Thursday, October 03, 2013

Female Adventurers: The women who helped colonize Massachusetts and Connecticut by Alice Plouchard Stelzer

Title:                     Female Adventurers: The women who helped colonize Massachusetts and Connecticut
Author:                                Alice Plouchard Stelzer
Publisher:           Merrimack Media
ISBN:                     978-1-939166-21-0
Cover:                   Paperback
Pages:                   161
Price:                    $14.95
Reviewer:           Pam Rosenblatt

While some people may disagree, people’s lives make good readings – no matter how mundane a person’s life may seem. Take the pauper “Oliver” in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist or the rambunctious “Huckleberry Finn” in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the unstable “Willy Loman” in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  Each of these characters led rather insignificant lives, but the authors make remarkable, memorable stories from them. These writers seem to suggest that everyone has a story, no matter how insignificant that person’s life may appear to a lot of people.
                Alice Plouchard Stelzer seems to agree! In Female Adventurers: The women who helped colonize Massachusetts and Connecticut, a 161 page non-fiction paperback published by Merrimack Media, 2013, Stelzer shows how important people are not just to themselves, not just to their families, not just to their friends, but to history as well.
Stelzer has written about a subject little researched and written about before: the women behind the men who emigrated from England to New England, mainly Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Often essential facts about colonizing women are not available or only minutely available. But Stelzer has gathered enough information about the lives of twelve women who assisted in colonizing New England to make an interesting, amazing read. 
Stelzer mentions how the colonizing woman had to do to with establishing New England’s towns. These resilient women tended to chores like cooking, gardening, sewing and mending clothes, and “have had a large part in the struggle with the wolves, bears, Indians, hardships and disappointments of New England,” as noted in Rev. George L. Clark’s 1906 address, Unremembered.[1]

 “Discussing men’s departures for war, Clark asks: …who were more dauntless than the mothers, wives and sisters, who with sad hearts, yet brave faces, spun the yarn, wove the cloth and made their butternut coat; filled the knapsack and with a kiss and a trembling, a thrilling word sent those men of nerve on their way of duty and death.”

In the past, women were only slightly recognized as vital figures in the history of the United States. But their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, or sons have been acknowledged in the history logs much more regularly. But they all made a durable mark in colonial society, according to Stelzer.
Woman who were once alive and have impacted early American history are documented in a clever, readable way throughout the book. Their families are written about, too. Stelzer has made an attempt not to acknowledge all of the people who have touched these women’s lives significantly; she even includes genealogical data.
Three women are discussed below. Each woman shows how Stelzer makes even the most unassuming woman adventurer important:

Margaret Barret Huntington (Her husband died at sea from England to New England):

“As the ship Elizabeth Bonaventure approached the Boston harbor, what must Margaret Huntington have been feeling? It was the end of a terrible ocean journey for her. The ocean passage created an unbelievable challenge for the emigrants. Margaret and her family would have been on the ship for probably six weeks with poor sanitation, the smell of seasickness everywhere, and no water for washing herself or clothes. But the end of the journey, there would have been no firewood for cooking and most of the food would have spoiled. Then there were the storms that tossed the ships around, wave to wave. Disease preyed on the weak travelers. Serious illness spread fast in the cramped quarters and smallpox stalked this voyage.
                In fact, Margaret’s husband, Simon Huntington succumbed to smallpox before the ship arrived in Boston. It is likely, from what we know about Puritan beliefs, that Margaret spent the time during Simon’s illness and death praying fervently to God for Simon’s soul and for the salvation of her children and the other passengers. All would have been in prayer as they committed Simon’s body to the ocean.”

How difficult the move to Windsor, also known as Roxbury, Massachusetts, must have been for Huntington, as Stelzer writes:

“Many questions remain unanswered because almost none of these women could write. What would Margaret’s life have been like in Roxbury? She was stranded there with four little children. It is plausible that Simon had a sizeable investment into the Massachusetts Bay Colony before coming. Since no researchers have been able to find a will, Simon probably died intestate, which would guarantee Margaret her one-third dower of Simon’s estate, but what exactly was the estate? Later the children were given land grants, but was there cash available for her to live? Margaret’s rather wealthy family may have brought servants with t hem, but none show up on the Bonaventure passenger list—like many of the passenger lists, this remains incomplete.”

Like Hester Sherman Ward, (an informant on a witchcraft controversy):

Here is some background to Ward:

“Hester married Andrew Ward in 1627 in England. Some sources say she was married in February 1619 but that would have meant she married at the age of thirteen, which would not have been a common practice in the wealthy Puritan family from which she came. The 1627 date is more likely correct. According to Roger Thompson’s Mobility & Migration, the emigrants leaving England for Massachusetts traveled in companies. All the citizens of one area would plan to leave at the same time. This was when an extended family would gather and make plans to migrate. Hester and Andrew, her father, Edmund Sherman and Stepmother Judith Angier Sherman, along with many of Hester and Andrew’s siblings, came to New England in 1632 on the ship James. Having so much family traveling with her would have been comforting to Hester, as some migrating women left their extended family behind. Hester was married for four years when it came time to emigrate to Watertown in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hester and Andrew had two children, the youngest only a year old, and possibly a stepson, Edmund.”

A few witchcraft controversies arise in the book. The below incident shows how important the opinions of women, especially Ward, were in colonial New England:

“Goodwife Knapp was not the usual suspect of the superstitious search for witches. She had a good reputation and did not get involved in arguments with her neighbors. On the other hand, Mary Staples, according to Taylor was a
Shrewd and shrewish woman, impatient of some of the
Puritan social standards and of the laws of everyday life.
She openly condemned certain common moralities, was
reckless in criticism of her neighbors, and quarreled with
Ludlow about some church matters.

During Knapp’s trial, Roger Ludlow, who was a very influential man throughout New England, tried to get Goodwife Knapp to name Mary Staples as a witch but she refused. Before then, Ludlow had had several arguments with Goodwife Staples because he thought she was a liar….”

And here is what Ward accused Mary Staples of:

Hester Ward, wife of Andrew Ward, being sworne
deposeth, that aboute a day after that goodwife Knapp
was condemned for a witch, she goeing to ye prison house
where the said Knapp was kept, she said Knapp, voluntarily,
without any occasion giuen her, said that goodwife Staples
told her, the said Knapp, that an Indian brought vnto her,
the said Staplyes, two little things brighter then the light
of the day, and told the said goodwife Staplyes they were
Indian gods, as the Indian called ym; and the Indian told
her, the said Staplyes, if she would keepe them, she would
be so big rich, all one god, and that the said Staplyes told
the said Knapp, she gaue them again to the said Indian,
but she could not tell whether she did so.

And Mary Blott Woodford, (a possible “maide servant” who had left England for New England), can be read about in well-written, clear sentences.

Here is the chapter’s opening paragraph:

“Researching seventeenth century women is difficult in all cases, but servant women are especially challenging because they leave no footprint behind. By following the men to whom the women had connections, I develop suppositions on the movements of the women. Mary Blott Woodford is such a case.
                Both Mary and her future husband, Thomas Woodford, migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the ship Francis and Mary as servants. It is probable that they met on the ship because it was the rule and norm that servants would only socialize with other servants. It is not likely they knew each other before their voyage because Mary lived Bedfordshire, England and Thomas from Lincolnshire. These towns are one hundred miles apart.”

                Woodford lead a simple but hectic home life, as Stelzer writes, “While in Hartford, Mary was busy with her family, gardens, and the myriad duties of a seventeenth-century wife and mother. She also had two more daughters.”
                And there were additional hardships for Mary, too, including several moves to different places in New England:

                “Just think about how many times Mary had to pack up her life belongings and move into another wilderness. She went from Bedfordshire, England to Roxbury, Massachusetts, to Springfield, Massachusetts, to Harford, Connect. She would need to create new gardens and set up a new home,  which was a challenge in these wilderness towns. At Roxbury, Agawam and Northampton. It would have meant loving in some crude shelter until the lots had been assigned and their house built.”

Female Adventurers: The women who helped colonize Massachusetts and Connecticut has much intrigue, even though it is a scholarly book. The excitement of colonization, genealogy, love, marriage, death, witchcraft controversies, crime and punishment, the supernatural , etc. in well-researched, not- too-long chapters are all topics discussed in this book. Notes and Endnotes about individual women adventurers, their families and friends are even included after each section.                               
Alice Plouchard Stelzer’s Female Adventurers: The women who helped colonize Massachusetts and Connecticut is a fine book about New England in the 1600s. It will hopefully leave the reader wanting more concrete examples of female adventurers in colonial America, something which may not be so plausible as the historic records are so far and few.

[1] Stelzer, Alice Plouchard. Female Adventurers: The women who helped colonize Massachusetts and Connecticut, Merrimack Media, 2013.   All quotes and information supporting this article was found in the book reviewed –
Female Adventurers: The women who helped colonize Massachusetts and Connecticut, by Stelzer.

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