Knight, Sarah Kemble (1666–1727)

views updated

Knight, Sarah Kemble (1666–1727)

Colonial diarist who provided an invaluable account of New England in the 18th century . Born Sarah Kemble on April 19, 1666, in Boston, Massachusetts; died on September 25, 1727, in New London, Connecticut; first daughter and second or third of five or six children of Thomas Kemble (a merchant) and Elizabeth (Trerice) Kemble; married Richard Knight, sometime before 1689; children: Elizabeth Knight (b. 1689).

Described by author Hannah Mather Crocker as "a smart, witty, sensible woman," Sarah Kemble Knight is remembered for her daring horseback journey from Boston to New York and back during the fall and winter of 1704–05. The diary of her travels, The Journal of Madam Knight, was first published posthumously in 1825, although it was some time before the author's identity was established. The diary has gone through numerous editions and provides an invaluable account of the early 18th century southern New England landscape and the customs and manners of the American colonists who lived there.

Knight was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1666, one of five or six children of Thomas, a merchant, and Elizabeth Trerice Kemble , the daughter of a shipmaster. Nothing is known of Sarah's childhood. Her marriage to Richard Knight (a bricklayer and carver by one account, a ship's captain by another, and an agent for a London business by yet a third) was not recorded, but was known to have occurred before her father's death in 1689. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth, born on May 8, 1689. Records indicate that Knight resided on Moon Street in Boston, where she ran a shop and also took in boarders (possibly relatives). Frequent accounts that she founded a school attended by Benjamin Franklin are difficult to verify.

Knight set out on the journey chronicled in her diary on October 2, 1704, presumably to take care of business or family matters. Although a trip of this kind was unheard of for a woman of her day, there were apparently no objections voiced by her husband (absent from Boston at the time of her journey), her teenage daughter, or her "aged and tender mother." Her diary entries record daily rides from dawn to dusk and include all manner of harrowing experiences involving icy rivers and rickety bridges ("Buggbears to a fearful female travailer"), as well as accounts of each day's lodging, food, and encounters with the local inhabitants, who were not always hospitable. As Doris Weatherford reveals, Knight's diary is marked by keen wit and good humor, as when she had difficulty in getting potential guides to leave the tavern, "they, being tyed by the Lipps to a pewter engine." In addition to observations of societal mannerisms, Knight recorded information about business and economy, architecture, and transportation systems in the various colonies she visited. On a snowy stretch between New York and New Haven, for example, she saw "50 or 60 slays … so furious that they'le turn out of the path for none except a Loaden Cart." The diary concludes with her safe return to Boston in March 1705, "my Kind relations and friends flocking in to welcome mee and hear the story of my transactions and travails."

Widowed in 1706, Knight followed her married daughter to Connecticut in 1714, where she invested in real estate. Her later years were spent in New London, Connecticut, where she ran an inn on a farm she owned. She died there in 1727 and was buried in the town cemetery. Her diary passed into private hands and was discovered nearly 100 years later by Theodore Dwight, Jr., who published it in 1825. Since that first edition, it has been reissued many times. In 1995, Janet Burnett Gerba wrote a novel based on the diary, With No Little Regret: An Historical Novel Based on the Journal of Madame Knight.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Kimball, Carol W. "Novelist adds spice to narrative of Madam Knight's arduous trip," in The Day [New London, CT]. October 17, 1996.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Knight, Sarah Kemble (1666–1727)

Updated About content Print Article