[Editor's Note: Richard J. Koke authored a series of five articles that appeared in Volumes 19 -23 of the OCHS Journal between 1990 and 1994. These articles will be presented in multiple sections over the next few years.]
1779: A Crucial Year
Chapter 11: The Taphouse Keeper's Daughter
The contentious world of the 18th-century press often verged easily into character vilification. In the fourth year of American independence, the secluded Clove taverns of Widow Angneitje Sidman and Stephen Slot became unwittingly linked in a lurid tale of alleged passion involving the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. In November 1780, one year after the alleged event, James Rivington, bookseller, printer and loyalist newspaper proprietor in British-held New York, published in his Royal Gazette a charge that one Betsey Sidman gave birth in the fall of 1779 to a son whom she named George Washington, who she claimed was the father and the baby the result of a wartime assignation at the taphouse of her uncle Slot, where Washington was then quartered.
The tale in Rivington's flavored prose was narrated in two articles; the first, published in the issue for November 11, 1780, was designated an “Extract of a letter from a German wine merchant to his friend in the Empire, dated Philadelphia, Feb. the 10th, 1780, received through France," and it read in transcript: “...General Washington is not always here, but he comes now and then, receives much honour. The following anecdote will give you an idea of the condescending and peculiar way of his lady's [Martha Washington's] sentiments. It is known that the general keeps at head quarters an extraordinary and beautiful soldier's girl. I have seen her, but to describe her is my pen not able; enough that nature has formed her lot, that she must be loved of every one that sees her, and nature has not told it in vain to the old General. A long while ago this charming creature was big with child, and the impregnation by express order of the general kept very secret, but who can keep any thing secret from woman? Lady Washington discovered soon the whole affair, and in lieu of being enraged she did prepare with her own hands the swaddling clothes, shirts, and other little furniture for the young hero, which the soldier's girl in December last brought into the world, which was brought to the font from a principal French officer as godfather, and by order of the General got the name Habaccue. One says Lady Washington has congratulated her husband, as she saw him again the first time, and expressed to him her joy together over it, that he could bring forth that, which she in vain had expected more than ten years from him. Dear friend, where are more such like the Lady's? Truly not here... I'll put it in the Pennsylvania Ledger, in the Philadelphia Packet, and other news papers, to that end that Lady Washington only sees that yet a country is in the world in which are some of the same sentiments.”
The second article, appearing in the next issue for November 15, continued the story and presented the Clove association:
“A correspondent from the country, who know's Washington's Dulcinea as well as he does himself, informs us that the German Wine Merchant, whose letter was published in our last Gazette, is not strictly accurate. Her father was not a soldier, but a tap-house keeper of the name of Sidman at the Mouth of Sidman’s Clove, fourteen miles above Paramus, and has been dead for some time. On the birth of the boy last fall, the mother pronounced his name to be George Washington, and as soon as she was able proceeded with him to the rebel camp and tendered him to his father for support. To her astonishment the young Hero was denied, tho' his mother named the AMOROUS MOMENT of her conception with the Chieftan at her uncle Slutt's [sic], another tap-house a mile off, at which Washington was then quartered. The lovers maintained their points pro and con, till poor Betsey Sidman was drummed from the camp, with the young George in her arms, pursuant to orders which Lord Stirling was punctually executed. The Generals present convenience is the wife of a corporal, taken in to serve as his house-keeper upon Madam Thompson's (alias Scotch Johnny's) falling ill at Tappan, where she was left after the murder of Major André and now continues. The cuckold corporal, by his wife's interest, has lately been made a sergeant."
Rivington's Betsey Sidman story is at best a fabrication in conformance with his notorious proclivity to attack American leaders through the publication of forged and altered documents. Leroy Hewlett, a Rivington scholar, calls attention to the fact that the initial letter presumably written by a German wine merchant was supposedly translated from the Frankfurt-am-Main Gazette of June 18, 1779; but it is obvious Rivington's unidentified “correspondent from the country” who was the alleged source of information for the second article published on November 15, was somebody knowledgeable of the Ramapo country and its people.
Evelyn Sidman Wachter, a descendant who carefully investigated the allegation, clearly points out that Samuel Sidman did maintain a tavern at the mouth of the Clove and was dead by 1780, and that he had a daughter Elisabeth who had an uncle Slot who also was a tavern keeper and was married to her mother's sister, Marretje.
One can well ask: who was Betsey Sidman? Rivington's “correspondent” identifies her as Samuel's daughter, and it can readily be assumed Elisabeth was the lady in question; but whether Betsey Sidman and Elisabeth Sidman were one and the same is inconclusive. Wachter, in addition to calling attention to other inconsistencies, states that Elisabeth was probably born c.1768 – though no record of birth or baptism has been found – and could not have been Rivington's Betsey because “she would have been too young for such an adventure in 1779."Elisabeth Sidman married John D. Storms in 1792, had children and died at Ramapo on January 1, 1852. Acknowledging that “Betsey" cannot be convincingly identified, Wachter offers a speculative thought that the mother – if a birth did occur - could have been a soldier's woman in the vicinity who could have named the boy George Washington in respectful deference to the commander-in-chief.
The assertion that Betsey's child was conceived “at her uncle Slutt’s” also brings to fore the interesting coincidence that Washington actually did stay at Slot's tavern overnight on June 6-7 when the army was entering the Clove, and a birth later that year – if believable - could logically be construed the result of a dalliance at uncle Slot’s. Essentially, however, there is no corroborative evidence to support or refute the Betsey Sidman story. Queries among Washington scholars fail to elicit any knowledge of such a birth, and Hewlett, on his part, dismisses the attack on the commander-inchief as “the lowest of all depths of meanness of which Rivington was capable,” asserting that Washington probably was aware of the stories but made no public denial “because a denial would cause people to wonder if the stories were not at least partially true."