Sally Wister

By Cate Christinidis

When Sarah (or Sally) Wister was sixteen years old in 1777, British troops occupied the city of Philadelphia. The British had developed a plan to “defeat the Continental Army, seize the rebel capital, and capture the leaders of the rebellion.”[1] Their victory at the Battle of Brandywine Creek, some 30 miles from Philadelphia, forced General Washington to withdraw his troops, leaving Philadelphia vulnerable to General Howe and the British army, who arrived on September 26, 1777. When rumors of British occupation—brought on by the aftermath of Brandywine—reached the Wister household, Sally’s father Daniel Wister evacuated his family to the Foulke Mansion in Gwynedd, Montgomery County. It is unclear when the Wister family actually arrived at the Foulke residence, but Sally began writing approximately two weeks after the Battle of Brandywine. 

Sally Wister wrote her journal, excerpts from which appear below, over the span of nine months from September 1777 to June 1778. She addressed it to her friend Deborah (Debby) Norris in light of the fact she felt she would not have “the least shadow of an opportunity to send a letter.”[2] Her passages detail the daily life of a young Quaker woman growing up amidst the anxieties of revolution, and similarly, the daily lives of the soldiers who quartered with her. While she never witnessed battle in her time at the Foulke Mansion, Sally lived among members of the Continental Army who came and went over the nine months she spent writing her journal. 

References to battles and encampments at Valley Forge, Whitemarsh, Germantown, among other small skirmishes, live among the pages of Sally Wister’s journal alongside vignettes of her daily life. These entries reiterate the value of a historical record told from the perspective of a young woman, a civilian, and someone who encountered the war away from the battlefield. One of the final entries in Sally Wister’s journal reads: “This is charmante [charming]! They [the British] decamp’d yesterday… It is true. They have gone. Past a doubt,” marking the near end of her journal-keeping. The revolution, however, was far from over. 

Not much is known of Sally’s life following the occupation of Philadelphia. Her journal was published through June 1778, though original manuscripts exist that extend past 1780. With British threat decreasing, Debby Norris and Sally Wister began exchanging letters again sometime in early 1778. Debby’s letters survive as a historical record of their friendship in the aftermath of the occupation. However, Debby would not read Sally’s journal until after Sally died, unmarried, in 1804. 

The following entry appeared after an entry dated “Sixth Day, December 12th, 1777,” which details Sally Wister’s encounter with “Major Stodard” (thought to be Major Benjamin Stoddert, who would later serve as the first U.S. Secretary of the Navy). Together, they plan to trick “Mr. Tilly” (thought to be Robert Tilly, paymaster of a Patriot regiment) using a six-foot tall wooden statue of a British grenadier (specialized soldier), at nightfall.

Sixth Day, Night.

Never did I more sincerely wish to possess a descriptive genius than I do now. All that I can write will fall infinitely short of the truly diverting scene that I have been witness of to-night. But, as I mean to attempt an account, I had as well shorten the preface, and begin the story. 

In the beginning of the evening I went to Liddy [3] and beg’d her to secure the swords and pistols which were in their parlour. The Marylander, hearing our voices, joined us. I told him of our proposal. Whether he thought it a good one or not I can’t say, but he approv’d of it, and Liddy went in and brought her apron full of swords and pistols. When this was done, Stodard join’d the officers. We girls went and stood at the first landing of the stairs. The gentlemen were very merry, and chatting on public affairs, when Seaton’s negro (observe that Seaton, being indisposed, was appriz’d of the scheme) open’d the door, candle in hand, and said, “There’s somebody at the door that wishes to see you.” “Who? All of us?” said Tilly. “Yes, sir,” said the boy. They all rose (the Major, as he said afterwards, almost dying with laughter), and walked into the entry, Tilly first, in full expectation of news. The first object that struck his view was a British soldier. In a moment his ears were saluted, “Is there any rebel officers here ?” in a thundering voice. Not waiting for a second word, he darted like lightning out of the front door, through the yard, bolted o’er the fence. Swamps, fences, thorn-hedges and plough’d fields no way impeded his retreat. He was soon out of hearing. The woods echoed with, “Which way did he go? Stop him! Surround the house!” The amiable Lipscomb had his hand on the latch of the door, intending to make his escape; Stodard, considering his indisposition, acquainted him with the deceit. We females ran down stairs to join in the general laugh. I walked into Jesse’s [Foulke, Lydia’s brother] parlour. There sat poor Stodard (whose sore lips must have receiv’d no advantage from this), almost convuls’d with laughing, rolling in an arm-chair. He said nothing; I believe he could not have spoke. “Major Stodard,” said I, “go to call Tilly back. He will lose him self,–indeed he will;” every word interrupted with a “Ha! ha!” At last he rose, and went to the door; and what a loud voice could avail in bringing him back, he tried. Figure to thyself this Tilly, of a snowy evening, no hat, shoes down at the heel, hair unty’d, flying across meadows, creeks, and mud-holes. Flying from what? Why, a bit of painted wood. But he was ignorant of what it was. The idea of being made a prisoner wholly engrossed his mind, and his last resource was to run. 

After a while, we being in more composure, and our bursts of laughter less frequent, yet by no means subsided,—in full assembly of girls and officers,—Tilly enter’d. The greatest part of my risibility turn’d to pity. Inexpressible confusion had taken entire possession of his countenance, his fine hair hanging dishevell’d down his shoulders, all splashed with mud; yet his bright confusion and race had not divested him of his beauty. He smil’d as he trip’d up the steps; but ’twas vexation plac’d it on his features. Joy at that moment was banished from his heart. He briskly walked five or six steps, then stop’d, and took a general survey of us all. “Where have you been, Mr. Tilly?” ask’d one officer. (We girls were silent.) “I really imagin’d,” said Major Stodard, “that you were gone for your pistols. I follow’d you to prevent danger,”–an excessive laugh at each question, which it was impossible to restrain. “Pray, where were your pistols, Tilly?” He broke his silence by the following expression: “You may all go to the D–—1 [Devil].” I never heard him utter an indecent expression before. 

At last his good nature gain’d a compleat ascendence over his anger and he join’d heartily in the laugh. I will do him the justice to say that he bore it charmingly. No cowardly threats, no vengeance denounced. Stodard caught hold of his coat.“Come, look at what you ran away from,” and drag’d him to the door. He gave it a look, said it was very natural, and, by the singularity of his expressions, gave fresh cause for diversion. We all retir’d to our different parlours, for the rest of our faces, if I may say so. 

Well, certainly, these military folks will laugh all night. Such screaming I never did hear. Adieu to-night.

[The date of the following entry was not recorded. Many of Sally Wister’s journal entries were recorded using the Quaker Calendar (e.g., First Day, Second Day, etc.) and the time of day instead of the date. The last recorded date prior to this entry was June 2, 1778, so the entry below was most likely written sometime thereafter.] 

Six o’clock, Evening.

Watts [a Virginian officer] drank tea with us. A conversable man. Says that the Dandridges [4] are one of the genteelest families in Virginia, – relations of General Washington’s wife. He appear’d very fond of the Captain, who has had a liberal education. Very sensible and brave. I sat in the entry all last evening, as did Betsy [Sally’s sister]. But first, let me say, Fifth day morn we chatted on a variety of subjects; and amongst others, he mentioned the cruelty of the Britons, which, I agreed, was very great. He said he would retaliate whenever he had an opportunity. I strenuously opposed such a procedure, observing that it would be erring in the same way, and tho’ they might deserve it, yet it would be much nobler to treat them with lenity. Remember the lines of Pope, –

“That mercy I to others show,

That mercy show to me.”

“I perfectly remember them. Your sentiments are noble; but we must retaliate sometimes.”

A horseman deliver’d this message: “Let the troops lie on their arms, and be ready to march at a moment’s warning.” He immediately gave these orders to the sergeant. Every soldier was in motion. I was a good deal frighten’d, and ask’d Watts the reason. He fancy’d the British were in motion, tho’ he had not receiv’d such intelligence. “What will thee do if they come here?” “Defend the house as long as I can, ma’am.” I was shock’d. “Bless my heart; what will become of us?” “You may be very safe. The house is an excellent house to defend; only do you be still. If the British vanquish us, down on your knees and cry, ‘Bless the king.’ If we conquer them, why you know you are safe.” This added to my fright. I called my dear mamma, who was much indispos’d. Dadda was gone to Lancaster. Mamma ask’d him the same questions, and he gave her the same answers. I was in a fearful taking, and said if I thought such a thing would happen, I would set off, though nine o’clock, and walk to Uncle Foulke’s. “No, don’t go to-night, Miss Sally. I will take you there to-morrow. Don’t be uneasy. This is nothing. I often go to bed with my boots on upon some alarms.” “But thee will take off thy boots tonight?” “Yes, I will, indeed.” “Is thee really in earnest about defending the house?” “No, madam; for believe me, if I hear the enemy is in motion, I will immediately depart, bag and baggage.”

Discussion Questions

1. What does Sally Wister’s journal reveal about the daily lives and attitudes of citizens during the American Revolution? What does it reveal about the daily lives and attitudes of soldiers?

2. In the second excerpt, what does Sally’s Fifth day morn conversation with Watts reveal about her Quaker beliefs? How do her beliefs inform her views of the British?


Andrews, Dee, and Kathryn Zabelle Derounian. “Notes and Documents.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography108, no. 4 (1984): 471-516. 

Johnson, Donald F. “Revolutionary Occupations.” In Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution, 16-54. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. 

Wister, Sally. “Journal of Miss Sally Wister.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 9, no. 3 (1885): 318-33. 

Wister, Sally. “Journal of Miss Sally Wister (continued).” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 9, no. 4 (1886): 463-78. 

Wister, Sally. “Journal of Miss Sally Wister (concluded).” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 10, no. 1 (1886): 51-60. 


[1] Johnson, “Revolutionary Occupations,” 40. 

[2] Wister, “Journal of Miss Sally Wister,” 318.

[3] Lydia Foulke, sister to Jesse Foulke, with whom they lived.

[4] Captain Alexander Spotswood Dandridge is the only Dandridge mentioned by name.