Puritan Massachusetts Woman
Rebecca Rawson was born on May 23, 1656, in Boston. A member of a typically large Puritan family, she was the ninth of twelve children, born to her father Edward and his wife, Rachel Perne. Four of Rebecca’s adult siblings moved from Massachusetts to England, while the rest, like Rebecca, remained in Massachusetts.
Rebecca’s life was influenced not only by the theocratic social system of the colony of Massachusetts, but also by her association in upper class English society in both England and America. Since many, if not most, Puritan women conformed to the expectations of their culture, it is important to examine the societal positions and careers of members of the Rawson family.
The picture that emerges allows some idea of their status, and in turn, the expectations likely to have been imposed on Rebecca. Such social demands certainly influenced the development of her character and personal behavior, as a member of colonial Massachusetts’ aristocracy.
Rebecca’s suitors were probably held to the standards of the Puritan elite of New England. She was courted by a man identified as Sir Thomas Hale, the nephew of Lord Chief-Justice Hale of England, and when he asked to marry her, she and her family were flattered and pleased.
Personal worthiness was a theme that pervaded Puritan New England life, and a person’s success or failure was considered to indicate his or her worthiness before God. Rebecca must have considered herself so favored, and with the consent of her father, she was married to Sir Thomas Hale on July 1, 1679.
Under the English common law of feme covert – which was also the law in Massachusetts – married women had no right to own property, and the personal property a married daughter inherited from her father immediately became the legal possession of her husband, who could exert full powers of ownership over it.
Rebecca, now addressed as Lady Hale, was much envied by the young women in the best Boston society. As the newlyweds left for England, she looked forward to a fruitful life full of promise and expectations. Yet three days after their arrival in England, Rebecca’s new husband suddenly abandoned her, taking her clothing, jewels and other personal property, leaving her penniless.
The Rawsons and their affiliates in England learned that Rebecca’s husband was not Sir Thomas Hale, but one Thomas Rumsey, who had swindled other members of Massachusetts’ upper class as well. It was also discovered that he already had a wife in Canterbury.
A humiliated and now pregnant Rebecca was too ashamed about the entire affair to return to her family and friends in Massachusetts. She never saw Thomas Rumsey again. She had thought herself the wife of a nobleman, and she was left unwed and disgraced, and she was too proud to return to America or to live on the charity of relatives. She supported herself and child in England by painting on glass.
In 1692, her father and friends in America finally persuaded her to return. She sailed with one of her uncles, in a vessel belonging to him, bound for Boston by way of Port Royal, Jamaica. She left her child in England in the care of a sister.
The ship arrived at Port Royal and was about to set sail for Boston, when on June 9, 1692, a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami that destroyed the ship and claimed the lives of all onboard. Most of the city, which was built on a shelving bank of sand, slipped into the sea. Her uncle, who was onshore at the time, settling up his accounts, was the only person to survive.
Rebecca Rawson died that day at the age of 36. She was the heroine of an 1849 book entitled Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay by John Greenleaf Whittier.