As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John to "remember the ladies" during the Continental Congress, we must not also forget the many women who played a vital role during the winter encampment at Valley Forge from 1777 to 1778.
Women Following the Continental Army
During the American Revolution, many women took to the road and followed their enlisted loved ones in the Continental Army. They walked with their possessions, and often their children. General George Washington initially believed that women should not follow the army because they slowed troop movements, however he realized that they filled roles deemed essential to the survival of the army.
The Valley Forge encampment included about 250 to 400 women present. Some like Jane Norton earned rations as nurses. Mary Geyer laundered and mended clothes for the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment. Other women sold provisions to the army as sutlers.The Continental Army would sometimes arrest and try women who violated military regulations. Women found guilty could face corporal punishment, or have themselves drummed out of camp.
Mary Ludwig Hayes "Molly Pitcher"
(October 13, 1744 – January 22, 1832) - The daughter of a New Jersey dairyman, thirteen-year-old Mary married a barber named William Hayes. During the American Revolution, her husband enlisted in the 4th Continental Artillery Regiment. Mary joined him for the Philadelphia Campaign and the Valley Forge winter encampment. During the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, she famously assisted an artillery crew load a cannon in place of her injured husband.
Free and Enslaved Domestic Staff
A free Black woman hired to launder and mend clothing, bed linens, and table linens within the commander-in-chief’s entire household.
According to surviving financial accounts, Thomas joined Washington’s staff at his Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters in February 1776.1 Literate, she signed her name on an April 12, 1779 document, acknowledging receipt of sixty-six and two-thirds dollars for one year’s wages.2 At the same time, Thomas also received one pound of indigo, used as a “bluing” agent—an optic brightener for yellowed whites during laundry’s final rinse.3 As a laundress, she would have shared responsibility caring for the general’s clothes with William Lee, Washington’s enslaved manservant. In kitchens like that at Washington’s Valley Forge Headquarters, Thomas would have boiled laundry in a large kettle and heated the irons she used to remove wrinkles in freshly laundered fabrics.
During the war, Margaret Thomas grew close to the enslaved domestic staff with whom she worked. She formed an attachment to William Lee, and the two married in Philadelphia. Despite their positions within Washington’s “military family,” however, Lee’s home state of Virginia did not legally recognize marriages involving enslaved persons.
On July 28, 1784, Washington wrote to Clement Biddle, stating that she lived with his former personal cooks Hannah and Isaac Till. By that point, the Tills had purchased their own freedom, and employed themselves cooking for families in Philadelphia. Yet, with Margaret Thomas in ill health, she and Lee had petitioned to live together at Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon.
Washington had mistakenly hoped that the connection between the couple had ceased, and he “never wished to see her more.”4 As a white patriarch, he would have disliked the influence of a free Black woman near the approximately 300 people he held in bondage. Washington might not have wanted to devote money and resources to her transport and care. And Virginia law would have considered any potential children she had with William Lee free—not the legal property of Washington, but possibly his financial responsibility. Due to Lee’s wartime fidelity, however, Washington did not feel that he could refuse Lee’s request (so long as Washington felt it reasonable), and asked Biddle to procure her transport to Mount Vernon. No record indicates that she ever lived there, though she may have died before or shortly after arrival.5
An Irish woman well into her seventies, Thompson worked as a housekeeper for General George Washington from 1776 until 1781. Thompson managed Washington’s free or enslaved domestic female staff, as well as his enslaved cook Isaac Till. Thompson also oversaw maintenance of the linens and rooms, as well as the packing and unpacking of the household goods for Washington's many headquarters throughout the war.
(also known as Hannah Archer or Hannah Mason, c. 1722-1826) – An enslaved pastry cook and servant to General George Washington, Hannah Till purchased her freedom during the American Revolution. Born in Kent County, Delaware, she was originally named “Long Point—a name given her father for his successful conflict with a buck at that place near Smyrna, Delaware.”6 By 1776, Hannah was legally owned by Reverend John Mason of the Associate Reformed Church in New York.7
Mason leased Hannah to cook for Washington and his wartime staff, and so she joined her husband Isaac Till, an enslaved cook leased by Captain John Johnson of Bergen County, New Jersey.8 Hannah and Isaac already had at least three children. At Valley Forge, they had another—Isaac Worley Till, probably born in January 1778. Both cooks had an arrangement with the commander-in-chief and their respective owners whereby they would purchase their freedom, which they each completed on October 30, 1778.9 Nine months later, the couple had Isaac Worley baptized in Philadelphia, apparently as a free child.10 Now paid directly for her work, Hannah Till continued as Washington’s personal pastry cook, except for half a year, which she spent working for Major General Marquis de Lafayette.
After the war, Hannah and Isaac Till employed themselves cooking for families in Philadelphia. They raised at least seven children together.11 In 1824, John Fanning Watson interviewed a widowed Hannah before she briefly reunited with Lafayette, who had returned to Philadelphia as part of a national tour. In 1826, Hannah Till died—at a remarkable 105 years of age. Her remains now rest at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.
Allied American Indian Women
A member of an Oneida delegation that arrived at Valley Forge in May 1778. According to oral tradition, the Oneida provided white corn to the ill-supplied army during the encampment. Cooper taught them how to cook it for safe consumption, and remained to care for soldiers after many of her comrades had already departed. To thank Cooper for her service, she received a black shawl from Martha Washington.
Sarah Livingston Alexander (Lady Stirling)
(1722(?)-1791) - At fifty-six years old, she arrived at the Valley Forge Encampment to join her husband Major General William Alexander (Lord Stirling). Lady Stirling joined other officers' wives for the camp production of the play Cato.
Catherine "Caty" Littlefield Greene
(1753-1814) - The wife of General Nathanael Greene, the newly appointed quartermaster general of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, "Caty" Greene was twenty-four years old when she arrived at Valley Forge in January of 1778. "Caty" Greene entertained other officers' wives and took part in the celebration of the French-American Alliance on May 6th, 1778. At the end of May, Catherine Littlefield Greene made the return trip home back to Rhode Island to be reunited with her two young children.
Lucy Flucker Knox
(1756-1824) - The wife of General Henry Knox, the commander of the Continental Army's Artillery, Lucy Knox was one of the youngest of the officers' wives at Valley Forge, at the age of twenty-two. She arrived at the encampment in late May of 1778 with her two-year-old daughter. She joined her husband in the center of the encampment until the army marched out on June 19th, 1778.
(1732-1802) - During the Revolutionary War, Martha joined her husband for part of each winter encampment he attended, including the 1777-1778 encampment at Valley Forge. Martha arrived in the beginning of February and left in early June. Much of Martha's time at the encampment was spent running the household at Washington's Headquarters. This would include organizing daily meals for the staff and entertaining guests and officers' wives. She played a vital role in keeping spirits high with the officers of the army. According to Pierre Etienne Duponceau, secretary to Baron von Steuben, "In the midst of all our distress there were some bright sides of the picture which Valley Forge exhibited...Mrs. Washington had the courage to follow her husband to that dismal abode…"
1. J. L. Bell, “Margaret Thomas: free black woman at Washington’s headquarters,” Boston 1775, November 03, 2006, https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2006/11/margaret-thomas-free-black-woman-at.html.
2. “General Orders, 12 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0039. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 20, 8 April–31 May 1779, ed. Edward G. Lengel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010, pp. 36–37.
3. Anna Elizabeth Kiefer, “Laundry Methods During the American Revolution: The Really, Really Quick Version,” 17th Regiment of Infantry in America, August 10, 2017, https://www.17thregiment.com/laundry-methods-during-the-american-revolution-the-really-really-quick-version/.
4. “From George Washington to Clement Biddle, 28 July 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-02-02-0014. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 2, 18 July 1784 – 18 May 1785, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, p. 14.]
5. Jesse MacLeod, “William (Billy) Lee,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, accessed August 23, 2020, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/william-billy-lee/.
6. John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, being a collection of memoirs, anecdotes, and incidents of the city and its inhabitants, from the days of the Pilgrim founders (New York: E.L. Carey & A. Hart, 1830), 552.
7. John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, 552, and Supplement to Encyclopædia Britannica (Ninth Edition): A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature, Volume IV (Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers, 1889), 326.
8. John U. Rees, “‘To Cash paid the Revrd. John Mason for Servant Hannah’s wages …’ Hannah Till, General Washington’s Wartime Cook” (unpublished manuscript), 4. https://www.scribd.com/document/330715949/To-Cash-paid-the-Revrd-John-Mason-for-Servant-Hannah-s-wages-Hannah-Till-General-Washington-s-Wartime-Cook.
9. Washington, George. George Washington Papers, Series 5, Financial Papers: Revolutionary War Vouchers and Receipted Accounts, -1780. /1780, 1776. Manuscript/Mixed Material, quoted in “The Mystery of Hannah Till & Isaac” (unpublished manuscript), 3.
10. Presbyterian Historical Society; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; U.S., Presbyterian Church Records, 1701-1907; Accession Number: 95-0725 51I Box 2.
11. John U. Rees, “‘To Cash paid,’” 2. https://www.scribd.com/document/330715949/To-Cash-paid-the-Revrd-John-Mason-for-Servant-Hannah-s-wages-Hannah-Till-General-Washington-s-Wartime-Cook.
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"Molly Pitcher" Valley Forge Historical Society. www.ushistory.org
Last updated: September 13, 2021