Business and Labor

Sarah Kemble Knight Rides the Boston Post Road. Alone. In 1704.

In 1704, Sarah Kemble Knight made a famous journey on horseback from Boston to New Haven and then New York along the Boston Post Road.  It was extremely unusual — and courageous — for an unescorted woman to travel such a distance in those days, and she kept a journal of the trip.

She was a 38-year-old schoolmistress and a widow. According to legend, she taught Benjamin Franklin and the Mather children, but historians believe it probably didn’t happen.

Sarah Kemble Knight told a witty, perceptive story in her journal about the hardships of travel in early 18th century colonial America.

Sarah Kemble Knight, Traveler

In 1704, the Boston Post Road was little more than a crude path from Boston to New York. It had no markings, few bridges and primitive inns along the way. Travelers relied on the post riders who delivered the mail to escort them; otherwise, they couldn’t find the way.

On Oct. 2, 1704, Sarah Kemble Knight rode to Dedham, Mass., on horseback, expecting to meet the post rider. He didn’t show. She learned he stopped 12 miles short of the village. She went to the local tavern and found a guide, a local character named John, to take her to where the post rider was staying.

But not before her hostess tried to overcharge her. Sarah Kemble Knight refused her price, writing, “I would not be accessary to such extortion.”

The woman held forth for so long that Knight feared she was a Quaker, then a minority much reviled by the Massachusetts Puritans.

Dangers

Having finally agreed on a price, Sarah Kemble Knight and John set forth on an easy pace. As they rode, John warned her of the dangers of traveling at night.

A fog settled in as it got dark, and the two riders came to a thick swamp. Though the swamp “very much startled” Sarah Kemble Knight, she wrote that nothing dismayed John and they made it through.

Map of Sarah Kemble Knight's journey

Map of Sarah Kemble Knight’s journey

About an hour after they left the swamp, she wrote, they came to “Billinges,” where she would spend the night. Her guide dismounted and helped her down, then showed her the door and told her to go in. She did so gladly.

‘Never see a woman on the Rode…’

Madame Knight had not gone many steps into the room when a young lady, the family’s eldest daughter, interrogated her:

Law for mee–what in the world brings You here at this time a night? –I never see a woman on the Rode so Dreadfull late, in all the days of my versall life. Who are You? Where are You going? I’me scar’d out of my wits–with much now of the same Kind.

She stood aghast, preparing to reply, when John came in. Madame turned, roaring out, “Lawful heart, John,is it You?– how de do! Where in the world are you going with this woman? Who is she?”

John didn’t say anything, but sat down in the corner. She then turned to Sarah Kemble Knight, “andd fell anew into her silly questions, without asking mee to sit down.:

Sarah Kemble Knight Inks on Ye Transactions

Madame Knight told her she treated her very rudely, and she did not think it her duty to answer her unmannerly questions.

To stop the questioning, however, she said she came to meet the post the next day on her journey.

Miss star’d awhile, drew a chair, bid me sit, And then run upstairs and putts on two or three Rings, (or else I had not seen them before,) and returning, sett herself just before me, showing the way to Reding, that I might see her Ornaments, perhaps to gain the more respect.

Her grandmother’s new pig would have affected her as much, Madame Knight noted tartly.

She then paid John and dismissed him. Then she asked “Miss” to show her where she must sleep.

Shee conducted me to a parlor in a little back Lento, wch was almost fill’d with the bedstead, wch was so high that I was forced to climb on a chair to gitt up to ye wretched bed that lay on it; on wch having stretchy my tired Limbs, and lay’d my head on a Sad-colourd pillow, I began to ink on the transactions of ye past day.

Map: Approximate route of Sarah Kemble Knight, 1704-1705, including “Connecticut Colonie”; detail of John Senex, A new Map of the English Empire in America, 1719. This story last updated in 2022.

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