Sarah Kemble Knight, known as Madame Knight, made a long and hard journey from Boston to New Haven in 1704. Along the way, she took time to study the manners and customs of Connecticut.
She was quite the pioneer. Women generally did not travel alone then, especially to a place as foreign to a Bostonian as Connecticut.
The 38-year-old widow came to New Haven to help settle an estate. She was well-bred, well-educated and had a sharp, if condescending, wit. She recorded her travel observations, humorous and otherwise, in her journal. And when she returned from her remarkable journey Sarah Kemble Knight read her journal aloud to a women’s literary “tea-table.”
Manners and Customs
Bridges, tunnels and signs didn’t exist along the route, so Madame Knight hired guides or accompanied the post rider to show her the way.
She had set out early from Killingsworth on Oct. 7, 1704 and arrived in New Haven that day. There she took some time to rest and informed herself of the manners and customs of the place.
Many of the colonists were ‘good, Sociable people, and I hope Religious too,’ she wrote.
She found the laws of Connecticut similar to Massachusetts, though much stricter about kissing and youthful fun. Connecticut judges, she wrote, issued strict sentences, frequently ordering whippings for miscreants.
Madam Knight noted Connecticut magistrates punished young people for a ‘harmless kiss’ or ‘innocent merriment.’ Ironically, her own father, Thomas Kemble, had spent two hours in the stocks for kissing his wife on Sunday after returning to Boston from a long ocean voyage.
Connecticut was a backwoods compared to Boston. It also had much more diversity, as thousands of immigrants arrived from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and France. Madame Knight, a proper Bostonian, found their country mannerisms and customs highly entertaining.
She told the story of an Indian accused of stealing a hogshead. He had actually bought it from the person who stole it. The townspeople apprehended the Indian and took him to the local magistrate’s home.
The judge along with another judge were gathering his pompions (pumpkins) in his field, and so they held court right there. One judge asked the Indian, “You Indian why did you steal from this many? You shouldn’t do so — it’s a Grandy wicked thing to steal.”
The Indian didn’t understand. The other judge pulled off his hat and patted his head to indicate ‘hogshead.’ The Indian said now he understood — implying the judge was a drunkard and hog-like. The assembled crowd ‘fell into a great fitt of Laughter, even to Roreing,’ wrote Madame Knight.
Silence is commanded, but to no effect: for they continued perfectly Shouting. Nay sais his worship, in an angry tone, if it be so, take mee off the Bench.
Madame Knight noted the people of Connecticut married young and had an odd wedding custom.
Just before Joyning hands the Bridegroom quits the place, who is so[o]n followed by the Bridesmen, and as it were, dragg’d back to duty—being the reverse to ye former practice among us, to steal ms. Pride.
Training Day, or Muster Day, was celebrated throughout colonial New England. Madame Knight found the youthful competition highly amusing.
…on training dayes The Youth divert themselves by Shooting at the Target, as they call it, (but it very much resembles a pillory,) where hee that hits nearest the white has some yards of Red Ribbin presented him, Wch being tied to his hatband, the two ends streaming down his back, he is led away in Triumph with great applause, as the winners of the Olympiack games.
The Lower Classes
She found, to her disapproval, Connecticut was more egalitarian than Massachusetts. Slaves ate with their masters and Indians enforced their own laws:
[T]hey Generally lived very well and comfortable in their famelies. But too indulgent (especially ye farmers) to their slaves: suffering too great familiarity from them, permitting ym to sit at Table and eat with them, (as they say to save time,) and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.
She heard a story about a farmer who had a disagreement with his slave. The master had apparently promised the slave something, but didn’t deliver.
In the end, the two men agreed to arbitration. When the arbitrator sided with the slave, the farmer paid up and acknowledged his fault. Madame Knight clearly didn’t approve.
In her travels she passed a number of Indians, who she described as ‘the most savage of that kind that I had ever seen.’
They lived on their own land and governed themselves. The men marry many wives and ‘at pleasure put them away.’ If either husband or wife had the least ‘dislike or fickle humor,’ they could divorce by simply saying, ‘Stand away.’
If the Indians committed a crime on their own land, the English colonists paid no attention. But the Indians could be punished under English law if they misbehaved on English ground.
Madame Knight also observed,
They mourn for their Dead by blacking their faces and cutting their hair after an Awkward and frightful manner; But can’t bear You should mention the names of their dead Relations to them: they trade most for Rum, for which they’d hazard their very lives; and the English fit them Generally as well by seasoning it plentifully with water.
An Intricate Way of Trade
Sarah Kemble Knight aimed much of her satire at the local merchants and their bumptious customers.
The General Court set prices, and merchants accepted all kinds of money: grain, pork, beef, pieces of eight or rials. They also used coins from Massachusetts, which they called Boston or Bay Shillings, or ‘good hard money,’ which is what they called silver. And they used wampum, or Indian beads, as change.
“Now, when the buyer comes to ask for a commodity, sometimes before the merchant answers that he has it, he says, is Your pay ready?,” she wrote. “Perhaps the Chap Replies Yes: what do You pay in? says the merchant.”
Madame Knight described how she visited a ‘merchant’s house’ when a tall country fellow walked in with his cheeks full of tobacco. “They seldom lose their cud, but keep chewing and spitting as long as their eyes are open,” she wrote.
She nicknamed the fellow Bumpkin Simpers, and described how he stood in the middle of the room.'[S]pitting a large deal of aromatic tincture, he gave a scrape with his shovel-like show, leaving a small shovelful of dirt on the floor.’
He stood, staring around him like a ‘cat let out of a basket,’ and at last opened his mouth. “Have you any ribbon for hatbands to sell, I pray,” he asked.
He then bought some ribbon, and Madame Knight concludes the scene with Bumpkin Simpers crying, “It’s confounded gay, I vow.” Then, beckoning to the door, ‘in comes Joan Tawdry, dropping about 50 curtseys and stands by him: he shows her the Ribbon.’
She then bought hood silk and thread, and the pair left.
“They generally stand after they come in, a great while speechless, and sometimes don’t say a word till they are asked what they want, which I Impute to the Awe they stand in of the merchants, who they are constantly almost Indebted to,” wrote Madame Knight.
The diarist conceded the residents of Connecticut Colony weren’t stupid, even if they dressed plainly and their houses weren’t too clean:
We may Observe here the great necessity and benefit both of Education and Conversation; for these people have as Large a portion of mother wit, and sometimes a Larger, than those who have been brought up in Cities; But for want of improvements, Render themselves almost Ridiculous, as above. I should be glad if they would leave such follies, and am sure all that Love Clean Houses (at least) would be glad about it too.
They are generally very plain in their dress, throughout all the Colony, as I saw, and follow one another in their modes [fashions]; that You may know where they belong, especially the women, meet them where you will.
As a well-connected lady, Madame Knight met some of the leading citizens of the colony on her journey. She stayed at the home of the Rev. Gurdon Saltonstall, later Connecticut’s governor. She called him the ‘most affable, courteous, Genero’s and best of men.’ She also met the current governor, Fitz-John Winthrop.
Information about the neighboring colony was so rare in 1704, Madame Knight actually brought news by telling her audience who the governor was.
She also poked fun at the Connecticut colony’s enthusiasm for politics.
“Their Chief Red Letter day is St. Election,” she joked. Connecticut held elections every year, she observed, ‘a blessing they can never be thankful enough for.’
Map detail of John Senex, A New Map of the English Empire in America, 1719. This story was updated in 2020.