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Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Elizabeth Patten, frontier woman, wife, mother

Special to The New Hampshire Union Leader

December 10. 2012 5:58PM

In her preface to the 1993 edition of Matthew Patten's Diary, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote, "Like most eighteenth-century farmers, he (Patten) mentions his wife only when her activities intercepted or disrupted his own...Nevertheless, the occasional references to Elizabeth Patten are often strikingly revealing and they counter familiar stereotypes about 'housebound' early American women.

Like her husband, Elizabeth (McMurphy) Patten (1729-1817) was of Scots-Irish heritage. Her family settled in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and Patten often mentions their visits to her parents. On July 30, 1754, he wrote, "My wife and I went to Londonderry to see her mother who fell the Sabbath before and disjointed her wrist of her left hand."

During this era nearly all yarn and cloth in the American colonies had to be produced in the household. Although linen weaving was a common trade among the Scots-Irish, it appears that Elizabeth and Matthew were not weavers. There are several recorded incidents of Matthew paying others to weave cloth for his family, and he also purchased ready-made textiles from local families. Elizabeth sewed garments both for her family and for others, and the Pattens owned spinning wheels. At least one of these was foot-operated. On July 23, 1778, Matthew wrote, "Isaac Huston made a new crank for my wife's foot wheel for which he charged 4 (pounds). 1 had no money with me to pay him but promised to pay him the first opportunity."

The Pattens hired local girls and women to come into their home to spin cotton, wool or linen yarn on their wheels. They sold or traded some of the yarn they produced. On January 3, 1771, Matthew wrote, "I went to Wylies to see to get one of the girls to spin on the Great Wheel. She promised to come next Monday."

On September 2, 1767, Matthew borrowed John MacLaughlin, Junior's horse so that Elizabeth could ride "Bostonward to sell some cloth and thread." Elizabeth would also venture out on horseback to run errands, including purchasing rum, molasses and beans from the neighbors.

Elizabeth's major occupation, of course, was taking care of her family, which eventually included 10 children. Matthew's notes describing the home births show both his personal concern for his wife and the babies, but also reveal the matter-of-fact nature of these occasions on the farm. On October 15, 1755, he "got the midwife and woman to my wife early in the morning and went in the afternoon and finished raising the meeting house..." Elizabeth "was delivered about 8 in the morning (the next day) of a son and (I) sold a cow to William MacNeal of New Boston...." After the births, Matthew would fetch his mother-in-law and other women to tend to Elizabeth for a few days until she could get back on her feet.

In September 1770 Elizabeth experienced a particularly difficult delivery. She was in labor for 3 days before Matthew could finally write with relief on the 25th, "My wife was delivered safe of a daughter precisely at 12 o'clock at noon after abundance of hard labor and a great deal of discouragement and fear of difficulty.My brothers, Sarah and Betty sat up with the child the night following." Elizabeth remained very ill for several days afterward.

Every once in a while Matthew Patten's diary entries would reveal a little something out of the ordinary regarding his life with Elizabeth. On November 16, 1756, Patten wrote, "About 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning there was a shock of an earth quake so hard that (it) wakened my wife and I out of sleep." In June 1758, during the fishing season at Amoskeag Falls, he writes of catching shad and salmon, but on June 12, he took some time off and "went a frolicking to Namaskeag with my wife." On January 15, 1779, they received a special visit from General John Stark and his wife Molly and their son Archibald. And in May of 1780 Elizabeth fell and sprained her ankle at Deacon Moors, and had to be brought home in an ox cart. Matthew rode to Goffstown and bought 3 pints of rum, as he explained, "to bathe the ankle."

Next week: Matthew Patten witnesses "New England's Dark Day" and other notable weather.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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