March 19, 2024

Episode 49: Deposition of Phillis Tatton

Episode 49: Deposition of Phillis Tatton

Deposition of Phillis Tatton, 3rd November 1837 In which Phillis Hinkley Saunders Tatton appeared before the County of Probate in the state of Connecticut in an attempt to secure a pension for her late husband’s service during the American...

Deposition of Phillis Tatton, 3rd November 1837
In which Phillis Hinkley Saunders Tatton appeared before the County of Probate in the state of Connecticut in an attempt to secure a pension for her late husband’s service during the American Revolutionary War.


Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, National Archives and Records Administration, Publication M804, Record Group 15.


Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant
Episode 49: “Deposition of Phillis Tatton”
Published on March 19, 2024

Note: This transcript was generated by with light human correction


Kathryn Gehred  00:04

Hello, and welcome to Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant. This is a women's history podcast where we feature 18th and early 19th century women's letters that don't get as much attention as we think they should. I'm your host, Kathryn Gehred. This episode is part of our season on wit. I had the pleasure of meeting today's guest at a conference for the Association of Documentary Editors. Riley Sutherland is this year's winner of the Sharon Ritenour Stevens Prize in documentary editing, Riley gave a really great presentation, making use of revolutionary war widows, pension files. So we're going a little bit different. It's not a letter that we're working with today. It's a pension file, but it's fascinating. Riley is a PhD student at Harvard University with an interest in women's history, archives, memory, and state building. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Riley,


Riley Sutherland  00:55

Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.


Kathryn Gehred  01:00

So first of all, let's talk a little bit about the sources. So these are pension files, which you've been using for your research. What are they tell me a little more about them?


Riley Sutherland  01:07

Absolutely. So pension files are surprisingly rich for finding the voices of women who couldn't write their own stories down because they didn't know how to write. There are about 80,000 of them in the National Archives. And each pension file can be anything from a few pages to a few 100 pages. So some of these are really robust. And a pension file was created when a revolutionary war veteran or a veterans widow asked the War Department for a pension for their service. So veterans could start claiming pensions in 1818. If they could prove that they were indigent and they needed support. In 1836, Congress started allowing widows, even if they weren't what it was of officers to apply for pensions as well, only if they had been married before their husband's term of service had ended. So there was a limitation on it. And that kept getting more and more expansive, as time went on, with subsequent acts. So a widow would appear before a local court, a Court of Common Pleas or a court of probate and she would give her story to a justice, the justice would ask her specific questions like What is your name? Where are you from? When did your husband and list and when did you get married? And she would answer him as a clerk wrote everything down. So the pension file contains that testimony. It's a really neat, almost kind of oral autobiography that these women would create for themselves. Sometimes they also contain other forms of evidence. So the War Department really liked to see documentary proof to back up these women's oral claims. They would ask for marriage certificates for written discharges for women's veteran husbands. But a lot of times women didn't have those records. One woman I studied burned her marriage license because her husband left her after the war, sometimes of marriage licenses or discharge records burned and house fires. And as we'll learn about Phillis here in a little bit, she couldn't present that evidence because her enslavers grandsons, actually burned her husband's discharge papers. Sometimes we see that evidence and pension files as well. But when widows like Phillis didn't have that written evidence, they would go to their neighbors, family members, former officers, and they would bring them to court and ask them to also give oral stories explaining how they knew the widow and backing the widow up explaining that their memories also correspond to the widows. So when Phillis has pension file, we can see lots of neighbors testifying to support her as well. So her entire file is 127 pages long and compiled over several years if she just kept gathering more evidence to back up her claim.


Kathryn Gehred  03:56

That's incredible. It's so interesting to me, how much of the history of the American Revolution is just them trying not to pay people who fought in the American Revolution. What year did you say it was that women started qualifying for pensions?


Riley Sutherland  04:11

Officers widows qualified little bit earlier, but for rank and file means what it was it was 1836. So it was quite a ways after the war. Before that point, if a veteran died, so say when a cough, Phillis her husband died, she would be able to claim the pension due to him at the time of his death, but nothing after that until 1836.


Kathryn Gehred  04:35

Oh my gosh, I know they did this for like everyone, but it's like, we have to make sure that a man who owns the land can come in and speak for them, because otherwise we can't trust this person. We've talked a little bit. This is a document from an enslaved woman. And so I'm sure that she had even more pressure to sort of bring people in who could back up her story and be sort of treated with suspicion and I think that comes through even in the document itself. I was reading your bio as I was getting ready to work on this. You mentioned that you focused on Continental Army women as a labor agitators, can you tell me a little bit about that?


Riley Sutherland  05:10

Yes, this is something I didn't expect to find. But I initially got into this research as a high school student. We did National History Day in school, which is like a science fair, but for history, and I read Carol Berkin revolutionary mothers. And she talks about women who worked for the Continental Army, as laundresses for soldiers as nurses, and they traveled with the Continental Army. And I became really interested in these women and I wanted to learn more about them, especially how did the war impact them because I was imagining if these women were living in camps, they were traveling with the army, certainly that had to have changed the way they saw themselves. And I was sitting later on in an undergraduate history course and her textbooks said that the war did not change these women at all because they were still performing domestic tasks. They were washing clothes, they were cooking, and I became very frustrated with this history textbook. So I started diving into records like orderly books, which are as Ellen Clark at the Society of Cincinnati describes them. They're like the diaries of regiments, where an officer of a regiment will write down daily happenings. And in these orderly books, I started to see interesting relationships between generals and women. For instance, Anthony Wayne, who's a military officer wrote that he became very frustrated with women who washed for his regiment, because they refuse to work any longer. They've been washing men's uniforms or turning them to men, and then the men just didn't pay them anything. So finally, they refuse to keep washing clothes and Anthony Wayne wrote, these women were not, quote, given victuals to distress and render the men unfit for duty, but to keep them clean and decent. So he's threatened to kick all of them out of camp. But of course, he couldn't do that, because he needed somebody to wash their uniforms. If you didn't, then they were going to be full of lice, which spread disease. So he ended up withholding pay from men who didn't compensate the women for their work. So in this case, their strike was very effective. We also see nurses strike in a hospital in Pennsylvania, and the doctor who headed up that hospital wrote Congress frantically saying, the entire hospital is immobilized. I don't know what to do, please send me money to pay these women. So I became really interested in the way women who didn't know each other before the war, right, they were accompanying their husbands to these regiments, were able to forge relationships with each other, and then successfully leveraged that collective power over military officers.


Riley Sutherland  07:44

In some instances, even George Washington, there was a group of army women in New York, and they found out Washington had been given orders to reduce the amount of rations reserved for women accompanying the troops because he was already short on food. And women, especially pregnant women were consuming a lot of rations they were figuring, well, women, particularly who are pregnant are going to eventually need double rations, because their children are going to need rations as well. So at one point, Washington order has officers remove all pregnant women from the ranks. But at this point, when New York women get word that they might be reduced that wives of artillery men, they warned a Washington that he was going to face consequences if you reduced their rations, and eventually, their husbands threatened to desert if he did it. So he had to defy Congress and say, I cannot possibly reduce their rations. This is sort of the labor agitation or the collective agitation that I was looking at as evidence that women's participation in the war did give them an opportunity to forge networks with each other that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise. And it made them more aware of the essential nature of their work in ways that made them willing to advocate for themselves in this military and political context.


Kathryn Gehred  09:03

That is so fascinating. I'm actually not familiar with that George Washington story, but I loved the idea of him being like, No, we're not feeding the pregnant women. What, what? But you don't really think about, I mean, you hear about camp followers or whatever. But that is an essential service, who's washing these clothes? And who are the people doing nursing? And I imagine there was some sex work and all sorts of things.


Riley Sutherland  09:26



Kathryn Gehred  09:27

That is just such a fascinating story. And it's something that when you're looking with my work previously was the Papers of Martha Washington. It doesn't come up quite so much when you're reading about the fancy officers wives who are like having parties and dancing in the war tents. So this is just such a cool perspective that you don't hear a lot of so I think it's just fabulous that you're working with these documents. We've sort of hinted at who we're talking about, but can you introduce me to Phillis who we're talking about today? Absolutely.


Riley Sutherland  09:53

So Phillis is from Guinea. She's from West Africa and is brought to can advocate and enslave as a young girl. She is enslaved by people named Charles and Elizabeth Hinkley. So she herself is referred to initially in records as Phillis Hinkley. But she begins courting this man who is also enslaved by the Hinkleys. I'm trying to establish whether he was leased or sold, but he became enslaved by a local Deacon Israel Wells. And from there he was leased to an apothecary, and he was responsible actually for preparing medications for people so he gained a lot of knowledge as he was working as an apothecary. Phillis this whole time was trying to get permission to marry Cuff, but her enslaver Elizabeth Hinckley was denying it, she would not let these two get married. Eventually, you know, the revolutionary war breaks out and cough decides to enlist in the Continental Army in exchange for his freedom. At this point, he and Phillis make a pact that they are going to marry each other as soon as possible during or by the end of the war. And Cuff continues to go to the Hinkley's estate in New London, Connecticut to visit Phillis. On one of those visits, Piyllis became pregnant and she decided to use that as well as her husband service sort of as leverage to finally convince Elizabeth to let her marry Cuff, they get married, and this is about the time Cuff in service they get married in May of 1783. Cuff uses his payment to purchase three acres of land nearby in Connecticut and he and Phillis lived there together and farm that lands independently together for about five years, which is when cough dies of influenza. So Phillis eventually remarries to another man named Anthony Tatton and he continues to live in that house with Phyllis that coffin purchased with her his revolutionary war earnings. They continue to farm it until Anthony himself dies and in 1837 So shortly after this pension Act is passed, Phillis decides she wants to apply for Cuff's, Revolutionary War pension, she's pretty poor at this point. She's living with the help of her son, also named Anthony, but she wants a way to supplement that assistance. She wants a way to start bringing in additional money and decides she's going to apply for his pension. So in the document we have today, Phillis is appearing in court on November 3 ,1837 and one of her first depositions asking for that pension.


Riley Sutherland  12:09

With that excellent introduction, let's dive into the document.


Riley Sutherland  12:38

Document 1: Deposition of Phillis Tatton

State of Connecticut}

County of New London} 

In Colchester 3rd November 1837

On this 3rd Day of Nov. 1837 Personally Appeard before the  County of Probate Phillis Tatton, a resident of Lebanon in the County of New London and State of Connecticut, Aged about eighty five years (not knowing her exact age as she was brot from Guinia when a Child)—who being first duly sworn according to Law, doth on her oath make the following declaration.

She was Married to Cuff Saunders, Alias Cuff Wells, who was commonly called Doctr. Cuff, who was a Slave of Israel Wells of South Colchester, and that in Order to obtain his freedom enlisted into the Army of the United States in the Winter of 1777 as a Private Soldier, for the term of during the War—and was placed in a Regiment commanded by Col. John Durkee & Benjamin Troop who was a Brother to my old Mistress Mrs. Elizabeth Hinckley. 

Was first a Capt. then a Majr in said Regiment when he did duty as a Private army waiter to the Surgeon of said regiment and it having been discovered by the Officers of said regiment that the said Cuff possessed considerable Medical skill by having some Years before been a Slave, of Doctr Langrel of Hartford who was a Physician and kept an apothecary Store where the said Cuff learnt the Act of preparing & mixing Medicine, he was accordingly placed in the Hospital as a waiter & assistant to the Surgeon and part of the time he acted as an Assistant to the

Apothecary Store belonging to the Continental Army at Danbury in said State where he continued till late in the fall of 1783.

That we had agreed to Marry each other before he went into the Army. That he returned home in the Month of May 1783 on a Furlough, dressed in Uniform with red facings and the letters U.S.A. on his buttons, at which time she further declares that she was Married to the said Cuff Saunders Alias Cuff Wells who was commonly called Doctor Cuff, in the Month of May 1783 at the House of my Master Charles Hinkley in Goshen in said Lebanon by the Rev. Timothy Stone deceased, then Minister over the Society of said Goshen, and that the said Cuff soon after returned to the Army at said Danbury where he continued until late in the fall 1783.

That he returned home, purchased about three Acres of Land, built a small House in said Lebanon, near the line of Colchester where we lived together until Dec. 1788.

And that her Husband the aforesaid Cuff Saunders, Alias Cuff Wells died in the Month of Dec. 1788 after a severe sickness with the Influenza. Doctor Coleman died a number of Years since likewise belonged to the Revolutionary Army and lived a Neighbour, attended my said Husband as Physician in his late sickness.

And she further declares that she has no documentary evidence except the Certificate from the State Comptroller as to his service as a Soldier and the certificates of the Rev. Mr, Otis & Peleg Thomas Esq. of both her Marriages—and that she at present knows of no person who can testify as to the Sd. Cuff remaining in service except Doct. John R. Wastrous & Miss Elenor Hewit

Phillis Tatton

Her mark X


Kathryn Gehred  16:31

Beautiful. Excellent, thank you. One of the things that I noticed the first time I was reading this is that it sort of switches to somebody saying she, and then I, and I think you sort of explained that at the beginning that this is somebody writing notes, right, as she's giving testimony. Do you think it's the clerk is sort of sometimes reading exactly what she says? And then sometimes trying to sort of translate it is that your understanding?


Riley Sutherland  16:53

That is my understanding. And you make a really important point, by noticing that change between the third and first person? We have to face the question, which is difficult. What extent is Phillis, his voice in this document? And it's something I've had a lot of professors and other researchers asked me, How do you know, the clerk is really representing her voice in this document. And it's something tough that we have to grapple with, especially because the individuals who are writing these are constantly trying to assess the veracity of her claims. So they're always making judgments of her character. But I think in those moments where we can hear, can switch, we lived in a house together, we were married, the clerk was sort of getting interested and really drawn into this testimony and did start recording it as closely as he could to her words in those spots, which is really fascinating.


Riley Sutherland  17:42

Yes. So they just keep repeating all of these names over and over the Cuff Wells is what he would have been known as when he went into the Army Wells coming from the name of his enslaver Israel Wells, who was a deacon and Cuff is it comes from the Icann, Kofi, meaning born on Friday. So this is pointing back to his experiences his childhood in Africa and West Africa, maybe from near where Phillis was from as well. And then we have the wells as a marker of his enslavement. Right before he buries Phiillis in 1783. The men and his regiment report that he starts going by Cuff Saunders instead he decides to call himself that now that he's free. I've tried to figure out where the Saunders comes from, and I have not been able to piece that together at this point. But his child also ends up taking this name Saunders as does Phillis. So her file is under Phillis Hinkley Saunders Tatton The Tatton and coming from her other marriage.


Kathryn Gehred  19:16

That's so fascinating. For starters I never put together that the name that white people would write down as Kofi was probably kofi. And that just blew my mind a little bit. But it makes it hard to study people when people's names change all the time, but it happens all the time, particularly with enslaved people who are sort of being given their enslavers names, people are often very eager to change that a lot of times. So that follows that makes perfect sense.


Riley Sutherland  19:40

And it was difficult for Phillis because as you mentioned to the names were changing all the time, she had to provide documentary evidence of his pay off his service. And along the whole way, she had to prove that cough wells really was the same person as cough Saunders who was the same person as Dr. Cuff. And that becomes really difficult for her to the point where she actually had to summon former Army surgeons and officers to appear in court and testify that he really did go by all of these different names, which is an added complication she faced, that a white widow often did not struggle with unless she had married a soldier who was a French, in which case, she had to explain different naming practices or customs.


Kathryn Gehred  20:24

That is very interesting. And this is like so common, right? Women get married and change their names, then somebody dies and they're remarried to they get more names. But it seems like that just blows bureaucrats minds. Like it's impossible that people just act like this is so insane from a modern historian perspective, even just digitally searching for people when you don't know if she'd be classified under Mrs. Cliff Saunders, alias Cuff Wells, who was called Dr. Cuff, like, how would you find Phillis, this time when you read it? It just sort of struck me where she mentions every once awhile, she'll go into a little bit of detail. And so knowing sort of how this scene was going, I imagine one of the people that she's talking to magistrates asked her to add some detail name and name or something. She mentioned when he comes back from the war, he's wearing his red uniform that has USA on the buttons, right? So that is such an interesting little fact that he remembers a detail like that, and that be that can help them time. Like okay, when were people wearing uniforms like this to a certain timeframe?


Riley Sutherland  21:23

Yes, and it also helps her establish her claim with other people. She's having testify. So Eleanor Hewit is somebody she mentions there. Eleanor live nearby Phillis and actually attended Phillis his wedding. Because Phillis is enslavers or at this point. Almost her former and slavers invited their neighbors to Phillis and Cuff's wedding, which is something that surprised me as I was reading these documents. But Eleanor likewise says, I can prove that I was at coughs wedding because he was in his military uniform. And I can describe it at her description of his uniform is almost identical to felicitous which made me wonder, did they communicate about this before they both testified? Is this something they were trying to use because widows and the people they brought with them, we often have evidence would sit and they would discuss it. There's even one son who was trying to help his mother get a pension. And he wrote after he was rejected, asking for a list of every person who succeeded in the state of Connecticut so he could communicate with them to learn what they did and try to replicate it. So those little details are really helpful pegs. An d they also make it difficult because they need to be replicated through so many different testimonies to prevent discrepancies that would undermine the claim.


Kathryn Gehred  22:40

For a war that ended 50 years ago, right? Just you can miss remember when somebody came home wearing the cool outfit so easily. And also fascinating that her and slavers were like, No, you can't get married? No, you can't get married. But when you do get married, we're gonna make it a priority. Obviously, there's a ton to dig into. There's so much but I feel like everything about this story sort of challenges a lot of preconceived notions about what life in the Continental Army was like. Did you agree did it affect the way that you saw military life in the Continental Army?


Riley Sutherland  23:08

It really did. And multiple ways I think the first of which is just by challenging me to see how porous this distinction between military life and life on the homefront really was. I often myself create this artificial barrier between women who were with quote, unquote, the army, and women who are on the homefront. But really even widows who were not traveling with the army were so connected to it. For example, with Phillis, she asked a local storekeeper a clerk to write to cuff, asking him to come home and marry her. So she's like, let's work out your furlough. Let's figure out when you can, you know, get on leave. They were nearby, she was able to use his military service to secure her own marriage. And so this document really illuminates the ways that even women on the homefront were drastically impacted by their connections to the military.


Riley Sutherland  24:00

I was also talking with a friend about this document the other day, and he mentioned, you know, it's kind of surprising to me to hear about cuff, liberating himself regaining his freedom by serving for the Continental Army, because we both have read so much about individuals liberating themselves by taking advantage of Dunmore's Proclamation and going to the British army. So Dunmore was the governor who promised enslaved people if they could make it to the British Army and they were enslaved by patriots. They could be free if they served the army. We don't have this binary of, well, enslaved people could gain their freedom by going to the British, and that was the way they could gain their freedom. There's evidence of women who liberated themselves from slavery, and they ran to the Continental Army to try to meet up with their husbands who were black soldiers. In this case, we see cough deciding to enlist locally with the Continental Army. And so I think it also complicates the way we view loyalties protect literally enslaved people's loyalties during the American Revolution, to see that they were really assessing different options available to them.


Kathryn Gehred  25:09

That struck me as well. It seems like having an enslaved person army, or a free black person in the army might be like more of an exception. You like, don't see that when you're watching movies about the American Revolution very often, and things like that. And then also the fact that he was able to join and be the doctor, right? Like he's the person bringing these medical skills is just super cool and fascinating to me that everybody was like, this is a time of war. He knows how to mix drugs together. He's Dr. Cuff.


Riley Sutherland  25:38

Yes. And we see that for women to some extent, too. There's a white woman whose pension application I've studied in depth, Sarah Benjamin, and she describes joining the army and she's washing and making bread, and she's doing it alongside a black woman named Loretta. So black women, too, would be sometimes teaching white women how to do certain tasks as well, that were essential for the army. So I think it's really important, what you just pointed out that they're not in subservient roles, they might be portrayed in and film if Black individuals are portrayed in the military at all in the Continental Army. But in many instances, there are leaders bringing their own knowledge to military lines.


Kathryn Gehred  26:17

So I just wanted to like briefly go on a slight tangent. There's been some discussion about Florida educational standards, talking about slavery. And they've mentioned in Florida educational standards, that they're going to bring up moments when a slave learned a skill during slavery that they were able to use to their own advantage after slavery. And I could see people very quickly using this as an example of that happening. But I just want to say quickly, the whole point of that argument is just a distraction from actually trying to look into the realities of the history of slavery. It's one of those things where it's like, like a gotcha, it's like, look, I can find this one guy who learned how to use a skill while he was enslaved and apothecary. But the main question of slavery is so simple, which is that people should not be treated as property. And the fact that people were able to be competent human beings and turn things to their advantage, should not be used as an argument that say, slavery isn't so bad. If Kofi had been able to, to be a free person and get medical degree on his own, and be able to make money and live as a free person, much earlier, wouldn't his life have been so much better instead of having to beg for literally every single thing? And that's the sort of central question about this to me?


Riley Sutherland  27:34

Absolutely. And we also don't know what medical skills he had before he was enslaved as well. So what if he's bringing skills to this apothecary, that the apothecary wouldn't have had before. similarly to the way he's bringing medical knowledge into the Continental Army camp, and the clerk frames it similarly to the way the Florida education system wants to frame it, as kind of came to this apothecary, and he was bestowed with this knowledge. Interestingly, Phillis and Cuff's son, Prince Saunders goes on to become a very important figure in his own right, and an education minister of Haiti. But he was educated at Dartmouth, and in his obituary, it very conspicuously mentions it's because Phillis's enslaver's son decided to be so him with this start with education. It's the similar framing that overlooks knowledge that people like cough would have had, and shared with others.


Kathryn Gehred  28:30

And in particular, you mentioned the black woman who maybe had joined as laundresses, and nurses and things like that. It's not like women who own slaves don't know how to do these things, because having enslaved people do all that for them. So of course, the work that they're doing is incredibly valuable to the war effort. And to just see hard evidence of that, in this document of her talking about this particular situation. It's just very satisfying to me. Phillis just seems like a very talented person, and convincing person and it's so cool that her son went to Dartmouth, and just continued being exceptional. We've talked a little bit about Phillis, outside of this letter, she mentions towards the end that she has no documentary evidence to back her story up. I've talked in an earlier episode about how hard it was for enslaved people to get documentary evidence for literally anything. In the south. Enslaved marriages weren't seen as legal, you couldn't testify in court, you're basically removed from being able to be taken seriously as like a legal identity. And then because of that, the paper trail that historians and the people who are looking into these pension files would use just don't exist. So it makes it a lot easier to erase somebody. Do you find that coming up a lot in these pension files of women, poor women, women across classes, black women, enslaved women? Is that something that you notice quite a bit?


Riley Sutherland  29:51

It is, yes. And I have to admit, I laughed at this line and Phillis, his testimony. I have no documentary evidence except this certificate of my marriage that I As somebody to create, because that's more documentary evidence than most widows have, I'm thinking Phillis, you have evidence don't undermine your evidence. Many widows yes, they would have a difficult time. So like Phillis, they would sort of try to create their own evidence, particularly women who had been enslaved. Some would take Phillis as approach. So she knew she was getting ready to submit this claim. And a couple of weeks earlier in October of 1837, found a way to communicate with local reference. Maybe she went in person, she also had a local clerk and one of her former enslavers stores right for her sometimes. And she communicated with Reverend and even with the State Comptroller saying, Can you please send me a written paper that says you were here when I married my husband, or in one case, it was the son of the minister, and she asked the Comptroller, can you send whatever proof you have, that my husband was paid for his service? Other Black widows in particular, would ask for written evidence that there was no evidence. So one in particular, who I'm thinking of, she received a piece of paper from the local church. And it said, Well, we did not keep records of Black people's marriages between this years, there is no evidence. So she had created evidence from this silence and use this piece of paper as credible proof, which I also think says a lot about what the War Department believed was credible that if you made silence into something tangible, signed by a leading man of the community, it could fill a silence that a woman's oral store you would not be able to. So it's interesting. Other women would submit things like needlepoint samplers, so women were very creative and overcoming the silences, although it was difficult, and Phyllis had to confront that challenge for over three years before she succeeded.


Kathryn Gehred  31:58

That's crazy. You said three years of trying to get this pension. Does she get the money?


Riley Sutherland  32:04

She does, but it was a very fraught process. And she almost did not get all of the money, but she continued to fight for what she believes she deserves. So the situation is this act of 1836. Right requires that you married before your husband's term of service had expired. So Phyllis says husband cuff enlisted in 1777. He was discharged in fall of 1783. They married in May of 1783. So that is before he stopped serving. But the War Department says well, we don't have written evidence that he was paid after January of 1781. So how do we know that he was serving after 1781, and that you really married him after he was a soldier. So Phillis has all of this oral testimony of men who swear that they had served alongside him, but because she doesn't have a payroll from 1783. They rule she does not qualify under this pension act. Another pension Act was passed in 1838. And that allowed widows who married before I believe it was 1794, to claim a pension for five years as opposed to life. And the person in charge of the War Department said, Well, Phillis clearly married before 1794. So why don't you apply under this? And she asked a local storekeeper, who was helping her to reply, no, I qualify for a life pension and I am going to receive my life pension. She gets into a tricky situation because the only real strong oral testimony she can provide that her husband was still serving at the end of the war, comes from a man who comes before the court and says, I know he was married to Phillis before he stopped serving, because he came and he gave me some camphor to smell a type of medication. And cough made the comment to me, Well, my wife Phillis will be needing some of that soon, too, because she's going to be sick, she's going to be having a child. And I am going to marry her before that happens. And then he left to marry her.


Riley Sutherland  34:16

Well, Phillis, until this point, had not told the court that she was pregnant before she was married, which wasn't by any means uncommon, but all of a sudden, the court believes this is a blemish on her character. Her lawyer even makes the comment that she's a woman a very strong merit, except for during the instance I just mentioned, but it's understandable considering she'd been coding for seven years. So she has to now overcome this prejudice. And I have to wonder if she knew she was going to face that but believed it was the only way she could get paid. So she puts herself through this. But then the war department decides, Okay, maybe this is proof you married before your husband's term of service was up but then you read You married to somebody else after he died. And your status as Anthony tattles widow supersedes and invalidates your status as cough Saunders is widow. And at this point, Phillis is very distressed, she's indigent, she's furious with these excuses, the War Department seems to be making up to deny her a pension. So she petitions Congress, she petitions the committee of claims in Congress and says the War Department is not accepting my claim, but I deserve a pension for life. By this point, it's about 1840. And she finally receives a favorable report from the Committee of claims and 1841 that she should receive a pension for life. But then Congress adjourns before they can go any further with it. In 1842, Congress decides that she, you know, again, she should receive a pension her petition comes back up, but now they've added that it should only be for five years, as the board department had initially said. So Phillis, on her lawyer right back again, refusing, saying that she deserves a pension for life. And she finally received it in 1842. So about five years after she first applied


Kathryn Gehred  36:19

The fact that these were department, ghouls are just sitting there judging this person, when their whole job is deciding who deserves to get money is just so infuriating. Oh, my God. No, I think you're right. That sounds completely reasonable that she might have avoided mentioning the fact that she was pregnant before she got married. But also the fact that enslaved people legally that marriage didn't mean anything. The fact that she has to wait for her in slavers is to give her permission to get married. All of that it's just absolutely infuriating. Good on Phillis for fighting it out for sticking to her guns and just continuously fighting it that is so fabulous. So this is a season about wit, which sometimes we have been talking about in terms of, you know, somebody writing something funny, or using sort of language play. In this case, I think this is somebody who is using their wits to achieve a goal. The deck was stacked against her for this, to get this pension for a number of reasons that she is able to, as a free Black woman, get all this together, get her team together, sort of strategize what she's going to say and when she's going to say it. What an incredible person.


Riley Sutherland  37:29

Absolutely and her ability to turn to all of these different types of evidence I didn't mention, she even submitted her son's obituary in a newspaper, which briefly mentioned, oh, he was the son of Phyllis and cough, say, Look, can you accept the newspaper as proof of my marriage. So she was constantly thinking of new ways to try to produce evidence to find evidence, which is even more exceptional to me when I remember that she didn't know how to read or write. So she was really using her wit, especially socially, to draw upon her networks and connections that made it possible for her to navigate a complex political system, one that would have been complex for somebody who knew how to read and write.


Kathryn Gehred  38:08

What do you want people to get from this story?


Riley Sutherland  38:11

I think one of the biggest takeaways for me is to look at somebody like Phillis woman who had been an enslaved a free Black woman, and to see that she was a political actor, someone who was not only aware of the political system around her and have her own political efficacy, her ability to advocate for her own interests locally and on a federal level, but that she was prepared to participate in that for such a prolonged period. So tenaciously is very important. And the fact that Phillis isn't an anomaly, I think it's important to take away, because it's easy to read a document like this and think, wow, how exceptional the lawyer who was writing this pension file wrote that she was, quote, The most remarkable, intelligent colored woman in quote. So he's trying to portray her somehow as exceptional for a Black woman. And Phillis is exceptional in the sense that she is incredibly intelligent, but she's not exceptional in the sense that she's an anomaly. There were many other black women like Phillis who had become free during the war, and who were drawing upon their local networks to try to advocate for pension files, even as they were facing tremendous discrimination from the War Department. So to see that I think is really, really important to see women as their own political advocates, particularly in an era like the 1830s and 40s. When it's easy to focus on white abolitionists or white individuals who were advocating for black rights and to see how even illiterate women like Phillis were able to be some of their own strongest voices.


Kathryn Gehred  39:57

That's such a great point. This is one of the stories that we know but that doesn't necessarily mean that this was someone who was completely distinct and unique.


Riley Sutherland  40:06

If anybody who's listening is really interested in these pension files and wants to read more, the National Archives has images of them all online. But they are not transcribed. So there are 10s of 1000s of files, like Phillis is out there just waiting to be discovered. And anyone can help transcribe them through the National Archives, they have this Citizen Archivist tool where anyone can go on and read these pictures and transcribe them, which means they're searchable. And you can find more women like Phillis who are kind of disappeared into these difficult to navigate archives. So if anyone feels inclined to read some files like this on your own, or to maybe try your hand at transcribing, or doing some of your own research, I would absolutely recommend looking at that tool on the National Archives website.


Kathryn Gehred  40:54

Thats's awesome. That's so important. And as somebody that transcribed a lot of letters as my job for a long time, it's fun, it's worthwhile, it takes a little getting used to. But if you are looking for something, if you are bored on any big and you're like, maybe I want to read a completely fascinating letter from 200 years ago, there's much worse ways to spend your time rally. This is such a fabulous conversation. I cannot wait to see the work that you do with all of this and with your future career, anywhere you want to point people to.


Riley Sutherland  41:26

I have a personal website that I post updates on, and it is linked to my Twitter, which is at RKG Sutherland. So I'll be sure to post Phillis is full pension file on there in case anybody wants to read more details about her life, any of the other depositions, as well as some updates about other revolutionary war widows.


Kathryn Gehred  41:47

Fantastic. So I will link to your Twitter and we'll link to some of these resources in the show notes. For my listeners, thank you so much for listening. I am as ever, Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant. Thank you very much. Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. I'm Kathryn Gehred, the creator and host of this podcast. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to listen to past episodes and check out more great podcasts from R2 Studios. We tell unexpected stories based on the latest research to connect listeners with the past. So head to to start listening

Riley K. Sutherland

Riley K. Sutherland began a U.S. History Ph.D. at Harvard in the Autumn of 2023, after earning a B.A. in History, American Studies, and Memory (2022) and a M.A. in U.S. History (2023) from the University of South Carolina, Columbia. She is interested in women's history, memory, trauma, archival power, material culture, and state-building in the nineteenth-century United States, especially as these themes relate to military women and Revolutionary War widow pensions.