February 7, 2013
Widow Mercy Wright Allen Tamed a Wilderness and Stabilized her Destitute Family
Often our greatest heroes aren’t in capes and tights. Seldom do we see greater courage than in those who sacrifice to preserve their families. I found one such hero today when I looked up my relation to Ethan Allen, the patriot. One historian fingers Ethan’s grandmother, Mercy Wright Allen, as the source of his extraordinary courage. For Mercy held her family together under very trying circumstances.
When Mercy married her cousin Samuel Allen, she made a grave financial error. The marriage may have been correct in every other situation, but Samuel proved to be a poor provider for their family together. Not only did he lose the inheritance his father passed to him, but he promptly died thereafter, leaving Mercy and their 7 children literally destitute.
In 1705, Samuel invested his inheritance in cheap land; cheap because no one wanted to live on it. He didn’t even want to bring his family to live on it. Having had 38 people killed and over 100 kidnapped in Native American attacks the previous year in Deerfield, Massachusetts devalued the land substantially. Speculating that the land would recover its value, Samuel invested his fortune in the little fertile valley. But the natives remained a threat; Samuel and his family couldn’t develop a farm or homestead the rugged frontier there. After several years, Samuel and Mercy retreated to Coventry, a small farming community in Connecticut. The family acquired a small parcel of land where the family barely subsisted. Samuel’s death in 1718 simply exacerbated the problems; the estate had little provision for the family and no inheritance for the children.
Most women in the early 1700’s would simply apprentice the children out. This gave them skills in a trade but usually broke up the family. Mercy could live on the small estate left to her if the kids were self sustaining. But she wanted to keep her family together.
After what must have taken considerable thought, Mercy traded her small estate in Coventry for a larger parcel of newly acquired land in the frontier of what became Litchfield, Connecticut. This act made ‘Widow Allen’ the only woman to own land in the area. She was breaking the social norms, a testimony to her determination and strength.
This speculation was risky, as had her husband’s unsuccessful attempt, but this time Mercy carefully chose the land. This parcel was newly purchased from Native Americans; no terrible history dampened its value. And she put the kids to work to homestead it. She had one grown son, Nehemiah; the rest of the kids were too young for the physically demanding work of felling trees and clearing stumps. They could help build a small cabin. They plowed the land and brought in livestock. Mercy and her children had to work hard to build a homestead.
Fortunately, in 1721, Mercy won a land lottery, granting her a house lot in the town’s first land division. That gave her additional holdings that would help her hedge her bets on her homestead speculation. She even helped build the town garrison as protection from the Native Americans.
Trouble with the Native Americans cropped up in Litchfield over the next several years, as was common in all of the settlements. One settler was scalped! When the Natives attacked in 1723, three years into their habitation, Nehemiah fled east, leaving Mercy and the younger kids to defend themselves and continue to homestead without him.
Although it was nearly impossible to continue homesteading with only teen and preteen children to help her, Mercy fought it out. Now in her mid fifties, this was backbreaking labor. But she soldiered on.
Mercy lived only a few more years, but they were very productive years. She managed to compensate for her husband’s mistakes. She ensured that her children had farms of their own or married well. And she did all of this during a time when purchasing land and farming was left to the men in society. It would have taken considerable courage to venture into this foreign world uninvited.
As historian Michael Bellesiles wrote, “Widow Allen made the necessary economic negotiations for her young family in a doubly hostile world—a wilderness adverse to settlement and a male-dominated society suspicious of women. In an age when women generally acted only with male guidance, Mercy Allen held her own on the frontier.”
Mercy was unwilling to see her family dissolve after the poor financial decisions of her husband and his subsequent death. Instead, she made wise choices and put her family to work, compensating for her husband’s errors and keeping the family together. To her children, there could be no greater hero.
Bellesiles, Michael A. Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1993. Print.