Madame Knight was the name ultimately given to the 38-year-old adventuress who rode the Boston Post Road alone on horseback in 1704 from Boston to New York and back.
Women just didn’t do that then.
Her diary of the trip is an unrivaled account of the difficulties of travel in the early 18th century.
Sarah Kemble Knight left her home in Boston on Oct. 2, 1704, headed for New Haven. The daughter of Puritans, Thomas Kemble and Elizabeth Trerice, she was a 38-year-old widow with a daughter. Madame Knight assumed responsibility for her household, running a boarding house and copying legal documents.
She agreed to help settle her cousin’s estate. That meant a long horseback ride to New Haven along the Boston Post Road.
During her journey, she generally hired guides or accompanied the post rider to show her the way, as the road had no navigation aids. Connecticut then was a foreign country to the Massachusetts colonists, and Madame Knight had much to say about it.
She arrived in New Haven, but unfinished business forced her to go to New York. So on Dec. 6, 1704, she set out for New York after a two-month stay in New Haven.
She Loves New York
Madame Knight liked New York’s neat brick houses, pleasant manners and fashionable dress, and she left reluctantly on Dec. 21.
She set out for New Rochelle, where she would have been content to settle because of its “good handsome houses.” It also had “clean, good and passable roads.” She rode through Stamford to Norwalk, where she spent “the most perplexed night” she had ever had. In Fairfield, Conn., she noticed an abundance of sheep “whose very dung brings them great gain.” She noted the citizens of Fairfield paid their parson in sheep dung — grudgingly.
Madame Knight was kindly received in New Haven by her friends and relations. She commented favorably on Connecticut.
It is a plentiful Country for provisions of all sorts and its Generally Healthy. No one that can and will be diligent in this place need fear poverty nor the want of food and Rayment.
With the help of James Pierpont, the New Haven minister who founded Yale, Madame Knight finally came to an agreement in February on the distribution of her cousin’s estate.
Her mission accomplished, she mounted her horse and crossed the river at New Haven over the ice and arrived at New London. There she stayed with Mr. Gurdon Saltonstall. Gov. Fitz-John Winthrop insisted she stay an extra day and take supper with him.
The next day she took the ferry to Groton with Winthrop’s daughters and others. That night she stayed in Stonington and had ‘Rost beef and pumpkin sause’ for supper. And then she encountered a terrifying river crossing:
…the next day wee come to a river which by Reason of Ye Freshetts coming down was swelled so high wee feared it impassable and the rapid stream was very terrifying–However we must over and that in a small Cannoo. Mr. Rogers assuring me of his good Conduct, I after a stay of near an how’r on the shore for consultation went into the Cannoo, and Mr. Rogers paddled about 100 yards up the Creek by the shore side, turned into the swift stream and dexterously steering her in a moment wee come to the other side as swiftly passing as an arrow shott out of the Bow by a strong arm. I staid on ye shore till Hee returned to fetch our horses, which he caused to swim over himself bringing the furniture in the Cannoo. But it is past my skill to express the Exceeding fright all their transactions formed in me.
Once Madame Knight made it across the river she was in Massachusetts, where she spent the night at an inn. The next day she had a difficult ride through the “sloughy ways thawed by the sun.”
Madame Knight Arrives Home
She met Capt. John Richards of Boston, who agreed to accompany her home. Eager to reach Boston, they rode harder than usual. Just as they reached Dedham, her horse dropped ‘as if dead’ while charging up a steep hill. She got another horse and they tried to reach Boston that night. The roads were still too sloughy and they stayed at an inn instead.
And then, on March 3, Madame Knight wrote in her journal:
…the next day being March 3d wee got safe home to Boston, where I found my aged and tender mother and my Dear and only Child in good health with open arms redy to receive me, and my Kind relations and friends flocking in to welcome mee and hear the story of my transactions and travail I having this day bin five months from home and now I cannot fully express my Joy and Satisfaction. But desire sincerely to adore my Great Benefactor for thus graciously carrying forth and returning in safety his unworthy handmaid.
This story last updated in 2022.
Image: Map of Madame Knight’s journey By Lindsay Anderson – http://puritansandpetticoats.blogspot.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35843888.