housewives had given up imported tea after the
tax controversy, taking what pleasure they could
in Liberty Tea made of ribwort or other herbs.
Mrs. Abigail Butler of Nottingham felt strongly
about tea drinkers. According to a poetic account
published a century later, she was so incensed when
a traveler staying at Butler Tavern attempted to
take a package of tea from his pocket that:
Then quickly she darted forward,
Her plate of meat she let fall,
And with one deft stroke of the carver,
Cut coat-tails, pocket and all,
Threw them into the blazing fire-place
Before he had time to think,
While she said in a voice triumphant,
"That tea you shall never drink. "
Another ardently patriotic group of women
met in Portsmouth in the summer of 1777 to piece
together an American flag for John Paul Jones's ship,
the Ranger. A popular legend says Mary Langdon, Caroline
Chandler, Augusta Pierce and Dorothy Hall cut up
their best gowns for the stars and stripes, while
Mrs. Helen Seavey sacrificed the white silk dress
in which she had only recently been married.
New Hampshire was the only state in which
no actual battles were fought, but throughout the
state women proved they were ready to defend themselves
and their homes if necessary. Prudence Wright of
Hollis led a group of women dressed in men's clothes
in the capture of a local Tory who was found to be
carrying dispatches to the enemy in his boots. When
a false rumor of attack from the sea reached Greenland,
Elinor Johnson started out on the road to Rye with
her musket, ready to meet the enemy.
Colonial women had learned early how to
handle firearms. When only fifteen, Molly Stark had
used a musket to guard the fort built by her father,
Capt. Caleb Page, in Starkstown (Dunbarton), while
men were working in the fields. Later, when the mother
of several children, she is said to have shot a bear.
Bears and even wolves were constant threats
to rural families. Mrs. Mary Hall of Mason thought
wolves were about to enter her cabin while her husband,
Deacon Hall, was absent. With her children's help,
she pushed every piece of furniture against the door
and spent a sleepless night waiting for morning light
to drive the animals away.
Mary Bartlett, Molly Stark, Polly Locke,
Molly Reid and others showed what women were willing
to do to support the efforts of their men at war.
Their courage and capability made it possible for
New Hampshire soldiers to fight for their country
without fearing excessively for the safety of those
Mary Bartlett expressed their awareness
of the gravity of the times when she wrote to her
husband on July 6, 1776, "I believe this Year will
decide the fate of america.'' And so, with the help
of the women of the Revolution, it did.
by Olive Tardiff
Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles
Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976.
Reprinted by permission of the authors.
For More Information: Mary Bartlett
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