by Deborah Champion
[By internal references, circa 1775-76 Siege of Boston. No date or town of posting.]
My Dear Patience:
I know that you will think it a weary long time since I have written to you, and indeed I would have answered your last sweet letter long before now, but I have been away from home. Think of it! I know that you will hardly believe that such a stay-at-home as I should go and all alone too, to where do you think? To Boston! Really and truly to Boston. Before you suffer too much with amazement and curiosity, I will hasten to tell you all about it. About a week after receiving your letter I had settled with myself to spend a long day with my spinning, being anxious to prepare for some cloth which my mother needed to make some small clothes for father. Just as I was busily engaged I noticed a horseman enter the yard and, knocking on the door with the handle of his whip, he asked for General Champion, and after a brief converse he entered the house with father. Whereat mother presently asked me to go to the store in town and get her spices and condiments, which I was very sure were already in the store-room. However, as 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-repression our New England character engenders, and he would not have thought seemly that a child of his should question him, so I passed on to find mother and deliver my purchases. ‘My father is troubled, Mother, is aught amiss?’ ‘I cannot say, Deborah; you know he has many cares, and the public business presses heavily at times; it may be he will tell us.’ Just then my father stood in the doorway. ‘Wife, I would speak with you.’ Mother hastily joined him in the keeping room, and they seemed to have long and anxious converse. Finally, to my astonishment, I was called to attend them. Father laid his hand on my shoulder (a most unusual caress with him) and said solemnly: ‘Deborah, I have need of thee; hast thou the heart and the courage to go out in the dark and in the night and ride as fast as may be until thou comest to Boston town?’ ‘Surely, my Father, if it is thy wish, and will please thee.’
“’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 the business urgent, The horseman that was here awhile back brought dispatches which it is desperately necessary that General Washington should receive as soon as possible. I cannot go, the wants of the army call me at once to Hartford, and I have no one to send but my daughter. Dare you go?’
“‘Dare! father, and I your daughter,— and the chance to do my country and General Washington a service. I am glad to go.’
So, dear Patience, it was finally settled that I should start in the early morning and Aristarchus should go with me. He has been devoted to me since I made a huge cake to grace his wedding with Glory and found a name for the dusky baby which we call Sophronista. For a slave he has his fair share of wits, also. Early in the 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. Father told me again of the haste with which I must ride and the care to use for the safety of the despatches, and I set forth on my journey with a light heart and my father’s blessing. The British were at Providence, in Rhode Island, so it was thought best I should ride due north to the Massachusetts line, and then east, as best I could to Boston. The weather was perfect, but the roads none too good as there had been recent rains, but we made fairly good time going through Norwich, then up the valley of the Quinebaug to Canterbury, where we rested our horses for an hour, then pushed on, hoping to get to Pomfret before dark. At father’s desire I was to stay the night with Uncle Jirey, and, if needful, get a change of horses. All went as well as I could expect. We met few people on the road, almost all the men being with the army and only the very old men and the women at work in the villages and farms. Dear heart, but war is a cruel thing! but I was glad, so glad that I could do even so little to help! Uncle Jirey thought we had better take fresh horses in the morning, and sun found us on our way again. I 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 I plucked up what courage I could and secreting my papers in a small pocket in the saddle-bags, under all the eatables mother had filled them with, I rode on, determined to ride all night. It was late at night, or rather very early in the morning, that I heard the call of the sentry and knew that now, if at all, the danger point was reached, but pulling my calash still farther over my face, I went on with what boldness I could muster. Suddenly, I was ordered to halt; as I could n’t help myself I did so. I could almost hear Aristarchus’ teeth rattle in his mouth, but I knew he would obey my instructions and if I was detained, would try to find the way alone. A soldier in a red coat proceeded to take me to headquarters, but I told him it was early to wake the captain, and to please to let me pass for I had been sent in urgent haste to see a friend in need, which was true if ambiguous. To my joy, he let me go on, saying: ‘Well, you are only an old woman anyway,’ evidently as glad to get rid of me as I of him. Will you believe me, that is the only bit of adventure that befell me in the whole long ride. When I arrived in Boston, I was so very fortunate as to find friends who took me at once to General Washington and I gave him the papers, which proved to be of the utmost importance, and was pleased to compliment me most highly both as to what he was pleased to call the courage I had displayed and my patriotism. Oh, Patience, what a man he is, so grand, so kind, so noble, I am sure we will not look to him in vain to save our fair country to us. I stayed a week in Boston, every one was so kind and good to me, seeming to think I had done some great thing, but I am sure there were very many that would have been glad to have had the same chance to serve the country and Washington.
“Well here I am at home again, safe and sound, and happy to have been of some use in the world. When occasion serves, dear Patience, I will write you of my visit in Boston and the wonderful sights and persons I saw. You know the next best thing to hearing our countrymen is to hear of them. I hope I have not tried you with this long letter, and trust to see you soon.
Your loving friend,
P. S. — Did I tell you that I saw your brother Samuel in Boston? He desired his love if I should be writing to you.
Source: Harry Clinton Green and Mary Walcott Green. The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods. Vol. II. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912, pp. 406-414. A nearly identical version published in a 1920s newspaper [Mary Rebecca Adams Squire, “Deborah Champion’s Famous Ride,” Jefferson County Journal, December 26, 1926, page 3] shows posting from “New London, June 14, 1776.” The magnificent red 18th century cloak pictured is at the Connecticut Historical Society as accession 1981.37.1. Family tradition asserts that it is the very cloak worn by Deborah Champion while performing her heroic deeds.
Commentary: First-hand accounts are scare of the early phase of the Siege of Boston. In this one, Deborah Champion of Connecticut visits Boston under dramatic circumstances.
Many consider Ms. Champion to have been a heroine of the American Revolution. Her express-riding deeds rival those of Paul Revere. Her manifest pluck places her alongside the names of fighting women of the American Revolution Mary Ludwig Hays, Margaret Corbin, and Deborah Sampson.
This first-hand account is the sole primary source for Deborah Champion’s heroics. Another transcription of the text appears below.
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 store-room. 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 and 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 [^]sendAristarchus 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 despatches 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. 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 despatches, 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.
Source: Deborah Campion Correspondence, 1775 (one item), Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. LC Control #79000467, call number MMC. “Copy of letter written by Deborah Champion, daughter of Commissary-General Henry Champion of the Continental Army, telling of her ride to Boston to carry despatches [sic] to General Washington – an historic fact. The original letter still in possession of the Champion family.” Current whereabouts or authenticated facsimile of the manuscript document remain unknown.
Commentary: Comparing transcriptions of Deborah Champion’s manuscript letter from the Library of Congress and as published in 1912 in The Pioneer Mothers of America, the texts diverge in notable ways. There are greater variations in grammar and spelling than could have been the result of transcription by separate people. For example, terror-stricken slave Aristarchus whispers, “De British missus for sure,” in one version but not the other. Psalm 91 is read only in one text.
What can be the explanation? We hope that J.L. Bell and friends will shed light on the Deborah Champion letter, the primary source proving her heroics during the Siege of Boston, and justifying her place in the pantheon of American heroic people.