Image: Cloak Worn by Deborah Champion
Deborah wrote to a friend, including in her letter descriptions of the clothing she wore, including this scarlet cloak made of camlet, a fabric of Asian origin, originally made of silk and camel’s hair.
In September 1775, twenty-two-year-old Deborah Champion of New London, Connecticut, was asked by her father, Henry Champion – the Continental Army’s commissary general – to deliver messages from her father to General George Washington in Boston. Riding on horseback with the family slave Aristarchus as an escort, Deborah headed north up the Quinebaug Valley to Canterbury, then east to Pomfret, crossing enemy lines in Massachusetts.
She hid the papers for General Washington under the bodice of her linsey-woolsey dress, and fastened her neckerchief over the bodice. Linsey-woolsey was a blend of linen and wool often used for blankets and scarves.
Deborah’s mother insisted that she wear a close silk hood, which was one that fit snugly, and a calash – an oversized bonnet designed to cover the head without crushing the wearer’s cap or coiffure. Deborah later conceded that her mother’s advice was wise. When approached by a soldier wearing a red coat, Deborah pulled the calash up, and with her face thus well-hidden, the British soldier let her pass, remarking that she was “only an old woman.”
Deborah Champion’s recounting of that adventure in this letter to a friend is filled with patriotism as well as a touching kind of wonder at her own courage:
Oct. 2nd, 1775.
My dear Patience,
I know you are thinking it a very long time since I have written you, and indeed I would answered your last, sweet letter long before now, but I have been away from home. Think of it, and to Boston. I know you will hardly believe that such a stay-at-home as I should go, and without my parents too. Really and truly I have been.
It happened last month, and I have only been home ten days, hardly long enough to get over the excitement. Before you suffer too much with curiosity and amazement, I will hasten to tell you about it. A few days after receiving your letter, I had settled myself to spend a long day at my spinning, being anxious to get the yarn ready for some small clothes for father. Just as I was busily engaged, I noticed a horseman enter the yard, and knocking at the door with the handle of his whip, heard him ask for Colonel Champion, and after brief converse with my father, he entered the house.
Soon after my mother came to me and asked me to go to the store in town and get her sundry condiments, which I was very sure were already in the storeroom. Knowing that I was to be sent out of the way, there was nothing left for me but to go, which I accordingly did, not hurrying myself you may be sure. When I returned, the visitor was gone but my father was walking up and down the long hall with hasty steps and worried and perplexed aspect.
You know father has always been kind and good to me, but none know better than you the stern self repressment our New England character engenders, and he would have thought it unseemly for his child to question him, so I passed on into the family-room, to find mother and deliver my purchases. My father is troubled, is aright amiss, I asked.
“I cannot say, Deborah,” she replied, “You know he has many cares and the public business presses heavily just now. It may be he will tell us.” Just then my father stood in the door way.
“Wife, I would spake with you.”
Mother joined him in the keeping-room and they seemed to have long and anxious conversation. I had gone back to my spinning but could hear the sound of their voices. Finally I was called to attend them, to my astonishment.
Father laid his hand on my shoulder, (a most unusual caress with him) and said almost solemnly, “Deborah I have need of thee. Hast thee the courage to go out and ride, it may be even in the dark and as fast as may be, till thou comest to Boston town?”
He continued, “I do not believe Deborah, that there will be actual danger to threaten thee, else I would not ask it of thee, but the way is long, and in part lonely. I shall send Aristarchus with thee and shall explain to him the urgency of the business. Though he is a slave, he understands the mighty matters at stake, and I shall instruct him yet further. There are reasons why it is better for you a woman to take the dispatches I would send than for me to entrust them to a man; else I should send your brother Henry. Dare you go?”
“Dare, father, and I your daughter? A chance to do a service for my country and for General Washington; I am glad to go.”
So dear Patience, it was settled we should start in the early morning of the next day, father needing some time to prepare the paper. You remember Uncle Aristarchus; he has been devoted to me since my childhood, and particularly since I made a huge cask to grace his second marriage, and found a name for the dusky baby, which we call Sophranieta. He has unusual wits for a slave and father trusts him.
Well, to proceed, early the next morning, before it was fairly light, mother called me, though I had seemed to have hardly slept at all. I found a nice hot breakfast ready and a pair of saddle bags packed with such things as mother thought might be needed. When the servants came in for prayer, I noticed how solemn they looked and that Aunt Chloe, Uncle Aristarchus’ wife, had been crying.
Then I began to realize I was about to start on a solemn journey, you see it was a bright sunshiny morning and the prospect of a long ride, the excitement of what might happen had made me feel like singing as I dressed. I had put on my linsey-woolsey dress, as the roads might at times be dusty and the few articles I needed made only a small bundle.
Father read the 91st Psalm, and I noticed that his voice trembled as he read “He shall give His Angels charge over thee,” and I knew into whose hands he committed me. Father seemed to have everything planned out and to have given full instructions to Uncle Aristarchus. We were to take the two carriage horses for the journey was too long for one horse to take us both, I riding on a pillion (a cushion). John and Jerry are both good saddle horses, as you and I know.
The papers that were the object of the journey I put under my bodice, and fastened my neckerchief securely down. Father gave me also a small package of money. You know our Continental bills are so small you can pack away a hundred dollars very compactly. Just as the tall clock in the hall was striking eight, the horses were at the door. I mounted putting on my camlet cloak for the air was yet a little cool. Mother insisted on my wearing my close silk hood and taking her calash. I demurred a little, but she tied the strings together and hung it on my arm, saying, “Yes daughter”. Later I understood the precaution.
Father again told me of the haste with which I must ride and the care to use for the safety of the dispatches, and we set forth with his blessing. Uncle Aristarchus looked very pompous, as if he was Captain and felt the responsibility.
The British were at Providence in Rhode Island, so it was thought best for us to ride due north to the Massachusetts line and then east as best we could. The weather was perfect, but the roads were none too good as there had been recent rains, but we made fairly good time going through Norwich then up the Valley of the Quinnebaugh to Canterbury where we rested our horses for an hour, then pushed on hoping to reach Pomfret before dark.
At father’s desire I was to stay at Uncle Jerry’s the night, and if needful get a change of horses. All went well as I could expect. We met few people on the road. Almost all the men are with the army, so we saw only old men, women, and children on the road or in the villages.
Oh! War is a terrible and cruel thing. Uncle Jerry thought we had better take fresh horses in the morning and sun up found us on our way again. Aunt Faith had a good breakfast for us – by candle light. We got our meals after that at some farm house generally. I left that to Uncle Starkey. As it neared hungry time he would select a house, ride ahead, say something to the woman or old man and whatever it was he said seemed magical, for as I came up I would be met with smiles, kind words “God bless you” and looks of wonder. The best they had was pressed on us, and they were always unwilling to take pay which we offered.
Everywhere we heard the same thing, love for the Mother Country, but stronger than that, that she must give us our rights, that we were fighting not for independence, though that might come and would be the war-cry if the oppression of unjust taxation was not removed. Nowhere was a cup of imported tea offered us. It was a glass of milk, or a cup of “hyperion,” the name they gave to a tea made of raspberry leaves.
We heard that it would be almost impossible to avoid the British, unless by going so far out of the way that too much time would be lost, so plucked up what courage I could as darkness began to come on at the close of the second day. I secreted the papers in a small pocket in a saddle bag under some of the eatables that mother had put up. We decided to ride all night. Providentially the moon just past full, rose about 8 o’clock and it was not unpleasant, for the roads were better. I confess that I began to be weary.
It was late at night or rather very early in the morning, that I heard a sentry call and knew that if at all the danger point was reached. I pulled my calash as far over my face as I could, thanking my wise mother’s forethought, and went on with what boldness I could muster. I really believe I heard Aristarchus’ teeth chatter as he rode to my side and whispered “De British missus for sure.”
Suddenly I was ordered to halt. As I could not help myself I did so. A soldier in a red coat appeared and suggested that I go to headquarters for examination. I told him “It was early to wake his Captain and to please let me pass for I had been sent in urgent haste to see a friend in need,” which was true, if a little ambiguous. To my joy he let me go, saying “Well, you are only an old woman any way.” Evidently as glad to be rid of me as I of him. Would you believe me – that was the only exciting adventure in the whole ride.
Just as I finished that sentence father came into my room and said “My daughter if you are writing of your journey, do not say just how or where you saw General Washington, nor what you heard of the affairs of the Colony. A letter is a very dangerous thing these days and it might fall into strange hands and cause harm. I am just starting in the chaise for Hartford to see about some stores for the troops, I shall take the mare as the other horses need rest.”
What a wise man my father is. I must obey, but I can say I saw General Washington. I felt very humble as I crossed the threshold of the room where he sat in converse with other gentlemen, one evidently an officer. Womanlike, I wished that I had on my Sunday gown. I had put on a clean kerchief. I gave him the paper, which from his manner I judged to be of great importance. He was pleased to compliment me most highly on what he called my courage and my patriotism.
Oh, Patience what a man he is, so grand, so kind, so noble. I am sure we shall not look to him in vain as our leader.
Well, here I am home again safe and sound and happy to have been of use. We took a longer way home as far as Uncle Jerry’s, so met with no mishap.
I hope I have not tired you with this long letter. Mother desires to send her love.
Yours in the bonds of love.
P.S. I saw your brother Samuel in Boston. He sent his love if I should be writing you.
The Daughters of the American Revolution in the southern part of Jefferson County, New York, named their chapter of the DAR the Deborah Champion Chapter in honor of this patriotic woman.
Women in the American Revolution
Pioneers of the County (Jefferson County, NY)
Stages of History: Plays About America’s Past – PDF FILE
Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present