During those confusing, intense first weeks of the American Revolution, Prudence Cummings Wright organized a ladies group — to capture Loyalist spies in Massachusetts.
Her husband had just marched off to the Siege of Boston in the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. So had the husbands of most of the other ladies.
Rumors flew that British spies were passing information from Canada to Boston through the town of Pepperell, Mass.
She decided to do something about it — even if one of the spies was a blood relation.
Prudence Cummings Wright
Prudence Cummings Wright was born Nov. 26, 1740, in Hollis, N.H., the daughter of Prudence and Samuel Cummings, the town clerk for 22 years. She had two sisters and three brothers, two of whom were Loyalists.
Prudence was a patriot. An ardent one.
She married another patriot, David Wright, in 1761. They lived in Pepperell, Mass., the next town over from Hollis, about 20 miles northwest of Concord. He had joined the militia as a private.
They had 11 children, though two of their children died young: six-year-old Mary died of fever on July 1, 1774, and on March 11, 1775, Liberty died. Prudence Cummings Wright, bereft, returned home to her parents in New Hampshire for comfort.
While there, she overheard her brother Samuel talk to his friend Leonard Whiting, a British army officer, about passing information to the British.
Prudence returned to Pepperell and gathered the women of the town. Then a 35-year-old mother of five, she organized 30 or 40 of them into a militia called ‘Mrs. David Wright’s Guard.’ The youngest, Elizabeth Hobart, was only 17.
The women dressed in their husbands’ clothes and carried whatever they could for weapons. As the men had probably taken muskets with them, the women probably used farm implements such as pitchforks.
The women elected Prudence their leader, and she appointed Sarah Shattuck as her lieutenant. The women patrolled the roads leading into town.
They knew Jewett’s Bridge over the Nashua River was the only way through Pepperell. The Loyalists would have to cross it on their way to Boston.
Susan J. Smith, writing for the Pepperell Historical Commission, described what happened.
“Then they waited at the bridge, into the night, shielding the lantern, totally silent until two horsemen approached from the north,” she wrote. “Taking advantage of surprise Prudence burst upon them with lantern bright demanding to know their identity and business. Her brother Samuel knew the depth of his sister’s commitment to the cause and immediately turned tail avoiding possible fatal injury.
“Leonard Whiting pushed forward, believing he couldn’t be stopped by a bunch of women. He was wrong of course. Both were dragged off their mounts and searched. Dispatches intended for the British were found. The men were escorted to Solomon Roger’s tavern. There the prisoners were detained for the rest of night before being taken to Groton and the Committee of Safety in the morning.”
The committee gave the two men their liberty once they promised to leave the colony. Prudence never saw Samuel, her favorite brother, again.
The women’s militia disbanded after that exciting night.
The town couldn’t pay the women for what they’d done until town meeting on March 19, 1777. Then Pepperell voted to pay Wright’s guard for their service. They referred to the volunteer ladies’ militia as ‘Leonard Whiting’s Guard.’
Prudence Cummings Wright died Dec. 2, 1823. Jewett’s Bridge has been replaced several times, and a covered bridge now stands at the crossing, along with a stone marker memorializing Prudence Cummings Wright.
With thanks to An Encyclopedia of American Women at War: From the Home Front to the Battlefields edited by Lisa Tendrich Frank. This story about Prudence Cummings Wright was updated in 2017.