Read the Revolution
Remarkable Women of New EnglandAugust 18, 2020
In the Revolutionary era, American society often identified women by their relationship to men. However, as Carole Owens shows in her recent work, Remarkable Women of New England: Daughters, Wives, Sisters, and Mothers, The War Years, 1754-1787 (2016), in addition to being wives, mothers, and daughters, they were also laborers, “deputy husbands,” business owners, neighbors, and friends. Owens explores women’s various roles and responsibilities between 1754 and 1787, and how women lived and worked within what Owens calls the “four corners of a woman’s world”: the homestead, the church, the village, and the social circle. Owens selects biographical sketches and gathers wartime historical records that document how individual women’s actions and experiences were remarkable to their communities and families across New England, with sources from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, and even a few mid-Atlantic experiences in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
On this 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we reflect upon the complex legacies of Revolutionary women and others who fought for equal and political rights in the new United States. The Museum’s upcoming exhibition, When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776–1807, offers a closer look at the first American women who legally voted in New Jersey for thirty-one years.
In this excerpt, Owens tells the story of Anna Dix Orton Bingham, a tavern owner and widow in Stockbridge, Massachusetts who managed a store starting in 1775, faced the courts in her petition for a tavern license in 1781, and raised her town’s growing reputation as a thoroughfare for New England’s many economies through 1807. In the same time period, as the Museum will explore this fall, Bingham’s contemporaries in New Jersey, such as Charity Brittan and Mary Jackson could exercise the right to own taverns and the right to vote in the state of New Jersey.
In addition to [Anna and Silas Bingham’s store in 1775], there may have been as many as three other retailers, and an inn in Stockbridge. Since Plain Street was a North-South connector road, there were stage coaches as well as Revolutionary War troops moving through the village. It was a New England crossroads; even Ethan Allen traveled Plain Street and stopped at Bingham’s store. He purchased a jackknife on his way to the Battle of Ticonderoga. The Binghams met the need and expanded their business to an inn and tavern. All went well until January 6, 1781, when Silas Bingham died at the age of forty-nine. Anna continued to operate the inn and tavern as usual:
The jurors for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the body of the said county do on their oath present that Anna Bingham of Stockbridge in the County of Berkshire widow at said Stockbridge on the fifteenth day of September last past and from that time until the first day of January current did wickedly and unlawfully and with force and arms presume to be a common victualler, innholder taverner and seller of wine beer and strong liquor without being duly licensed.
If Anna was to continue to operate, she needed a license. The license cost 20 pounds, and required people to stand surety, that is, vouch for the applicant and promise to pay the fee should the licensee be unable. Moreover, in Berkshire County, no such license had ever been issued to a woman.
Two important men of Stockbridge, Theodore Sedgwick and William Goodrich, stood surety, promising 10 pounds each, and certifying that Anna was “a person of sober life and conversation, suitably qualified…for an inn-holder in the town of Stockbridge.” The names Sedgwick and Goodrich may have lent weight to her petition; in addition Anna wrote a letter […]:
Your petitioners late Consort Mr. Bingham of Stockbridge dyed the last winter. for Some years before his Death he had made tavern keeping his whole Business, that for his Accommodation And that of travelers he had laid out great part of his Estate in A large and Elegant house. Your petitioner was therefore left without any other means to obtain A livelihood for herself and Fatherless children but tavernkeeping.
In short, Anna, petitioner and widow of Mr. Bingham, was left with a house and no other means of support […] Anna went on to explain that in Berkshire County, since the courts were closed by the Constitutionalists during the period, she was unsure or unable to do what was necessary. The letter demonstrated that Anna was literate, and also, persuasive. Passing over the fact that the courts reopened and her husband died in the same year, 1781, Anna Bingham’s letter was successful. In 1781, Anna became the first female victualler, inn-holder, taverner, and seller of wine liquor and strong liquor in Berkshire County.
For the next thirteen years, Anna conducted business. She welcomed guests, diners, and merry-makers just as they are welcomed on the same corner today […].
In 1794 she was convicted of operating “not having been first duly licensed according to law.” Anna did not have 20 pounds for the license renewal in 1793, and attempted, for some months, to operate without one. Anyone operating an inn and tavern without a license was “ordered to pay as a fine the sum of twenty pounds and the costs of prosecution taxed at five pounds eleven shillings and one penny,” and if they could not pay, was “committed to Sheriff Satteree until the fine be disposed of.”
The next thirteen years brought more legal and economic problems that found the widow repeatedly back in court…On April 20, 1807, twenty-three investors in the Housatonic River Turnpike met at the “dwelling house of Anna Bingham.” Anna held thirty shares, one of the three largest stockholders. The turnpike was to connect West Stockbridge, Stockbridge, Lee, and New Marlborough and there to connect the through-road from Hartford to Lenox. On June 1, 1807, they met again at the “dwelling house lately owned by Anna Bingham.” So we know Anna sold her elegant house between April and June 1807. The purchaser, fellow turnpike shareholder and Stockbridge neighbor Silas Pepoon, was not an experienced taverner or inn-holder, and his debts exceeded even those of the Widow Bingham. He struggled along for five years, but in 1812, his property was seized by creditors. Pepoon was conducted to the jail at Lenox, and Bingham Tavern, later the Red Lion Inn, was sold at auction for $12.
Carole Owens, Remarkable Women of New England: Daughters, Wives, Sisters, and Mothers, The War Years, 1754 - 1787 (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot, 2016), 86-90.
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