Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be

Khalid Elhassan - October 27, 2021

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
The execution of Bridget Bishop, convicted of witchcraft in colonial Salem. History of Massachusetts

A Colonial Hysteria That Became a Cautionary Tale for the Ages

The Salem Witch Trials were marked by a lack of due process, and the use of what was known as “spectral evidence”. Basically, testimony by witnesses that they dreamt or had a vision in which the spirit or “spectre” of the accused witch did them harm. It meant that an accuser’s dream or vision that “Jane Doe bit, hit, and punched me“, was admissible evidence in court that Jane Doe had actually bit, hit, and punched the accuser. It did not matter if the unfortunate Doe was nowhere near the accuser that day: her spectre was. Respected theologian and reverend Cotton Mather wrote the court to caution against the use of spectral evidence, but he was ignored.

Massachusetts’ colonial governor finally put an end to the trials and their ever expanding reach when his own wife was accused of being a witch. By then, 200 people had been accused of witchcraft, and 20 had already been hanged. Eventually, the authorities admitted that the trials had been a mistake, and compensated the families of the wrongly convicted victims of the witch hunt. Thereafter, the Salem mass hysteria and resultant trials became synonymous with paranoia and injustice. They stand today as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, and the lack of due process.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
English Civil War Parliamentary soldiers, fighting while a Puritan preaches encourages them by reading from the Bible. Pinterest

The Boston Tea Party Was Not the First Time New Englanders Defied the King

In the 1640s, a dispute that had simmered for years between King Charles I and Parliament finally erupted into open warfare to determine once and for all whether the monarch or legislature was supreme. Puritans were a key Parliamentarian constituency, and Puritans happened to be particularly thick in the ground in colonial New England back then. So in 1644, a Colonel Thomas Rainsborough sailed across the Atlantic with a regiment of New Englanders to fight against King Charles. A century and a half before the American Revolution, the Americans proved radical by contemporary standards.

In an augury of future events, in the midst of the fight between king and Parliament, the colonial Americans pushed for universal male suffrage three centuries before it was actually granted in England. As Rainsborough put it: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government“.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Battle of the Severn, an English Civil War engagement fought in colonial Maryland. New York Public Library

The Last Battle of the English Civil War Was Not Fought in England, But in Colonial America

By the 1650s, Parliament had won the English Civil War. King Charles I had been captured, tried, convicted, and beheaded, his heir had fled to the continent, and England was ruled by a Lord Protector, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Small scale fighting still flared up every now and then between Royalists and Parliamentarians, and one such flare up, which came to be known as the Battle of the Severn, took place on American soil in Annapolis, Maryland, on March 25th, 1655.

It came about when Maryland’s governor, sworn to the colony’s royalist Catholic Lord Baltimore, sailed with a small militia to the Puritan settlement of Providence, today’s Annapolis. He sought to surprise the Puritans and compel them to swear allegiance to Lord Baltimore. Instead, the Puritans surprised and routed the governor’s force with a sudden attack from the rear. By the time it was over, the governor’s militia had lost 49 men, while the Puritans lost only 2. The engagement holds the distinction of being the last battle fought in the English Civil War.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Captain Kidd, a member in good standing of colonial high society, in New York Harbor. Library of Congress

From Colonial High Society to Notorious Pirate

There was little in the background or life of colonial American William Kidd (circa 1645 – 1701) to indicate that he would someday die on the gallows, executed as one of the era’s most notorious pirates. Better known to history as Captain Kidd, he had been one of New York City’s leading citizens and a friend of at least three of the colony’s governors. A philanthropist, he was known for his engagement in civic activities, and had played a prominent role in building the city’s now historic Trinity Church.

Born in Greenock, Scotland, Kidd settled in New York City as a young man. His first command at sea was as captain of a privateer ship, the Blessed William, with a commission in 1689 from the governor of Nevis. He was granted letters of marque that authorized him to prey on French vessels for the duration of hostilities between Britain and France. Later, he was issued additional letters of marque by the governors of New York and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Charles Galley, a ship of similar design to Captain Kidd’s Adventure Galley. Wikimedia

The Inauspicious Start of the Adventure Galley’s Journey

In 1695, William Kidd’s mission was expanded when he was presented with a letter of marque signed by King William III, that gave him a commission to hunt pirates in the Indian Ocean. The voyage started inauspiciously. As he sailed out of London in a newly equipped ship, the 34 gun and 150 man crew Adventure Galley, Kidd offended a Royal Navy captain when he failed to salute his warship in the Thames. In retaliation for the perceived disrespect from a mere Colonial, the captain stopped the Adventure Galley and seized half of its crew to press them into the Royal Navy. Kidd was left to cross the Atlantic short-handed. He eventually made it to New York, where he replenished his crew with whichever unemployed seafarers he could find.

Unfortunately for Kidd, most of the new crew turned out to be hardened criminals and former pirates. The ship was struck with illness en route, and by the time he reached the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean, a third of Kidd’s crew had died of cholera. Worse, he was unable to find the pirates he had been sent to hunt down. The enterprise seemed a failure, and the crew grew antsy. So they urged him to attack some vessels that sailed by in order to make the voyage worth their time. When Kidd declined, his men threatened mutiny. Under pressure – and also to recoup his investment – he gave in, and reluctantly began to attack ships not covered by his commission as a privateer.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Captain Kidd, gibbeted near Tilbury in Essex after his execution in 1701. History Today

William Kidd Left Colonial America as a Highly Respected Member of Society, and Returned a Notorious Outlaw

By 1698, William Kidd had abandoned reluctance and any pretense that he was a lawful privateer, and turned full pirate. That year, he sealed his fate when he attacked a British East India Company ship. The powerful company exerted its influence in London, and Kidd was declared an outlaw of the sea. Unbeknownst to him, by the time he returned to the American Colonies, his public image had been transformed from a member of high society and into that of an infamous pirate, the notorious “Captain Kidd”. Attitudes towards piracy had changed from the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, that had prevailed when he began his voyage.

Now, crackdown was in the air, and the powers that be were eager to make an example of somebody. The colonial authorities arrested Kidd as soon as he arrived in Boston, and sent him in chains across the Atlantic for prosecution in London. There, word of his previous connections with government elites caused a scandal, and the powerful supporters whom he had expected to defend him abandoned him in droves. He was swiftly tried and convicted, and on May 23rd, 1701, was hanged, after which his body was gibbetted and left to rot in a cage on the Thames for all to see.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Women in England mourning shackled loved ones who are about to get sent away for penal transportation. National Library of Australia

The Maid Who Conned Colonial America by Impersonating a Princess

Until well into the nineteenth century, Britain routinely got rid of convicted criminals via penal transportation – a system whereby undesirables were shipped to far away colonies. An alternative sentence for felonies, transportation was usually imposed for offences for which the death penalty was deemed too severe. Upon arrival at their destination, the convicts were sold into indentured servitude for a fixed term. The prisoners were free once their sentenced term was over, but in practice, lack of funds usually meant that they were stuck where they had been transported, unable to return to Britain.

To British authorities, the fact that the transported convicts were unable to return was not an unfortunate bug in the program, but a prominent and desirable feature. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s American Colonies and the West Indies were the most popular dumping grounds for such undesirables. That is how Sarah Wilson (circa 1754 – circa 1865) arrived in colonial Baltimore in 1771. Sarah had exhibited a knack for the con from early on. As a teenager, she had roamed England, and took advantage of the credulity and compassion of people.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Sarah Wilson was a believer in ‘fake it until you make it’. Amazon

A Commoner Who Could Impersonate an Aristocrat

Sarah Wilson had a gift for impersonation. Although born into the lowest class, she was able to act as if she was a member of upper society. In 1767, a newspaper report about her read: “It seems this woman has, for some time past, been travelling through almost all parts of the Kingdom, assuming various titles and characters, at different times and places: she has presented herself to be of high birth and distinction, as well foreign and English, and accordingly stiling herself a Princess of Mecklenburgh, Countess of Normandy, Lady Countess Wilbrahammon, &c. &c. and under some or other of such names making promises of providing, by means of her weight and interest, for the families of … the lower class of people;

unto those of higher rank in life she has represented herself to be in the greatest distress, abandoned and deserted by her parents and friends of considerable family, either upon account of an unfortunate love affair, or of religion, pretending to be a Protestant against the will of her relations, who were Roman Catholicks, and always varying the account of herself as she chanced to pick up intelligence of characters and connections of those she intended to deceive and impose upon … She is a short woman, slender made, of a pale complexion, something deformed, has a speck or knell over one eye“.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
An advertisement by Sarah Wilson’s indentured servitude master, seeking her capture and return. Pennsylvania Historical Society

From Queen’s Maid, to Queen’s Sister

At some point, Sarah Wilson got herself a job in Buckingham Palace as a maid to one of Queen Charlotte’s ladies in waiting. She had light fingers, however, and was fired after she stole some of the queen’s jewels and gowns. She was also arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang – theft was one of the hundreds of crimes punishable by death in Britain back then. Luckily, her sentence was commuted to penal transportation to colonial America. Upon arrival in Baltimore, Sarah was taken off the convict ship and sold as an indentured servant, but escaped within a few days.

She had managed to hang on to some of Her Majesty’s belongings, and clad in the queen’s dress, she claimed to be Queen Charlotte’s sister, “Princess Susana Caroline Matilda of Mecklenberg-Sterlitz”. To explain her presence in the American Colonies, she invented a royal family quarrel, and a scandal that required her to temporarily leave Britain until things calmed down. During her time as a maid in Buckingham Palace, Sarah had observed royal mannerisms and aristocratic etiquette. As seen below, she managed to convince many colonial Americans that she really was a princess, and parlayed that into a life of luxury.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Queen Charlotte, Sarah Wilson’s supposed sister. Royal Collection

Colonial America Showered This Convict Maid With Hospitality, in the Belief That She Was Royalty

For years, Sarah Wilson, under the guise of “Princess Susana”, travelled up and down the American Colonies from New Hampshire in the north, all the way down south to the Carolinas. She was hosted in style by many colonial government officials, wealthy Americans, social climbers, and others eager to befriend and win the favor of a royal. She grifted many out of considerable sums with the promise of royal appointments, or that she would put in a good word for them with her sister and brother in law, the Queen and King of Britain.

She also took out numerous loans, and bought many luxury items on credit from merchants and shopkeepers eager for royal patronage and the custom of a princess. The scam ended when her master finally caught her and took her back to Baltimore. In 1775, she escaped again, and made her way northwards, where she met and married a British Army officer during the American Revolution. After the war, the couple stayed in the newly independent United States, after which Sarah vanishes from the historic record.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The American Revolution’s Most Dramatic Scene

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by German -American artist Emanuel Gottleib Leutze in 1851, is one of the most iconic images of the American War of Independence and of American history. It depicts the colonial general in chief and a flotilla of Patriots in boats midstream across the Delaware River on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, the first move in a surprise attack against enemy forces in Trenton, New Jersey. The event was dramatic and worthy of commemoration.

As 1776 drew to a close, the war and the Americans’ armed bid for independence was not going well for Washington and his forces. He had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly drubbed. Most notably in New York City, where it took a nearly miraculous escape for the Patriots to avoid annihilation. Morale was low, so Washington planned a daring raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the Revolutionary cause. From his base in Pennsylvania, he would cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian forces on the opposite bank.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
George Washington. US History

An Uptight Leader Who Surprised His Men With a Turn to Humor

Washington Crossing the Delaware portrays George Washington standing at a boat’s prow, staring determinedly at the enemy shore, while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats. The painting’s portrayal of Washington is true to the essence of what is known of the man. He was known for his aura of detached dignity, and the wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. The depiction was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct at the event: it was one of the rare occasions when the general let down the formality, and cracked jokes.

Washington’s cold, hungry, and demoralized troops clambered into boats on an exceptionally frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!” All things considered, it was not exactly a comedic gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
‘Washington’s Crossing’, a more historically accurate depiction of the crossing of the Delaware River, by Mort Kunstler. Artsy

A Hazardous River Crossing, a Hazardous March, and a Hazardous Attack

At first, the Patriots gathered on the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River were stunned at George Washington stab at comedy, and stood around looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the assembled force, as the comment about Henry Knox’s fat ass was spread and repeated. Washington’s unexpected humor lifted the Americans’ spirits, but they still had a rough crossing ahead of them. Once that was done, they then had to march for miles in terrible weather to reach their objective. Throughout, they had to hope that no alarm was raised, and that they would manage to achieve the surprise necessary to accomplish their mission: the destruction of a garrison of Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, New Jersey.

Detractors have often derided Washington as a mediocre and unimaginative general. Indeed, compared to the likes of other dashing military commanders from his lifetime such as James Wolfe, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, or Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, Washington might not shine as brilliantly. However, few generals would have had the self-confidence to dare execute a plan as intricate as Washington’s attack on Trenton. The failure of any one of a number of moving parts could have doomed the entire enterprise – and with it, probably the entirety of the colonial bid for independence.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Washington’s colonial troops evacuating New York City under the cover of darkness. Pinterest

To Even Find Enough Men to Cross the Delaware Was Like Pulling Teeth

George Washington’s plan to attack Trenton was beset by problems from the start. He first had to find enough men to mount an attack. Beaten in New York, he had retreated across New Jersey and across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. In the process, he lost precious supplies, and many men due to straggling or desertion. He also lost contact with two of his army’s divisions, one commanded by General Horatio Gates in New York, the other by General Charles Lee in New Jersey. He ordered both to join him, but Gates was delayed by heavy snow, while Lee, who had a low opinion of Washington, dawdled and stayed put.

Eventually, 2000 of Lee’s men arrived on December 20th without their commander – he had been captured by the British when he ventured beyond American lines for an assignation. Gates arrived later that day with 600 men. Another 1000 colonial militiamen from Philadelphia joined not long after. With those reinforcements, Washington finally had about 6000 men fit for duty. However, most of them had to be assigned to protect supplies and vital positions, and Washington was left with only 2400 available to carry out the attack.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
George Washington leading his troops to Trenton. British Battles

An Enemy Commander’s Mistake That Saved the American Revolution

On December 23rd, 1776, George Washington informed his staff of his decision to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton on the 26th. It was to be a three-pronged operation, in which Washington would personally lead the largest contingent to attack the town’s Hessian garrison, while two smaller contingents crossed the river as a diversion, and to close off an escape route. Despite inclement weather and icy river conditions, the crossing was accomplished, and Washington was among the first to reach the New Jersey side. He and his men then had to march nine miles to Trenton, in the midst of sleet and driving snow. Fortunately for the colonial cause, the Patriots completed the march without alerting the enemy.

Early in the morning of December 26th, 1776, the Americans surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, Washington’s men killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. The Hessian’s commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded. In Rall’s pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the Americans and sent a warning. Fortunately for the colonial cause, Rall had not read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with great consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they desperately needed a morale boost, saved the colonial army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Benedict Arnold. Smithsonian Magazine

Colonial America’s Greatest Traitor

American Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801) is the most infamous traitor in the history of the United States. Indeed, his name has become an epithet, synonymous with treason and betrayal. That was quite a turn from his early war career, when he had been a major hero for Patriots in their fight for independence. Arnold had been a highly regarded Patriot in the fight against the British, and was perhaps the colonial side’s most capable combat leader.

That all changed when a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to sell out to the enemy. Before he turned traitor, Arnold had provided valuable service to the Americans, and played a key role early in the war in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain in an attempt to capture Quebec. The expedition ultimately failed, but to even get his men to the outskirts of Quebec was a great exhibition of leadership on Arnold’s part.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga. American Digital Public Library

For a Time, This Traitor Was the Patriots’ Best Fighting General

In 1776, Benedict Arnold demonstrated his enterprise when he constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain. With it, the colonial forces defeated a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, Arnold’s successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against him. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, Arnold was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors, and only George Washington’s personal entreaties prevented his resignation.

Soon thereafter, Arnold successfully beat back a British attack in Connecticut, and was finally promoted to major general. However, his seniority was not restored – another slight that gnawed at him. He again sought to resign but was prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in the fight to halt the British advance into upstate New York in 1777, and played a key role in its defeat. It culminated in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and suffered a serious leg injury.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
A 1780 French map of West Point. Wikimedia

An Infamous Turncoat

Crippled by his wounds at Saratoga, Benedict Arnold was put in charge of Philadelphia. There, he began to socialize with families loyal to the British. He also took to an extravagant life with lavish expenditures, which he financed with questionable methods that led to scandal. Arnold also married a much younger woman of loyalist sympathies and spendthrift habits, that soon drove him into deep indebtedness. Between resentments and financial difficulties, he secretly approached the British to offer his services. Arnold was well positioned to deal the Patriots a fatal blow, because he was placed in charge of colonial fortifications at West Point on the Hudson River, that lay upstream from British-occupied New York City and barred them from sailing upriver.

Arnold plotted to sell plans of the fortifications to the enemy, and contrived to deliver them into British hands for £20,000. However, his British contact was captured, along with documents that incriminated Arnold. He fled just in time to evade arrest. He was made a brigadier general in the British Army, and led soldiers against the Patriots for the rest of the war. The British never fully warmed to him however, and he was unable to secure a regular commission after the war. He pursued a variety of ventures, including privateering and land speculation in Canada, before he finally settled down in London, where he died in 1801.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Argus Leader, November 17th, 2016 – Beer Played an Important Part in Pilgrim Life

Arnold, Isaac Newton – The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason (1880)

Baltimore Sun, March 25th, 2005 – English Civil War Led to Battle on Severn

Business Insider, November 21st, 2018 – The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock For More Beer

Chernow, Ron – Washington: A Life (2010)

Clarke, R.J. – Impostress: The Dishonest Adventures of Sarah Wilson (2019)

Cracked – The Charleston Tea Parties: The Dumber Cousins to Boston’s Tea Party

Demos, John Putnam – Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982)

Dictionary of National Biography – Rainborow, Thomas

Encyclopedia Britannica – Benedict Arnold

Encyclopedia Britannica – William Kidd

Fischer, David Hackett – Washington’s Crossing (2004)

History Collection – 16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail Order Brides of Jamestown

Levack, Brian P. – The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (2013)

New York Times, July 3rd, 2010 – America’s Revolution: The Prequel

Straight Dope – Did The Pilgrims Land on Plymouth Rock Because They Ran Out of Beer?

Teaching American History in South Carolina Project – Charleston Tea Party

Tyler, John W. – Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (2019)

University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law – Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692

Wikipedia – Boston Tea Party

Wikipedia – Salem Witch Trials

Wikipedia – Sarah Wilson (Imposter)

Zacks, Richard – Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd (2002)