Colonial Women – Part I

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Sarah Kemble Knight journied from Boston to New York in 1704 on horseback with paid guides.

By: Roseanne McKee

Republished with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise

The next few columns will be a look back at some noteworthy women from colonial times. In this column I introduce readers to Sarah Kemble Knight, who decided to take a journey from Boston to New York in 1704 when travelers in petticoats were rare indeed. Her diary provides a window into her journeys. After returning from her trip, Knight became a schoolmistress and taught two students whose name readers will recognize.

Highlights are in the book “Dames and Daughters of Colonial Days” by Geraldine Brooks published in 1900 by Thomas Y. Crowell & Company.

For context here are some facts. Knight, born and raised in Boston, was one of the children of a prosperous merchant. She married widower Richard Knight and had one daughter.

In 1704 Boston had a population of 10,000. New York City was only half as large, Brooks wrote.

“The Boston News Letter” had just been published, Brooks said.
“A great deal of the best English literature was as yet unwritten or unknown,” Brooks wrote. (p. 86).

Knight was educated but likely didn’t have many interesting things to read.

The purpose of her journey is not in her diary, but Geraldine Brooks supposes it was to attend to a New York property, which may have left to her by a New York relative. It could also have been to have an adventure, Brooks said.

Knight left Boston on horseback in October with a male travel guide who was paid to accompany her. So sparse was the population that it was customary for private residents to open their homes to travelers. Despite the custom, Knight was sometimes turned away. When this happened her diary entries recorded the anger she felt at literally being left out in the cold.

She also stayed at taverns along the way in those days called “ordinary.” At such taverns she had to share a room with her male guides. Knight describes the beds therein as too high, hard and lacking coverlets. At times the ruckus in the tavern was so loud she could not sleep and simply had to sit by the fire all night and endure or write in her diary when the conversation became to course.

I’ve often wondered when Indian fry bread was introduced. Knight mentions in her diaries being served what she calls “Indian bread” at a tavern with pork and cabbage.

Knight also gives an account of riding in a canoe, which she called an “Indian vehicle.”

Along the way she stopped in New Haven in the Connecticut Colony for several weeks and was welcomed by friends and relatives with whom she stayed. The food and hospitality were fine and she made complimentary comparisons to Boston in her diary entries.

She journeyed on to New York and stayed there for two weeks.

In her diary Knight noted some differences between New York and Boston. According to Brooks diary summary, Knight had said the Sabbath was not kept in New York as it was in Boston, and Knight was also surprised by the “leniency in regard to divorce.”

Knight also noted an unfamiliar New York wedding custom wherein the groom would run away and be pursued by the groomsmen who would bring him back “to duty.”

Her return to Boston would have been even more uncomfortable since winter had set in. She traveled through woods, snow and freezing temperatures to arrive in Boston in March 1703 to the warm welcome of her mother and her only child, a daughter.

Soon after her return, Knight opened a school in her house where Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Mather were both her students.

“And it was a Mather of a later generation, Mrs. Hannabell Crocker, who called Madam Knight an ‘original genius’ and said her ideas of that talented lady were formed from having heard Dr. Franklin and Dr. Mather converse about their old schoolmistress,” Brooks wrote on page 99 of her book.

Later her daughter married and moved to New London, Conn., where Knight visited.

Knight owned several farms but her primary residence and the church she attended were in Norwich, Conn.

Her last occupation was as an innkeeper at the Livingston Farm in New London on Norwich Road.

“No doubt hers was a model ordinary,” Brooks wrote.

I speculate that it was — with excellent food, hospitality and sleeping quarters. Some might even say it was extraordinary — like the woman herself.

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