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, 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 for John’s. 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.
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.
In about an how’r, or something more, after we left the Swamp, we come to Billinges, where I was to Lodg. My Guide dismounted and very Complasantly hel’t me down and shewd the door, signing to me with his hand to Go in; wch I gladly did—But had not gone many steps into the Room, were I was Interrogated by a young Lady I understood afterwards was the Eldest daughter of the family, with these, or words to this purpose, (viz.) 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. I stood aghast, Prepareing to reply, when in comes my Guide–to him Madam turn’d, Roreing out: Lawfull heart, John, is it You?– how de do! Where in the world are you going with this woman? Who is she? John made no Ansr. but sat down in the corner, fumbled out his black Junk, and saluted that instead of Debb; she then turned age to mee and fell anew into her silly questions, without asking mee to sit down.
I told her shee treated me very Rudely, and I did not think it my duty to answer her unmannerly Questions. But to get rid of them, I told her I come there to have the post’s company with me to-morrow on my Journey, &c. 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. But her Granam’s new Rung sow, had it appeared, would affected me as much. I paid honest John sty money and dram according to contract, and Dismist him, and pray’d Miss to shew me where I must Lodg. 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.