Bostonian Sarah Kemble Knight kept a boarding house and taught school. Her keen writing skills allowed her to teach penmanship, copy court records and write court letters. Taught herself about the law and could settle estates. She traveled alone (while her husband was abroad) to settle her cousin’s estate. The journey was hazardous and not often attempted by women traveling alone. Her travel log was not published until the 19th century. Knight was a keen ethnographic observer of provincial America. She had a sharp humor and did not shy away from the crude or ridiculous. Her journal depitcts everyday life at the turn of the 18th century while revealing some of America’s most troubling prejudices.
The piece below is transcribed and edited. It provides a healthy contrast to the soul-searching journals of Knight’s contemporaries and reminds us of the manifold ways in which provincial Americans absorbed transatlantic models for the expression of the most common and intimate details of their lives. Her work can be seen as a meditation on what made a provincial culture viable and mature. Knight was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly and she was tough-minded. Her work shows that women early in the eighteenth century had significant economic roles. The text here is from The Journal of Madame Knight, edited by George P. Winship (1920; reprinted 1935).
From The Private Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York
From Tuesday, October the Third
[not in new Norton Anthology edition]
This is a travel tale. Ms. Knight writes of a very arduous journey. She and her guide forge a river and travel on horseback through the woods at night. The journal is punctuated with poetry.
When she gets to the inn she cannot sleep for the two men arguing in the next room.
We read a short poem about the arguing men in the next room at the inn. They are arguing loudly. In the poem Knight is hoping the men will get drunk and pass out. She writes that she paid sixpence a piece for their dinners, which was only smell.
Saturday, October the Seventh
Having a young male accompany her on her trip–most likely for safety. Knight describes being lost and asking directions. When she arrives in New Haven she pays her guide who then leaves. “…informed myself of the manners and customs of the place and at the same time employed myself in the affair I went there upon.” Knight is discussing the culture and laws of Connecticut and how they are similar to Boston. She feels they come down a bit too hard on the punishment for some rules that don’t allow young people to be young. Public whippings were a preferred punishment. Speaking of negro slaves and Indians who steal and the language barriers that arise when the Native American is brought to court. For fun they go to lectures and perform military exercises. New Haveners marry early, usually before age 20. As a ritual, the groom will run from the chapel right before the joining of hands and his groomsmen then drag him back. The farmers are too friendly with their slaves and they even eat together “…and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.” Knight also speaks of a court arbitration between master and slave in which the slave won.
These are the most unchristian Indians I have ever seen. Indians can own land and live by their own laws, including having multiple wives. Both Indians and the New Haveners do not seem ashamed to get divorced. Indians can only be punished for offenses on English land. When Natives lose a loved one they paint their faces black, cut their hair, and won’t allow the dead’s name be spoken. Indians will trade almost anything for rum, but it is watered down by the English.
Knight tells a humorous anecdote of what usually occurs in a general store . New Haveners have native intelligence but you can’t always tell. Country people should keep to their own hearths and clean. They dress plainly. They celebrate election day like a national holiday.
From December the Sixth
Knight is now in New York. Pleasant and compact on a fine river with a shipping harbor. There are brick skyscrapers. She describes the insides of houses, especially fireplaces. Most hue to the Church of England. They are not as strict as Bostonians regarding keeping the Sabbath. New Yorkers are courteous and civil. Knight goes into detail regarding the jewelry worn by middle class Dutch women. You can get a good stiff drink here. In the winter they ride sleighs and visit friends.
January the Sixth
[not in new edition]
The journey was so tough that her horse died! (Or acted as if he did!) Knight procured another horse and carried on. She returned home to her “tender mother and dear and only son.” The entire trip took five months. Knight returned home unscathed.