Young American Woman Living through the Revolution
For many people in Colonial America, the Revolution was a transforming event. Artisans, poor farmers, women, and African-Americans, far removed from the seats of power, came to believe they were full participants in a struggle of sweeping historical significance. Countless journals, diaries, and letters document the metamorphosis of loyal colonial British subjects into either indignant Loyalists or independent American citizens. Although some people tried to remain neutral or uninvolved, local concerns usually convinced them to choose sides. When the war itself drew near, even the most steadfast individuals took an interest in the conflict. However, not every American became swept up in the Revolutionary struggle. Jemima Condict, the daughter of a middling Essex County farmer in northern New Jersey, lived within easy reach of the British Army stationed in New York.
Opposing armies marched through Essex County on numerous occasions, and British foraging parties placed Jemima’s home at the front line of the war. There were also siginificant personal reasons for the war to become a focal point of her attention. Her father Daniel was a private in the militia and later in the Continental Army, her uncle David was a Lieutenent Colonel in the Continental Army, and her cousin John was a militia surgeon. Her future husband, Aaron Harrison, was a militia private. Thus, physically, militarily, and emotionally, Jemima lived at the heart of the swirling tempest. Yet throughout the war, the events of the Revolution rarely held her full attention.
Jemima Condict was born on August 24, 1755 as the third of eight children. Her parents, Ruth and Daniel Condict, were middling people of Welsh descent, and her grandfather, Samuel Condict, had been instrumental in the founding of her northern New Jersey community. She regularly attended the local church and the settlement’s schoolhouse, where she studied the bible. Her faith became immensely important to her. When she was seventeen, Jemima took the unused portion of her school exercise book and began a journal. Her writings usually turned to passages of Scripture she had either read or heard, especially those in the weekly services of Mr. Chapman, the local minister.
Of particular concern to Jemima was her own vanity, and whether or not it was proper for first cousins to marry. She had fallen in love with her cousin Aaron Harrison, and at one point she asked her mother, Ruth, for her opinion on the matter. Her mother proved evasive, but Jemima was in earnest. She had become very agitated about whether such a union was forbidden by God. After pushing her mother for an answer, Ruth responded that “She had thought a great Deal about It & for her part Could Not see but that It was right.” As far as it being forbidden, “She did not think there wos such a Place In the Bible,” and “Said Likewise that she Did Not See what Ministers Should marry them for if twas.”
Occasionally the events of the Revolution would evoke a comment from Jemima.
Most of these passages concerned local events, though not all. In 1774, when radical agitation over the Tea Act had led to the non-importation agreements in the American mercantile community, Jemima commented that “It seems we have troublesome times a Coming for there is great Disturbance a Broad in the earth.” Of the cause however, she only understood that “it is tea,” and “So if they will Quarrel about such a trifling thing as that What must we expect But war & I think or least fear it will be so.” Clearly, the Revolutionary movement had not politicized Jemima. Patriots were outraged over the Tea Act because it represented taxation without representation in Parliament; the commodity itself, while important in colonial America, was of secondary concern. Yet for Jemima, going to war over the price of tea in America seemed quite absurd.
When war proved imminent, Jemima became concerned with the events of the Revolution for perhaps the only time in her life. In 1775, her father took her to the militia camp “to see them train there Being Several Companys met together.” She expected that “It Would Be a mournful Sight to see if they had been fighting in earnest,” and worried “how soon they will Be Calld forth to the field of war.” Soon after, the prospects for a peaceful solution were lost forever. On April 23, 1775, news of the battles of Lexington and Concord reached her, of which she understood “They Began to fight at Boston, the regulers We hear Shot first there; they killd 30 of our men A hundred & 50 of the Regulors.” A week later, her spirits sank further as she proclaimed “this day I think is a Day of mourning.” On May 1, 1775, “word Come that the [British] fleet is coming into Newyork also & to Day the men of our Town is to have a general meeting to Conclud upon measures Which may Be most Proper to be taken; they have Chose men to act for them, I hope the Lord will give them Wisedom to Conduct wisely & Prudently In all matters.”
However, once the men of the community met to discuss the proper course of action, the prospects of impending war no longer held any interest for Jemima. It suggests that she was content in allowing the men of her town to decide how to defend against the British. Women in the eighteenth century sometimes ignored the official custom which insisted that members of their sex ought to avoid political discussion and opinions. This was especially true during the Revolution, but it seems that for Jemima, the custom proved the rule. The next time she comments on the war is two years later. On September 12, 1777, “there was an Alarm” and “our Militia was Calld; the [British] Regelars come over into elesebeth town Where they had a Brush With a Small Party of our People.” She continued that “Some of our people Got wounded there; but I do Not Learn that any was Killed. there was Several killed of the regulars But the Number is yet uncertain.”
During 1776-1777, the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Army lost a major battle at Brooklyn Heights, the British captured New York City, and two significant battles took place in New Jersey, at Trenton and Princeton. Yet only when the war finally arrives in Jemima’s town did she comment upon it in her journal. In that critical period of the war, Jemima chose instead to document the deaths and illnesses in her community, and to continue to track her own spiritual progress. No longer a teenage girl, she had reached her twenty-second birthday by July 4, 1776, yet for Jemima, that day never possessed the profound meaning it did for so many others. Even when Mr. Chapman gave his last sermon on August 4, 1776 before joining the army as a chaplain, Jemima restricted her comments to the scriptures he used, not his reasons for leaving.
Jemima did not survive the war. In 1779, despite the disapproval of most of her friends, she married her first cousin, Aaron Harrison. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Ira, who died during childhood. Complications with her pregnancy cost Jemima her own life, and she died on November 14, 1779 at the age of twenty-five.
Primary Source Documents: Jemima Condict
The following passages are taken from Jemima Condict, Her Book, Being a Transcript of the Diary of an Essex County. Maid During the Revolutionary War (Newark: The Carteret Book Club, 1930).
On the American reaction to the Tea Act:
Saturday OCTOBER first 1774. It seems we have troublesome times a Coming for there is great Disturbance a Broad in the earth & they say it is tea that caused it. So if they will Quarrel about such a trifling thing as that What must we expect But war & I think or least fear it will be so.
On her own vanity:
Tuesday [October 4] I think I feel somewhat stiff in the joint. But I hope to have some respect, for today there is going to be a meeting at our house. Well, the meeting is over, and these was the words of the text: “Ye who believe in God believe also in me.” Oh I think this is a troublesome world, for, I a poor miserable wicked creature find but little comfort. ‘Tis because my mind is taken up in vanity, and I am a discontented mortal. I am so indeed.
On smallpox innoculation:
Monday February 5, 1775, Was my Cousins Knockulated I am apt to think they will repent there Undertaking before they Done with it for I am Shure tis a great venter. But Sence they are gone I wish them Success And I think they have Had good luck So farfor they have all Got home Alive But I fear Cousin N Dod Wont get over it well.
On marrying her first cousin:
Wensday [February 7, 1775]. . . . Sometimes I think I will Serting [certainly] Bid him [Aaron Harrison] farewell forever But I though I would talk to my mother & see if I could be Convinst [convinced] one way or tother for I want to Hear the ground of What they have to say. So one Day my mother Says to me your father is going to get you a Chest I told her I should be Glad of one But Would not have her think twas because I thought to Marry. Why Says she Dont you never intend to marry? I told her People Said I was agoing to have Mr. [Harrison]. But they tell me they dont think it is a right thing; and it is forbid &c. But Cant none of them as I Can find out.tell me where tis forbid So Says I, what Do you think of it mother; She said She did Not think it was Right except I thought It was myself. I askt her if she thought my thinking it was right would make it so. She said my thinking so would cause A Contented easy mind.
Well Says I, But that ant [is not] telling What you think about it . . . she told me that She had thought a great Deal about It & for her part Could Not see but that It was right & as for its being forbid She did not think there wos such a Place In the Bible. She Said Likewise that she Did Not See what Ministers Should marry them for if twas forbid. . .
On a party for some local newly-weds:
[March 1775] Tuesday went up to my Sister ogdens and there was a house full of people & we had a great Sing indeed for the horse neck kites & the newarkites were Both assembled Together & there was the new maried couple L W. Juner & you may be Shure they cut a fine figer for She is a Bounser Joan And he a little Cross Snipper Snapper snipe. They tell me he Cryd When he was maried at which I Don’t a bit Wonder for I think twas anuf to make the poor fellow bellow if he had his wits about him, for I am shure She Can Beat him. . .
On seeing the New Jersey militia mustering:
[April 1775] Monday Wich was Called Training Day I Rode with my Dear father Down to see them train there Being Several Companys met together. I thought It Would Be a mournful Sight to see if they had been fighting in earnest & how soon they will Be Calld forth to the field of war we Cannot tell, for by What we Can hear the Quarels are not like to be made up Without bloodshed. I have jest Now heard Say that All hopes of Conciliation Between Briten & her Colonies are at an end for Both the king & his Parliment have announced our Destruction. fleet and armies are Prepareiftg with utmost diligence for that Purpose.
On the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord:
April 23, 1775. as every Day Brings New Troubels, So this Day Brings News that yesterday [sic] very early in the morning They Began to fight at Boston, the regulers We hear Shot first there; they killd 30 of our men A hundred & 50 of the Regulors.
On the News of the impending British fleet’s arrival at New York:
Monday May first . this day I think is a Day of mourning we have word Come that the fleet is coming into Newyork also & to Day the men of our Town is to have a general meeting to Conclud upon measures Which may Be most Proper to be taken; they have Chose men to act for them, I hope the Lord will give them Wisedom to Conduct wisely & Prudently In all matters.
On a violent death:
September the 28 1775. Was thomas Crane very Sudenly & in An aufull manner taken out of time into enternity; He was Plowing in the field his father Was cutting of a tree that was turned up by the roots & that instand he had Cut it off, his Son Past By & the root flew Back & Took him under Which killd him immediately. . .
Documenting deaths from diseases brought by invading armies:
July 23, 1776. Did tha distressing disorder, the bloody flux, begin to rage in this neighborhood. Rubin Harrison lost his son Adonijah on the 29th. He was the second he had lost ogf that name.
August the 4th, Did Mr. Chapman Preach his farewell Sermon, & is Gone out Chaplain in the army. His text on that Day was In the 13 Chapter of Corinthians, 11 verse: finally Brethren farewell; be Perfect, be of good Comfort, be of one [mind] Live in Peace, & the God of Peace Shall be with you: 2 Corinthians.
August 6. Then died John Ogden’s child, and was buried on the 8th day.
August 16. Then died Jered Freeman. He was taken sick at New York among the soldeirs, was brought home, and died soon after. Isaac Freeman also lost two of his children with the same distemper. John Freeman lost his child Augusr the 17th.
August 25. Died Sam Smith’s child.
August 29. Amos Burrel lost his child. The same month Sam Crane lost one with fits.
August 30. Then died Timothy Crane with the same distemper.
On the New Jersey militia’s skirmish with a British foraging party:
September ye 12, 1777 On friday there was an Alarm our Militia was Calld; the Regelars come over into elesebeth town Where they had a Brush With a Small Party of our People; then marched Quietly up to Newark; & took all the Cattle they Could. there was five of the Militia at Newark. they killed Samuel Crane & took Zadock; & Allen heady; & Samuel freman Prisoners. one out of five run & escapt. They went Directly up to Second river & on Saterday morning marched up towards wadseson. our People atackted them there, Where They had a Smart Scurmage. Some of our people Got wounded there; but I do Not Learn that any was Killed. there was Several killed of the regulars But the Number is yet uncertain.
Desember the 18th . Set a part for a Day of thankgiving & praise to almity God; it was a misty Day, & I Suppose you may Say I was Glad of any excuse, for I Did Not go to meeting. But our people went, & this Was the text, Jeremiah the 9 Chapter & 23d &24 Verses.
On the capture of three Hessians and a local Loyalist:
December ye 26 . Our People took three Green Coats & they Swore they see Benjamin Williams over upon Staten Island &c. So up on that they Sent a file of men And seeth him amediately Down to Newark, Where he is to be kept In Close Confinement Until further Examination.
On her dislike of weaving:
friday [November 1779] it is most terrible cold & I am aforst [forced] to be in the Shop for I have to weave. I can[i]t get a long with it. Sunday felt not very well, So I Staid [stayed] home in the forenoon. In the after [noon] Mr. C Preacht [preached] from first CORIN [Corinthians], first Chapter & 21 verse. . .
For Further Reading:
Alfred Bill, New Jersey and the Revolutionary War (1964).
Margaret Morris, Private Journal Kept during the Revolutionary War (1969).
Elizabeth Evans, Weathering the Storm: Women of the American Revolution (1975).
Barbara Mitnick, New Jersey in the American Revolution (2007).