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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. II. The Beginnings of Americanism: 1650–1710

Sarah Kemble Knight

SARAH KEMBLE KNIGHT, a Boston school-teacher and graphic diarist, was born in Boston in 1666, the daughter of Captain Thomas Kemble, a merchant. She married Richard Knight, was left a widow about 1703, and in 1706 opened a school, where she had the honor of training Benjamin Franklin, and the responsibility of nursing the literary aspirations of Samuel Mather. She was popularly known as Madame Knight, and had some reputation for excellence in the art of teaching composition. After seven years she moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, where she was fined for selling liquors to the Indians, but protested her innocence, accusing her own maid. From what she has to say about strong waters in her Journal, one must hope that she was the victim of a misunderstanding. She died near Norwalk on Christmas Day, 1727. She is now remembered for her account of a journey from Boston to New York in the year 1704, a series of sprightly descriptions of early settlements, of inn life, and of the customs and hardships of colonial travel. It was first edited in 1825, by Theodore Dwight and was reprinted in 1865 with additional biographical information.

On Horseback from Boston to New York in 1704.
[From the Journals of Madam Knight, etc., from the Original Manuscripts. 1825.]

MONDAY, October the second, 1704.—About three o’clock afternoon, I began my journey from Boston to New Haven, being about two hundred mile. My kinsman, Captain Robert Luist, waited on me as far as Dedham, where I was to meet the western post.

I visited the Rev. Mr. Belcher, the minister of the town, and tarried there till evening, in hopes the post would come along. But he not coming, I resolved to go to Billings’s where he used to lodge, being twelve miles further. But being ignorant of the way, Madam Belcher, seeing no persuasions of her good spouse’s or hers could prevail with me to lodge there that night, very kindly went with me to the tavern, where I hoped to get my guide, and desired the hostess to inquire of her guests whether any of them would go with me. But they being tied by the lips to a pewter engine, scarcely allowed themselves time to say what clownish…. [Here half a page of the MS. is gone.] Pieces of eight, I told her no, I would not be accessory to such extortion.

“Then John shan’t go,” says she. “No, indeed, shan’t he;” and held forth at that rate a long time, that I began to fear I was got among the quaking tribe, believing not a limber-tongued sister among them could outdo Madam Hostess.

Upon this, to my no small surprise, son John arose, and gravely demanded what I would give him to go with me? “Give you?” says I, “are you John?” “Yes,” says he, “for want of a better;” and behold! this John looked as old as my host, and perhaps had been a man in the last century. “Well, Mr. John,” says I, “make your demands.” “Why, half a piece of eight and a dram,” says John. I agreed, and gave him a dram (now) in hand to bind the bargain.

My hostess catechised John for going so cheap, saving his poor wife would break her heart…. [Here half a page of the MS. is gone.]

His shade on his horse resembled a globe on a gate post. His habit, horse and furniture, its looks and goings incomparably answered the rest.

Thus jogging on with an easy pace, my guide telling me it was dangerous to ride hard in the night (which his horse had the sense to avoid), he entertained me with the adventures he had passed by late riding, and imminent dangers he had escaped, so that, remembering the heroes in “Parismus” and the “Knight of the Oracle,” I did’nt know but I had met with a prince disguised.

When we had rid about an hour, we came into a thick swamp, which by reason of a great fog, very much startled me, it being now very dark. But nothing dismayed John: he had encountered a thousand and a thousand such swamps, having a universal knowledge in the woods; and readily answered all my inquiries which were not a few.

In about an hour, or something more, after we left the swamp, we came to Billings’s, where I was to lodge. My guide dismounted and very complacently helped me down and showed the door, signing to me with his hand to go in; which I gladly did—but had not gone many steps into the room, ere I was interrogated by a young lady I understood afterwards was the eldest daughter of the family, with these, or words to this purpose; viz., “Law for me!—what in the world brings you here at this time of night? I never see a woman on the road so dreadful late in all the days of my versal life. Who are you? Where are you going? I’m scared out of my wits!”—with much more of the same kind. I stood aghast, preparing to reply, when in comes my guide—to him madam turned, roaring out: “Lawful heart, John, is it you?—how de do! Where in the world are you going with this woman? Who is she?” John made no answer, but sat down in the corner, fumbled out his black junk, and saluted that instead of Deb; she then turned again to me and fell anew into her silly questions, without asking me to sit down.

I told her she treated me very rudely, and I did not think it my duty to answer her unmannerly questions. But to get rid of them, I told her I came there to have the post’s company with me to-morrow on my journey, etc. Miss stared awhile, drew a chair, bade me sit, and then ran up stairs and put on two or three rings (or else I had not seen them before), and returning, set herself just before me, showing the way to Reding, that I might see her ornaments, perhaps to gain the more respect. But her granam’s new rung sow, had it appeared, would have affected me as much. I paid honest John with money and dram according to contract, and dismissed him, and prayed Miss to show me where I must lodge. She conducted me to a parlor in a little back lean-to, which was almost filled with the bedstead, which was so high that I was forced to climb on a chair to get up to the wretched bed that lay on it; on which having stretched my tired limbs, and laid my head on a sad-colored pillow, I began to think on the transactions of the past day.

Tuesday, October the third, about 8 in the morning, I with the post proceeded forward without observing any thing remarkable; and about two, afternoon, arrived at the post’s second stage, where the western post met him and exchanged letters. Here, having called for something to eat, the woman brought in a twisted thing like a cable, but something whiter; and, laying it on the board, tugged for life to bring it into a capacity to spread; which having with great pains accomplished, she served in a dish of pork and cabbage, I suppose the remains of dinner. The sauce was of a deep purple, which I thought was boiled in her dye kettle; the bread was Indian, and everything on the table service agreeable to these. I, being hungry got a little down; but my stomach was soon cloyed, and what cabbage I swallowed served me for a cud the whole day after.

Having here discharged the ordinary for self and guide (as I understood was the custom), about three afternoon went on with my third guide, who rode very hard; and having crossed Providence ferry, we came to a river which they generally ride through. But I dare not venture; so the post got a lad and canoe to carry me to t’other side, and he rode through and led my horse. The canoe was very small and shallow, so that when we were in she seemed ready to take in water, which greatly terrified me, and caused me to be very circumspect, sitting with my hands fast on each side, my eyes steady, not daring so much as to lodge my tongue a hair’s breadth more on one side of my mouth than t’other, nor so much as think on Lot’s wife, for a wry thought would have overset our wherry; but was soon put out of this pain, by feeling the canoe on shore, which I as soon almost saluted with my feet; and rewarding my sculler, again mounted and made the best of our way forwards….

Now was the glorious luminary, with his swift coursers, arrived at his stage, leaving poor me with the rest of this part of the lower world in darkness, with which we were soon surrounded. The only glimmering we now had was from the spangled skies, whose imperfect reflections rendered every object formidable. Each lifeless trunk, with its shattered limbs, appeared an armed enemy; and every little stump like a ravenous devourer. Nor could I so much as discern my guide, when at any distance, which added to the terror.

Thus, absolutely lost in thought and dying with the very thoughts of drowning, I came up with the post, whom I did not see till even with his horse: he told me he stopped for me, and we rode on very deliberately a few paces, when we entered a thicket of trees and shrubs, and I perceived by the horse’s going we were on the descent of a hill, which, as we came nearer the bottom, was totally dark with the trees that surrounded it. But I knew by the going of the horse we had entered the water, which my guide told me was the hazardous river he had told me of; and he, riding up close to my side, bid me not fear—we should be over immediately. I now rallied all the courage I was mistress of, knowing that I must either venture my fate of drowning, or be left like the children in the wood. So, as the post bid me, I gave reins to my nag; and sitting as steady as just before in the canoe, in a few minutes got safe to the other side, which he told me was the Narragansett country.

Being come to Mr. Haven’s, I was very civilly received, and courteously entertained, in a clean, comfortable house; and the good woman was very active in helping off my riding clothes, and then asked what I would eat. I told her I had some chocolate, if she would prepare it; which with the help of some milk, and a little clean brass kettle, she soon effected to my satisfaction. I then betook me to my apartment, which was a little room parted from the kitchen by a single board partition; where, after I had noted the occurrences of the past day, I went to bed, which, though pretty hard, yet neat and handsome. But I could get no sleep, because of the clamor of some of the town topers in next room, who were entered into a strong debate concerning the signification of the name of their country; viz. Narragansett. One said it was named so by the Indians, because there grew a brier there, of a prodigious height and bigness, the like hardly ever known, called by the Indians Narragansett; and quotes an Indian of so barbarous a name for his author, that I could not write it. His antagonist replied no—it was from a spring it had its name, which he well knew where it was, which was extreme cold in summer, and as hot as could be imagined in the winter, which was much resorted to by the natives, and by them called Narragansett (hot and cold), and that was the original of their place’s name—with a thousand impertinences not worth notice, which he uttered with such a roaring voice and thundering blows with the fist of wickedness on the table, that it pierced my very head. I heartily fretted, and wished them tongue tied; but with as little success as a friend of mine once, who was (as she said) kept a whole night awake, on a journey, by a country lieutenant and a sergeant, ensign and a deacon, contriving how to bring a triangle into a square. They kept calling for t’other gill, which, while they were swallowing, was some intermission; but, presently, like oil to fire, increased the flame. I set my candle on a chest by the bedside, and sitting up, fell to my old way of composing my resentments, in the following manner:

  • I ask thy aid, O potent Rum!
  • To charm these wrangling topers dumb.
  • Thou hast their giddy brains possest—
  • The man confounded with the beast—
  • And I, poor I, can get no rest.
  • Intoxicate them with thy fumes:
  • O still their tongues till morning comes!
  • And I know not but my wishes took effect; for the dispute soon ended with t’other dram; and so good night!

    Wednesday, October 4th.About four in the morning we set out for Kingston (for so was the town called) with a French doctor in our company. He and the post put on very furiously, so that I could not keep up with them, only as now and then they would stop till they saw me. This road was poorly furnished with accommodations for travellers, so that we were forced to ride twenty-two miles by the post’s account, but nearer thirty by mine, before we could bait so much as our horses, which I exceedingly complained of. But the post encouraged me, by saying we should be well accommodated anon at Mr. Devil’s, a few miles further. But I questioned whether we ought to go to the devil to be helped out of affliction. However, like the rest of deluded souls that post to the infernal den, we made all possible speed to this devil’s habitation; where alighting, in full assurance of good accommodation, we were going in. But meeting his two daughters, as I supposed twins,—they so nearly resembled each other, both in features and habit, and looked as old as the devil himself, and quite as ugly,—we desired entertainment, but could hardly get a word out of them, till with our importunity, telling them our necessity, etc., they called the old sophister, who was as sparing of his words as his daughters had been, and no, or none, were the replies he made us to our demands. He differed only in this from the old fellow in t’other country: he let us depart. However, I thought it proper to warn poor travellers to endeavor to avoid falling into circumstances like ours, which at our next stage I sat down and did as followeth:

  • May all that dread the cruel fiend of night
  • Keep on, and not at this cursed mansion light.
  • ’Tis hell; ’tis hell! and devils here do dwell:
  • Here dwells the Devil—surely this is hell.
  • Nothing but wants: a drop to cool your tongue
  • Can’t be procured these cruel fiends among.
  • Plenty of horrid grins and looks severe,
  • Hunger and thirst, but pity’s banished here—
  • The right hand keep, if hell on earth you fear!
  • … Saturday, October 7th, we set out early in the morning, and being something unacquainted with the way, having asked it of some we met, they told us we must ride a mile or two and turn down a lane on the right hand; and by their direction we rode on, but not yet coming to the turning, we met a young fellow and asked him how far it was to the lane which turned down towards Guilford. He said we must ride a little further, and turn down by the corner of Uncle Sam’s lot. My guide vented his spleen at the lubber; and we soon after came into the road, and keeping still on, without anything further remarkable, about two o’clock afternoon we arrived at New Haven, where I was received with all possible respects and civility. Here I discharged Mr. Wheeler with a reward to his satisfaction, and took some time to rest after so long and toilsome a journey; and informed myself of the manners and customs of the place, and at the same time employed myself in the affair I went there upon.

    They are governed by the same laws as we in Boston (or little differing), throughout this whole colony of Connecticut, and much the same way of Church government, and many of them good, sociable people, and I hope religious too; but a little too much independent in their principles, and, as I have been told, were formerly in their zeal very rigid in their administrations towards such as their laws made offenders, even to a harmless kiss or innocent merriment among young people. Whipping being a frequent and counted an easy punishment, about which as other crimes, the judges were absolute in their sentences. They told me a pleasant story about a pair of justices in those parts, which I may not omit the relation of.

    A negro slave belonging to a man in the town, stole a hog’s head from his master, and gave or sold it to an Indian, native of the place. The Indian sold it in the neighborhood, and so the theft was found out. Thereupon the heathen was seized, and carried to the Justice’s house to be examined. But his worship (it seems) was gone into the field, with a brother in office to gather in his pompions; whither the malefactor is hurried, and complaint made, and satisfaction in the name of justice demanded. Their worships can’t proceed in form without a bench: whereupon they order one to be immediately erected, which, for want of fitter materials, they made with pompions—which being finished, down sit their worships, and the malefactor called, and by the senior justice interrogated after the following manner; “You Indian, why did you steal from this man? You shouldn’t do so—it’s a grandy wicked thing to steal.” “Hol’t, Hol’t,” cries justice junior, “Brother, you speak negro to him; I’ll ask him. You, sirrah, why did you steal this man’s hog’s head?” “Hog’s head?” replies the Indian, “me no stomany.” “No?” says his worship; and, pulling off his hat, patted his own head with his hand, says, “Tatapa—you, Tatapa—you; all one this. Hog’s head all one this.” “Hah!” says Netop, “now me stomany that.” Whereupon the company fell into a great fit of laughter, even to roaring. Silence is commanded, but to no effect: for they continued perfectly shouting. “Nay,” says his worship, in an angry tone, “if it be so, take me off the bench.”

    Their diversions in this part of the country are on lecture days and training days mostly: on the former there is riding from town to town.

    And on training days the youth divert themselves by shooting at the target, as they call it (but it very much resembles a pillory), where he that hits nearest the white has some yards of red ribbon presented him, which being tied to his hat-band, the two ends streaming down his back, he is led away in triumph, with great applause, as the winners of the Olympic games. They generally marry very young: the males oftener, as I am told, under twenty than above: they generally make public weddings, and have a way something singular (as they say) in some of them, viz., just before joining hands the bridegroom quits the place, who is soon followed by the bridesmen, and as it were dragged back to duty—being the reverse to the former practice among us, to steal mistress bride.

    There are great plenty of oysters all along by the sea side, as far as I rode in the colony, and those very good. And they generally lived very well and comfortably in their families. But too indulgent (especially the farmers) to their slaves: suffering too great familiarity from them, permitting them to sit at the table and eat with them (as they say to save time), and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand. They told me that there was a farmer lived near the town where I lodged who had some difference with his slave, concerning something the master had promised him and did not punctually perform; which caused some hard words between them; but at length they put the matter to arbitration and bound themselves to stand to the award of such as they named—which done, the arbitrators, having heard the allegations of both parties, ordered the master to pay forty shillings to black face, and acknowledge his fault. And so the matter ended: the poor master very honestly standing to the award.

    There are everywhere, in the towns as I passed, a number of Indians the natives of the country, and are the most savage of all the savages of that kind that I had ever seen: little or no care taken (as I heard upon enquiry) to make them otherwise. They have in some places lands of their own, and governed by laws of their own making;—they marry many wives and at pleasure put them away, and on the least dislike or fickle humor, on either side, saying “Stand away,” to one another is a sufficient divorce. And indeed those uncomely “Stand aways” are too much in vogue among the English in this (indulgent) colony, as their records plentifully prove, and that on very trivial matters, of which some have been told me, but are not proper to be related by a female pen, though some of that foolish sex have had too large a share in the story.

    They give the title of merchant to every trader; who rate their goods according to the time and specie they pay in, viz., “Pay,” “Money,” “Pay as money,” and “Trusting.” “Pay” is grain, pork, beef, etc., at the prices set by the General Court that year; “Money” is pieces of eight, reals, or Boston or bay shillings (as they call them), or “good hard money,” as sometimes silver coin is termed by them; also “Wampum,” viz., Indian beads, which serves for change. “Pay as money” is provisions, as aforesaid, one-third cheaper than as the Assembly or General Court sets it; and “Trust” as they and the merchant agree for time.

    Now, when the buyer comes to ask for a commodity, sometimes before the merchant answers that he has it, he says, “Is your pay ready?” Perhaps the chap replies, “Yes.” “What do you pay in?” says the merchant. The buyer having answered, then the price is set; as suppose he wants a sixpenny knife, in pay it is twelve pence—in pay as money, eight pence, and hard money, its own price, viz., six pence. It seems a very intricate way of trade and what lex mercatoria had not thought of.

    Being at a merchant’s house, in comes a tall country fellow, with his alfogeos full of tobacco; for they seldom loose their cud, but keep chewing and spitting as long as their eyes are open,—he advanced to the middle of the room, makes an awkward nod, and spitting a large deal of aromatic tincture, he gave a scrape with his shovel-like shoe, leaving a small shovel full of dirt on the floor, made a full stop, hugging his own pretty body with his hands under his arms, stood staring round him, like a cat let out of a basket. At last, like the creature Balaam rode on, he opened his mouth and said: “Have you any ribinen for hat-bands to sell, I pray?” The questions and answers about the pay being past, the ribbon is brought and opened. Bumpkin Simpers cries, “It’s confounded gay, I vow;” and beckoning to the door, in comes Joan Tawdry, dropping about fifty curtsies, and stands by him: he shows her the ribbon. “Law, you,” says she, “it’s right gent, do you take it; ’tis dreadful pretty.” Then she enquires, “Have you any hood silk, I pray?” which being brought and bought, “Have you any thread silk to sew it with?” says she; which being accommodated with they departed. They generally stand after they come in a great while speechless, and sometimes don’t say a word till they are asked what they want, which I impute to the awe they stand in of the merchants, who they are constantly almost indebted to; and must take what they bring without liberty to choose for themselves; but they serve them as well, making the merchants stay long enough for their pay.

    We may observe here the great necessity and benefit both of education and conversation; for these people have as large a portion of mother wit, and sometimes a larger, than those who have been brought up in cities; but for want of improvements, render themselves almost ridiculous, as above. I should be glad if they would leave such follies, and am sure all that love clean houses (at least) would be glad on’t too.

    They are generally very plain in their dress, throughout all the colony, as I saw, and follow one another in their modes; that you may know where they belong, especially the women, meet them where you will.

    Their chief red letter day is St. Election, which is annually observed according to charter, to choose their governor—a blessing they can never be thankful enough for, as they will find, if ever it be their hard fortune to lose it. The present governor in Connecticut is the Hon. John Winthrop, Esq., a gentleman of an ancient and honorable family, whose father was governor here sometime before, and his grandfather had been governor of the Massachusetts. This gentleman is a very courteous and affable person, much given to hospitality, and has by his good services gained the affections of the people as much as any who had been before him in that post….

    The City of New York is a pleasant, well compacted place, situated on a commodious river which is a fine harbor for shipping. The buildings, brick generally, very stately and high, though not altogether like ours in Boston….

    They are generally of the Church of England and have a New England gentleman for their minister, and a very fine church set out with all customary requisites. There are also Dutch and divers conventicles, as they call them, viz., Baptist, Quakers, etc. They are not strict in keeping the Sabbath, as in Boston and other places where I had been, but seem to deal with great exactness, as far as I see or deal with. They are sociable to one another and courteous and civil to strangers, and fare well in their houses. The English go very fashionable in their dress. But the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women, in their habit go loose, wear French muches, which are like a cap and a head band in one, leaving their ears bare, which are set out with jewels of a large size and many in number; and their fingers hooped with rings, some with large stones in them of many colors, as were their pendants in their ears, which you should see very old women wear as well as young.

    They have vendues very frequently and make their earnings very well by them, for they treat with good liquor liberally, and the customers drink as liberally and generally pay for’t as well, by paying for that which they bid up briskly for after the sack has gone plentifully about, though sometimes good pennyworths are got there. Their diversion in the winter is riding sleighs about three or four miles out of town, where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends’ houses, who handsomely treat them. Mr. Burroughs carried his spouse and daughter and myself out to one Madame Dowes, a gentlewoman that lived at a farmhouse, who gave us a handsome entertainment of five or six dishes and choice beer and metheglin, cider, etc., all which she said was the produce of her farm. I believe we met fifty or sixty sleighs that day; they fly with great swiftness, and some are so furious that they will turn out of the path for none except a loaded cart. Nor do they spare for any diversion the place affords, and sociable to a degree, their tables being as free to their neighbors as to themselves.

    Having here transacted the affair I went upon and some other that fell in the way, after about a fortnight’s stay there, I left New York with no little regret, and Thursday, December 21st, set out for New Haven with my kinsman Trowbridge, and the man that waited on me….

    January 6th.Being now well recruited and fit for business, I discoursed the persons I was concerned with, that we might finish in order to my return to Boston. They delayed as they had hitherto done, hoping to tire my patience. But I was resolute to stay and see an end of the matter, let it be never so much to my disadvantage; so, January 9th, they came again and promised the Wednesday following to go through with the distribution of the estate, which they delayed till Thursday, and then came with new amusements. But at length, by the mediation of that holy good gentleman, the Rev. Mr. James Pierpont, the minister of New Haven, and with the advice and assistance of other our good friends, we came to an accommodation and distribution, which having finished, though not till February, the man that waited on me to York taking charge of me, I set out for Boston. We went from New Haven upon the ice (the ferry being not passable thereby), and the Rev. Mr. Pierpont, with Madam Prout, cousin Trowbridge, and divers others, were taking leave, we went onward without anything remarkable till we come to New London, and lodged again at Mr. Saltonstall’s; and here I dismissed my guide, and my generous entertainer provided me Mr. Samuel Rogers of that place to go home with me. I stayed a day here longer than I intended by the commands of the Hon. Governor Winthrop to stay and take a supper with him, whose wonderful civility I may not omit. The next morning I crossed the ferry to Groton, having had the honor of the company of Madam Livingston (who is the governor’s daughter) and Mary Christophers and divers others to the boat; and that night lodged at Stonington, and had roast beef and pumpkin sauce for supper. The next night at Havens, and had roast fowl, and the next day we came to a river, which, by reason of the freshets coming down, was swelled so high, we feared it impassable, and the rapid stream was very terrifying; however, we must over, and that in a small canoe. Mr. Rogers assuring me of his good conduct, I, after a stay of near an hour on the shore for consultation, went into the canoe, and Mr. Rogers paddled about one hundred yards up the creek by the shore side, turned into the swift stream and dexterously steering her, in a moment we came to the other side, as swiftly passing as an arrow shot out of the bow by a strong arm. I stayed on the shore till he returned to fetch our horses, which he caused to swim over, himself bringing the furniture in the canoe. But it is past my skill to express the exceeding fright all these transactions formed in me. We were now in the colony of the Massachusetts, and, taking lodgings at the first inn we came to, had a pretty difficult passage the next day, which was the second of March, by reason of the sloughy ways then thawed by the sun. Here I met Capt. John Richards of Boston, who was going home, so being very glad of his company we rode something harder than hitherto, and, missing my way in going up a very steep hill, my horse dropped down under me as dead; this new surprise no little hurt me, meeting it just at the entrance into Dedham, from whence we intended to reach home that night. But was now obliged to get another horse there, and leave my own, resolving for Boston that night if possible. But in going over the causeway at Dedham, the bridge being overflowed by the high waters coming down, I very narrowly escaped falling over into the river, horse and all, which ’twas almost a miracle I did not. Now it grew late in the afternoon, and the people having very much discouraged us about the sloughy way, which they said we should find very difficult and hazardous, it so wrought on me, being tired and dispirited and disappointed of my desires of going home, that I agreed to lodge there that night, which we did at the house of one Draper, and the next day being March 3d we got safe home to Boston, where I found my aged and tender mother and my dear and only child in good health, with open arms, ready to receive me, and my kind relations and friends flocking in to welcome me and hear the story of my transactions and travels, I having this day been five months from home; and now I cannot fully express my joy and satisfaction, but desire sincerely to adore my Great Benefactor for thus graciously carrying forth and returning in safety his unworthy handmaid.