Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Rachel Craighead Caldwell 1742 ~ 1825


The history of North Carolina is in many ways identified with the life of the Reverend David Caldwell and his wife Rachel Caldwell. Mrs. Caldwell was the third daughter of the Reverend Alexander Craighead, the pastor of what was known as the Sugar Creek congregation, and in her early life she had a share in many of the trials and hardships of the Indian War; the attacks of the savages being frequent and murderous, and her home being quite an exposed station. She often said in describing these attacks that as the family would escape out one door the Indians would come in at another. When defeat left the Virginia frontier at the mercy of the savages, Mr. Craighead fled with some of his people, and crossing the Blue Ridge passed to the more quiet regions of Carolina, where he remained till the close of his life. Rachel married Dr. Caldwell in 1776. He was called the Father of Education in North Carolina, because his celebrated classical school was for a long time the only one of note in the state, and so great was the influence of Mrs. Caldwell in his school that it gave currency to the saying throughout the country, "Doctor Caldwell makes the scholars and Mrs. Caldwell makes the preachers."

Doctor Caldwell's pronounced preaching for freedom, however, made him an object of especial enmity to the British and Tories, and finally a reward of two hundred pounds was offered for his apprehension. This necessitated his going into hiding and leaving Mrs. Caldwell alone and unprotected during those days when every part of the country was subject to all manner of spoliation and outrage. On the eleventh of March the British army was dispatched to the Caldwell plantation and camped there, the officers taking possession of the house. They at first announced themselves as Americans and asked to see the mistress. A servant had ascertained, by standing on the fence and seeing the redcoats at a distance, that they were part of the army of Cornwallis and quickly communicated her discovery to her employer. Excusing herself by saying that she must attend to her child, Mrs. Caldwell returned to the house and immediately gave warning to two of her neighbors who happened to be there so that they escaped through another door and concealed themselves. She then returned to the gate and accused the British soldiers of masquerading as patriots. They openly demanded use of the dwelling for a day or two and immediately took possession, evicting Mrs. Caldwell, who with her children retired to the smokehouse and passed a day with no other food than a few dried peaches and apples. A physician then interfered and procured for her a bed, some provisions and a few cooking utensils. The family remained in the smokehouse two days and nights being in the meantime frequently insulted by profane and brutal language. To a young officer, who came to the door for the purpose of taunting the helpless mother, by ridiculing her countrymen, whom he termed rebels and cowards, Mrs. Caldwell replied, "Wait and see what the Lord will do for us." "If He intends to do anything;" roughly answered the officer, "it is time He had begun."

In replying to Mrs. Caldwell's application to one of the soldiers for protection, she was told that she could expect no favors, as the women were regarded as great rebels as the men. After remaining two days the army took their departure from the plantation, on which they had destroyed everything. Before leaving the officer in command gave orders that Doctor Caldwell's library and papers should be burned. A fire was kindled in the large oven in the yard and Mrs. Caldwell was obliged to look on while books, which could not at that time be replaced, and valuable manuscripts, which had cost the study and labor of years were carried out by the soldiers, armful after armful, and ruthlessly committed to the flames.

The persecution of Doctor Caldwell continued while the British occupied that portion of the state. He was hunted as a felon and the merest pretenses were used to tear him from his hiding-places. Often he escaped captivity or death by what seemed a miracle. At one time when he had ventured home on a stolen visit the house was suddenly surrounded by men, who seized him before he could escape, intending to carry him to their British camp. One or two were left to guard him while the others searched the house for articles of any value. When they were nearly ready to depart Mrs. Caldwell came forward, and with the promptitude and presence of mind which women frequently display in sudden emergencies, stepped behind Doctor Caldwell and leaning over his shoulder, whispered to him as though intending the question for his ear alone, she asked if it were not time for Gillespie and his men to be there. One of the soldiers who stood nearest caught the words and with evident alarm demanded what men were meant. Mrs. Caldwell replied ingenuously that she was merely speaking to her husband. In a moment all was confusion; the whole party was panic-stricken! Exclamations and hurried questions followed in the consternation produced by this woman's simple manoeuvre, and the Ivories fled precipitately, leaving their prisoner and their plunder. The name Gillespie was a terror to the Loyalists, and this party never doubted that he was on their trail.

Sometime in the fall of 1780 a stranger appeared before Mrs. Caldwell's door, faint and worn, asking for supper and lodging for the night. He was bearing dispatches for General Greene and he had imagined that he would be free from danger under the roof of a minister of the Gospel. Mrs. Caldwell longed to offer him shelter, but she was constrained to explain that her husband was an object of peculiar hatred to the Tories and she could not tell the day or hour when an attack might be expected. She said he should have something to eat immediately but advised him to seek some safer place of shelter for the night. Before she finished preparing his meal voices were heard without, with the cries of "Surround the house," and the dwelling was presently assailed by a body of Tories. With admirable calmness Mrs. Caldwell told the stranger to follow her and led him out by an opposite door. A large locust tree stood close by and the night was so dark that no object could be discerned amid its clustering foliage. She urged the man to climb the tree and conceal himself till the intruders should be absorbed in plundering her house. He could then descend on the other side and trust to the darkness for his safety. The house was pillaged, as she expected, and the man bearing the message so important to his country escaped, to remember with gratitude the woman whose prudence had saved him while undergoing the loss of her own property.

Another little incident, not without humor, illustrates how a woman's intrepidity was sometimes successful in disbanding marauders. Among such articles as the housewife so prizes, Mrs. Caldwell had an elegant tablecloth, which she valued as the gift of her mother. While the Tories on one occasion were in her house gathering plunder, one of them broke open the chest of drawers which contained it and tore out the tablecloth. Mrs. Caldwell seized and held it fast, determined not to give up her treasure. When she found that her rapacious enemy would soon succeed in wresting it from her unless she could make use of something more than muscular force to prevent him, she turned to the other men of the party and appealed to them with all a woman's eloquence, asking if some of them had not wives or daughters for whose sake they would interfere. A small man who stood at the distance of a few feet presently stepped up and with tears in his eyes said that he had a wife, and a fine little woman she was too, and that he would not allow any rudeness to be practiced toward Mrs. Caldwell. His interference compelled the depredator to restore the valued article, and then the tide of opinion turned, and the British soldiers cheered lustily for courageous Rachel Caldwell. After the war Doctor Caldwell resumed his labors as teacher and preacher. He died in the summer of 1824, in the one hundredth year of his age. The wife who had accompanied him in all the vicissitudes of his long life followed him to the grave at the age of eighty-eight. All who knew Rachel Caldwell regarded her as a woman of remarkable character and interest and she is remembered throughout her state with high respect.

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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