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Sarah Kemble Knight Observes the Manners and Customs of Connecticut Colony, 1704

Sarah Kemble Knight in 1704 made a long and toilsome journey from Boston to New Haven and then took time to study the manners and customs of the place. Connecticut then was a foreign land to a Bostonian.

Sarah Kemble Knight

Sarah Kemble Knight

She had ridden alone on horseback along the Boston Post Road, hiring guides or accompanying the post rider to show her the way. The 38-year-old came to New Haven to help settle an estate. She was well-bred, well-educated and had a sharp, if condescending, wit.

Connecticut was a backwoods compared to Boston. It was also much more diverse, as thousands of immigrants arrived from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and France. Sarah Kemble Knight poked fun at their country mannerisms and customs that differed from those of a proper Bostonian.

She found the laws of Connecticut similar to Massachusetts, though they were much stricter about punishing kissing and merriment among young people. She noted the people of Connecticut married young and had an odd wedding custom. She thought they were too indulgent of their slaves and their Indians were the most savage of the savages she had seen.

Sarah Kemble Knight had set out early on Oct. 7, 1704 and arrived in New Haven. There she took some time to rest and informed herself of the manners and customs of the place:

They are Govern’d by the same Laws as wee in Boston, (or little differing,) thr’out this whole Colony of Connecticot, and many of them god, Sociable people, and I hope Religious too: but a little too much independent in their principals, and, as I have been told, were formerly their Zeal very Riggid in the Administrations towards such as their Lawes made Offenders, even to a harmless Kiss or Innocent merriment among Young people. Whipping being a frequent and counted and easy Punishment, about wch, as other Crimes, the judges were absolute in their Senntantes.

Country Bumpkins

Sarah Kemble Knight read her journal aloud to a women’s literary “tea-table." The society ladies probably enjoyed her story about a local judge she viewed as a country bumpkin. As the story goes, an Indian was accused of stealing a hogshead. He actually bought it from the person who stole it. The townspeople apprehended the Indian and took him to the local magistrate's home. The judge was in his field gathering his pompions (pumpkins) with another judge, and so they held court right there. One judge asked the Indian, ""You Indian why did you steal from this many? You shouldn't do so -- it's a Grandy wicked thing to steal.

Map of Sarah Kemble Knight's journey

Map of Sarah Kemble Knight's journey

The Indian didn't understand. The other judge pulled off his hat and patted his head to indicate 'hogshead.' The Indian said now he understood -- implying the judge was a drunkard and hog-like. The assembled crowd "fell into a great fitt of Laughter, even to Roreing." Silence is commanded, but to no effect: for they continued perfectly Shouting. Nay sais his worship, in an angry tone, if it be so, take mee off the Bench.

Young People

Training Day, or Muster Day, was celebrated throughout colonial New England. Sarah Kemble Knight was amused by the way the Connecticut youth competed during the exercises.

Their Diversions in this part of the Country are on Lecture days and Training days mostly: on the former there is Riding from town to town. And on training dayes The Youth divert themselves by Shooting at the Target, as they call it, (but it very much resembles a pillory,) where hee that hits nearest the white has some yards of Red Ribbin presented him, Wch being tied to his hatband, the two ends streaming down his back, he is led away in Triumph with great applause, as the winners of the Olympiack games. They generally marry very young: the males oftener as I am told under twentie than above; they generally make public wedings, and have a way something singular (as they say) in some of them, viz. Just before Joyning hands the Bridegroom quits the place, who is son followed by the Bridesmen, and as it were, dragg’d back to duty—being the reverse to ye former practice among us, to steal ms. Pride.

The Lower Classes

She found, to her disapproval, Connecticut was more egalitarian than Massachusetts.  Slaves were allowed to eat with their masters and Indians enforced their own laws:

There are great plenty of Oysters all along by the sea side, as farr as I Rode in the Colony, and those very good. And they Generally lived very well and comfortable in their famelies. But too indulgent (especially ye farmers) to their slaves: suffering too great familiarity from them, permitting ym to sit at Table and eat with them, (as they say to save time,) and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand. They told me that there was a farmer lived nere the Town where I lodgd who had some difference With his slave, concerning something the master had promised him and did not punctualy perform; wch caused some hard words between them; But at length they put the matter to Arbitration and Bound themselves to stand to the award of such as they named—wch done, the Arbitrators Having heard the Allegations of both parties, Order the master to pay 40’ to black face, and acknowledge his fault. And so the matter ended: the poor master very honestly standing to the award.

There are everywhere in the Towns as I passed a Number of Indians, the Natives of the Country, and are the most savage of all the savages of that kind that I had ever Seen: little or no care taken (as I heard upon enquiry) to make them otherwise. They have in some places Lands of their own, and Govern’d by Laws of their own making; they marry many wives and at pleasure put them away, and on the least dislike or fickle humor, on either side, saying stand away to one another is a sufficient Divorce. And indeed those uncomely Stand aways are too much in Vogue among the English in this (Indulgent Colony) as their Records plentifully prove, and that on very trivial matters, of which some have been told me, but are not proper to be Related by a Female pen, though some of that foolish sex have had too large a share in the story.

If the natives commit any crime on their own precincts among themselves, the English takes no Cognizance of. But if on the English ground, they are punishable by our Laws. They mourn for their Dead by blacking their faces and cutting their hair after an Awkward and frightful manner; But can’t bear You should mention the names of their dead Relations to them: they trade most for Rum, for which they’d hazard their very lives; and the English fit them Generally as well by seasoning it plentifully with water.

An Intricate Way of Trade

Sarah Kemble Knight aimed much of her satire at the local merchants and their bumptious customers:

They give the title of merchant to every trader; who Rate their Goods according to the time and specie they pay in: viz. Pay, money, Pay as money, and trusting. Pay is Grain, Pork, Beef, &c. [etc.] at the prices set by the General Court that Year; money is pieces of Eight, Ryalls, or Boston or Bay shillings (as they call them,) or Good hard money, as sometimes silver coin is termed by them; also Wampum, vizt. Indian beads which serves for change. Pay as money is provisions, as aforesaid one Third cheaper than as the Assembly or General Court sets it; and Trust as they and the merchant agree for time.

Now, when the buyer comes to ask for a commodity, sometimes before the merchant answers that he has it, he says, is Your pay ready? Perhaps the Chap Replies Yes: what do You pay in? says the merchant.

The buyer having answered, then the price is set; as suppose he wants a sixpenny knife, in pay it is 12d ⎯in pay as money eight pence, and hard money its own price, viz. 6d. It seems a very Intricate way of trade and what Lex Mercatoria (law merchant) had not thought of.

Gurdon saltonstall

Gurdon saltonstall

Being at a merchant’s house, in comes a tall country fellow with his alfogeos [cheeks] full of Tobacco; for they seldom Loose their Cud but keep Chewing and Spitting as long as their eyes are open ⎯ he advanced to the middle of the Room, makes an Awkward Nod, and spitting a Large deal of Aromatic Tincture, he gave a scrape with his shovel-like shoe, leaving a small shovel full of dirt on the floor, made a full stop, Hugging his own pretty Body with his hands under his arms, Stood staring round him, like a Cat let out of a Basket. At last, like the creature Balaam Rode on,(a donkey), he opened his mouth and said: have You any Ribbon for Hatbands to sell, I pray? The Questions and Answers about the pay being past, the Ribbon is brought and opened. Bumpkin Simpers, cries its confounded Gay, I vow; and beckoning to the door, in comes Joan Tawdry, dropping about 50 curtseys and stands by him: he shows her the Ribbon.

Law, You, says she, it’s right, Gent, do You, take it, tis dreadful pretty. Then she inquires, have You any hood silk, I pray? which being brought and bought, Have You any thread silk to sew it with, says she, which being accommodated with, they Departed. They Generally stand after they come in, a great while speechless, and sometimes don’t say a word till they are asked what they want, which I Impute to the Awe they stand in of the merchants, who they are constantly almost Indebted to; and must take what they bring without Liberty to choose for themselves; but they serve them as well, making the merchants stay long enough for their pay.

Almost Ridiculous

The diarist conceded the residents of Connecticut Colony weren't stupid, even if they dressed plainly and their houses weren't too clean:

We may Observe here the great necessity and benefit both of Education and Conversation; for these people have as Large a portion of mother wit, and sometimes a Larger, than those who have been brought up in Cities; But for want of improvements, Render themselves almost Ridiculous, as above. I should be glad if they would leave such follies, and am sure all that Love Clean Houses (at least) would be glad about it too.

They are generally very plain in their dress, throughout all the Colony, as I saw, and follow one another in their modes [fashions]; that You may know where they belong, especially the women, meet them where you will.

The Elite

Sarah Kemble Knight was well-connected and met some of the leading citizens of the colony on her journey. She stayed at the home of the Rev. Gurdon Saltonstall, who would later become Connecticut's governor. She called him the 'most affable, courteous, Genero's and best of men.' She also met the current governor, Fitz-John Winthrop.

Their Chief Red Letter day is St. Election, which is annually Observed according to Charter, to choose their Governor: a blessing they can never be thankful enough for, as they will find, if ever it be their hard fortune to loose it. The present Governor in Connecticut is the Honorable John Winthrop, Esq. (gentleman), A Gentleman of an Ancient and Honorable Family, whose Father was Governor here sometime before, and his Grandfather had been Governor of the Massachusetts. This gentleman is a very courteous and affable person, much Given to Hospitality, and has by his Good services Gained the affections of the people as much as any who had been before him in that post.

Map detail of John Senex, A New Map of the English Empire in America, 1719




  1. Casey Shain

    Perhaps strange and backwoods but I know it had to be absolutely breathtaking in its natural state.

  2. Daniel C. Purdy

    The Law Merchant was the successor to the Roman Vulgar Code and governed commercial transactions in Europe and here until the Napoleonic Codes came along, Field Codes here.

  3. Timothy De Cerbo

    Weren’t the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven founded by settlers leaving Massachusetts because they found Massachusetts wasn’t strict enough? Or to decadent?

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