Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Martha Stewart Wilson

 

Mrs. Wilson was the daughter of Colonel Charles Stewart, of New Jersey. She was born December 20, 1758, at "Sidney," the residence of her maternal grandfather, Judge Johnston, in the township of Kingwood and county of Hunterdon in that state. This old mansion was at that time one of the most stately and aristocratic of the colonial residences in that section of New Jersey. Constructed while the border settlements of the province were still subject to treacherous visits from the Indian, Its square and massive walls and heavy portals were not only an expression of "the pride of life," but had reference as well to protection and defense, and for many years in its earlier use It was not only the stronghold of the wealthy proprietor, his family and dependents, but the refuge in alarm for miles around to the settlers whose humbler abodes were more assailable by the rifle and firebrand of the red men. "The big stone house," as it was designated in the common parlance of the people, was thus long noted as a place of refuge in danger and not less, in later times, as one of redress for wrongs and their punishment, Judge Johnston having been, for more than thirty years previous to the Revolution, the chief magistrate of that section of the colony, holding court on Monday of every week in one of the halls of his dwelling.

Such was the birthplace and home in childhood of Mrs. Wilson, but her girlhood and young womanhood, passed in the home of her father, was in no less beautiful and interesting surroundings. Previous to the Revolution, Colonel Stewart resided chiefly at "Lansdowne," a beautiful property immediately adjoining the estate of his father-in-law; and here, when she was thirteen, her mother having died, Mrs. Wilson already giving proof of mental attainments and maturity of character, entertained for her father the most distinguished men of the day. The hospitality of Colonel Stewart was unbounded. His friend. Chief Justice Smith, of New Jersey, expressed this trait of character in the epitaph upon his tomb: "The friend and the stranger were almost compelled to come in." And it was at his table and fireside in association with the choice spirits in intellect and public influence that his daughter imbibed the principles of patriotism and the love of liberty which entitles her name and character to a prominent place among women of the Revolution.

Colonel Stewart had, by energy of character and enlarged enterprise, secured both private and public influence, and the first breath of the "spirit of '76" which passed over the land fanned into flame his zeal for freedom and honor of his country, which no discouragement could dampen and which no toil, nor danger, nor disaster could extinguish. One of his daughter's strongest recollections was of being told, on his return from the first general meeting of the Patriots of New Jersey for a declaration of rights, an incident relating to himself and highly characteristic of the times. Many of the most distinguished royalists were his personal and intimate friends and when it became evident that a crisis in public feeling was about to occur, great efforts were made by some of those holding office under the crown to win him to their side. Tempting promises of ministerial favor and advancement were made to induce him to at least withhold his influence from the cause of the people, even if he would not take part in the support of the King. Such overtures were in vain, and at this meeting he rose and was one of the first boldly to pledge ''his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor," in defense of the rights of freemen against the aggressions of the throne. The attorney-general, approaching and extending his hand, said to him in saddened tones, ''Farewell, my friend Charles, when the halter is about your neck, send for me. I'll do what I can to save you." Colonel Stewart eventually became one of the Staff of Washington, as Commissary General of Issues, by Commission of the Congress of 1776.

Thus, Mrs. Wilson, who again became the head of her father's household, when her young husband, Robert Wilson, himself an ardent American adherent, died after barely two years of married life, was given an opportunity for more favorable observation and knowledge of important movements and events than that of any other woman certainly in her native state. Her father, at the head of an important department, from necessity became acquainted with the principal officers of the army, and headquarters being most of the time within twenty or thirty miles of her residence, she not only had constant intercourse in person and by letter with him, but frequently and repeatedly entertained at her house many of his military friends. Among these were Washington, La Fayette, Hamilton, Wayne, Greene, Maxwell, Lincoln, Henry Lee, Stevens, Walter Stewart, Ethan Allen, Pulaski, Butler, Sinclair, Woodward, Varnum, Paul Jones, Cochrane, Craik and many others.

General and Mrs. Washington were several times her guests, and the hospitality which Mrs. Wilson had the privilege thus repeatedly to extend to these illustrious guests was not forgotten by them, but most kindly acknowledged by very marked attentions to Mrs. Wilson's daughter and only child on her entrance into society in Philadelphia, during the presidency of Washington. By personal calls and invitations to her private parties, Mrs. Washington distinguished the young woman by consideration rarely shown to youthful persons*

It was not alone for friends and acquaintances and persons of distinction and known rank that Mrs. Wilson kept open house in the Revolution. Such was the liberality of her patriotism that her gates in the public road bore in conspicuous characters the inscription: "Hospitality within to all American officers and refreshment for their soldiers," an invitation not likely to be allowed to remain a mere form of words on the regular route of communication between northern and southern posts of the army.

From the commencement of the struggle for freedom till its close, Mrs. Wilson was a personal witness and participator in scenes of more than ordinary interest. She was in Philadelphia on the day the Declaration of Independence was made, and made one of a party, embracing the elite of the beauty, wealth and fashion of the city and neighborhood, to be entertained at a brilliant fete given in honor of the event, on board the frigate "Washington" at anchor in the Delaware, by Captain Reed, the Commander. The magnificent brocade which she wore on the occasion, with its hooped petticoat, flowing train, laces, gimp and flowers, remained in its wardrobe unaltered for years, but was eventually cut up to become the victim of that taste of descendants for turning the antique frocks of grandmamma into eiderdown bedspreads and drawing-room chair covers.

Till the death of Colonel Stewart, in 1800, Mrs. Wilson continued at the head of his family, the wise, benevolent, energetic and universally admired manager of a house proverbial in her native state and extensively out of it, for generous and never changing hospitality. For a period of nearly fifteen years after the death of her father, much of Mrs. Wilson's time became necessarily devoted to the settlement of a large and widely scattered landed estate, and the clearness of judgment, practical knowledge and firmness of purpose and character witnessed in her by much of the finest talent at the bar and on the bench, not only in New Jersey, but in the adjoining states during the legal investigations of claims, titles and references, were such as to secure to her in general estimation a degree of respect for talent and ability not often accorded her sex in that day.

Not long after she had been called to the management of her father's estate, two orphan sons of her brother were left in their childhood to Mrs. Wilson's guardianship and maternal care. A series of letters written by her to one of these adopted sons, while a boy in school and college, have been given to the public, and their deep appreciation of the spirit of youth, and at the same time the inspiring guidance of their text makes them not only a striking exhibition of the fidelity with which she fulfilled her trust, but a contribution to literature.

The marriage of her only daughter and child, in 1802, to John M. Bowers, of Bowerstown, Otsego County, New York, led Mrs. Wilson to change her home from New Jersey to Cooperstown, New York, in which village for a long period afterward she had a home, but eventually she went to live with her daughter at the latter's beautiful home "Lakelands" in the immediate vicinity. Her end in the peaceful prosperity of her country was in marked contrast to her thrilling experiences during its struggle for Independence.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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