By Alaina Economus
The following is an excerpt from the journal of Sarah Winslow Deming (1722–1793/1794), written in the form of a letter to her niece, Anna Green Winslow, in which she recounts her family’s escape from British troops during the Siege of Boston in April 1775. During the eleven-month period from April 1775 to March 1776, American forces largely contained British forces within the city of Boston in what became known as the “Siege of Boston.” During this time, many families who were aligned with the Patriot cause, such as Deming and her family, fled Boston in fear of British retaliation. Deming’s account can help us understand how the families of those fighting in the Revolution were affected.
While families were usually not on the battlefield, women and children faced a different kind of struggle. The war disrupted the day-to-day lives of many American families, forcing them to flee their homes and separate from their husbands, fathers, and brothers for long periods of time. Women were also expected to fill roles previously filled by men: heads of household, business owners, and much more.
While Deming’s life outside of her correspondence is slightly elusive, we do know that she would have been in her mid-fifties during the Siege of Boston. In 1775, she lived with her husband, Patriot Captain John Deming, her niece Sally, and her enslaved woman, Lucinda. While Deming’s primary role was that of wife and caretaker, she still found time to support boycotts of British goods and teach her nieces valuable social skills such as penmanship and embroidery. Anna Green Winslow would describe her aunt as a distinguished lady of Boston high society who was also very involved in the Boston politics of the day. Deming’s account provides an interesting Patriot perspective on the Siege of Boston and the Revolutionary War in general. She gives a glimpse of how the American war for independence shaped the day-to-day lives of Boston families.
Early on Wednesday the fatal 19th April, before I had quited my chamber, one after another came runing up to tell me that the kings troops had fired upon & killed 8 of our neighbors at Lexington in their way to Concord. All the intelligence of this day was dread-full. Almost every countenance expressing anxiety & distress. But description fails here. I went to bed about 12 this night [having] taken but little food thro’ the day; having resolv’d to quit the town before the next setting sun, should life, & limbs be spar’d to me. Towards morning, I fell into a sound sleep from which I was waked by Mr. D.g [her husband] between 6, & 7 o clock informing me that I was [British leader] Genl Gage’s prisoner––all egress, & regress being cut off [between] the town & country. Here again description fails. No words can paint my distress–– I feel it at this instant (just 8 weeks after) so sensibly, that I must pause before I can proceed. This was Thursday 20th April. About 9 o’clock A.M. I was told that the way over the neck was open’d for foot passengers, but no [carriage] was permited to cross the lines. I then determined to try if my feet would support me thro’, tho’ I trembled to such a degree, that I could scarce keep my feet in my own chamber, had taken no [sustenance] for the day, & very sick at my stomack. I tyed up a few things in my handkerchief, put on my cloak, & was just seting out upon my march, with Sally [Deming niece], & Lucinda [Deming’s enslaved woman], when I was told that [carriages] were allow’d to pass. By this time I was so faint that I was obligd to sit down. Mr. Scollay, Mrs. Sweetser, & who else I [remember] not, advisd me to stay where I was, rec[k]oning Boston the safest place for me — but I had no faith in their opinion. I had been told that Boston would be an Aceldama as soon as the fresh troops arriv’d, which Mr. Barron had told me were expected [every] minute. I therefore besought Mr. Deming to git a carriage… for me, & carry me off together with my frighted girls; & set me down anywhere out of Boston. He went forth, & over a while return’d & told me there was not a carriage of one kind or an other to be got for love or money – ah! can any one that has not felt it, know my sensation? Surely no. Mr. D.g thro [himself] into the easy chair, & said he had not strength to move another step. I expected to see Sally fall into hysterick fitts every minute, Lucinda holding herself up by any thing she could grasp. I bid her however git us some elixer drops, & when we had taken it in a little wine mix’d with water which happend to be boiling, I pray’d Mr. D.g once more to let us try to get off on foot. He said he would go presently & see me out, but positively he would come back again. There is no describing my sensations. This [moment], I thot the crisis, “the very crisis” — . I had not walked out at the top of ye court since last October; I went down, & out to the edge of the street, where I saw, & spoke with several fri[ends] near as unhappy as myself — & in a few minutes light of a cha[ise], which I engaged to take me off when it returned from Roxbury, where it was going with women & children — This somewhat lightened me. Before this chaise return’d, Mr. D.g. engag’d another & while we were waiting, I might have pack’d up many [necessaries], but nobody had any business that day — there was a constant coming & going; each hinder’d ye other; some new piece of soldiary barbarity, that had been perpetrated the day before, was in quick succession brought in. — I was very ill — but to cut short, about 3 o’clock P.M. the Chaises return’d… We set off immediately… We were stop’d & enquir’d of wether we had any arms etc. by the First & Second centinals, but they treated us civilly, & did not search us. The third & last centinals did not chalenge us. – so we got safe thro’ ye lines. We had not resolv’d where to go — In that respect we resembled Abraham – & I ardently wish’d for a portion of his faith.
We had got out of ye city of destruction; such I lookt upon Boston to be, yet I could not but lift up my desires to God that he would have [mercy] upon, & spare the many thousands of poor creatures I had left [behind]. I did not however, look back after ye similitude of Lots wife. I was far from being elated with my escape. I remember my sensations but cannot describe ’em.
- How does reading about Sarah Deming’s experiences change or affirm your perspective on women’s roles during the American Revolution?
- In this excerpt, there are a few mentions of Lucinda, an enslaved woman who Deming owned. How do you think her experience fleeing Boston would have differed from that of her enslaver’s?
- Why is the perspective of a family fleeing the Siege of Boston important when examining the American Revolution?
Carr, Jacqueline Barbara. “Marketing Gentility: Boston’s Businesswomen, 1780-1830.” The New England Quarterly 82, no. 1 (2009): 25-55. Accessed April 23, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20474706.
“MHS Collections Online: Sarah Winslow Deming Journal, 1775.” Massachusetts Historical Society. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=1898.
North, Louise et al. In the Words of Women: The Revolutionary War and the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1799. Lanham, MD,: Lexington Books, 2011.
Rockeller, Laura. “Windows into Daily Life During the British Occupation of Boston.” Paul Revere House, May 8, 2020. https://www.paulreverehouse.org/windows-into-daily-life-during-the-british-occupation-of-boston/.
“The Siege of Boston: Eyewitness Accounts from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.” Massachusetts Historical Society. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.masshist.org/online/siege/index.php.
Winslow, Anne Green. “Diary of Anna Green Winslow A Boston School Girl of 1771.” Edited by Alice Morse Earle. The Project Gutenberg , March 7, 2007. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20765/20765-h/20765-h.htm.
 The name given to the land that Judas bought with the money he had been given for betraying Christ. It translates to “field of blood”.
 In the Bible, God calls upon Abraham to leave his home and to settle a new nation in Canaan.
 This is another biblical reference. While fleeing impending disaster in Sodom, Lot’s wife turned to look back at the city, only to turn into a pillar of salt.