Outrageous Women of Colonial America


Courageous Captain John Smith. Honest George Washington. Brainy Thomas Jefferson. You probably know all about these celebrated founding fathers of America. But have you ever stopped to wonder what the women were up to?...

...The real women of the American colonies were incredibly diverse and dynamic. They were puritan preachers, eastern aristocrats, native queens, and backwoods settlers. They were English, Scottish, African and Indian. They were rich, poor, slave and free. Some were rebels with a cause; others were loyal to a distant king.

Colonial women tilled the soil, ran shops and published newspapers. They were arrested for preaching on the street and hanged for heresy. They wrote propaganda, negotiated peace treaties, fended off Indian raids with pitchforks, and spied against their enemies. They were enterprising, rebellious, and committed! Many behaved in ways women had never dared before. When I first learned all this about our remarkable foremothers, I was surprised -- and proud. I think you'll feel the same...

Anne Hutchinson

In Boston . . . It didn’t take long for Anne to learn that Puritans were bent on creating a completely sin-free society. And to make sure that happened, they ruled Massachusetts with an iron fist...

...Of course, the Puritans couldn’t make a silk purse out of a pig's ear. All the laws in the world couldn't make people into saints, and super-strict rules inspired rebellion. During Anne's first years in Boston, small groups of heretics (those who spoke against the church) left Massachusetts or were kicked out. The renegades founded Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut. All were men -- until Anne got in on the act!


You probably know how in 1620 the starving Pilgrims tumbled out of the Mayflower at a place they dubbed Plymouth Rock. Then friendly Native Americans rescued them and together everyone shared a gigantic feast we call the first Thanksgiving. But chances are good that you’ve never heard about the true heroine of the Wampanoag, the tribe that helped the Pilgrims. Her name was Queen Weetamoo, and when it came her turn to rule as chief, she shut down the welcome wagon! Weetamoo turned against the land-hungry Pilgrims and Puritans and fought courageously to protect her people.

Deborah Samson

In 1775, 15-year-old Deborah Samson watched the boys and men of Middleboro, Massachusetts march down the dirt road to fight the British in Concord. "I can run as fast as any of them. I can shoot just as straight. I wish I could join them!" Deborah thought. But instead the indentured servant went to her master’s house to cook, sew, spin and do farm work. However, convention couldn’t hold Deborah Samson (sometimes spelled Sampson) forever. She never stopped dreaming off being a soldier, and a few years later she made her dream a reality.

Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman

As a child, Mumbet never dreamed she would one day leave the family that owned her lock, stock and barrel. Early in life, Mumbet learned that her lot was to eat "umble pie" made from deer scraps, while her owners dined on plump, juicy cuts of meat. The law said she must serve, obey and endure, and the punishment for running away was harsh. For forty years, Mumbet accepted her lot -- until that shovel crushed her arm.

Abigail Adams

As her husband John huddled with Thomas Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams urged him to include rights for women: "Dearest Partner, "American men should give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Remember the ladies!" This folderol about women’s rights didn’t sit too well with her husband, but Abigail wasn’t silenced. She couldn’t be, for as she wrote, "My bursting heart must find vent at my pen!"

Phillis Wheatley

Imagine being torn from your parents' arms and thrown into the hot, stinky bowels of a slave ship with hundreds of terrified strangers. That was the harrowing fate of a frail seven-year-old girl from western Africa in 1761. Yet ten years after her arrival at Boston's Feather Wharf, this extraordinary child had become a published poet and international celebrity!

Lady Deborah Dunch Moody

In 1640, the widow of a knighted English lord walked stiffly up the gangplank of a sailing ship leaving England for the American colonies. Those who watched Lady Deborah Dunch Moody thought her a rigid soul. But it was heavy gold coins, hundreds of them, sewn into the lining of her dress and cloak that made her move so carefully! Lady Deborah may have been forced by English authorities to leave (because she wouldn’t stop being friends with Quakers). But she wasn’t about to leave her entire fortune behind.

Margaret Brent

On his deathbed Leonard Calvert named Thomas Green to be governor. But the settlement of his personal estate he entrusted to a prominent landowner and his friend who had a good head for business, Margaret Brent. This caused a huge uproar, of course. First, Margaret was a mere woman! Also, everyone had expected that Lord Baltimore, who was back in England, would be named executor. But Gov. Calvert knew Maryland was in deep, immediate trouble. He wanted someone wise, loyal and local to take matters quickly in hand. "I make you the only manager of my estate," Gov. Calvert told Margaret on his deathbed. "Collect my debts. Settle my legal cases. Pay the soldiers. Save Maryland!"

Peggy Arnold

By 1780, Peggy had joined her husband as a full partner-in-crime. She secretly got in touch with her old British pal, John Andre, now a major and the head honcho of British Intelligence. Andre thought it was just dandy that the Arnolds wanted to "turn coat." He especially respected Peggy, and told the messenger who carried the spy ring's coded letters: "Deal with the lady."

The lady had no problem with that! She devised clever schemes for hiding the couple's spying activities. In her bedroom, she received and delivered military secrets using invisible ink and code.

Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross lived at Arch Street and Second.
Her sewing was very, very fine.
George Washington paid her a visit,
To order a brand new flag
Six white stripes and seven pretty red ones,
Thirteen stars on a field of navy blue.
'Twas the first flag our country every floated,
Three cheers for the red, white and blue –

Have you heard this song about the most famous woman of the American Revolution? It's a neat song, but historians are mostly divided into two camps: Those who say Betsy Ross did not sew the first American flag – and those who insist she did.

Esther Reed

In 1780, elegant Esther Reed, the wife of Pennsylvania’s chief executive, lived in a luxurious mansion taken from a banished loyalist. But Esther was too troubled by the plight of American soldiers to enjoy her lofty status. American soldiers were hungry! Their clothes were in tatters! Esther decided to take the bull by the horns and launch the first women's relief effort in America.

Anne Bonney: Pirate

Despite his own disreputable past, Anne Bonney's father wasn't pleased with her shenanigans. "We're trying to be respectable, my girl. Act like a lady!" But rebellious Anne turned a deaf ear to Daddy and let a penniless soldier, James Bonny, sweep her off her feet. Anne’s father bleated: "That ne'er-do-well isn't worth a goat. Marry him and you'll have none of my fortune!" Naturally, rebellious Anne married him anyway.

Unfortunately for James Bonny, Anne was a fickle lass. The luster of marriage to poor soldier wore thin, and she took to hobnobbing with big-spending pirates at wharf-side saloons . . .It wasn’t long before Anne caught the eye of Captain "Calico Jack" Rackam, a black-haired pirate with a fondness for pretty patchwork britches made of striped calico fabric.

Eliza Pinckney

Born in 1722, Eliza was raised on the family's Caribbean plantation and educated in an elite London finishing school. There she learned the "womanly arts" of embroidery, flower arranging, harpsichord playing and botany. Eliza loved music and played the harpsichord every day of her life, and she did passable embroidery. But, the subject that really captured her heart was botany, the study of plants. From a young age, Eliza had been drawn to the greenhouses, the barns, the fields and weighty volumes on growing and breeding plants. At a young age she told her father, "I love the vegetable world immensely!"

Anne Bailey

In the spring of 1775, a fiery 32-year-old widow named Anne Hennis Trotter donned a buckskin jacket. She tucked a tomahawk into her belt and hefted a musket. She stepped out of her log cabin in western Virginia and mounted her horse named Liverpool (after her hometown). She rode west into the towering Appalachians to be a frontier scout – and didn’t look back.

Mary Ingles

[After escaping from their Shawnee captors] Mary and the old German woman passed through the wildest country east of the Mississippi . . . Mary had almost given up hope when they arrived at the river that led to her home in Draper’s Meadow. Knowing she’d never find her way on the twisted paths, Mary stuck with her plan to follow the river. She and the old woman headed into the razorback ridges of the New River Valley – country even the Shawnee hadn’t seen before! Mary and her companion scrambled up cliffs, hiked on ledges and crawled through laurel brakes. They tripped over forest debris washed off the steep slopes during storms. Briars and brambles tore their dresses to shreds. Black and blue bruises and crusted blood disfigured their swollen bare feet.