This Day in History: The women of Pepperell, Massachusetts, fight for freedom
On or around this day in 1775, a group of women from Massachusetts capture suspected Tories. They weren’t going to sit around twiddling their thumbs while their husbands left to fight at Lexington and Concord! These women were determined to contribute to the Patriot cause, too.
This is one of those stories in which many details are missing or hard to pin down. But it also demonstrates the extent to which women were involved in our fight for freedom. The story is worth knowing, even if we are left to guess at some of the details, don’t you think?
As many as 40 women were engaged in this effort, but we know the names of only two: Prudence Wright and Sarah Shattuck. Of the two, we know the most about Wright. She was so committed to the Patriot cause that she named TWO of her children Liberty! Unfortunately, two of her brothers were suspected of being Loyalists.
As fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, militia from all over the state of Massachusetts joined the effort. The men of Pepperell were no exception. When they left, their wives were left behind to protect their homes and children. At about this time, one version of the story says that Wright was in nearby Hollis at her childhood home. She overheard her Loyalist brothers discussing the fact that messages would be coming from the British in Canada to the British in Boston. Could the two sides be coordinating military strategies?
Other versions of the story do not include the anecdote about Wright overhearing her brother.
Either way, the women wanted to help. Wright organized a new group of militia—this one was all women! They elected Wright as their commander and Shattuck as their lieutenant. They dressed in their husbands’ clothes and gathered whatever weapons they could. Some of these weapons were a bit unconventional. After all, their husbands had taken many weapons with them to Lexington and Concord. Their mission was to guard the road through Pepperell, as it was a main road from the north. In particular, the women guarded Jewett’s Bridge, which was the only way to cross the Nashua River in that part of the country.
One evening, the women were guarding the bridge when they heard horsemen approaching. The story again gets muddled at this point. Possibly Wright sprang out of the shadows and demanded that both riders stop. One of the horsemen may have been one of Wright’s brothers. Naturally, he recognized her voice and knew that she would do anything for the Patriot cause. The women captured one or both horsemen, who had papers in their boots. The next day, the women delivered the captives and the papers to the Groton Committee on Safety.
In later years, these papers were described as treasonable “despatches from Canada to the British in Boston.” Honestly, it is quite possible that they weren’t. Perhaps Wright’s brothers and their two known associates were simply Loyalists who never really did anything against the Patriots—but were constantly under suspicion. In 1776, the four men were charged with “persons suspected of being inimical to the Rights and Liberties of the United Colonies,” but they were later acquitted. One was later charged again, but he fled. Of the four men, only one stayed in America for the long term.
Perhaps the most important point to derive from the jumbled story that has come down through the ages is simply this: The women of Massachusetts did far more than “stand behind their men” in the early days of the American Revolution. They, too, were ready to put their lives on the line. They wanted FREEDOM. And they were willing to fight for it.
Caleb Butler, History of the Town of Groton, Including Pepperell and Shirley, from the First Grant of Groton Plantation in 1655, at 336-37 (Boston, Press of T.R. Marvin 1848)
J.L. Bell, Prudence Wright and Her Brothers, Boston 1775 (Aug. 30, 2010)
Mary L.P. Shattuck, The Story of Jewett’s Bridge, Address before the Prudence Wright Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, Pepperell, Massachusetts (Nov. 26, 1899) (transcript HERE)
Samuel T. Worcester, History of the Town of Hollis, New Hampshire, from Its First Settlement to the Year 1879, at 161-62 (Boston, A. Williams & Co. 1879).