Every year, the Fourth of July recognizes the United States’ Declaration of Independence from England. Although people mark the day with fireworks and parades, Elizabeth Porter Phelps’ diary does not contain an entry from July 4th, 1776. However, selections from her diary illustrate the material experience of frontier life during the war, as well as her anti-Loyalist leanings, which were remarkable for a gentry family like her own.
No members of the Phelps family served in the Revolutionary War. However, the enslaved person Cesar Phelps did serve, although it is unclear whether he was sent in place of Charles Phelps or volunteered to seek his freedom. Additionally, there are many other references to the hardships of life on the frontier during the Revolutionary War in Elizabeth Porter Phelps’ diary as it is probable that she knew other people who served.
On August 17th, 1777 Elizabeth Porter Phelps was “awaked [sic] this morn about 4 o’clock with the ringing of Hatfield Bell.” This bell-ringing was to rouse the men of Hatfield to go off to fight the British at the battle of Bennington. At this battle, volunteer soldiers from New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire fought off the British, marking a turning point in the Saratoga campaign and ultimately the Revolutionary War. Such volunteer minutemen brigades ensured that the war was a communal experience in the closely knit towns of Western Massachusetts. Given that Elizabeth lost her own father to war as a child, it seems that this weighed heavily on her mind.
Of course, war time brought hardships as well as victories to Hadley. Disease was very common on the battleground and killed more people than combat. Those returning home from battle often brought back illnesses including smallpox, which could spread amongst civilian populations. Porter Phelps writes that “my husband came in and told me that there was a number of parsons [sic] in Captain Marshes’ house taking the Small-pox by inoculation”, indicating that disease was a threat to the people of Hadley. Having already lost one of her two small children that year, disease must have been of particular concern to Porter Phelps.
As you celebrate this Fourth of July, it is important to remember all those who shaped and created this country, including enslaved people and women. The struggle took not only battles and legal documents, but thousands of other stories that have yet to be told.