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Female Ancestors
Letter from Catharine Van Cortland, 1777

[Extract of a letter from Catharine VAN CORTLAND to her husband Philip VAN CORTLAND, dated Hanover, New Jersey, February 12, 1777.]


On her [servant Phillis'] return from the pump she heard (as she afterwards declared) the tread of a strange horse's feet. She looked round, put down her pails of water, and went immediately back into the road.

By this time a Man had got opposite the house, who she was certainly convinced was a British Light Horseman.

He asked her master's name, and on being informed, said, he was right, that you was a Field Officer at New York.

He then desired her to ask her mistress to direct him to a place of safety as he was a stranger and upon business, and had been recommended to enquire here.

When she delivered the message to me, I could scarcely support myself on account of the risk; for, though the Soldiers were gone who had been in the kitchen, another Company had come and taken possession of the children's nursery, and were gone about a mile to draw their provisions.

The Officers had rode out to Morristown; still there was a Guard left behind, which was asleep except for the two sentries, and the one from the front had moved round the corner of the house to be out of the wind, which having observed I took courage to describe a house where he might trust a man who would behave to him in a particular manner.

Just as he trotted off, the sentry observed him, though too late to make any other discovery than that a Stranger with a fur cap, brown great coat, and mounted on a fine black horse with a white face and four white feet, had stopped and spoke to one of the family.

These mysterious circumstances, joined to the Officers' having heard that General Washington had intercepted a letter from you to me, conspired to cause them to be more watchful on my conduct afterwards.

The letter I allude to was dated 'Green Pond Mountain, Sussex,' which was taken from a boy near Hanover bridge, who, with the letter, was carried to Head-quarters at Morristown, where the General and his Company were just at dinner.

The letter was read aloud, as I was informed by a person who was at no great distance, and disappointed both zealous patriots as well as critics.

The boy was dismissed with a shilling, and I got my letter sealed under a cover.

The narrow escape of your last was something remarkable.

I was sitting about the dusk of evening in my room, very disconsolate with our dear children around me, reflecting on our deplorable situation and the gloomy prospects before me, when I heard a sudden rap at the street door.

Forgetting the servants in the kitchen, I went myself to see who it was, and lucky I did.

A tall, thin man presented himself, and on my stooping to unbolt the door whispered, he had a letter for me. My heart fluttered.

The sentry was walking before the door, and two of the Officers were coming towards me.

I recollected myself and 'desired the good man to walk into my room until I could give him a little wine for the sick woman.'

He took the hint, and as soon as he came to my fireside gave me a letter, the outside of which I just looked at and threw it under the head of my bed and immediately set about getting him some wine for his wife to prevent suspicion.

He faithfully delivered your verbal answer to my verbal message to you, which afforded balmy comfort to your afflicted Kitty who now begins to want support in proportion as her trials grow severe.

The honest man after taking a dram went away, being followed out of doors and questioned by the Officers, who had been venting, cursing and swearing against the sentry for permitting anyone to approach the house or speak to me without their first being acquainted with it.

On their return to the room, they seemed more composed though I am convinced from their conduct since that their suspicions are not removed.

The frequent frolics of the Officers in the house, the Soldiers in the Nursery, and Cattle constantly fed here has reduced our late Stock of plenty to a miserable pittance.

The other day was almost too much for me.

We had been several days without bread and were subsisting upon a half bushel of Indian meal which had been given me by a Dutch farmer I did not know, who said he had heard of our situation and would take no pay.

I felt gratitude and thanked the honest Stranger for his present. Our repast for dinner was a small piece of salt pork with the Indian meal friend in hog's fat, of which we made a dainty feast.

Our stock of meal had been expended five days and the Soldiers not being about, our little Sally immediately went into the Nursery, and picking up a piece of dirty bread which had been trod under their feet came running up to me, wiping it with her frock, and with joy sparkling in her eyes presented it to me crying out, 'Do eat it, Mamma. 'Tis good. 'Tis charming good bread. Indeed it is. I have tasted it.'

This was too much. I reeled to a chair, and told the child I was sick and could not eat it.

The next day Doctor Bond (a favourite and one of General Washington's family) came to a house, and passing me suddenly went into the back room and taking from under his coat a loaf of bread, he gave it to the children and before I could thank him he ran past me with his handkerchief and hat before his face.

My situation was now become unsupportable. I sent to Mr. Joseph B____ on the hill, and requested him to accompany me to Morristown.

During our ride he did not say much. He sometime's attempted to speak, but seemed choked. Indeed, his behaviour ever since my dear husband's absence has been friendly and more like a brother's sympathy than a stranger's.

When we came to Sister Makie's, I was introduced to General Sinclair (who was formerly a British Officer) and told him my request was to obtain General Washington's protection in writing for myself and helpless children from further insult from his Army.

He seemed much affected and assured me he would immediately wait on the General and state my case to him.

After staying in General Washington's quarters about an hour, he returned and sent into the room for Mrs. Makie and told her (with tears running down his cheeks) that he could not see me, as he had represented my situation and request to the General with the fullest confidence of Success, but had the mortification of a refusal, 'unless Mr. CORTLANDT would return from the British lines and on no other condition.'

A few days after, Doctor Bond came here and with a faltering voice told me he was sent by General Washington to inform me that it was his positive orders that our house should be taken as an Hospital to innoculate his Army with the smallpox, and if I chose he would innoculate my family at the same time.

I thanked him.

He saw my agitation and shed tears, and promised to use his influence with the General to obtain the only favour I had now to ask of him; which was, to go to my husband with my children, servants, and such effects as I could take with me, as I was now reduced to the lowest distress and did not choose to become a burden to Strangers.



Vernon-Jackson, H. O. H., "A Loyalist's Wife: Letters of Mrs. Philip Van Cortlandt December 1776 to February 1777", History Today Magazine, Volume XIV, no. 8, Pages 574-580.

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