One of the real satisfactions of our ‘History in a can’ tour—our year exploring the country in a little tin trailer—is stumbling on small stories of people who were here before us; of heroism, or spunk, or just plain hanging in there. I’d like to share a few of them with you occasionally, because sometimes people just amaze me.
Take Elizabeth Rockwood for example. Born in 1753, her mother died when she was twelve, so she took over the care of her two younger sisters—one just a baby, the other eight. Her father remarried but his second wife died three years later, so Elizabeth once again raised up her sisters and managed the household. Two years after that, she married Simeon Cutler. By then she must have known what she was getting into.
Elizabeth’s married life was quickly caught up in the American Revolution. Simeon was a minuteman, became a Colonel in the state militia, and he played a role in strategizing the defense of the towns around their home near Holliston, Massachusetts, about 30 miles southwest of Boston. While Simeon went off to war, Elizabeth not only raised their three young children, she took over the management of his business.
One of the first orders of business of the Second Continental Congress, meeting in secret in Philadelphia in May, 1775, was to order that money be printed to help pay for an army, and to pledge the faith of the United Colonies to back the new currency (and require each colony to pitch in and pay for its share). With an uncertain economy, an expensive war to fight, and with European aid promised but not delivered, confidence in the currency soon wavered. Even though patriotic men were prevailed on to redeem the bills at par, continental paper money was sometimes refused.
All of this is background for the next salient fact in Elizabeth’s life: by law, inn keepers were required to put up soldiers and any other travelers connected with the army. Which paid the bills in continental currency; so most of the inns in her area closed. But Elizabeth, though uneducated, turned out to have a head for business. She ran the farm and kept their inn solvent until the end of the war.
Simeon died of consumption (TB) when Elizabeth was 46, while two of their children were not yet grown. She worked and lived in their place for another 50 years. According to The History of the Holliston Cutlers (published in the 19th century) she was the local expert and storyteller about the Revolutionary period. And she “retained to extreme old age her interest and skill in business matters,” and was so successful managing her affairs that she was “not only able to provide a comfortable and independent support, but also to contribute to many benevolent objects”—she became known as the Florence Nightingale of the village.
She lived to see her family’s next four or five generations around her table, and she had 74 living descendants when she died at age 95. Just think of the changes she saw in her life!
- The crummy photo of the Elizabeth Cutler daguerreotype was taken at the Concord Museum, Concord, Massachusetts
- Headstone image: findagrave.com
- Meeting house engraving: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holliston,_Massachusetts
- Paper money engraving: http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/continentalmoney.html, reprinted from the March 1863 Edition of Harpers New Monthly Magazine