We regularly ask our contributors questions about the American Revolution and founding era. This month we’ve asked them to tell us about a woman associated with the 1765-1805 era who does not have a Wikipedia entry, but who should.
Hannah Thomas (1730-1819) was the first woman lighthouse keeper in what was about to become the United States. Her husband, Gen. John Thomas, went off to serve in the American Revolution and gave his life in the process. From 1776-1786 she had to run between two towers at Gurnet Point in Plymouth, Massachusetts. After the war the new government purchased the property for $120. While we do not know much about the widow Thomas, readers can find more in: Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers.
“The Widow of Mount Holly.” Despite Hessian Col. Carl von Donop’s alibi to Gen. James Grant, the colonel had not remained in Mount Holly for three days in December 1776 to gather allegiances to the Crown. The truth came with the 1979 discovery of jäger Capt. Johann Ewald’s diary. Ewald wrote that the colonel had become smitten with “the exceedingly beautiful young widow of a doctor.” Instead of returning to their post at Bordentown, the brigade was now more than a day’s march from Trenton—meaning General Washington faced a force of 1,500 in Trenton instead of 4,000 combined enemy forces. Her identity remains a mystery, but she is certainly the key player in how events unfolded. Indeed, the events between December 21-25, 1776 in Burlington County, New Jersey remain underappreciated.
Michael J. F. Sheehan
Mrs. Elizabeth Lynsen Smith lived in Haverstraw, New York. Her family was divided on the Revolution. Her brother-in-law William Smith, Jr. declared for the British in 1778. Another brother-in-law, Joshua Hett Smith, was involved in the Benedict Arnold Treason. When the British landed at Stony Point son Abraham ran off to see his uncle. Mrs. Smith was escorted under a flag of truce to Stony Point to win him back. Two more sons, William and James, became British officers. Husband Thomas was questioned by American authorities as a loyalist. Elizabeth’s family suffered political division and was never reunited.Don GlicksteinEven Wikipedia’s short section about Native American women during the Revolution barely mentions their important role. Nearly all their names—except for Molly Brant (Konwatsi’tsiaienn), the Mohawk leader who has a Wikipedia page—are lost. Barbara Graymont, who wrote the 1972 seminal account of the Iroquois during the war, found that Indian women had “significant influence” on whether warriors would fight or stay home, often including a veto power. The full account of Native American women of the time not only remains to be written, but it’s a question whether it ever could be written.
Even Wikipedia’s short section about Native American women during the Revolution barely mentions their important role. Nearly all their names—except for Molly Brant (Konwatsi’tsiaienn), the Mohawk leader who has a Wikipedia page—are lost. Barbara Graymont, who wrote the 1972 seminal account of the Iroquois during the war, found that Indian women had “significant influence” on whether warriors would fight or stay home, often including a veto power. The full account of Native American women of the time not only remains to be written, but it’s a question whether it ever could be written.
Mary Brownson Allen, Ethan Allen’s first wife, is an excellent candidate for a Wikipedia entry. Historians have routinely maligned her personality and character, describing her as shrewish, overly pious, illiterate, hectoring, scolding, and rigid. There is little evidence to support these claimed characteristics despite frequent retelling. Critics point to Ethan remarrying only one year after Mary’s death to a woman more than twenty years younger as evidence of an unhappy first marriage. However, quick frontier remarriages were common, and a younger bride does not imply an unhappy first marriage. What little evidence there is about their marriage points in another direction. Mary and Ethan had six children together, and their marriage survived Ethan’s long absences hunting and exploring the land in Vermont.
Robert S. Davis
Fenda Lawrence was an African in the slave trade with fiscal and physical partner Irishman Stephen Deane. Before the American Revolution they settled near Savannah, Georgia with their mixed-race children. Stephen was a patriot captain who did not survive the Revolution. His family’s struggles during and after the war make interesting reading.
There were hundreds of women in both armies at Saratoga, most of them anonymous and now all but forgotten. One such nameless woman was a slight, elderly one who was killed in the battle of October 7, 1777. Her remains were discovered in 1972 where she fell. We know many things about her, and could know more, but that will never include her name. She too deserves a Wikipedia entry, but her anonymity, like that of so many others on both sides, makes inclusion unlikely. Even in archaeology, people, places, and things must usually be named to gain recognition.
Mark R. Anderson
Lady Mary Watts Johnson was put under rebel guard in May 1776 at Johnson Hall, New York after her Loyalist husband, Sir John Johnson, escaped Continental authorities. Recognized as “a lady of great art and political intrigue,” particularly dangerous if allowed to stay at home, Patriot officials moved her to Albany, then Fishkill, keeping her as “a Kind of Hostage” for her husband’s behavior. Even under detention, she ran an active hub for covert Loyalist communications. After several months, Lady Johnson “effected escape in disguise” in the dead of winter to rejoin her husband in British-held New York City.
Nancy K. Loane
Sarah Matthew Reed Osborn Benjamin well represents the thousands of women who followed the Continental army, as she spent three years cooking, washing, and mending for soldiers. Sarah followed her husband Cpl. Aaron Osborn to Yorktown, where she carried water during battle and Washington inquired of her, “Are you not afraid of cannonballs?” Sarah remembered the British fifes were tied with black ribbons at the Yorktown surrender. Sarah Osborn Benjamin, who comes to life through an 1837 pension record and a lengthy obituary, died in 1858, at the age of 114.
James M. Smith
Mary Morris, the wife of Robert Morris the “financier” of the American Revolution. In 1757 Mary married Robert when she was nineteen years old and he was thirty-five. After the war, due to a series of unsuccessful land speculations, Robert Morris was sentenced to debtor’s prison at age sixty-three. His wife visited him every afternoon, and scraped up enough money to see he was comfortably housed in prison. She was able to rent a small house on the outskirts of Philadelphia and after his release they spent the rest of their lives together.
J. L. Bell
Jane Ames (1765–1849) authored two books of religious verse and essays. She has a Wikipedia entry—but only under her maiden name, erasing half her published work. Jenny Fenno was born in Boston, daughter of a leather-dresser who specialized in fire buckets. Ironically, a 1787 fire destroyed her home but inspired a broadside poem. In 1791 Fenno published Original Compositions in Prose and Verse on Subjects Moral and Religious. Three years later, she married James Ames of Bridgewater. In 1808 “Mrs. Jane Ames” published Compositions, Original and Selected . . . Part Second. Thus, Ames wrote for the public over a twenty-year span while marrying and raising children.
Don N. Hagist
The activities of the Hon. Caroline Howe are largely eclipsed by those of her famous brothers: George Augustus Howe, a rising military star killed early in his career during the French and Indian War; Richard Howe, admiral in the Royal Navy who commanded British naval forces for part of the American Revolution; and William Howe, for three years commander-in-chief of the British army in North America. Caroline is occasionally remembered only for opposing American diplomat Benjamin Franklin in chess matches, but her efforts to influence and orchestrate a peaceable settlement to Britain’s conflict with the American colonies were extensive. Fortunately, an extensive account of her and the Howe family was published in 2021.
Mary Jones Dunbar Minot (1748-1830). To the extent that she is known to history, it is as a footnote to American literature as the grandmother of Henry David Thoreau. He was born in her house in Concord, Massachusetts, and it was she who introduced Thoreau to Walden Pond. But Mary led a remarkable life as a leading member of a striking Loyalist family—the Joneses of Weston. A protagonist in every sense of the word, she broke her brother out of a Patriot jail into which he was thrown without charge, for doing nothing but differing in political opinion (a lesson passed on to her grandson), defended another brother for leaving Harvard to guide British relief troops to Lexington and Concord, and supported her favorite, youngest brother when he chose to join a Loyalist regiment rather than graduate from Harvard—and then protected his memory after he was killed in battle in Virginia. Harassed by Patriots across New England, she maintained a picaresque, and precarious, existence, while raising a family, especially after her first husband, the Rev. Asa Dunbar, died young. Desperately attached to her surviving brothers, who shifted to Canada and Maine, her adventurous journeys to visit them remained the subject of family legends a hundred years later. She ended her long, active life quietly in Concord in 1830, and is buried in one of the original plots of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery there.
James Kirby Martin
An Oneida woman named Tyonajanegen and sometimes called “Two Kettles Together,” deserves recognition. She was married to the great Oneida warrior Han Yerry, and the two of them, along with their son Cornelius, fought alongside their patriot allies at the bloody Battle of Oriskany on August 6, 1777. Not only did Tyonajanegen fire weapons during this brutal fighting, but she later rode eastward through the Mohawk Valley warning everyone she saw that Barry St. Leger’s British-Indian-loyalist column, if not somehow stopped, would soon be sweeping toward Albany and terrorizing the property and lives of all patriots along the way.