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One Colonial Woman's World

One Colonial Woman's World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit

Michelle Marchetti Coughlin
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    One Colonial Woman's World
    Book Description:

    This book reconstructs the life of Mehetabel Chandler Coit (1673–1758), the author of what may be the earliest surviving diary by an American woman. A native of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who later moved to Connecticut, she began her diary at the age of fifteen and kept it intermittently until she was well into her seventies. A previously overlooked resource, the diary contains entries on a broad range of topics as well as poems, recipes, folk and herbal medical remedies, religious meditations, and financial accounts. An extensive collection of letters by Coit and her female relatives has also survived, shedding further light on her experiences. Michelle Marchetti Coughlin combs through these writings to create a vivid portrait of a colonial American woman and the world she inhabited. Coughlin documents the activities of daily life as well as dramas occasioned by war, epidemics, and political upheaval. Though Coit’s opportunities were circumscribed by gender norms of the day, she led a rich and varied life, not only running a household and raising a family, but reading, writing, traveling, transacting business, and maintaining a widespread network of social and commercial connections. She also took a lively interest in the world around her and played an active role in her community. Coit’s long life covered an eventful period in American history, and this book explores the numerous—and sometimes surprising—ways in which her personal history was linked to broader social and political developments. It also provides insight into the lives of countless other colonial American women whose history remains largely untold.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-216-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xxii)

    Despite the great strides made in the field of early American women’s history over the past few decades, only a small number of primary sources written by women have yet been made widely available. It is true that few women in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries left behind written records of any kind, and fewer still of these writings have survived; but it is also true that only a fraction of the surviving documents have been published. Many scholars are currently working to remedy this situation; however, it remains the case that what has often been missing from the...

    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
    (pp. xxvii-xxvii)
  8. [Illustration]
    (pp. xxviii-xxix)
  9. CHAPTER ONE The Years before the Diary, 1673–1688
    (pp. 1-20)

    To paraphrase John Milton, as morning shows the day, so childhood shows the woman. While few facts are available regarding Mehetabel Chandler Coit’s early years, it is clear from her later writings that the events and circumstances of her childhood and adolescence played a major role in the formation of her identity. Her family life, social environment, physical location, and educational and religious grounding each contributed to the shaping of her personality in meaningful and lasting ways. Even though she spent the greater part of her life in surroundings far removed from her birthplace—and amid social and political conditions...

  10. CHAPTER TWO Coming of Age, 1688–1693
    (pp. 21-36)

    Mehetabel’s move to New Roxbury not only launched her on a new life course, but it also seems to have motivated her to begin keeping a diary. Such dislocations and major life changes have often impelled people to take up diary writing. Mehetabel’s age at the time of the move may also have played a role; she was fourteen in the spring of 1688 and perhaps experiencing the physical and emotional transformations of adolescence. On some level, she may have viewed diary keeping as a way to maintain a sense of identity and exert a degree of control over her...

  11. CHAPTER THREE Marriage and Motherhood, 1694–1696
    (pp. 37-56)

    Mehetabel noted the exact date of her arrival in New London in her fifth chronological diary entry: “novembr2: 1694 I came to new london with my brother John Chandler & his wife.” She did not disclose why she accompanied John, his wife Mary, and their one-year-old son, John, to New London, or whether she had ever been there before. John himself had previously spent time in the area; in fact, he had met Mary, a New London native, while doing some local surveying for Major James Fitch, an agent for the Mohegans and substantial landowner who in 1686 had...

  12. CHAPTER FOUR Establishing Roots, 1697–1706
    (pp. 57-80)

    Mehetabel had married into one large and established New London family and was related through her mother to another. Nonetheless, it may have taken her some years to set down her own roots in the community. Her involvement with the Puritan church, which she seems to have attended regularly even though she did not become a full member, likely facilitated the process. During Mehetabel’s first years in New London, the congregation was engaged in building a new meetinghouse, as the previous structure had burned down. Arson was the suspected cause, and although the charges were never proved, several members of...

  13. CHAPTER FIVE Comings and Goings, 1707–1711
    (pp. 81-102)

    For whatever reason, the highest concentration of dated entries in Mehetabel’s diary falls in the years 1707, 1708, and 1709.¹ (This does not take into account the other,undatedmaterial in the diary: the recipes, medical remedies, and quotations, which she may have recorded over several decades.) Although Mehetabel certainly did not keep anything approaching a day-by-day account during this time, the number of entries—more than a dozen in all—is noteworthy when compared with other periods.

    Many of the entries for these years, and throughout the diary as a whole, deal with the comings and goings of Mehetabel...

  14. CHAPTER SIX Mistress and Matriarch, 1712–1725
    (pp. 103-126)

    After sarah’s death, her children by William Coit—twelve-year-old Daniel and nine-year-old William—likely moved into Mehetabel and John’s home, as John had been appointed their guardian after their father died.¹ By late that year, then, Mehetabel’s household would have been a full one, consisting not only of her five children and two nephews, but probably also her mother-in-law, as well as the Coit family’s two slaves, “old Nanny” and Mingo.

    Some months later, the Coit household was reduced by one when fourteen-year-old Joseph left for Boston to receive instruction in ship’s carpentry. That Joseph was sent out of the...

  15. CHAPTER SEVEN Letters from Martha, 1726–1730
    (pp. 127-151)

    Mehetabel and John sent Martha on a visit to friends in Boston the spring following the death of her sister. The trip is documented by a series of six letters, which have miraculously survived, that Martha wrote to Mehetabel between May and July 1726. During this time, Martha stayed with John Slaughter, a sea captain, and his wife, Elisabeth Bradstreet Slaughter, who lived several blocks from Boston Common on the corner of Essex Street and Rainsford Lane (now Harrison Avenue). The basis of the Coits’ relationship with the Slaughters is uncertain; unlike with the Ellerys, the two families do not...

  16. CHAPTER EIGHT Transitions, 1731–1744
    (pp. 152-174)

    Prior to their marriage in the summer of 1731, Martha received at least two love letters from Daniel, who at the time was in New Haven finishing his tutoring obligations at Yale. Like his earlier letter to Mehetabel and John, whom he here refers to as “yetender & dear Arbiters of my fate,” Daniel’s first to Martha, dated January 15, is notable for its display of both physical and spiritual passion. Since Daniel was considering the ministry as a career, his use of religious imagery is not surprising (nor is his counsel to Martha to always “improve in Virtue,...

  17. CHAPTER NINE Endings, 1745–1758
    (pp. 175-188)

    John left behind a detailed will, which he had drawn up in 1741. Since it was customary for a couple to discuss the terms that would be established for a wife’s maintenance in the event her husband predeceased her, it is likely that Mehetabel and John did as well. John’s will contained provisions that were similar to most other men’s wills of the time: he reserved for Mehetabel the traditional dower right, or a third of his personal property, as well as use of a third of his real estate during her lifetime. He also specified that Mehetabel should be...

    (pp. 189-192)

    Mehetabel’s children, like their mother before them, lived long, eventful lives. John, perhaps, experienced the most personal misfortune, but he also displayed an ability to try to move beyond his troubles. In the single year after his father’s death, he lost his twenty-five-year-old son John, who drowned after being knocked into the sea by his ship’s boom, as well as his twenty-three-year-old son Richard and his wife Grace, both of whom appear to have been taken by the “Longfever.” (His twenty-eight-year-old son Joseph would fall victim to the same ailment in 1756.)¹

    John’s trials must have precipitated some soul-searching, as...

  19. APPENDIX: Full Text of Mehetabel Chandler Coit’s Diary, 1688–1749
    (pp. 193-218)
  20. NOTES
    (pp. 219-248)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 249-256)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-260)