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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Peoples

Young Moravian Girl
Women (British ancestry)
- Mary Cooper records five years as a Long Island farmwife, 1768-1773 (PDF)
- Eliza Lucas Pinckney records her management of South Carolina plantations, 1749-1762 (PDF)
- Mary Jemison recalls her capture and adoption by Seneca Indians, 1758-1780s
- Elizabeth Ashbridge recounts her path to becoming a Quaker, 1730s
- Jane Turell pens a spiritual journey through grief, 1720s-1735 (PDF)
"I find it requires great care, attention and activity to attend properly to a Carolina Estate, tho' but a moderate one, to do ones duty and make it turn to account . . ."
Eliza Pinckney, 1760
"It has beene a tiresom day to me. It is now bed time and I have not had won minuts rest today."
Mary Cooper, 1768  

"[My husband] heard I was turned Quaker; at which he stamped, and said, 'I had rather have heard she was dead . . .'"
Elizabeth Ashbridge, 1730s  

"Thrice in my Womb I've found the pleasing Strife,
In the first Struggles of my Infants Life:
But O how soon by Heaven I'm call'd to mourn,
While from my Womb a lifeless Babe is torn?"
Jane Turell, ca. 1735    

It is cliché to portray the lives of white colonial women in two categories—the frontier wife's as short, arduous, and dangerous; the wealthy matron's as urban, privileged, and long. And all, of course, dominated by the men in their lives. Where is the truth in the clichés? Where is the overlap? How much do women's personal decisions, even in the centuries before women's liberation, count? Here we read from the published memoirs, diaries, and letters of five white colonial women. Their life spans range from 27 to 90 years, their adult roles from a tired farmwife to an innovative plantation manager. All were wives, all but one were mothers, and all the mothers lost at least one child. Mary Cooper, the farmwife, had survived all six of her children when she died at age 64.
  • Mary Cooper (1714-1778) began her diary at age 54 while tending the family farmstead on Long Island, New York. Her entries, while cryptic, chronicle the hardships faced by colonial families and the solace they sought through faith and each other.
    • - The Diary of Mary Cooper: Life on a Long Island Farm, 1768-1773, ed. Field Horne (Oyster Bay Historical Society, 1981), excerpts.

  • Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793) is renowned for introducing the cultivation of indigo for dye to the American colonies. As a teenager she managed her father's South Carolina plantation while he was traveling, and later managed her husband's plantation and slaves after his death. Her rich diaries and memoranda reveal her autonomy, perseverance, and downright grit as she forged an unusual life for an elite colonial woman.
    • - The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1740-1762, ed. Elise Pinckney (University of North Carolina Press, 1972), excerpts.

  • Mary Jemison (1743-1833) was captured as a teenager by Shawnee Indians during the French and Indian War, bore nine children with two Indian husbands, and never returned to white colonial society. In 1823 she recounted her "captivity narrative" which, while considered accurate, must be read with its nineteenth-century white male authorship in mind.
    • - James, Seaver, ed., Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, Who was taken by the Indians, in the year 1755, when only about twelve years of age, and has continued to reside amongst them to the present time, 1823, excerpts.

  • Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713-1755) left England for America in 1732 as a young widow, marrying again after several arduous years as an indentured servant. Raised an Anglican, she was drawn to the tenets of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and decided to convert, so horrifying her husband that he beat her and considered her "bewitched." Later Ashbridge became a Quaker preacher and, when widowed again, married a Quaker man and briefly lived the life she had envisioned until her death at age 42.
    • - Elizabeth Ashbridge, Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge . . . Written by Her Own Hand Many Years Ago, 1774, excerpts.

  • Jane Colman Turell (1708-1735) comes to us through her diaries, letters, and poems—as compiled by her grieving husband after her early death at age 27. Turell enjoyed a privileged youth as the daughter of minister and Harvard president Benjamin Colman, but as a young wife lost three of her four children as infants. Her anguish dominates the writings chosen by her minister-husband for his funeral tribute.
    • - Rev. Ebenezer Turell, Memoirs of the Life and Death of the Pious and Ingenious Mrs. Jane Turell . . . Chiefly Collected from Her Own Manuscripts, 1735, excerpts.

Consider these writings with those of other white women in this Toolbox, including the letter of Elizabeth Sprigs and the poems of Annis Boudinot Stockton, Sarah Parsons Moorhead, and Martha Wadsworth Brewster. Is there a prototypical colonial white woman? (31 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Complete this chart (PDF) to analyze the decisions made by these women as young adults, mothers, women of faith, and, in two cases, farm or plantation wives. (Chart as Word doc.)
  2. To what extent do their decisions reflect their identity as white women of British ancestry?
  3. What did each woman hope to achieve? How did each pursue her goals?
  4. What opportunities, constraints, and hardships did they face in their adult lives? How did they respond?
  5. If multiplied many times, how would their decisions impact colonial society?
  6. How do the women differ within their shared ethnic identity? How did these differences influence their lives and decisions?
  7. How do their relationships with male relatives differ from those with women relatives? How do they relate to these differences, as far as you can determine?
  8. Project the lives of Jane Turell, Elizabeth Ashbridge, and Mary Cooper if they had lived past the age of 50 and through the American Revolution. How would the nation's independence have affected their lives?
  9. Which woman would you want to interview? What questions would you ask? Why? How does your gender influence your choice of questions?
  10. In your interview, what difference would you emphasize between the colonial woman's life and a woman's life in America today?
  11. What questions would these women have asked each other in interviews? Create a dialogue between two of these women in which they discuss the similarities and differences of their lives.
  12. Create another chart (PDF) to evaluate the validity of the published life narratives. How close do we get to each woman's private life and thoughts? For what purposes are the narratives written? What time span of each woman's life is covered? Was the work published in the woman's lifetime? (Chart as Word doc.)
  13. Consider the statement of historian Alan Taylor: "As the colonial population became less English, it assumed a new ethnic and racial complexity, which increased the gap between freedom and slavery, privilege and prejudice, wealth and poverty, white and black." How do these readings illustrate Taylor's point?

Framing Questions
  •  What varieties of personal experience did the circumstances of life in eighteenth-century British America make available to the people of the colonies—native-born or immigrant; free, bonded, or enslaved?
  •  How did they respond to the racial, ethnic, religious, and economic diversity in British America? How did they define tolerance, peers, rights, and opportunity?
  •  How did their responses to diversity shape colonial society as a whole?
  •  By 1763, what would "American" mean to the diverse peoples of North America?

Mary Cooper:  7
Eliza Lucas Pinckney:  8
Mary Jemison:  6
Elizabeth Ashbridge:  5
Jane Turell: 5
TOTAL 31 pages
Supplemental Sites

Mary Cooper, overview and diary entries, from Newsday, Inc.

Eliza Pinckney, biography from the National Women's History Museum

Mary Jemison's narrative, full text, from Project Gutenberg

Mary Jemison on the Revolution, from History Matters

Elizabeth Ashbridge, biography from the Heath Anthology of American Literature, biographies:

Elizabeth Ashbridge's narrative, full text, from Sewanee, Dept. of American Studies

Jane Colman Turell, biography, from the Heath Anthology of American Literature

- John Valentine Haidt, Young Moravian Girl, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, #1987.32. Permission pending.
- Joseph Badger, portrait of Rebecca Orne (Mrs. Joseph Cabot), 1757. Worcester Art Museum, #1971.101. Permission pending.
- Joseph Badger, Isaac Winslow and His Family, oil on canvas, 1755 (detail). Museum of Fine Arts Boston, #42.684. Permission pending.
- Page from the diary of Mary Cooper (including 13 July 1769). Newsday, Inc., at Permission pending.
- Photo postcard with conjectural depiction of Mary Jemison at age 90 in 1831, captioned "White Woman of the Genesee," in Exploring Letchworth Park History, personal website of Tom Cook & Tom Breslin at Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Europeans I   2. Europeans II   3. Native Americans
4. African Americans   5. Women   6. Diversity

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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Revised: September 2009