This summer’s Filson Friday talks by staff members of The Filson included a two-part series entitled ‘Her’Story: Encountering Women in The Filson’s Special Collections. The blog will occasionally be featuring some of the women and women’s organizations discussed during these sessions.
When imagining women during the American Revolution, one’s mind might immediately go to Abigail Adams, managing the Adams family farm and advising her husband on the creation of a new government; Betsey Ross, designing the American flag; or Molly Pitcher, taking over her husband’s place as a cannon-loader during the Battle of Monmouth. These women can seem to be larger-than-life characters, participating in major events. The Filson’s print collection likewise includes images of women who are mostly taking part in what I would consider “unusual” or “crisis” events. The prints, created in the 1850s, clearly idealize the patriotic role of the woman – we see Mrs. Schuyler setting fire to her cornfields to keep the British from using them; Mrs. Martha Bratton “heroically defying Captain Huck,” and Hannah Erwin Israel saving cattle from the British.
In my research into the Filson’s manuscript collections, I determined that much of our early correspondence surrounding war consisted of letters from men participating in the war home to wives, mothers, sisters, and friends. While many of these letters focus on the issues the soldier was experiencing, it is still very possible to suss out information on the woman’s experiences of war, which, for the most part, would contain more “regular” than “crisis” events. In the Filson’s small collection of Shreve Family papers, the correspondence gives a picture of life, military and domestic, for Colonel Israel Shreve and his family during his service in Revolutionary War.
Israel Shreve was a farmer from Gloucester County, New Jersey, who was a Colonel in the Second New Jersey regiment. During 1779, he was fighting against the Tory-allied Iroquois Indians in upper Pennsylvania and New York State. Of his wife, Mary, or “Polly,” as she is addressed in letters, very little is known – however, through a letter to her dated October 21, 1779, we can gather some understanding of what her life during the Revolution was like. Her husband sends cloth, in order that she might make or have made new clothing for him; he also sends her money and spice. His future movements are uncertain, in terms of any leave of absences for him to return to her and their children. In his post-script, Shreve notes, I think somewhat peevishly, that Mary had moved into Burlington without consulting or informing him. “It is reported to me you have moved to Burlington, if so I hope it was for the best. But think it a compliment due to me from you, to let me hear from you.” He admits that the house she chose was “altogether agreeable to me.”
Even though the correspondence from Mary to her husband is no longer extant, one can determine that when she wrote to him, she might have been asking about his leave in order that he might help her run the farm, manage their children, etc.; she may have asked for money to live on; and she may have explained her move to Burlington, for safety, to be near other family members, or to be closer to resources. She had become the head of her household, but was still in charge of wifely duties such as making clothes for her husband. While it is merely speculation to suggest what Mary might have corresponded back to her husband, his letters to her do help shed light on a woman whose experiences would have otherwise been fairly lost to history, therefore illuminating her story.