The Journal of Madam Knight Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“But too Indulgent (especially ye farmers) to their slaves: sufering too great familiarity from them, permitting ym to sit at Table and eat with them . . . and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.”

Summary Overview

In the winter of 1704–5, Sarah Kemble Knight undertook a perilous journey from Boston to New Haven and New York City, presumably to settle the estate of a relative. As an experienced merchant, she traveled alone but hired guides along the way. In the Puritan tradition of journal keeping, she kept a diary of her journey, detailing both her travels and the people that she met along the way. She also noted the customs and curiosities of the communities in which she stayed. Not only is her journal an early example of women’s travel writing, it also provides a window on American society in the early eighteenth century, including commentaries on gender, race, and class issues. It is also written in a comedic style that many readers find enjoyable and entertaining. Although not published for the general public until 1825, the journal has since become a standard text for students of colonial America.

Defining Moment

There are few examples of women’s travel writing in early eighteenth-century America. Sarah Kemble Knight’s extraordinary journey in the winter of 1704–5 represents a woman’s voice and opinions at an important time in American history. It was a vastly delayed voice, however—her journal was published almost a century after she completed it, as part of a concerted movement by American publishers to uncover an authentic American voice in print. At this time, having lost the Revolutionary War, Britain was harsh in its criticism of the fledgling American national cultural identity. Even though Knight wrote her journal while America was still a British colony, it clearly showed the emerging culture of the new society. So it was that in 1825, Knight’s first publisher, Theodore Dwight, found success in finding that authentic American voice.

What made Knight’s writing so successful was not only its comedic tone and humorous anecdotes, but its detailing of a society in transition. It shone a bright light on America in the early eighteenth century, but not on its politics or intellectual or religious movements. Instead, Knight’s journal focused on the everyday life of colonists. It dealt especially with the race, gender, and class issues of the day. The fact that three distinct races—white, black, and American Indian—interacted and coexisted at the time makes the journal an intriguing window on colonial society. Knight’s observations on the hierarchies of race and class were especially enlightening, and as she placed herself within these societal rankings, the reader is able to grasp her opinions of those above her and, perhaps more interestingly, those below her. Her colorful descriptions of people she met in the country while on the road from Boston to New Haven engage the reader in a way that a drier form of historical narrative cannot. By viewing the world from a woman’s eyes, what she chooses to describe is also distinct. Her merchant roots are noticeable too, and her detailed descriptions of the mechanics of trade in the New Haven area are understandable, given that she herself was a successful merchant in Boston. Her journal is also noticeably secular, with few religious references. Most important of all, Knight’s journal is thoroughly entertaining and an excellent example of early American women’s writing.

Author Biography

Sarah Kemble Knight was born on April 19, 1666, the daughter of Boston merchant Thomas Kemble and Elizabeth Trarice of Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1688, she was betrothed and later married to the much older Richard Knight, whose work as a shipmaster and London agent for a company based in America took him away from home much of the time. They had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was born on May 8, 1689. Knight lived on Moon Street in Boston and, as head of the household in her husband’s absence, was active in running many businesses. A literate woman, she taught handwriting; ran a boarding house, shop, and school; and worked as a court scrivener, copying out legal documents and thereby gaining some knowledge of the law.

Most assume that the purpose of Knight’s trip was to help the widow of her cousin Caleb Trowbridge to settle his estate in New York City. However, William Learned, in his introduction to the 1865 edition, suggests it could have been to settle the estate of her brother John or that of her own husband, Richard. In any case, her legal expertise would have been an asset. Knight left Boston in October 1704, and as part of this journey, she kept a diary of her travels, now an historical document known as The Journal of Madam Knight. This was a private diary and not meant for publication. Indeed, it was not published during her lifetime, Knight was not known as an author while she was alive. The journey itself was a difficult one at that time, and she followed a route used mainly by postal riders. It was almost unheard of for a woman to undertake such a journey alone, and Knight relied on and hired a number of local guides to accompany her during various legs of her journey. As a decidedly urban Bostonian woman, traveling in rural areas was an eye-opener for her, and her comments are an interesting glimpse into the differences between urban and rural colonial America.

Knight returned to Boston in March 1705. There is no record of her husband in the journal after 1706, but it is unclear precisely when he died; her widowhood was recorded in the 1707 Boston census. She continued to run her businesses until 1713, when she went to live in the vicinity of Norwich and New London in Connecticut to be closer to her daughter and son-in-law. She died in 1727 and, as a testament to her success in business, left her daughter an estate worth approximately £1,800.

Document Analysis

Sarah Kemble Knight’s journal is among the few examples of women’s writing from the American colonial period. Her record of her five-month journey from her home in Boston to New Haven and on to New York provides an excellent insight into the social history of the early eighteenth century. Social history focuses on the lives and activities of ordinary people, as opposed to political history, which is concerned with political events, ideas, movements, and leaders. The journal also lies within the genre of women’s history, which tries to uncover the often unwritten and undocumented lives of women.

This work was never intended for a wide audience. In fact, it may never have been meant for anyone but Knight herself, as her journal was not published in her lifetime. Rather, it was first put into print in 1825, almost a hundred years after she died. If she meant it for anyone, most likely it would have been to regale a small circle of friends back in Boston, most likely women of her own class and station.

In direct opposition to the Puritan writing style of the period, Knight wrote in a secular, comedic style, which was much more akin to a travelogue or diary than any kind of religious sermon. Many writers have described her style as “picaresque,” which describes an early form of Spanish novel that has a roguish protagonist who goes on episodic adventures. As a merchant herself, she seemed particularly interested in the mechanics of trade outside of Boston. Her observations focus mainly on manners, dress, language, and behavior. It is also obvious from her journal that she was an educated woman, as she made allusions to the Bible and the Olympics.

Her description of rural areas, or perhaps better, the colonial American wilderness, is one of the defining features of the journal. More than once, she described dangerous situations and the fact that she was scared for her life. Sometime during October 6, she stated that “my hors stumbled, and very narrowly ’scaped falling over into the water.” In fact, colonial roads in this period were still little more than postal trails. On the way to Seabrook, she described them as follows: “Rodes all along this way are very bad, Incumbred wth Rocks and mountainos passages.”

A woman traveling alone was a rarity in colonial America, and Kemble was forced to hire local male guides to assist her with her travels. The beginning of the document starts with Knight staying at an inn and having the owner go out to find a guide for her. Despite this, Knight was far from being dependent on her husband. As her husband, Richard, was so often away on business, it gave Knight the opportunity to act as the de facto head of household, or a kind of deputy-husband. In this capacity, she seemed quite happy to undertake a voyage that was unusual for a woman of her time and place.

Race was also a key theme in Knight’s writings. As a white woman, she had a certain standing in society and this meant she felt superior to blacks and American Indians. As Massachusetts had legalized slavery in 1641, the first American colony to do so, Knight was well aware of black slaves. She also seemed to be aware of American Indians. Far from being rigid, Knight’s version of race relations shows that there was considerable fluidity and flexibility between the races, especially outside of the major urban centers.

There are numerous episodes in her narrative that shed light on race relations in colonial America. The first is a story she shared after she heard it from people she met in New Haven that includes all three races. After a black slave stole a cask of liquor from his white master, he then sold it to an American Indian, who sold the liquor in the neighborhood. It was the Indian, however, who was arrested and brought to justice. Justice, it seems, was mobile and happened wherever and whenever it was needed. As the judge was tending his pumpkins in a field with a fellow judge, the American Indian was brought to them in the field. Justice could not be served, however, without a bench, and so a temporary one was quickly made out of the pumpkins themselves, which shows that justice could also be cleverly improvised. When the American Indian appeared before the judges, an interesting interchange ensued. The junior judge chastised the first judge for speaking “negro” to the defendant (“Grandy wicked thing to steal”). The second judge tried to speak to the defendant in his own language (“me no stomany” and “tatapa-you”), but this backfired on the poor judge. The American Indian, by agreeing with the judge’s comparison of a cask of liquor to a human head, inadvertently implied that the judge was a drunkard and resembles a hog. The saga ends with the assembled crowd roaring with laughter and the humiliated judge threatening to resign. Knight often used this theme of humiliating people in power as a comedic device, and it emphasizes Knight’s own flexibility of opinion when it comes to class when it suits her. The judge deserved respect as a higher class of townsperson, but Knight seemed happy to recount his embarrassment.

The second episode involved a black slave who had a disagreement with his master. Apparently, the master had broken his promise to the slave to do some service and so the slave complained. After an argument between the two (“hard words”), they agreed to put the disagreement to arbitration and abide by the decision of the arbitrators. The arbitrators sided with the slave and ordered the owner to pay forty shillings to his slave, which the owner did. This again shows that relations between races were not rigid and that black slaves could and did appeal to the authorities for justice. Knight, however, referred to the slave as “black face,” betraying her own feeling of superiority.

Just prior to describing the above dispute between the slave and his master, Knight mentioned a tradition that truly demonstrated differences that she saw between race relations in the country and those in the city. In describing the customs of the colony of Connecticut she noted that white people (especially farmers) and black people were quite familiar with each other, to the point that they often ate at the same table together. Knight found this quite objectionable, as her choice of words indicates: “permitting ym to sit at Table and eat with them, (as they say to save time,) and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.” By using the word “hoof” to indicate a black hand, she effectively equated black people with animals and revealed her prejudice. In early eighteenth-century Massachusetts and Connecticut, slavery was legal, but it was still not as common as it was later in the century. Nevertheless, in Knight’s mind, the hierarchy between the races was already quite clear.

Knight next provided her observations on American Indians in the area. She noted that they are quite savage and that “little or no care taken (as I heard upon enquiry) to make them otherwise.” This could have been slightly surprising to her, as she may have expected someone to try to convert them to Christianity. Once again, however, she was not explicit in stating this and remained more concerned with their secular customs. She was aware that they had their own lands and laws, but that did not make her sympathetic to them. She next described their marriage customs, saying that the men could have many wives but could easily divorce them by “saying stand away to one another.” Curiously, Knight then went on to chide the colonists of Connecticut for imitating American Indian divorce customs. Again, her judgmental side surfaced when she said that these types of divorces were in vogue among the colonists too and that divorce was possible for trivial matters. She went on to note that women were often the ones who wanted the divorce.

Knight then wrote that if American Indians committed crimes on their lands, they were to dispense their own judgment, but if they committed crimes on English lands, they were subject to English laws, as demonstrated in the case of the man caught selling stolen liquor. Their mourning rituals were also a cause for emphasis, with the Indians “blacking their faces, and cutting their hair,” which Knight found both frightening and odd. She revealed her merchant roots, however, when she described their love of rum. She added that the English watered down the rum they sold to them.

Class and social hierarchy are important themes throughout her journal. As Knight was a merchant-class white woman, she held a certain position in society. She mentioned those of a lower class in less than glowing terms. As a Bostonian, she was used to a certain level of manners and courtesy, and as she traveled in the country, she found, often to her dismay, that there was a different code of behavior. Her description of people of lesser standing is often colorful and always judgmental. When she and her guide Mr. Wheeler stopped at an inn to eat, the landlady arrived with “her hair about her ears, and hands at full pay scratching.” Note also Knight’s use of a merchant term (“at full pay”) here. Although the landlady said she had some mutton, when the meal arrived, the meat was pickled and rancid. So the two had to pay for a meal that they never ate and “was only smell.” Being bested economically by a woman of lower class must have bothered Knight.

When she finally arrived in New Haven, Knight was greeted “with all Posible Respects and civility.” As an urban center, New Haven represented a more comfortable setting for Knight. Still, she was aware that New Haven was not Boston, and so she “Inform’d myselfe of the manners and customs of the place.”

Part of these customs was what Knight described as the residents’ “diversions,” or recreational activities. She spoke of training days and lecture days, during which Puritan preachers or judges would often give a lecture in the church around midday. This meant that many town residents would take time off and enjoy themselves on such days, many riding from town to town. Knight next discussed youth sporting activities and marriage customs. Target shooting was described, with ribbons given to the winners, and then Knight talked about the young age at which the men in particular married. Most were married while under twenty, which Knight considered “very young.” In another tradition she described, the groom’s friends carried him off before he finally committed to the bride, which was the opposite of a former Boston tradition where the bride was taken away.

It was only natural that Knight, herself a merchant, would be interested in customs surrounding trade and commerce. She was attentive to how people pay for goods in New Haven, and detailed four distinct types of payments: pay, money, pay as money, and trusting. Pay was a type of barter arrangement, with values set annually by the General Court of New Haven. A person would offer a certain amount of another commodity in exchange for their desired product. Currency in the form of coins was also accepted. There was no national currency or even a unified colonial currency at this time, and values fluctuated between various European coins or coins from different colonies. Paper money was printed in large quantities, increasing inflation, and thus widely mistrusted as worthless. “Wampom,” or wampum, referred to local American Indian shell beads that the English often used as currency. In New Haven, it seemed they were used as smaller denominations as change for transactions. Pay as money was another form of bartering, but the commodity was valued at a cheaper rate (“one Third cheaper”) than the General Court’s annual rate. Finally, New Haven merchants also extended credit (“trusting”) to their customers on a case-by-case basis.

Knight then described the process of purchasing. The first things to be decided were whether the purchaser had the means to make the purchase (“You pay redy?”) and then the type of payment. After that, and depending on the type of payment, a price was set. Knight gave an excellent example of the differing prices that a knife could have depending on the type of payment to be made: “as suppose he wants a sixpenny knife, in pay it is 12d [pence]-in pay as money eight pence, and hard money its own price, viz. 6d [pence].” Knight’s mention that this was a “very Intricate way of trade,” not what “Lex Mercatoria,” or “merchant law,” intended points to the fact that trade in Boston was conducted quite differently, and in her eyes, it was simpler and better there.

Having discussed merchant trade in general terms, Knight then gave another of her colorful anecdotes to further illustrate her point that trade was different in New Haven. Again, her sense of Bostonian superiority is evident in her description of a country fellow coming to buy something from a merchant. She described him with his cheeks (“alfogeos”) full of chewing tobacco, which she equated to chewing his cud like a cow. As with race, she referred to a human as an animal when making a point about someone from a lower class. She noted that people from the country such as this fellow chewed and spat tobacco all day “as long as they’r eyes are open.” She was entertained by his actions during the delay before he asked the merchant for anything. She almost reveled in describing his discomfort, as he spat his “Aromatick Tincture” on the floor, kicked at the floor, and finally “Hugging his own pretty Body with his hands under his arms, Stood staring rown’d him, like a Catt let out of a Baskett.” She again used animal symbols—here, a cat, and then later the biblical donkey that could talk. Knight referred to the fellow as “Bumpkin Simpers,” no doubt to reinforce his country origins, and to his female friend who eventually joined him as “Jone Tawdry,” a jibe at her lower-class status. Knight was clear that this woman was beneath her own station, as she used exaggeration when she came into the store, recounting that she dropped “about 50 curtsees.” She ended this episode and the excerpt with the observation that people in New Haven held merchants in high esteem, most likely because they were always indebted to them.

Essential Themes

Although Sarah Kemble Knight’s journal touches on various themes, such as travel in the colonial wilderness and women in colonial America, the two essential themes of this excerpt of her journal are race and class issues in early eighteenth century. Knight’s journal contrasts sharply with the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682. Rowlandson was taken captive by American Indians during King Philip’s War, and her experiences as captive unquestionably informed the observations of race in her writing. Rowlandson’s writing is also much more religious and deals with an interior spiritual journey. In contrast, Knight’s writing is far more secular and comedic in tone. Race in the early colonial period was a diverse mix of white, black, and American Indian, and Knight highlighted the everyday interchanges that occurred between the races. This is important information, as it is a first-person account of these relationships and therefore the journal represents an important primary historical document.

The second main theme of Knight’s journal excerpt is class, particularly the difference between urban and country manners and behavior. She was a keen observer of details, and by framing country people as simple and somewhat backward, she made it clear where she felt her place was in the class hierarchy of colonial America—that is, always above the country folk she met. As a member of the merchant class, she was also interested in the customs of trade and negotiation outside of Boston. Her firsthand account has been helpful to historians in their reconstructions of the regional variations in such customs.

Knight’s short-term influence may not have gone beyond her close circle of merchant friends in Boston. Her own life, beyond this five-month period in the winter of 1704–5, was of little significance otherwise. Her legacy was, to a great extent, her very normalcy. It allowed her to comment on and record normal everyday activities and events. By the time Knight’s journal was published in 1825, it found many appreciative readers. Since then, students of American history have turned to Sarah Kemble Knight and her travel journal to provide a captivating account of the colonial wilderness and the customs of colonial New Haven and New York.

Bibliography
  • Balkun, Mary McAleer. “Sarah Kemble Knight and the Construction of the American Self.” Women’s Studies 28.1 (1998): 7–27. Print.
  • Bush, Sargent, Jr. “The Journal of Madam Knight.” Introduction. Journeys in New Worlds, Early American Women’s Narratives. Ed. William L. Andrews, Sargent Bush Jr., Annette Kolodny, Amy Schrager Lang, and Daniel B. Shea. Madison: U. of Wisconsin P, 1990. 69–83. Print.
  • Knight, Sarah Kemble. The Private Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York in the Year 1704. Ed. William L. Learned. Albany: Little, 1865. Print.
  • Michaelsen, Scott. “Narrative and Class in a Culture of Consumption: The Significance of Stories in Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal.College Literature 21.2 (1994): 33–46. Print.
  • Stern, Julia. “To Relish and to Spew Disgust as Cultural Critique in ‘The Journal of Madam Knight.’” Legacy: A Journey of American Women Writers 14 (1997): 1–12. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Andrews, William L., et al., eds. Journeys to New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives. Madison: U. of Wisconsin P, 1990. Print.
  • Imbarrato, Susan Clair. Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America. Athens: Ohio UP, 2006. Print.
  • Radzinowicz, M. A., ed. American Colonial Prose: John Smith to Thomas Jefferson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print.
  • Rowlandson, Mary, et al. Colonial American Travel Narratives. Ed. Wendy Martin. New York: Penguin, 1994. Print.
  • “Sarah Kemble Knight: Remarks on ‘this whole Colony of Connecticut.’” Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690–1763. National Humanities Center, Sept. 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.
  • Stanford, Ann. “Three Puritan Women: Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Sarah Kemble Knight.” American Women Writers: Bibliographical Essays. Ed. Maurice Duke, Jackson R. Bryer, and M. Thomas Inge. Westport: Greenwood, 1983. 3–20. Print.

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