Orange County
Historical Society

Role of Regional Revolutionary Women

Michelle P. Figliomeni

[Editor's Note: This article appeared in the 1975 Issue of the Journal of the Orange County Historical Society. It is being republished on the website as part of the ongoing activities surrounding the 250th Anniversary of the Revolutionary War. The footnoted version is contained in the 1975 Journal which is available for purchase. JAC]


It is comparatively easy to document the military activities of men from this geographical area during the American Revolution because of the splendid collection of extant war documents. The problems of doing research related to the American Revolution in Ulster, Orange, and adjacent counties begin as one proceeds beyond the realm of strictly military interests to the question of the role of regional women.

Many probably are familiar already with the story of Sybil Luddington, the teenage girl from Putnam County, who alerted the townspeople of the impending arrival of the British troops. Likewise, one may well have heard of the heroic actions of Margaret Corbin, whose memory is honored by a historic plaque at West Point. These stories need no re-telling. Yet one is less aware of the exploits of Mrs. Jonathan Lawrence, of New Windsor.

Mrs. Lawrence of New Windsor

During wartime, many merchants exploited the circumstance of goods being scarce. Price manipulation occurred among all merchant classes, and this region was bedeviled by intransigent women, especially in the port towns of New Windsor and Kingston.

In New Windsor, Mrs. Jonathan Lawrence had established a new shop. Her husband and son were both employed on the Continental payroll at Fort Constitution, an island in the Hudson River. Her husband was a fort commissioner, and her son was a clerk. In her store she retailed Bohea tea at 8s, rather than at 6s, per pound, the price set by law.

Responding to citizen complaints, the local revolutionary committeemen, whose duty it was to enforce the law, confronted her with her wrongdoing. Mrs. Lawrence boldly answered that the tea did indeed cost the customer 6s, but that the buyer must pay the extra 2s for the paper bag!

Samuel Brewster, one of the committeemen, asked the State Legislature for advice. What could be done with this woman who refused to return the money so crudely extorted from her customers? In the meantime, the local residents became doubly enraged. After the committeemen's visit, Mrs. Lawrence had caused the offending tea to be taken from her shop and lodged at Fort Constitution under her family's watchful eye. Insult had been added to injury, for the bastion of revolutionary ideals was the storage site of the nuisance tea! With regard to dealing with Mrs. Lawrence, the legislature had little to suggest, but it did cause her husband, Captain Lawrence, and all the other fort commissioners to be discharged.

Later in the war Jonathan Lawrence assumed a prominent role in the revolutionary government, the embarrassment caused by his wife eventually being forgotten.

Betsey Sydman

Scandal was the grist of newspapers in the 1770's, too. There were many attempts to discredit the virtue of revolutionary women by the loyalist, or Tory, press. With extraordinary relish did the loyalist New York Gazette print news about Betsey Sydman, the daughter of a revolutionist taphouse keeper, whose establishment was located at the mouth of Smith's Clove, near present-day Sloatsburg.

In its issue of November 15, 1780, the newspaper reported that last fall Betsey Sidman (Sydman) had given birth to a son. She named him "George Washington" after General Washington, who, she claimed, was the father. She stated that the child was conceived at the taphouse of her uncle, Samuel Slot, a mile away, at which General Washington was then quartered.

This story provided the gossiping writer the occasion to add "it is reported that Washington's present mistress is the wife of a corporal. She took service as Washington's housekeeper when Madam Thompson, alias Mrs. Scotch Johnny, fell ill at Tappan." Madam Thompson remained in that town after the execution of Major Andre, the British spy, described by the newspaper as "the murder of Major Andre."

A far different explanation for the naming of Betsey's son is current in local tradition. Today, the account is that the child was named George Washington because of Betsey's admiration of the sterling qualities of the great general. How difficult it is to know the truth 200 years later!

Rozina Rush

Have any regional women influenced political life? Yes, in­deed! One was the cause of a state constitutional crisis during the early years of our new state government.

At the onset of the revolutionary contest, John and Rozina Rush sided with the loyalists, and escaped to New York City from the Haverstraw-Orangetown area. When the state convicted Rush of adhering to the enemy, he hurriedly fled to Canada, where he remained after the war. He left his wife behind. At the war's end, Rozina returned from New York City to Orange County and gathered together the livestock her husband had secretly concealed among his loyalist friends.

Garret Ackerson, Isaac Coe, and John De Ronde, three revolutionists, intercepted Rozina and prevented her from driving her cattle away. Instead, they delivered her herd to the commissioners of sequestration, who promptly sold it for the financial advantage of the public.

Undaunted, Rozina commenced a suit for restitution in the Supreme Court, and the three revolutionary men were quickly arrested. They applied for redress to Gilbert Cooper, one of the former commissioners, who assured them that they would be defended in this suit by the State Attorney General. Together, Cooper and John McKesson wrote the necessary letter to the Attorney General.

Alas, the Attorney General never received the explanatory note, so no defense of the trio was made. Thus, despite Cooper's promise and effort, the judgment was successfully executed against the three revolutionaries, who were instructed to satisfy the order.

The incredulous three bitterly protested to the state legislature. Hadn't they served their country nobly and defended it from the invasions and ravages of the enemy? These revolutionaries who had scarcely been able to subsist, were now obliged to pay for the creatures of one of the "atrocious Tories!

Their case passed successfully through the channels of both houses, but the Council of Revision registered firm opposition to the legislative bill to relieve their distress. The Council of Revision, which consisted of the Governor, the Chancellor, and any two judges of the Supreme Court, had the power to veto bills. The Council argued strenuously against a special exemption, noting that this assumption of judicial power by the legislature rendered the property of citizens "totally insecure and subversive of the fundamental principles on which all free constitutions are built."

Despite the council's objection, the Senate resolved after protracted debate that the bill be made law and ordered a copy of their resolution delivered to the Assembly for affirmative action, which was forthcoming. Rozina Rush, then, was the cause of the bitter clash on this constitutional issue of the rights of the legislature versus those of the judiciary.

Amy Auger

One of the compelling problems of researching women's behavior was the prevailing difficulty posed by the traditional belief that war was a man's business. There was a tendency to preserve only military data, evidence in which women did not assume a major role. Many women were illiterate, thereby being unable to leave any account of their own affairs, sentiments or observations. Legal documents were recorded by men, and women were non-entities as far as most public records were concerned. Unfortunately, records and accounts which do remain, usually are not favorable toward women when specific events are related. The court testimony regarding one Amy Auger, of Goshen, illustrates this point.

Amy Auger, the former Amy Jones, had been found guilty of the mindless murder of her male illegitimate child, by smothering it with hot coals. The crime occurred when she was a servant in the household of a Cornwall Precinct family. Her motive for disposing of her son arose from her fear of being turned out of doors, should the fact be discovered by the family where she then resided.

By the time of her murder trial, she was married, and about three months along in another pregnancy. She appeared to the court to be extremely deficient in intellectual capacity: therefore, her lawyer argued for clemency. Judges Marvin, Yates, and Hobart were skilled in tempering justice with compassion, so in January 1779 they expedited an appeal to Governor George Clinton for Amy's reprieve from the death sentence. She was scheduled to be hanged, curiously enough, along with Claudius Smith, the Loyalist raider.

The necessary act for pardon was introduced in the legislature by Henry Wisner, the State Senator representing this region, and passed, thus preventing Amy's execution.

Esther Spragg

There is a story which men will heartily enjoy, but which women's liberationists will decry. They would be appalled at the fate of Esther Spragg! John and Hanna Spragg negotiated for their daughter, Esther, a five-year contract with James and Phebe Dolson, whose home was situated in the area we now call Wawayanda. The contract, or indenture, arranged for Esther to learn the art of housekeeper in the Dolsons' home.

By today's standards, its terms were outrageous. These are some of Esther's commitments: to be bound gladly to obey the Dolsons' command, to do them no damage, not to waste their goods, or permit it to be done by others. But, her daily movements were also restricted. She agreed not to absent herself day or night without their express permission. Her social behavior was stipulated, too! She must conduct herself as a girl ought to do, she must not contract matrimony, nor commit fornication.

For this "bargain" the Dolsons were to give Esther a cow in exchange for her services at the beginning of the five-year period. But this particular contract expressly stated that her cow was to be taken home by her parents and kept there. Alas, poor Esther. She owned the cow but didn't receive any benefits!

Sarah Grant

A particularly vexing dilemma when one works with many official documents concerns the determination of the first name of women. In the case of the American Loyalist Papers, a manuscript collection in the New York Public Library manuscript division, which contains depositions of loyalists from our region seeking compensation from the British for losses incurred during the war, few references to the wives' plight are made. When they do occur, rarely is the woman's name stated. Sometimes it was only through the statements of other members of the family in support of a particular loyalist's claim that it was possible to learn the names of women concerned. Such was the case in the matter of Alexander and Sarah Grant.

Alexander Grant was a native of Scotland who came to America with Colonel Montgomery's Highlanders in the French and Indian War, and remained in the Province of New York, as a lieutenant on hall pay.

He and his wife, Sarah, resided in Dutchess County on the farm of Beverly Robinson. Alexander built a log house and had secured saws and iron works for a mill which he was about to construct. He also had acquired 600 acres of land worth 20s per acre across the Hudson on the east side of the Catskill Mountains. These lands were sold later by Benjamin Coe, a Commissioner of Sequestration, in compensation for damages done by the British Army to the revolutionists' properties. Alexander also had 3,400 acres, with no improvements, which he had acquired in the same manner as the other lands.

In his lifetime he was uniformly and steadily attached to the King and the British Government, and he never made any submission to the revolutionists. He was opposed to the measures of the Continental Congress. An active and enterprising officer, Grant left his home at Fredericksburgh and joined the British Army after the evacuation of Boston in 1775. He returned to New York Province with a company of 100 men who had been with the army at Halifax in 1776.

When the British Army landed on Staten Island, he took the command of these same loyalists and armed them. For this reason this group, and the company of Captain Archibald Campbell, were the first loyalists who were readied for military maneuvers.

With these men he acted until appointed Captain in the New York Volunteers. He was afterwards appointed Major of that corps and was killed at the attack of Fort Montgomery on October 6, 1777.

On one occasion prior to that time, he had gambled on a surreptitious visit home, but the Dutchess County revolutionists prevented this by seizing him as prisoner. According to later testimony by his son, Robert, the revolutionists would have sent his father as a prisoner to the mines, if he had not made his lucky escape on board the Asia, a British man-of-war.

After Alexander Grant had slipped away from home, his entire estate, worth £1,499.8.9 Sterling, was seized, confiscated, and sold for the use of the State, except for a great part of his stock that he had sold earlier to British Colonel Beverly Robinson.

Sarah and her children were stripped of everything; not even a change of linen was left them. After having exiled them to New York City, still occupied by the British troops, a revolutionary committee seized the few remaining cattle and furniture, both in Dutchess County and across the river at Catskill.

Following Major Grant's untimely death, Sir Henry Clinton put Sarah Grant into possession of a revolutionist's farm on Long Island to enable her to support her family. She remained there on this farm for three years during which time her family dwindled from five to four children. One of the four, who had been an ensign in the British service, was ordered to join the regiment. She was thus deprived of the small support she had been deriving from his pay.

In the meantime, Sarah was unable to give her children a comfortable subsistence, nor could she educate them in the style their father would have preferred. Acute necessity caused her to trouble Sir Guy Carleton, from whom she begged for a reasonable stipend. Based on the concurrence of Colonel Beverly Robinson, who vouched for her, she received £40 from April to July 1783.

When the British were evacuated from New York City in July 1783, she and the children moved to Annapolis, Nova Scotia, where so great was their distress, they barely survived. She hardly supported herself and her family on her pension as a Major's widow at £36 per year.

In an attempt to receive some compensation for her losses suffered as a loyalist she had made a claim to the British Commission for Loyalist claims meeting at St. John, New Brunswick. Preliminary papers had been filed, and testimony was about to be taken, so she embarked on a trip from Annapolis. But she was shipwrecked en route, and due to the shocking cold, Sarah perished on March 9, 1787, less than four years after she left her homeland.

All the papers and certificates necessary for claims regarding the 600 acres of land on the east side of the Catskill Mountains were lost in the wreck, and proceedings were halted.

Lois Darby

The revolutionary government often permitted those who were not politically-active loyalists to be allowed parole rather than to restrain loyalists in prisons where they were a social burden. Under suitable surveillance these loyalists could resume their former occupations and, at least indirectly, assist the general economic life.

Occasionally the local committeemen were over-diligent. In July 1777 the state decided Benjamin Darby who was held in the Kingston Jail would be of greater use when he worked his trade. He was permitted to go to his home in Newburgh in order to fetch his shoemaker's tools and then to return to Kingston. There he was to work under the watchful eye of the Kingston Sheriff. For his errand he was permitted a few days' release.

On a Saturday morning Benjamin Darby arrived home and joyfully told his wife, Lois, of his temporary release by the New York Council of Safety. (This body functioned as an interim government when the regular legislature was in recess.) No sooner had his words been uttered when Martin Weygand, a local committeeman, arrived at their door. He informed the couple that the Newburgh committee had directed William Albertson (a guard) and himself to bring Darby to them at once for interrogation.

Accompanied by a different guard named Moore, Darby returned home at 11 p.m. with orders to return to Weygand's at 6 a.m. on Sunday. The next morning he attended the committee meeting where he was told that Elnathan Foster and he would be sent back to Kingston immediately in Weygand's custody. He was sent home to prepare for this hasty return but almost immediately thereafter was summoned by Weygand to appear before the committee once more!

That afternoon when Benjamin Darby returned home in John Donache's custody, he revealed to Lois that Foster and he were being taken to Fort Montgomery, instead. The Newburgh committeemen had seized the pass given him by the Council of Safety. Benjamin directed his wife to return the horse he had ridden from Kingston and explain to the Ulster County sheriff how he had been prevented from returning as promised.

Lois did that and more! She returned the steed and then proceeded directly to the Council of Safety which was meeting at that time in Kingston. Here she loudly protested the injustice against her husband. Despite the fact that she was illiterate (as indicated by her affidavit which had an X as her mark for her name) she was not intimidated by this company of learned men.

The council listened gravely to Lois' impassioned remarks and ultimately determined that the Newburgh Committee had acted in contempt of their order. It dispatched word to Brigadier General George Clinton at Fort Montgomery to release Darby immediately so he could report back to them in Kingston. Lois had scored a victory!

Mrs. Henderson of Poughkeepsie

Then, as even now, women have a difficult time in gaining the ear of the State, though they may have sympathetic supporters. Egbert Benson and Peter Cantine, Jr., brought to the attention of the New York Council of Safety the news of an atrocious crime perpetrated against Mrs. Thomas Henderson, of Poughkeepsie. Her husband was away at Albany, and she was alone at home when an intruder entered about 11 p.m. She resisted his attempts to ravish her, and in the fight she was cruelly beaten and abused. Realizing that he was to be unsuccessful, the scoundrel took off with a stolen petticoat and a pair of silver buckles.

He accidentally forgot his hat as he fled. This clothing led to the identification of a black slave owned by Mr. Thomas Janaway of New York, as the villain. Benson and Cantine quickly captured him and upon his being confronted in possession of the stolen goods, he admitted to the burglary. They asked the Council of Safety to try this admitted burglar immediately in view of the ghastly circumstances.

The council demurred, however, and responded that the accused should be kept in irons until the next court of oyer and terminer was held in Dutchess County, since he confessed to the robbery. "The other charge," it stated, "can not, it seems be so well supported." Apparently Jack denied having ravished her and the council seemed anxious to wash its hands of the affair on that basis. Alas, Mrs. Henderson received little sympathy and no effort by the State to hasten along the slow wheels of justice.

Margaret Turner

Occasional mention of domestic problems can be found in documents of the 1770's. Margaret Turner, in July 1776, saw her husband arrested and sent to the guardhouse at Fort Montgomery because of his loyalism. She was left at home to care for her aged, decrepit mother-in-law. No documentation explains whether Turner escaped or was released from the guard­house, but a year later the revolutionists threatened the lives of the entire Turner household.

John Turner, formerly a prosperous yeoman at Haverstraw, was forced to leave his wife and mother behind. Margaret was in a difficult position. Her mother-in-law's health was so precarious that she was unable to take the journey on water down the Hudson to New York City without endangering her life.

Margaret, her sole support, appealed to the legislature for compassion as their estate was seized by the Commissioners of Sequestration. A temporary stay was granted for the two women to remain in the community until the sick woman's health improved.

Mary McKenzie

There is a common impression that it was the husband's activities that occasioned a family's banishment, but two brief stories illustrate the exception. One involved Hugh and Mary McKenzie of Montgomery precinct.

In early 1781 McKenzie, along with one of his sons, was called by the revolutionists to bear arms against King George III. Detesting this prospect, he resolved to leave his family. He absconded with two of his sons and, together, they escaped by going behind British lines. By dint of hard labor he endeavored to support himself.

Then, on October 26, 1781, two revolutionary justices of the peace, Patrick Barber and Henry Smith, ordered McKenzie's wife, Mary, with her six small children up to the age of twelve, to leave her Montgomery home within twenty days. One could have been tempted to sympathize with the plight of the McKenzie family until further investigation revealed that as early as January 1778 she had aroused the ire of the revolutionists by overt assistance in the British cause. It appears that the Americans exerted great patience during a three-year period before taking the drastic steps leading to exile.

What crime did she commit? They asserted that Mary, with her several children, "may be prejudicial to the good people of New York State." Mary was tendered a certificate of expulsion, which was to serve also as a pass through the enemy lines. Significantly, Joseph Chew, the British Secretary of Indian Affairs, shortly thereafter observed that Mrs. McKenzie was of extremely good character, and thus most useful to the British interests. The researcher is left to puzzle about what the "services most useful to the British interests" might have been!

Mrs. Scadden of Orange County

Another story concerns George Scadden and his wife (who is unnamed). George, his wife, and family lived in affluent circumstances in an area just north of the region between present day Goshen and Washingtonville. He and his four sons, due to their allegiance to the King, were persecuted by the revolutionists. Scadden's distress was occasioned, not only by his attachment to the loyalist cause, but particularly by his and his wife's harboring and supplying British troops and loyalists.

Scadden and his sons fled the area, and George entered the British artillery while the four sons enlisted in the King's service. George's wife and daughter remained on his land for three years after their departure. Then, his wife was caught red­handed conveying several of General Burgoyne's soldiers into New York City. Because of this incident the whole of Scadden's stock and property was confiscated.


Researching the role of women during the Revolutionary War period can be both interesting and surprising. Information indicates that women were not necessarily found in the shadows of their husbands; indeed, if they were loyalist or revolutionary, they displayed the fighting spirit of a tigress!

They were extremely aware of the stakes involved, were willing to pay, and many times did. Women, often being forced to survive under the most cruel of circumstances, had to maintain their families and themselves while their husbands were away from home. They endured the forces of nature, demands of children, persecution of those opposed to their causes, and the commonly-held notion that they were merely providers for the day-to-day needs of the family.

In the past, individuals have thought that a woman's role in the Revolutionary War period was minimal. There is sufficient documentation to the contrary, however, that will show these women to have been not only staunch supporters of their respective causes, but also catalysts for other movements in generations to come.

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