Knight, Sarah Kemble

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Knight, Sarah Kemble

Excerpt from The Journal of Madame Knight

Reprinted in Early American Writing

Published in 1994

Edited by Giles Gunn

"This Rode was poorly furnished with accommodations for Travellers, so that we were forced to ride 22 miles by the post's account, but neerer thirty by mine, before we could bait so much as our Horses. . . ."

Historians have learned quite a bit about the colonial period from records kept by explorers, settlers, and travelers. European explorers recorded their impressions of the New World (a European term for North America and South America) in reports they sent back to their home countries to encourage future exploration or colonization (see "Christopher Columbus Reports to Ferdinand and Isabella"; "Alonso de Benavides Reports New Mexico Indians Eager for Conversion"; and "Jolliet and Marquette Travel the Mississippi"). Founders of colonies tried to attract new settlers with books and pamphlets that promoted the benefits of living in America (see Thomas Harriot's A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia and William Penn's The Propriety of Pennsylvania). Frequently Europeans went to America on business and later published their impressions of the colonies (see Per Kalm's "Impressions of New Jersey and New York").

Private journals and diaries also offer glimpses of how people lived—and how they managed to travel long distances—in various parts of America. One of the most popular works of travel literature from the colonial period is The Journalof Madame Knight by Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727). Published in 1825, nearly a century after Knight's death, it is an account of her journey through New England in 1704. This remarkable diary provides a detailed portrait of the landscape and culture of early colonial Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. It also reveals Knight's strong personality, which enabled her to overcome the limitations placed on women. At that time many women could not read or write, let alone take on a difficult journey through the wilderness. In addition to writing the journal, Knight was a successful businesswoman and legal advisor.

Knight was born on April 19, 1666, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Thomas Kemble and Elizabeth (Trerice) Kemble. Her mother was the daughter of Nicholas Trerice, a shipowner in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Knight's father was a merchant who owned land in the area that is now Maine. As a young woman, Knight acquired the education that enabled her to write her famous diary and to participate in business and legal activities. Before her father died in 1689, she married Richard Knight, a widower (a man whose wife has died) and shipowner who was much older than herself. The couple had one child, Elizabeth.

Upon the death of her father, Knight took over as head of his household and ran a boarding house (a lodging house where meals are provided), where many of her relatives lived. In addition she engaged in legal activities such as assisting in settling estates (the property of deceased persons) and recording public documents. Historians have found hundreds of official papers that bear her signature as well as court records presumably written by her. There is little evidence, however, to support the popular claim that Knight taught the future scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin (see Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words) at the writing school she operated after her husband died in 1706.

Because of her legal skills, Knight was able to take on many business responsibilities. In 1704 one of the boarders at her Boston residence married her cousin, Caleb Trowbridge, who lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Trowbridge died within two months after the marriage. In October of that year, Knight set out for New Haven to help Trowbridge's widow with legal matters. The trip through the wilderness from Boston to New Haven was extremely difficult and hazardous. For a woman to undertake such a journey alone—and on horse-back—was considered unthinkable.

Margaret Brent, Independent Woman

Like Sarah Kemble Knight, Margaret Brent (c.1601–c.1671) was unique because she was one of few independent women living during the colonial period. Never marrying, Brent was actively involved in the legal and political affairs of the colony at a time when women had little or no power. Brent is remembered today as a feminist because she demanded the right to vote in Maryland, even though she knew she would be denied the privilege because of her gender. It is believed that she was the first practicing female attorney in America. Some historians point out, however, that Brent was not actually advocating equality for women in general, and she was never licensed as a lawyer. Nonetheless, she was an exceptional woman for her day: she owned and managed a large estate, she was the executor (one appointed to carry out a will) of the Maryland governor's estate, and at one point she managed the supply and payment of an army.

Things to Remember While Reading an excerpt from The Journal of Madame Knight:

  • Knight made her trip at a time when land travel between colonies was extremely difficult. The number and condition of roads depended on the population of towns and villages and funds provided by colonial legislatures. As a result, in many places roadbeds (the foundations laid for railroad tracks or roads) were poor and there were few bridges. Often travelers had to wade through fords (shallow places in streams and rivers) that became deep and dangerous during heavy rainstorms. Roads turned into mud holes. Even in dry weather traveling was rough and became rougher when routes went inland. Since there were very few roads or bridges, Knight had to seek the help of guides during her journey from Boston to New Haven. (She followed the route now used by the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.)
  • Despite encountering hardships, Knight gave lighthearted, humorous impressions of the trip in her diary. She recorded all the "Bugbears [problems] to a fearful female travailer," such as "Bridges which were . . . very tottering and of vast Length." When there were no bridges she crossed rivers in canoes (long, narrow boats) or on horseback. Knight described farmhouses and inns, she wrote about country people and their local dialects (speech patterns), and she commented on food and lodging. Knight rose above the dangers of her journey by mocking obstacles, and she provided a vivid account of the culture in New Haven, where she remained for two months. During this time, she met Thomas Trowbridge, who was probably Caleb' father, and decided to accompany him to New York City. They arrived at their destination in three days, and Knight once again wrote about the local culture. After finishing their business in New York, she and Trowbridge returned to New Haven. She then proceeded on to Boston in late February, arriving in early March.
  • The following excerpt is taken from Knight's account of the Boston-New Haven trip. (Knight often used unusual spellings of words, which are clarified in the margin.)

Excerpt from The Journal of Madame Knight:


About three o'clock afternoon, I begun my Journey from Boston to New-Haven; being about two Hundred Mile. MyKinsman, Capt. Robert Luist, waited on me as farr as Dedham [Massachusetts], where I was to meet the Westernpost.



Kinsman: A male relative


Post: Mail carrier


Bait Give food or drink


Anon: Soon, presently


Affliction: Suffering


Deluded: Deceived


Alliting: Alighting; dismounting from a horse


Importunity: Pleading


Sophister: Wise man


Bin: Been

About four in the morning, we set out for Kingston (for so was the Town called) with a french Docter in our company. Hee and the Post put on [rode their horses] very furiously, so that I could not keep up with them, only as now and then they'd stop till they see mee. This Rode was poorly furnished with accommodations for Travellers, so that we were forced to ride 22 miles by the post's account, but neerer thirty by mine, before wee couldbait so much as our Horses, which I exceedingly complained of. But the post encourag'd mee, by saying wee should be well accommodatedanon at mr. Devills, a few miles further. But I questioned whether we ought to go to the Devil [Knight was associating the man's name with Satan, or the Devil] to be helpt out ofaffliction. However, like the rest ofDeluded souls that post to the Infernal denn [go to the Devil's den, or hell], Wee made all possiblespeed to this Devil's Habitation; wherealliting in full assurance of good accommodation, wee were going in. But meeting his two daughters, as I suposed twins, they so neerly resembled each other, both in features and habit, and look't as old as the Divel himselfe, and quite as Ugly, We desired entertainm't, but could hardly get a word out of 'um, till with ourImportunity, telling them our necesity, &c. [etc.] they call'd the oldSophister, who was as sparing of his words as his daughters hadbin, and no, or none, was the reply's hee made us to our demands. Hee differed only in this from the old fellow in to'ther [the other] Country: hee let us depart. . . .

Finally the travelers found rooms at a boarding house. Knight gave a humorous account of the elderly landlady, who spent the evening complaining about her aches and pains to the French doctor. The next day Knight parted from her companions and continued the journey alone. When she came to a deep river she met an old man who said he would help her across after the water level went down. He invited her to his house, where she met his family, who were "the picture of poverty," and a strange guest.

Early American literature

In the 1600s and 1700s colonists produced the earliest forms of American literature. Pioneering settlers issued books and pamphlets promoting settlement in North America (see A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia and The Propriety of Pennsylvania). Others wrote histories of their colonies (see "The Founding of Jamestown" and "The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter"). Religious leaders published essays on social issues (see Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes) or spiritual matters (see John Winthrop's Christian Experience). Many colonists kept personal diaries, such as the "The Journal of Madame Knight," or wrote autobiographies (see Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge and Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words). Several wrote captivity narratives, which became one of the first types of popular American literature (see A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson). Colonists also wrote poetry. Anne Dudley Bradstreet, a housewife on the Massachusetts frontier, became the first published American poet.


Wretchedest: Extremely bad


Shores Props


Clapbords: Wood shingles


Asunder: Far apart


Bason: Metal basin

. . . . This little Hutt was one of thewretchedest I ever saw a habitation for human creatures. It was suported withshores enclosed withClapbords, laid on Lengthways, and so muchasunder, that the Light come throu' every where; the doore tyed on with a cord in the place of hinges; The floor the bear earth; no windows but such as the thin covering afforded, nor any furniture but a Bedd with a glass Bottle hanging at the head on't [on it]; an earthen cupp, a small pewterBason, A Bord with sticks to stand on, instead of a table, and a block or two in the corner instead of chairs. The family were the oldman, his wife and two Children; all and every part being the picture of poverty. Notwithstanding both the Hutt and its Inhabitance were very clean, and tydee. . . .

I had scarce done thinking, when an Indian-like Animal come to the door, on a creature very much like himselfe, inmien and feature, as well as Ragged cloathing; and having 'litt, makes an Awkerd Scratch with his Indianshoo, and aNodd, sitts on the block, fumbles out his blackJunk, dipps it in the Ashes, and presents it piping hott to his muscheeto's, [mustache] and fell to sucking like a calf, without speaking, for near a quarter of anhower. At length the old man said how do's Sarah do? who I understood was the wretches wife, and Daughter to the old man: he Replyed—as well as can be expected, &c [etc.] . . . as ugly as hee was, I was glad to ask him to show me the way to Saxtons, at Stoningtown; which he promising, I ventur'd over with the old mans assistance . . . I Ridd on very slowly thro' Stoningtown, where the Rode was very Stony and uneven. I asked the fellow, as we went,divers questions of the place and way, &c. I being arrived at my country Saxtons, at Stoningtown, was very well accommodated both as tovictuals and Lodging, the only Good of both [the best so far] I had found since my setting out. Here I heard there was an old man and his Daughter to come that way, bound to N. London; and being nowdestitute a Guide, gladly waited for them, being in so good a harbour. . . .


about 3 in the afternoon, I sat forward with neighbor Polly [Polly sat behind Knight on the horse] and Jemima, a Girl about 18 Years old, who hee said he had been to fetch out of theNarragansetts, and said they had Rode thirty miles that day, on asory leanJade, with only a Bagg under her for apillion, which the poor Girl often complain'd was very uneasy.

Wee made Good speed along, which made poor Jemima make many asow'r face, themare being a very hard trotter; and after many a hearty and bitter Oh, she at lengthLow'd out: Lawful Heart father! this bare mare hurts mee [she was sitting behind her father on his horse] . . . I'medirefull sore I vow; with many words to that purpose: poor Childsais Gaffer —she us't to serve your mother so. I don't care how mother us't to do, quoth Jemima, in a passionate tone. At which the old man Laught, andkik't his Jade o' [on] the side, which made her Jolt ten times harder.


Mien: Manner


Shoo: Shoe


Nodd: To nod the head as a form of greeting


Junk: Smoking pipe


Hower: Hour


Divers: Diverse; various


Victuals: Food


Destitute: Lacking


Narragansetts: Native American tribe


Sory: Sorry


Jade: Broken-down horse


Pillion: Saddle cushion


Sow'r: Sour


Mare: Female horse


Low'd: Lowed; moaned


Direfull: Dreadful


Sais: Says


Gaffer: An old man


Kik't: Kicked

About seven that Evening, we come to New London [Connecticut] Ferry: here, by reason of a very high wind, we mett with great difficultyin getting over—the Boattos't exceedingly, and our Horsescapper'd at a very surprizing Rate, and set us all in a fright. . . .

Being safely arrived at the house of Mrs. Prentices in N. London,I treated neighbour Polly and daughter for theirdivirting company,and bid them farewell; and between nine and ten at night waited onthe Rev Mr. Gurdon Saltonstall, minister of the town, who kindlyInvited me to Stay that night at his house, where I was very handsomely and plentifully treated and Lodg'd; and made good the GreatCharacter I had before heard concerning him: . . . that hee was themostaffable, courteous,Genero's and best of men.


Tos't: Tossed


Capper'd: Capered; scampered


Divirting: Entertaining


Affable: Friendly


Genero's: Generous

What happened next . . .

Although Knight did not receive fame for her journal during her lifetime, she became a known for her other accomplishments. Her mother died in 1712, and her daughter Elizabeth was married the following year to John Livingston of New London, Connecticut. When the newlyweds moved to Connecticut, Knight sold her property in Boston and went with them. She bought property in Norwich and New London. From 1714 until her death, she operated a shop and a house of entertainment, managed many farms, and conducted business with Native Americans. When Knight died in 1727 in New London, her estate was apparently inherited by Elizabeth.

After Knight's death her journal passed into private hands and remained in manuscript form. About a hundred years later the diary was discovered by Theodor Dwight, Jr., who had it published as The Journal of Madame Knight (1825). Over the years the book was reprinted a number of times and read by generations of new readers. The Journal of MadameKnight provides a more realistic portrait than most literature of the period. Presenting the vivid contrasts between wilderness and civilization, the diary gives accounts of a variety of cultures as well as the author's own cheerful personality in the face of hardship.

Did you know . . .

  • In 1718 Knight and several other Connecticut business owners were accused of selling liquor to local Native Americans. (Many colonies had passed laws prohibiting the sale of rum and brandy to Native Americans because they had become highly addicted to alcohol, which had been introduced to them by Europeans.) Although Knight blamed a servant for the deed, she was still forced to pay a fine. However, the incident did not affect her standing in society.
  • When Knight died, she left an estate worth 1800 pounds (an amount of British money), which was more than one hundred times the wealth of the average property owner in Connecticut at the time.

For more information

Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall 1991, pp. 235–36.

Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin, 1994, pp. 269–73.

Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner's, 1946–1958, pp. 340–41.

James, Edward T. and others, eds. Notable American Women, 1607–1950, Volume II. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 340–41.

Motion: A Travel Journal—Time Travelers: Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727). (Contains the only known portrait of Sarah Kemble Knight) Available September 30, 1999.

Sigerman, Harriet, ed. Young Oxford History of Women in the United States:Biographical Supplement and Index. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 92–93.

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Knight, Sarah Kemble

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