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The Papers of Governor Locke Craig

The Papers of Locke Craig, 1913-1917

Project Overview

The collection of the official papers of Governor Locke Craig—those held by the State Archives of North Carolina—includes incoming and outgoing correspondence, press releases, telegrams, reports, speeches, and other miscellaneous items generated in the day-to-day work of the governor’s office from 1913 to 1917. From the thousands of individual documents that comprise Governor Craig’s collection, the editor of this project opted to select, transcribe, annotate, and publish close to 600 items. These items meaningfully shed light on eight significant themes from the governor’s term in office (see thematic categories below).

A Fragmented Series

Readers of his papers should know upfront that much of Governor Craig’s outgoing correspondence—the governor’s own words and thoughts—is simply missing. Craig’s secretaries marked incoming correspondence that received a reply either by writing “acknowledged” or “ack” or by stamping the same with a date that a response was sent. In these cases, the editor searched the collection for the response. If present, the editor published it and linked it accordingly for easy reference. If the response was not found among his papers, the editor made a note of this in a footnote.

The collection is also chronologically front-heavy, meaning that the bulk of the items represent the first year or so of his administration. In the second half of his administration, the collection grows noticeably and rapidly thinner. Very little of his outgoing 1916 correspondence is found among his official papers.

Private Secretaries

The responsibilities of the governor’s private secretary included the processing and issuing of commissions, preparing public statements, drafting responses, and, in Governor Craig’s case, providing a bit of personal counsel on matters before the office. During the course of Governor Craig’s term, two people in turn occupied the office, their term of service noted below.

John Philetus Kerr: January 15, 1913–June 15, 1916

John P. Kerr was a longtime friend of Locke Craig who had managed his 1908 gubernatorial campaign and had served as editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times. Through three and a half years, Craig leaned heavily upon Kerr to move along the administrative business of the governor’s office. During Craig’s many absences due to bad health, Kerr continued to process commissions and forwarded for Craig’s consideration any item of correspondence that he himself could not answer. Illness marred the final few months of Kerr’s tenure, the effects of a late-February heart attack leaving him more or less confined to a bed. He lingered into the spring, never well enough to return to the governor’s office, and ultimately succumbed on June 15, 1916.

Mary Frances "May" Jones: June 27, 1916–January 11, 1917

An advocate of women’s suffrage and active Democratic Party member, May F. Jones came to the private secretary position under a pall of grief. During Kerr’s extended absence, Jones and other clerks and secretaries on the governor’s staff shouldered the added responsibilities admirably. It was perhaps her performance during this trying time that convinced Craig to hand her the office of private secretary upon Kerr’s death, one of only a few governors to fill the role with a woman at that time. Following the close of Craig’s administration, Jones published two compilations of his papers and press coverage: Public Letters and Papers of Locke Craig (1916) and Memoirs and Speeches of Locke Craig (1923).


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History of Revolutionary War Pension Legislation

History of Revolutionary War Pension Legislation

State Pension Act of 1784

The North Carolina General Assembly granted pensions to disabled Revolutionary War veterans. It also granted smaller pensions to widows and orphans of deceased veterans.

Federal Pension Act of 1806

This act provided federal pensions to all disabled veterans, including those who served in the state militia and Continental Line.

Federal Pension Act of 1818

This act allowed lifetime pensions to Revolutionary War veterans who had served at least nine months in the federal army or navy. To qualify, applicants had to demonstrate a financial need.

Federal Pension Act of 1832

This act granted at least partial pensions to all men who had served six months or more in any unit. Veterans no longer had to prove a disability or financial need to qualify.

Federal Pension Act of 1836

This act made Revolutionary War widows eligible to receive their husbands' pensions provided that they were married prior to the end of the war and never remarried.

Federal Pension Act of 1838

This act granted a pension to Revolutionary War widows who were married before January 1, 1794.

Federal Pension Act of 1848

This act allowed pensions to all qualifying widows who had married their husbands prior to January 2, 1800.

Federal Pension Act of 1878

This act allowed pensions to all widows of men who had served at least 14 days during the war, regardless of the date of their marriage.

What Does a Pension Application Consist of?

Pension applications required that a widow prove her marriage, her husband's military service, and her good moral character.

A federal pension application for a veteran required that the man make an affidavit proving his military service and obtain additional affidavits from locals supporting his claims and attesting that the man was well-respected in the community.1 Widows had to provide the same documents and also prove that she had married the veteran when she claimed. The bulk of an application was made of affidavits, which had to answer a number of questions set by the pension office and be sworn and certified before the local court, a time-consuming and confusing process for many elderly widows. These affidavits were even more difficult to obtain if the widow had moved recently (and so was lesser known in her community) or was too infirm to attend court in person.2

Compiling all these application materials was complicated, especially for elderly widows who were often illiterate, unfamiliar with the legal system, and who may have found it difficult to leave their homes due to their health. Consequently, most widows employed a pension agent or lawyer who would help assemble an application for them, typically with the understanding that the agent would receive a commission if the pension claim was approved. Agents became advocates for their clients, doggedly pursuing claims on widows' behalves when widows were unable to navigate the complex application system on their own.

Newspaper article from the Nashville Union and American, 15 March 1853. By offering pension services with no upfront cost, firms like Smith and Jones helped Revolutionary War widows pursue their claims.

What were the Outcomes of Pension Applications?

Although many widows' claims were approved, others were rejected due to a lack of evidence.

The pension office rejected applications for a variety of reasons. Commonly, it was because applicants did not provide enough detail in their statements or because their evidence contained contradictions. In 1832 Thomas Robison applied for a pension based on his service in the Caswell County Regiment of the North Carolina Militia. Though Robison thought he served in 1781, service records showed that a "Thomas Robertson" served in 1779. Because Robison's statement and the service certificate were "so much at variance," the pension office rejected it. Later in her own claim, Robison's widow Mary tried to explain the error. She stated that her husband's "memory was almost lost" in his later years and he had likely suffered from some form of dementia. She assured the office that the service records were correct, but because she had no other affidavits to support her claim, the pension office rejected her.

Even a small technicality might be enough to delay or reject an application. In 1836 Rosana Murray applied for a pension based on her husband John B. Murray's service. However, no "John B. Murray" appeared in the military service records, only "John Murray." Given it was a common name and Rosana did not know the exact units or dates of her husband's service, the application was rejected. Only after two more tries was her pension finally approved in 1850, fourteen years later.

Rachel Debow's pension application. Her claim is noted as "am" or admitted. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Margaret Strozier's pension application. Her claim is stamped "Rejected." Courtesy of the National Archives.

Due to processing delays, some widows died before their claims were approved.

Some applications only took a couple months to process, but if the U.S. Pension Office determined that additional proof was needed, it might take years before a widow's pension was approved. And every widow did not always have years to wait. Lydia Ray first applied for a pension in 1837. In her application, she explained that her husband Joseph fell sick and died while on a furlough from the North Carolina Militia in 1780. Despite Lydia's claim that her husband died while he was in service, the pension office initially rejected her claim, arguing that his death was not classified as "in service," as he was on a furlough at the time. Moreover, Joseph had not served for at least three months in the militia, so Lydia did not qualify.

Lydia and her pension agent applied again in 1840, clarifying that Joseph had served a four-month tour in the North Carolina Light Dragoons in 1779. Therefore, Joseph had served enough time in the military prior to his death and Lydia was eligible for a pension even if they wanted to contest that her husband's death had not been while he was in service. The pension office delayed again, wanting additional proof of Joseph's dragoon service.

You must judge and deside there is a decision to take place these old People their time is short here decide & let me know.

-Letter from Rufus R. Johnson to James L. Edwards, 24 September 1838

Finally in 1845 the pension office determined that they could approve Lydia's claim, but only if her agent proved the ninety-three-year-old was still alive. After the local county court clerk sent an affidavit proving Lydia was still living, the pension office approved her claim and issued a pension. Mail delays, however, meant that when the pension certificate arrived in December. It was too late, as Lydia had died just two weeks prior, unaware that she was ever recognized officially as a Revolutionary War widow.

What Can Pension Applications Reveal?

Pension records often contain the only extant record of a family's births and deaths.

To be eligible under the 1836 federal pension law, Revolutionary War widows needed to prove that they had married a veteran before his term of service ended. One way to do this was by sending an official marriage certificate. Still, some women had long since lost this certificate, and not all county courts kept matrimonial records during that period. In the absence of a marriage certificate, the U.S. Pension Office also accepted a family's record of births (sometimes called a bible record because it was often written in the family bible) as evidence to prove a couple's marriage date. Instead of a certified copy however, the pension office increasingly only accepted the original record, often torn straight out of the bible, in an attempt to mitigate fraud.3

Once a pension application was processed, the birth record was not returned to the family, but instead remained with the claim, eventually ending up in the National Archives. Today, these birth records are a valuable resource for researchers and genealogists, but they came at a cost. Many applicants had intended to pass their bible records down through multiple family generations as a treasured heirloom. Instead, the listings of birth, marriage, and death data all end at the time the pension application was submitted, divorcing later generations from their early family history. The original family records available in pension claims today stand as a testament to the sacrifices families made to make sure Revolutionary War widows received the support they needed.

Family records like the one Rosana Murray submitted with her pension application can provide researchers with valuable geneological information.

Applicants hid facts that hurt their claims, like previous divorces.

Because pension applicants wanted their claim to succeed, they may have hidden details about their life that made them ineligible, like a divorce. For example, Ruth Edwards, a Revolutionary War widow residing in Yancey County, may have obscured details about her divorce in her pension application.

Pension forms often never asked applicants directly if they had been divorced, as the practice was relatively uncommon. Prior to 1790, there were no formal laws or processes regarding divorce in the State of North Carolina. When a law passed in 1790, it required either spouse to file a petition directly with the North Carolina General Assembly, a daunting task few couples followed through with. Even then, the state granted its first legal divorce in 1794.4

A bill of divource from Ruth Edwards, to her husband John Edwards was proved in open court.

-Buncombe County Court Minutes, July 1792, State Archives of North Carolina

Although Ruth and her husband John filed for a divorce with the Buncombe County court, they did not submit anything to the state legislature, meaning if they did separate, it was not technically legal. Whether their separation was legally official or not, by 1800 Ruth and John were listed separately on the Burke County census. Later, family tradition suggests that John went to live with his sister in Washington County, Tennessee, while Ruth only appeared on censuses in North Carolina.5 We can't know the true nature of the Edwards' marital arrangement, but their case does demonstrate how pension records can sometimes raise more questions than answers.

Many widows used the pension process to share many details about the entirety of their lives.

When some widows came before their local county courts to apply for a pension, they had a lifetime of experiences to share and a captive audience. Revolutionary war widows, many of whom were illiterate or otherwise left no personal papers themselves, used the pension application process as an early form of oral history.

Pension applications are illuminating not only for the descriptions of Revolutionary soldiers and their service histories, but the extra details that women added to their retelling. Rachel Debow, for example, talked about how she sowed oats in the field while her husband was away. Lydia Ray's pension application contained information about her career as a midwife after her husband died during the war, as well as an exasperated note from her lawyer to the pension office asking that the pension office approve her claim soon so that she would stop bothering him about her claim. While her lawyer may have found Lydia's pursuit of recognition irksome, the note now stands as a testament to how doggedly Lydia and countless other widows like her asserted themselves and demanded recognition for their wartime experiences.

Even though it was not relevant to her wartime experiences, Lydia Ray's application includes information about the thirty years she spent as a rural midwife.

Special thanks to Riley Sutherland and Connie Schulz for their assistance with the inception of this topic.

  1. National Archives and Records Adminstration, Descriptive Pamphlet for Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, M804 (Washington, DC: NARA, 1974) 1-3; The National Archives' Prologue Magazine has published a variety of helpful articles highlighting the history of and various uses for the revolutionary pension claims in their collection. See Jean Nudd, "Using Revolutionary War Pension Files to Find Family Information," Prologue Magazine (Summer 2015) 47:2 (accessed 4 January 2023); Damani Davis, "The Rejection of Elizabeth Mason: The Case of a 'Free Colored' Revolutionary Widow," Prologue Magazine (Summer 2011) 43:2 (accessed 4 January 2024); Claire Pretchel-Kluskens, "Follow the Money: Tracking Revolutionary War Army Pension Payments," Prologue Magazine (Winter 2008) 40:4 (accessed 4 January 2024); Theodore J. Crackel, "Revolutionary War Pension Records and Patterns of American Mobility, 1780-1830," Prologue Magazine (Fall 1984) 16:3 (accessed 4 January 2024); Constance B. Schulz, "Revolutionary War Pension Applications: A Neglected Source for Social and Family History," Prologue Magazine 15 (Summer 1983): 103-114.
  2. Other works that discuss the early history of pension legislation include: Michael A. McDonnell and Briony Neilson, "Reclaiming a Revolutionary Past," Journal of the Early Republic 39:3 (Fall 2019), 467-502; John P. Resch, "Politics and Public Culture: The Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1818," Journal of the Early Republic 8:2 (Summer 1988), 139-158.
  3. Applicants and their families were sometimes hesitant to send in the originals of their family record, even if it meant a delay in their claim. In 1839 Huldah Hill's son William wrote to the U.S. Pension Commissioner stating that the government should accept the certified copy of the record he had sent instead. He wrote of the register, "it belongs to the family alone. I Shall keep my farthers register and hand it down in my family as he has done." Letter from William Hill Jr. to James L. Edwards. In 1840 when the pension office refused Huldah's pension due to the lack of an original register, William wrote again that "I think no respectable family will [send their original register], that I take it as an insult from your department to my family." Letter from William Hill Jr. to James L. Edwards, 9 October 1840. It was only in 1845 when they finally sent the original family record, and five years after Huldah Hill had died, that the pension office approved the Hill's claim. Affidavit of Jonathan J. Hill and William Hill in support of a Pension Claim for Huldah Hill, 24 April 1845.
  4. Cynthia Kierner, The Tory's Wife: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2023) 128-131. In 1814 the state passed another law, moving the issue of divorce proceedings to the courts, rather than to the legislature.
  5. 1800 Census, Morgan, Buncombe County, North Carolina, National Archives M32, Roll 29, Page 167-168; 1830 Census, Buncombe County, North Carolina, National Archives M19, Roll 118, Page 284; Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society, "Edwards Family,", (accessed 9 January 2024); Rob Neufeld, "Visiting Our Past: With the Constables in 1790s Buncombe County," Citizen-Times (Asheville, NC), 13 November 2016, (accessed 9 January 2024).

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On the Homefront: Women as Family Guardians during the American Revolution

On the Homefront: Women as Family Guardians during the American Revolution

With men away in military service, the American Revolution highlighted how women protected and managed their households. In some ways, women were the very lifeblood of the newly emerging American society. They grew the crops that fed the army, nursed wounded and sick soldiers back to health, and sewed and washed the soldiers' uniforms. Moreover, while at home, they raised and educated their children all while keeping a watchful eye out for British troops or loyalists who might try to attack them and rob them of their property. Women became family guardians, protecting and caring not only for their children, but also their war-weary husbands, brothers, and fathers.

Rachel Debow

"She had to watch while her husband and Murphy slept they had their swords... and a gun a pair"

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rachel Debow, 1 July 1837

Mary Robison

"Her Mother went to see her father in the army and take some Clothing to him"

-Affidavit of Agnes Johnson in support of a Pension Claim for Mary Robison, 17 February 1835

Milly Yarborough

"She prepard his Cloaths that her father made Nathan a pair of shoes"

-Affidavit of Milly Yarborough in support of a Pension Claim for Nathan Yarborough, 5 August 1833

The term "family guardian" is all encompassing, and refers to the variety of ways women supported their families. While many of the duties that women assumed were not new, the American Revolution compounded women's responsibilities in unique ways. Mary English, for example, married Thomas Robinson and immediately became the stepmother to six children. A stepparent caring for their children is not novel, but because of the war, Thomas almost immediately returned to the militia after their marriage, leaving his children under Mary's sole supervision. Similarly Milly Yarborough had frequently sewn and washed her brother Nathan's clothing, but when he joined the militia, she and her father also had to coordinate delivering fresh clothing, shoes, and foodstuffs to him as the militia travelled by, making sure he had ample supplies to see him through the war safely. In these ways and many others, North Carolina women saw their families through the many struggles of the Revolutionary era.

Engraving of a woman watching a large group of children. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

North Carolina Widows in Their Own Words

The Night Watch: Rachel Debow

It was a clear, crisp day in late March 1781 as Rachel Debow dusted her hands and looked over her plowed field in Caswell County. Earlier that week, she had sown the whole field full of oat seed. Normally her husband Frederick would have done the farming, but he was away serving in the militia and there was no telling when he'd be back. Rumor was that some large battle had happened in nearby Guilford County.1 The British had won and now part of their army was camped nearby, possibly at a tavern called the Red House.

Rachel Debow's signature. Courtesy of National Archives.

1808 Price and Strother map indicating the location of the Red House and Archibald Murphy's home. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

That evening, Rachel's husband Frederick and Major Archibald Murphy, her brother-in-law, appeared at the door. As she prepared meals and stoked the fire, Rachel asked them about the latest news from the Patriot army. The two men had stopped in to make sure she and the Debow children were okay, but the soldiers' presence also jeopardized Rachel and the children's safety, especially with several British patrols nearby. After the men finished their meals, they went to bed, each still clutching their officer's swords as they slept. Meanwhile, Rachel sat near their guns and kept watch through the night, ready to rouse her husband to defend their home should any British soldiers make their approach. Well-rested the next morning, the two men waved Rachel goodbye and set out to rejoin the American army.

While soldiers were out on tour, women like Rachel were also willing to defend their families. Whether their husbands were present or not, women had to be on constant alert for enemy soldiers who might try to seize their property. As their husbands and children were quietly asleep in their beds, women like Rachel took on the responsibility of seeing their families through the night.

She had to watch while her husband and Murphy slept they had their swords each of them and a gun a pair and they hid their guns and directed her to watch so that on the aproch of a hostile foe they could get their guns and at least defend themselves

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rachel Debow, 1 July 1837

Stepping in for Family: Mary Robison

Mary Robison's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

When Mary English married Thomas Robison, she married into a family. The year prior, Thomas' first wife Rachel had died. Now as he marched off to join the Caswell County Militia, eighteen-year-old Mary found herself solely responsible for six stepchildren, including Agnes, who was five years Mary's junior, and Michael, an infant.

While Thomas was away in service, Mary travelled to meet him at his camp. Along with news from home, she probably brought him freshly laundered clothes and food. Meanwhile, Agnes watched her siblings, caring for her brother Michael in her stepmother's absence.

While their husbands were away serving in the Patriot army, women often served as their children's primary caregivers. In cases such as Mary's, women became guardians not only for their own biological children, but for stepchildren they had just met. While men were drafted to serve, women also made sacrifices to ensure the family's children were well cared for.

She was left at home while her Mother went to see her father in the army and take some Clothing to him and had to nurs her yonger brother which was a sucking Child

-Affidavit of Agnes Johnson in support of a Pension Claim for Mary Robison, 17 February 1835

Uniform in the Making: Milly Yarborough

In June 1781 Milly was at home in Chatham County when she spotted a man coming up the walk. Although the man was disheveled and soaked from the recent rains, Milly might have recognized the uniform he wore, as she had washed it by hand many times. The man was her older brother Nathan, who she'd last seen six months prior when he marched off into service as part of the North Carolina Militia.

As her father ushered Nathan in to warm up by the fire and recount tales of his recent adventures, Milly busied herself with making her brother something to eat, getting him a fresh set of clothes, and drying out his knapsack. While Milly washed the mud out of her brother's uniform, she might have thought about how she had sewn his uniform for him when he was first drafted, or how she and her father brought him freshly laundered shirts and new shoes to the Patriot camp at nearby Ramsey's Mill earlier that year.

Milly Yarborough's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

American soldiers needed women like Milly to make, repair, and clean their clothes. The Patriot army often depended on camp followers (women who travelled with the army) to sew and launder their clothing.2 In other cases, men like Nathan who had family nearby might depend on their female relatives to do such tasks. Proper laundering was essential for keeping the army organized and free from disease. Moreover, it was women like Milly who helped take care of former soldiers once they were formally discharged from service.

She prepard his Cloaths that her father made Nathan a pair of shoes and that she and her father both went to carry his Cloaths and Shoes the Day the army marched

-Affidavit of Milly Yarborough in support of a Pension Claim for Nathan Yarborough, 5 August 1833

  1. The battle in question was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, fought on March 15, 1781. Although the British technically won the battle, it was a pyrrhic victory and the aftermath of the battle helped General Nathanael Greene and the American army dislodge British control of South Carolina. See "Guilford Courthouse: A Pivotal Battle in the War for Independence," National Parks Service, April 2023, (accessed 18 December 2023).
  2. For more information about camp followers during the American Revolution, see Holly A. Mayer, Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1996); Nancy K. Loane, Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2009); Heather K. Garrett, "Camp Followers, Nurses, Soldiers, and Spires: Women and Modern Memory of the Revolutionary War," History in the Making, 9:5 (2016) 1-36.

Free Women of Color during the American Revolution

Free Women of Color during the American Revolution

Contrary to our understanding of military policy in the 18th century, North Carolina's Patriot army was an integrated force. White men and free men of color served alongside one another with no distinction in pay or status.1 Prior to North Carolina revising its state constitution in 1835, all free adult men, regardless of race, were subject to the draft.2 The notion of the Patriot army in North Carolina being bureaucratically colorblind was so firmly entrenched that payrolls, discharges, and other military documents seldom made note of a soldier’s race. In many cases, it is only when veterans and their families later went to apply for a pension that primary sources actually indicate the soldier's racial identity.

While states such as South Carolina banned people of color from serving in the army and other states such as Rhode Island segregated their units, it was within the norm and was in fact expected for North Carolinian men to serve alongside one another. Some enslaved men served in the military as well, sometimes as a substitute for their enslavers or as part of an agreement that they would be freed for their service, though this was less common.3

Just as free men of color served in the American militiary, free women of color also made many sacrificies to keep their homes and families together during the war. Two such North Carolinians are Rachel Pettiford Locus and Nelly Evans Taburn.

Rachel Locus

"She is the Widow of Valentine Locus, who was a private Soldier in... the Revolutionary War"

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rachel Locus, 24 May 1838

Nelly Taburn

"That she is the Widow of William Taburn Sr. who was a private in the No. Carolina Militia"

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Nelly Taburn, 26 May 1845

After the war, the Locuses, Taburns, and many other veteran families of color collected their bounty lands to which all veterans were entitled. However, despite their many contributions to the war effort, free people of color faced a mounting level of discrimination as time went on. Free women of color had never been allowed to vote, and the white delegates of the North Carolina Constitutional Convention revoked free men of color's voting rights in 1835. Moreover, though they had a right to petition the legislature, they could not testify in court against their white peers. This restriction posed an issue for many free people of color in their lives. For the Locus family, it meant they could not bring a suit against the white men who assaulted them and tried to kidnap and sell their children into slavery. These widows' stories are a testament to the many struggles free women of color in North Carolina had to overcome during the era of the early republic.4

Engraving of an African American woman. People of color participated in the American Revolution in ways similar to their white peers, whether as soldiers, farmers, or nurses. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

North Carolina Widows in Their Own Words

Keeping the Family Together: Rachel Locus

Despite Rachel Locus' identification as a free woman of color, her experience during the American Revolution was likely very similar to that of her white neighbors. For two years while her husband was away serving as a private in the Continental Line, Rachel cared for the children, grew crops, and managed their homestead. After her husband returned home, the Locuses eventually settled in Wake County, near Lick Creek.

The many struggles Rachel faced in her life only compounded after the American Revolution. One night in 1801, a group of white men burst into her home and abducted two of the Locus children, Absalom and Polly. During the invasion, the men also violently assaulted Rachel and her husband Valentine, "to such a Degree as scarcely to leave life."

Rachel Locus's signature. Courtesy of National Archives.

Newspaper article from the Weekly Raleigh Register about the Locus children kidnapping

Article from the Weekly Raleigh Register, October 6, 1801.

The abductors likely intended to bring the children into the Deep South and sell them into slavery despite their status as free people of color. Even if they knew the kidnappers, the Locus' status as free people of color meant that they could not testify against the white criminals. Thankfully, after a tense night, Absalom and Polly were able to escape from their captors and find their way back to their parents' homestead. Sources indicate the criminals were never identified or charged for their crime. Rachel and Valentine appear to have made a full recovery following the assault. Still, the incident demonstrates how tenuous the Locus family's grip on freedom was.

After Valentine died in 1811, Rachel continued to raise her family of eight on her own. In 1838 she applied for a Revolutionary War widow's pension. After obtaining letters of support and other forms of proof of both her marriage and her husband's military service, Rachel's claim was approved. The difficulties of obtaining her pension did not stop there, however. In 1839 she wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, explaining that her pension agent, Thomas Edwards, had been collecting her pension on her behalf and keeping it for himself, effectively scamming her of her pension benefit. It was only when the federal government interceded on Rachel's behalf that she finally received the just entitlement of her claim as a Revolutionary War widow.

She is the Widow of Valentine Locus, who was a private Soldier in Capt. Emmetts Company of the 3rd. Regiment in the Revolutionary War

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rachel Locus, 24 May 1838

Struggle for Recognition: Nelly Taburn

Nelly Taburn's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

Twenty-four-year-old Nelly Taburn was living in Granville County when the revolution started. Born free people of color, Nelly and her husband William participated in the war just as their white neighbors did. William was drafted for three separate terms of duty, spending over ten months away in service during the war. While William was away, Nelly grew crops and managed the growing Taburn family on their tract near Fishing Creek.5

When it came time for William (and later Nelly) to apply for a Revolutionary War pension, his application faced additional scrutiny which those of his white peers did not. Simply put, the U.S. Pension Commissioner did not believe that an African American man could have served along white soldiers during the war. It did not matter how many glowing affidavits of support the Taburns collected from officers and other soldiers Taburn served with, it was unfathomable to the commissioner that the North Carolina Militia was an integrated force. It was only after North Carolina's Secretary of State verified that free people of color were subject to the draft during the war that the Taburns' claim was processed successfully.

Nelly likely suffered many hardships as she aged. By the time William applied for a pension, he was "almost blind" and living in the county poorhouse, meaning that Nelly was unable to rely on him for support. After her husband's death in 1835, she likely lived with one of her children or another family member, as she does not appear on the 1840 census.

1776 Mouzon map indicating the location of Fishing Creek in Granville County.

William Taburn... who is now very poor and decrepid... and an Inmate of the Poor House of Granville County

-Application for a Veteran's Pension from William Taburn, 10 August 1832

That she is the Widow of William Taburn Sr. who was a private in the No. Carolina Militia

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Nelly Taburn, 26 May 1845

  1. It is important to state that despite the colorblind nature of North Carolina's Revolutionary-era forces, people of color still faced a great deal of additional scrutiny because of their race. Although white and free African American men experienced equal treatment as privates, African American soldiers were far less likely to be promoted in rank, let alone receive officer's commissions. For more information about Black men's experiences in North Carolina as part of the Patriot army, see W. Trevor Freeman, "North Carolina's Black Patriots of the American Revolution," MA Thesis, East Carolina University, June 2020 (accessed 2 January 2024). For Black Patriots at large, see Judith L. Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017); Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Gary Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 2006); Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: 1961); William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855).
  2. Free men of color were briefly barred from enlisting in the North Carolina Militia in 1812. The law was repealed in 1814 and free men of color did serve in the state militia once again, albeit in segregated units or columns. Warren E. Milteer Jr., North Carolina's Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2020) 56-7.
  3. Pension records suggest that a little over 400 men of color served in North Carolina Patriot forces. A larger amount may have served in the British army or used the war as an opportunity to self-emancipate. Freeman, "North Carolina's Black Patriots of the American Revolution," MA Thesis, East Carolina University. One enslaved North Carolinian who won emancipation due to his military service was Ned Griffin. See Jeffery Crowe, Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina (Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1977) 100.
  4. For the case study of another free woman of color from North Carolina who struggled to obtain a widow's pension, see Damani Davis, "The Rejection of Elizabeth Mason: The Case of a 'Free Colored' Revolutionary Widow," Prologue Magazine (Summer 2011) 43:2 (accessed 4 January 2024).
  5. Granville County Land Grant Files, State Archives of North Carolina, S.108.718, No. 115, Frame 1115 (accessed 3 January 2024).

Seeking Shelter: Women as Refugees during the American Revolution

Seeking Shelter: Women as Refugees during the American Revolution

The tumultuous events of the American Revolution forced many people from their homes. Many thousands of American Indians and loyalists (both whites as well as people of color) lost their property as a result of the war.1 Yet when the tides of war turned towards British occupation, Patriots and their supporters also became refugees were also displaced from their homes and properties.

Two North Carolinian women who became refugees because of their Patriotic sympathies were Lucy Brown and Margaret Strozier. When the British approached, they, like many women, had no choice but to flee for their families' safety.

Lucy Brown

"Being small she was allowed to approach [where Col. Brown] was confined and to peep at him."

-Affidavit of Susan Wright in support of a Pension Claim for Lucy Brown, 3 April 1839

Margaret Strozier

"She fled with her family of little children through South Carolina, half begging & starving"

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Margaret Strozier, 1 February 1842

Refugees not only faced the physical loss of their homes and the rigors of an oftentimes dangerous evacuation, but also the dealt with a profound sense of loss and uncertainty about their futures. For Lucy Brown, she and her parents had to evacuate from Wilmington to her husband's estate thirty miles away. When her husband was captured as a prisoner of war, Lucy sent her younger sister to the jail to visit him, as it was not safe for her to go herself. Margaret Strozier had to leave her home in Georgia when a group of loyalists destroyed it out of retaliation for her husband's involvement in the local Patriot militia. Margaret then walked with her children through two states to reach her husband's army camp in present-day Tennessee. Both Lucy Brown and Margaret Strozier, as well as countless other North Carolina women, showed remarkable fortitude when faced with the decision of fleeing their homes and protecting their families.

Engraving of a woman leading two children on a journey. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

North Carolina Widows in Their Own Words

The Colonel's Wife: Lucy Brown

Raised a Quaker in Chester, Pennsylvania and later Wilmington, North Carolina, Lucy Bradley took a dramatic turn away from her pacifist roots in 1780 when she married Thomas Brown, a colonel of the nearby Bladen County Militia. While her husband was away in service, Lucy might have stayed at her parents' home in Wilmington along with at least two other sisters. It wasn't long, however, until the dangers of being a military wife struck close to home. About a year after their marriage, the British army marched into Wilmington and occupied the city. The wife of a prominent Patriot officer, Lucy and her family had to flee the city and moved onto Thomas' estate in Bladen County.

Lucy Brown's signature. Courtesy of National Archives.

1808 Price & Strother map indicating the location of General Brown's home in Bladen County. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Later that month, Thomas Brown was severely wounded in the arm while leading an attempt to retake Wilmington. Though Lucy and her family tried their best to tend to his injuries, the colonel never regained use of his arm. That summer, Thomas Brown returned to his unit only to be captured by the British and imprisoned at the New Hanover County Courthouse in Wilmington, just a few blocks away from Lucy's father's home.

While her husband was a prisoner of war, Lucy Brown sent her younger sister Susan to check in on him. As a young girl aged eight or nine, Susan was innocent-looking enough that the British soldiers allowed her "to peep at" Colonel Brown through the prison bars and check on his welfare. When British forces left Wilmington in November 1781, Colonel Brown was freed and Lucy Brown's family finally returned to their homes in the city.

She as well as her father & family were forced to fly from Wilmington to [Col. Brown's] House in Bladen County for protection; and where she continued until the final evacuation of Wilmington by the British

-Affidavit of Eliza Lord in support of a Pension Claim for Lucy Brown, 4 April 1839

A Harsh Winter: Margaret Strozier

Margaret Strozier's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

In December 1780 as she put her children in jackets, bundled up their meager belongings, and closed the door on the remains of her former home in Wilkes County, Georgia, Margaret Strozier might have contemplated what had brought her to this moment. Forty years old, she and her husband Peter had lived much of their lives in North Carolina. The couple moved to Georgia just prior to the American Revolution, likely in search of inexpensive land and better opportunities for their children. A couple of years later, Peter enlisted in a local militia regiment and from then on was away from home for most of the year.

While Peter was away fighting, Margaret too was an ardent Patriot and joined other local women in feeding hungry American troops. Her husband's service and her own outspoken activity hurt her however. When the British took nearby Augusta, Georgia, she found herself firmly in loyalist-held territory with no protection. The Strozier farm, she later recalled, "was broken up" by loyalists "and every thing of any consequence destroyed."2

Faced with the prospect of supporting her family through the winter without adequate food or shelter, Margaret determined that her best option would be to find her husband, who was still attached to the Patriot army in the North Carolina backcountry.3 Leaving their home in Georgia, Margaret and her children, including newborn John, trudged through South Carolina "half begging & half starving" before finally finding her husband, having walked more than one hundred miles. The Stroziers became camp followers, travelling with and supporting the Patriot army by cooking meals and doing laundry. Following the war, the Stroziers rebuilt their home in Georgia.

1796 Tanner map indicating the approximate location of the Strozier home in Wilkes County. Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

She fled with her family of little children through South Carolina, half begging & starving, suffering greatly from want & cold, exposure & raggedness... and joined her husband in North Carolina

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Margaret Strozier, 1 February 1842

  1. Maya Jasonoff, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Random House, 2011); Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (New York: Random House, 2007); Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980) 195-196.
  2. Charles C. Jones, Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia: From its Settlement in 1735 to the Close of the Eighteenth Century (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1890) 109. Patriot general Elijah Clarke failed to take Augusta in September 1780 and quickly retreated north through South Carolina to the North Carolina backcountry. As a form of retribution, British forces near Augusta began targeting anyone associated with Clarke's army, including noncombatants. As Peter Strozier was serving under General Clarke, the Strozier farm was one of about one hundred plantations and homesteads that the British destroyed. By staying in the area, even without their family farm, Margaret Strozier and her children might have faced additional dangers because her husband was a known Patriot.
  3. General Clarke's camp in the North Carolina backcountry was likely located in the region that later became Washington County, Tennessee. See Pension Application of John Waddill, 2 June 1854, (R10977), RG 15, National Archives; Wayne Lynch, "Elijah Clarke and the Georgia Refugees Fight British Domination," Journal of the American Revolution 15 September 2014 (accessed 29 December 2023)

Treating the Wounded: Women as Nurses during the American Revolution

Treating the Wounded: Women as Nurses during the American Revolution

During the American Revolution in the rural Carolinas, armies had far less support infrastructure than in the northern colonies. Rather than calling on a fleet of regimental surgeons, many army commanders relied on area physicians. After a battle, an army surgeon or a local doctor might face a flurry of wounded men from both sides demanding their attention. Further, the nature of 18th century medicine was such that wounded men would still have a long road to recovery. Supporting short-staffed doctors and tending the sick and wounded, thousands of women served as nurses.1

Susana Alexander

"Susan Alexander being Instrumental, in saving the life of Captian Joseph graham."

-Affidavit of John Allison in support of a Pension Claim for Susana Alexander, 21 September 1851

Margaret Kinder

"She went over... with a waggin... and braught home Peter Kinder who was wounded"

-Affidavit of Elizabeth Kinder in support of a Pension Claim for Peter and Margaret Kinder, 19 November 1845

Huldah Hill

"Her brother the Capt. was shot with a ball broke his Collar bone & lodged in his Shoulder"

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Huldah Hill, 3 February 1838

Rosana Murray

"She went to Orangeburg where he was sick... to see... and take care of him."

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rosana Murray, 30 October 1842

Lydia Ray

"After he entered the service her oldest child James Ray sickened and died."

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Lydia Ray, 10 February 1837

Mary Yarborough

"His mother came in afterwards & stayed with him until he got well."

-Affidavit of Thomas Yarborough in support of a Pension Claim for Mary Yarborough, 27 April 1852

Not only did women provide medical care, but they also served as advocates for their loved ones while they were in field hospitals, filling in where doctors could not. If loved ones received word that a relative had been wounded or fallen ill while in the army, male relatives often went out to find them. In rarer cases, wives or sisters left their homesteads and ventured out to look for their loved ones themselves. Margaret Kinder, for example, left her home in Virginia and crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains to find her husband, who had been wounded at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

When men were able to return home on their own, their wives and sisters took on the primary responsibility of caring for them. After Mary Yarborough’s husband was shot in the spine during the Battle of Halifax, a British surgeon removed the bullet, but it was Mary’s duty to nurse her husband back to health. Similarly, Huldah Hill's brothers came home from the Battle of Beatti’s Bridge wounded. As she tended to their injuries, she learned her husband had sustained “several wounds on the head,” been captured by the British, and now needed her care as well. Women were not just caretakers of their own loved ones either. After the Battle of Charlotte, Susana Alexander sheltered her neighbor Capt. Joseph Graham, who had such a severe head wound that "some of his brains exuded."2

Engraving of a woman sitting by a sick man's bedside. Aside from parenting the children, women were also responsible for caring for sick or wounded family members. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Through an informal system of cooperation, rural women helped the men in their communities recover from their war wounds and diseases. Below are examples of how some North Carolina women undertook new roles as nurses and nursing advocates during the Revolution.

North Carolina Widows in Their Own Words

Behind Enemy Lines: Susana Alexander

One morning in September 1780, Susana Alexander went to the Sugar Creek spring in Mecklenburg County. She needed water, but Susana approached the spring cautiously, unsure of who she might find. The day prior Patriot forces had fled when British troops invaded nearby Charlotte. Roving bands of enemy cavalry might be nearby. As Susana approached the spring, she found not a British officer, but an American one: Capt. Joseph Graham.

During the battle Captain Graham had led a group of cavalry in stalling the British dragoons while the remainder of the American army retreated to safety. In the course of that mission, British dragoons knocked Graham from his horse and wounded him severely, leaving him for dead. Mustering all his strength, Graham had dragged himself from the battlefield towards the spring, bloodied and semi-conscious.

Susana Alexander's signature. Courtesy of National Archives.

1776 Mouzon Map indicating the location of Sugar Creek.

Susana quickly sprang into action, putting Graham on her pony and bringing him back to her family's house, where she and her mother tended to him. They alerted Graham's men to their captain's condition and whereabouts, but the Alexanders worked in secret for fear the British might take Graham prisoner. Though they did their best to nurse him, the Alexanders worried Graham's multiple sabre and bullet wounds were mortal.

Due to Susana's efforts, Graham's men were able to evacuate him behind Patriot lines the next day. After several months recuperating, he rejoined the North Carolina Militia, attaining the rank of major. Even decades later, Major Graham credited Susana with saving his life—so much so, that Graham named his son William Alexander Graham, perhaps in Susana's honor. William Alexander Graham later fulfilled his family's debt and was instrumental in helping Susana receive recognition for saving his father's life and a pension.

Susan Alexander found the said Joseph graham and taken him Home to her own House washed and Dressed his wounds, and taken Care of him untill he was able to be Carried off

-Affidavit of John Allison in support of a Pension Claim for Susana Alexander, 21 September 1851

Over the Blue Ridge: Margaret Kinder

Margaret Kinder's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

Margaret Kinder was at her farm in Montgomery County, Virginia when she learned her husband Peter had been shot in the leg during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and brought to Salem, North Carolina for treatment. Leaving her eighteen-month-old son George in the care of his aunt and a loyalist refugee who was living with her, Margaret and her brother-in-law Philip Kinder hitched a horse to a cart and started a one-hundred-mile journey over the Blue Ridge Mountains to bring Peter home.

Margaret was no stranger to long journeys. Seeking better opportunities outside of war-torn Palatinate Germany, Margaret's parents immigrated to Pennsylvania when she was nine. By age twenty, Margaret had found herself facing another war—the American Revolution—and she and Peter were trying to do their best to protect their son. Peter was a private in a local regiment of the Virginia Militia, but his unit left him in Salem when his wound made him unfit for travel.

In Salem, Peter's care was now left to a overburdened doctor who was unable to provide one-on-one treatment to his many patients. Not content to sit by and pray for his recovery, Margaret went to find Peter and ensure that he was receiving the best treatment. After making her way to Salem, a place Margaret had likely never been before, Margaret stayed with her husband and provided that vital nursing care herself.

Once he was stable enough, Margaret and Philip loaded Peter into a cart and began their return trip over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Virginia. Thanks to Margaret's care, Peter survived the war, living until 1809. Over sixty years after the event, people on Margaret's pension application recalled how remarkable Margaret's long journey to save her husband was.

Peter Kinders wife went over to North Carolina with a waggin and teem and braught home Peter Kinder who was wounded in the leg or ancle at the battle of Gilford

-Affidavit of Elizabeth Kinder in support of a Pension Claim for Peter and Margaret Kinder, 19 November 1845

A Military Family: Huldah Hill

Teenaged Huldah Jackson was living on her family's Anson County farm when a recent arrival from Halifax, John Hill, caught her eye. Huldah came from a prominent local family, with Huldah's father and oldest brother serving as local militia officers. When Huldah and John began courting, Huldah's father disapproved, likely because John was a new arrival and fifteen years Huldah's senior. Still Huldah and John wanted to be married. While her father was away in service, Huldah snuck away from her home to meet John, and they married in secret.

Huldah Hill's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

1808 Price and Strother map indicating the approximate location of the Jackson and Hill homesteads. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Although the Jacksons initially disapproved of the marriage, they welcomed John into the family, perhaps more than even John had intended. A few months after their marriage, John was drafted into the Anson County Militia, where he served with Huldah's two brothers under the command of John Jackson, his father-in-law.

John Hill and the Jackson men marched off into service leaving Huldah behind to manage her growing family. In August 1781 Huldah, with two babies under a year old, likely feared the worst when she learned that her two brothers had been seriously wounded and her husband captured at the Battle of Beatti's Bridge.

Her brother Jonathan was shot in the shoulder. The other, Isaac, was shot in the mouth, knocking out some of his teeth. When John Hill finally returned home on a parole from the British army, he too had a serious head injury. Huldah quickly devoted herself to tending to the men. Due to Huldah and the other Jackson women's nursing care, all three men made a recovery and survived the war.

Her brother the Capt. was shot with a ball broke his Collar bone & lodged in his Shoulder & was left on the place her brother Isaac was shot in the mouth the ball ranged in the side knocked out the most of his Teeth

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Huldah Hill, 3 February 1838

Finding the Missing: Rosana Murray

Rosana Murray's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

Rosana Murray was about eighteen when she married John B. Murray in Rowan County, North Carolina. Her husband soon joined the Patriot army, leaving Rosana to raise the couple's growing family. In July 1781, John fell sick while stationed in South Carolina and was unable to return home. Hearing of her husband's fate, Rosana left her three children (all under the age of four) in a loved one's care and went to Orangeburg to find her husband.

According to Rosana's later recollection, upon his arrival at the field hospital in South Carolina, John had been so poorly that doctors were unsure of his name or identity. When Rosana arrived she had to walk through rows of cots, trying to recognize her husband in the mass of wounded and sick men.

Rosana found her husband and provided him with nursing care until he recovered. She likely brought foods from home to feed him, changed his clothes, and gave him the comfort of a familiar face. Other soldiers, who were alone and more dependent on the doctor's periodic check-ins, might not have fared so well. John, due in great part to Rosana's attentions, made a full recovery and rejoined his family.

He was in the Battle at Orangeburg S.C. and laid sick for a time at that place and that she then being his Wife went to Oranageburg where he was sick as aforesaid to see and to Name and take care of him.

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rosana Murray, 30 October 1842

Two Funerals and a Baby: Lydia Ray

In the fall of 1780 in Orange County, Lydia Ray had more household duties than there were hours in the day. With her husband Joseph away in the militia and four children under age nine and a fifth on the way, Lydia managed the busy harvest season. Her brother and sister-in-law had recently moved into the Ray home after being harassed by loyalists, and they might have helped her bring crops into the barn or tend to the Ray's cattle herd.

Lydia's troubles compounded when her oldest son, James, fell sick. James deteriorated quickly, growing weaker and weaker. Lydia stayed by her son's bedside, willing him to recover. Yet, fearing the worst, she sent word to her husband telling him to return home as quickly as possible to see their son.

Lydia Ray's signature. Courtesy of National Archives.

1808 Price and Strother map indicating the approximate location of the Ray homestead. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Leaving his regiment on a furlough, Joseph rushed home to see his sick son, getting there just before James died in late November or early December. In mourning, Joseph found himself unable to return to his regiment when he too fell sick, likely catching whatever illness James had. Lydia shifted from her son's bedside to her husband's. Hoping to give her husband time to recover, she paid a local man to serve as Joseph's substitute in the militia, meaning he would not have to serve out the remainder of his tour. Despite Lydia and the Ray family's nursing care, Joseph died by New Year's Day, 1781.

Tragedy struck the Ray home for a third time in February 1781 when the British army, en route to Guildford Courthouse, camped nearby. Although she resisted the soldiers' plundering her homestead and taking her cattle, Lydia had to prioritize her children's safety. Lydia gave birth to her fifth child that month while enemy troops still occupied her home. Lydia's son George later recalled that the British had stolen or destroyed nearly everything on their farm save Lydia's bed and nursery, another testament to Lydia's devotion to her family.

Her youngest child [was not] born until after her husbands death for she recolects distinctly her helpless situation when the Brittish army stripped her of almost every thing she had

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Lydia Ray, 10 February 1837

The War Comes Home: Mary Yarborough

Mary Yarborough's Signature mark

Mary Yarborough's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

After marrying Randolph Yarborough in March 1781, Mary Bailey moved from her family farm in southern Virginia to her husband's home in Halifax, North Carolina. The Yarborough’s honeymoon phase was cut short when General Charles Cornwallis and the British army marched into Halifax.

A private in the local militia, Randolph marched into battle while Mary fled into the countryside for safety. In attempting to defend the city, Randolph was shot in the chest, the bullet exiting near his spine. With Randolph's militia unit seriously outnumbered, the British occupied Halifax for several days.

A British surgeon extracted the bullet from Randolph's spine. Mary rushed back to Halifax and remained by her husband's bedside until he recovered. With no formal military hospital, the militia discharged Randolph when he was injured, leaving him to recover (or not) entirely independently. Randolph, like so many men wounded during the war, depended on his wife for nursing care. Despite the location of the wound, Randolph made a full recovery and rejoined the militia. Randolph carried a scar for the rest of his life, but it was a life he might not have had without Mary's nursing care.

His Parents lived in Halifax when it was taken... the British surgeon cut the ball out of his Fathers back and dressed the wound & that his mother came in afterwards & stayed with him until he got well.

-Affidavit of Thomas Yarborough in support of a Pension Claim for Mary Yarborough, 27 April 1852

  1. Ida Cohen Selavan, "Nurses in American History: The Revolution," American Journal of Nursing, 75:4 (April 1975) 592-594; "Healing Heroines," American Battlefield Trust, 7 September 2023 (accessed 10 January 2024); Blake McGready, "Abigal Hartman Rice, Revolutionary War Nurse," Journal of the American Revolution, 28 November 2016 (accessed 10 January 2023).
  2. William A. Graham, General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1904) 64.

Sowing the Seeds: Women as Farmers during the American Revolution

Sowing the Seeds: Women as Farmers during the American Revolution

Some historians have called the American Revolution a “Farmer’s War” due to the many yeoman farmers and poor laborers who filled the ranks of the Patriot army.1 The concept of a “Farmer’s War,” however, should also highlight the critical role women played through their efforts planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops at home. This agrarian work at home was just as essential to the war effort as that of militiamen. While men were away in service, women’s efforts in the fields fed their own families and the Patriot army.

Mourning Davis

"She was thereby compelled... to complete and finish the cultivation of the growing crop."

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Mourning Davis, 4 September 1843

Rachel Debow

"She and her negro woman were endeavouring to sow oats it was in the Spring."

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rachel Debow, 1 July 1837

Ruth Edwards

"She with the help of their little Children made two Crops during her husbands absence "

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Ruth Edwards, 31 October 1844

Anna Guest

"He does know that his Wife made the Crops... & did nearly all the work in the field."

-Application for a Veteran's Pension from William Guest, 9 March 1835

Sarah Jenkins

"She had to work in the field in her husbans place."

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Sarah Jenkins, 14 March 1842

Mary Yarborough

"She had to plow for her father while her Brother was in the army."

-Affidavit of Mary Yarborough in support of a Pension Claim for John Bailey, 20 June 1825

In respect of men’s duties at home during the harvest season, North Carolina Militia regiments often drafted men for a term of three or nine months. In reality, farming was a year-round obligation, and the many tasks of farm life could not wait for men to return home from the service to fulfill them.2 Women who had previously assisted in farm responsibilities alongside their husbands, brothers, and fathers now found themselves as independent farm managers with families, armies, and the American economy dependent on their success.

Although not subjected to military service, farming women were not immune from the threats of war. Women might carefully nurture a growing crop only for the army to appear at their doorstep at harvest time and seize it. Despite these many challenges, not only did women manage to keep their families and homesteads running, but they also cultivated and nurtured grain crops and livestock that fed the Patriot army.3 Through an informal system of cooperation, rural women relied on one another and managed their homesteads. Below are some examples of how some North Carolina women undertook new responsibilities on the farm during the Revolutionary War.

Engraving of a woman milking a cow. Aside from farming crops, women were also responsible for caring for the livestock. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

North Carolina Widows in Their Own Words

Called to Service: Mourning Davis

A resident of Johnston County, Mourning Pilkinton was about seventeen years old when she married John Davis in 1778. A year later when John enlisted in the 3rd North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Line, Mourning took on the responsibility of cultivating and harvesting their 300-acre plot of land.4 For the following two years, Mourning was the family farm manager, growing crops such as potatoes, carrots, squash, and cucumbers.

Mourning Davis' signature mark on her pension application. People who were otherwise illiterate often signed their documents with an X or a mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

It was in the midst of the crop Season of the year and she was thereby compelled Turn out and work herself to complete and finish the cultivation of the growing crop.

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Mourning Davis, 4 September 1843

Farming Under Fire: Rachel Debow

Rachel Debow's signature. Courtesy of National Archives.

Rachel Rogers was no stranger to managing a farm when she married Frederick Debow in Caswell County in 1777. Growing up in Orange County, Rachel had often participated in the yearly harvests at her parents' orchard, where the community gathered together to help pick apples and boil them into cider.

By the time her husband Frederick joined the service, Rachel was well prepared for the many duties of being a rural farmwife. In her pension application, she recalled how she and an unnamed African American woman she enslaved were sowing a crop of oats near Cane Creek when they heard the distinct sound of cannon fire in the distance, likely stemming from a skirmish around the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Despite the sounds of violence in the distance, they continued to plant their crop, for there would be nothing to eat the following winter if they did not get the family's fields seeded soon enough.

[She] could hear distinctly canon firing in that direction She and her negro woman were endeavouring to sow oats it was in the Spring of the year.

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Rachel Debow, 1 July 1837

A Family Affair: Ruth Edwards

Throughout the course of the American Revolution, Ruth Edwards' husband John was away performing military service for fifteen months. Unable to depend on her husband for support, Ruth found herself left at home with four children, one still an infant and the eldest no older than seven years old. In spite of her circumstances, Ruth made do and taught her oldest son William how to hold the plow while she directed the team of livestock. During John's absence, Ruth and her children seeded and harvested two years worth of crops.

Ruth Edwards' signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

They had a family of four children... that the eldest was large enoughf to Plow, and that she with the help of their little Children made two Crops during her husbands... absence in the army

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Ruth Edwards, 31 October 1844

Single Motherhood: Anna Guest

Anna Guest's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

In 1780 Anna Guest found herself alone on her farm on the Yadkin River in Wilkes County. Holding Squire, her newborn infant, Anna had to tend to her growing crop through the spring and summer while her husband William was away in service with the Wilkes County Regiment of the North Carolina Militia. Although William came home occasionally, Anna frequently went without seeing him for months at a time. As Anna later reflected in her pension application, she "had to work and make a support... and do the best she could."

He does know that his Wife made the Crops... & did nearly all the work in the field.

-Application for a Veteran's Pension from William Guest, 9 March 1835

A Community Task: Sarah Jenkins

Prior to the war, the intensive nature of farm labor had often united many farm families within a community. When the time of year came for plowing or reaping, families like the Jenkinses and their neighbors helped one another in a spirit of cooperation, gathering together at each other’s homesteads to help thresh wheat or pick fruit from the orchards. These collaborative community networks became even more important during the American Revolution. While their husbands were away, neighborhood women like Sarah Jenkins assisted one another in the routine tasks of childrearing and farm maintenance. Not only was Sarah responsible for growing her own crops, but she also upheld her husband's promise that the Jenkinses would help tend to their neighbors' crops too.

Sarah Jenkins' signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

She believes the first tour to have ben in the Crop Season of the year 1778—for her husban had Commenced a Crop with one of his neighbours and when cauld out in Service She had to work in the field in her husbans place.

-Application for a Widow's Pension from Sarah Jenkins, 14 March 1842

Filial Duty: Mary Yarborough

Mary Yarborough's signature mark. Courtesy of National Archives.

Mary Bailey was about seventeen when her older brother John came home with a soldier's uniform and told the family that he'd enlisted in the Continental Line. While John was away in service for the following three years, Mary's father depended on her to perform many kinds of manual labor on the farm including plowing the fields and harvesting the crops. All the while, Mary also helped care for her younger siblings.

When Mary married Randolph Yarborough in 1781, she moved to her own farmstead in Halifax County, North Carolina. There, she continued to assume a lead role in farm management while her husband was away in service and, later, recuperating from wounds he sustained during the war.

She had to plow for her father while her Brother was in the army.

-Affidavit of Mary Yarborough in support of a Pension Claim for John Bailey, 20 June 1825

  1. Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 264.
  2. Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980) 36. Corn crops need thinning as they grow, and grain crops such as oats require processing after harvest time to preserve them. Even simple routine tasks such as watering, weeding, and removing pests from the crops all had to be done by hand, compounding the time needed. Ed Shultz, "Weedkiller," Colonial Williamsburg, 22 May 2021 (accessed 11 December 2023).
  3. In one case a North Carolina woman offered some American soldiers some food, only to find her home the scene of a skirmish when loyalist troops arrived and demanded the food from the hungry patriots. More commonly soldiers robbed defenseless families of their crops and livestock. Sometimes the military paid for the goods they seized, but merely with highly-inflated paper currency or with a promise to pay later, both of which were next to useless when women needed to feed their families. Cynthia Kierner, Southern Women in Revolution, 1776-1800: Personal and Political Narratives (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998) 17-18; Kierner, The Tory's Wife: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2023) 154; Elizabeth Fries Ellet, Women of the Revolution (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1848) 1:16.
  4. Johnston County Land Grant Files, No. 2115, State Archives of North Carolina, S.108.754, frame 220 (accessed 12 December 2023).

In Their Own Words: North Carolina's Widows of the American Revolution

A collection of seventeen widows' pensions outlining the contributions of North Carolina women to the war effort during the American Revolution.

In Their Own Words: North Carolina's Widows of the American Revolution

Nearly 250 years after the American Revolution, North Carolina women's contributions to the Patriot war effort remain little understood. Using pension applications, we can understand women's experiences during the War for Independence through their own words. The pensions in this exhibit are especially unusual, as they contain women's recollections not only about their husbands' wartime service, but also the widow's own actions during the war, whether it was in the role of farmer, nurse, refugee, or as a family guardian.

Today, these pension applications are a remarkable resource for researchers. Although these women were largely illiterate and do not often otherwise appear on the historical record, pension applications afforded them an opportunity to chronicle not only their wartime experiences, but the full breadth of their lives. Moreover, the complicated process of applying for a pension demonstrates the obstacles that women, and especially women of color, faced in obtaining due credit for their wartime contributions.

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North Carolina Widows of the American Revolution Exhibit Icon

North Carolina's Women of the Revolution by the Numbers





Pension Applications



James L. Edwards

Most Common Person Mentioned


Many North Carolinian women managed family farms during the war, feeding not only their families, but also the Patriot army.


North Carolinian women dragged wounded men from the battlefield and helped others recover from illnesses and injuries.

Free Women of Color

White and African American soldiers served alongside each other in the North Carolina Militia. Free women of color also supported the war effort, maintaining their households while their husbands were away.


When the war came to women's doorsteps, some women had no other choice but to flee from their homes, walking hundreds of miles with their children in search of safety.

Family Guardians

Women took on the full responsibility of maintaining and protecting their household during the war, often with little outside support.

Pension History

How do you read a pension? What sorts of information do revolutionary pensions contain, and what did women need to prove when applying for one?

Faces of the Revolution

Explore North Carolina Women's Original Pension Files


Explore the Pension Papers

The illustrations of women used in this exhibit are from the Alexander Anderson Scrapbooks, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. (Accessed 12 December 2023)

The daguerreotypes and other early photographs of women used in the banner and icon for this exhibit are from public collections at the Library of Congress and the State Archives of North Carolina.

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