Colonial Women – Part II

By Roseanne McKee

Republished with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise

Due to the success of the musical about him, nearly everyone has been reintroduced to Alexander Hamilton. However, readers may not recognize the maiden name of his wife, Elizabeth Shuyler, who was born Aug. 9, 1757, and raised in Albany, N.Y.

Elizabeth, called Betsey, was the second daughter of Philip Schuyler and his wife Catherine Schuyler. When she was born, her father was a young captain under General Bradstreet, the quartermaster of the English army during the French and Indian War.

In her book “Dames and daughters of colonial days,” Geraldine Brooks writes “when she was only two months old, the frightful massacre of the German Flat occurred and the refugees fled to Albany.”

Brooks said that the Shuyler family sheltered the refuges in the barn of their home. After the war, they built their mansion, which still stands at 32 Catherine St. in Albany, N.Y. Brooks described the mansion, designed by Philip Shuyler, as magnificent and impressively placed on high ground with a view of the river. It was a long, two-storied home with a great large hall and rows of colonial pillars, Brooks said.

Philip Schuyler aspired to create a lovely country life in Albany for his family, and by Brooks’ account, he did.

“On all sides stretched the flourishing vegetable and flower gardens, the orchards and the vineyards, and the fields of flax and grain,” Brooks wrote. “The house overflowed with hospitality and generosity. … The Dutch kitchen was always redolent with the smell of delicious bread and cakes and pies.”

Brooks described candle dipping, cider making, soap making spinning, weaving and dyeing, orchard and crop harvesting along with outdoor festivities were part of the household’s seasonal routine.

However, education was also important to the family and when the time came, Elizabeth Shuyler and her sisters were sent to New York for school. Letters from relatives reveal they took to their studies, were healthy and made good progress there, Brooks said.

During her childhood, Elizabeth Shuyler had a close relationship with local Indians. In fact, she learned weaving, plaiting and other skills from them, Brooks said.

The high regard for Elizabeth and her family were evidenced by a story known to Brooks and retold in her book about Elizabeth Shuyler being named and adopted by the local tribe:

″‘All the chiefs and greatest warriors of the Six Nations,” says the chronicler, “had met in solemn council, row after row of fine specimens of manhood standing silently around an open space where a bit of greensward gleamed in the sunshine. Although they were dressed in all the barbaric pomp of war-paint, there was a peace on their faces as they stood awaiting the approach of a small group of whites — one or two officers in full uniform and a tall, commanding man in the prime of life, leading by the hand a slim girl of about thirteen dressed in white uncovered head and half-curious, half-frightened eyes. This man was Gen. Philip Schuyler, whom the Indians honored as they did no other white man; and they had met to offer him a tribute of devotion. At a sign from their great chief, their ranks parted to admit General Schuyler, who advanced into the open space, still leading his little daughter. There, with much pomp and many ceremonies, the child was formally adopted by the Six Nations, the chiefs ending the sacred rites by laying their hands upon her head and giving her an Indian name meaning ‘One of us.’”

Next week, we will take a look at Elizabeth Shuyler’s courtship, marriage and life as an adult.

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.