Caught between the lines

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Margaret Todd was born in New York City in 1736.  Her father Adam Todd was a Scotsman by birth who, despite having emigrated to America as a young man, had remained loyal to his Highland heritage wearing his “plaid, kilt, sporran and dirk” at every opportunity.[i]  Margaret’s mother, whose name is unknown, had probably died when Margaret was very young as Adam married his second wife, Sara Cox, in the Dutch Church of New York City in 1744[ii].

In the mid eighteenth-century New York was a strategic trading post and a cosmopolitan community where English and Dutch families lived together peacefully.  When Margaret was twenty, she married sea captain and ship-owner William Whetten, who had been born in England but had moved to the colonies as a young boy.  They made their home in New York City where they had at least nine children. 

Since the mid-1760s, tension had been building up between the thirteen American colonies and their British rulers, chiefly caused by British attempts to exercise greater control over these colonies and raising money through taxation to address the ever-increasing National Debt.  When George III became king, he instructed Parliament to pass laws to restrict the freedom of the colonies and to tax them.  The colonists objected to these taxes, not so much because they were high, but because they were being taxed by a British Parliament in which they had no elected representatives, thus the grievance of “no taxation without representation” was born. 

Engraving of a view of New York in 1775 from the harbour
A view of New York 1775[iii]

In early 1775, armed conflicts had begun to break out between bands of American colonists and British soldiers who were stationed in North America as part of a standing army.  By the following summer the Revolutionary War had begun, the movement for independence from Britain had grown and a statement of the colonies’ intention was drafted.  On 4th July 1776, the date now celebrated as the birth of American Independence, the newly formed Continental Congress of the Thirteen Colonies unilaterally declared their separation from Britain, rejected rule by monarchy and aristocracy, and asserted their right to choose their own government.

Captain Whetten was an ardent patriot, but chronic ill health prevented him from playing an active part in the struggle.  During the months leading up to the Revolution, he sold his ships and invested most of the proceeds into state government and Congress bonds to support the Patriots’ cause.  When the British captured New York in August 1776, he took his family to the perceived safety of New Rochelle in the rural county of Westchester, north of New York City. 

However, the family soon found themselves in greater danger than if they had stayed in the city, as they now found themselves in a no man’s land between the warring parties.[iv]  

Detail of a plan of the operations of the King's army under the command of General Sr William Howe KB in New York and east New Jersey, against the American forces commanded by General Washington, from the 12th of October to the 28th of November 1776.
Detail of Westchester (click on the image to view full plan in new tab)[v]

At the start of the war, Westchester was a rich and fertile land covering about 15 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west.  This soon became the so-called “Neutral Ground” with British camps at the southern end of the county and the American camps to the north, each side could deploy sufficient forces to gain temporary superiority, but both were too close to the main forces to keep control.  There were frequent clashes of arms between the belligerents stationed in and around the borders, with dragoon horsemen and light infantry leaving their posts to forage and gather information on their enemy’s movements.

Civilians found it extremely difficult to live in the area, as the devastation and famine of war, and the actions of soldiers on the move, affected everyone in this Neutral Ground.  Supplies intended for one side were often intercepted by their enemy, and the little that the inhabitants of the villages had was often taken from them by soldiers of both sides or marauding guerrilla bands known as “cowboys” and “skinners”.   The cowboys were often, but not always, Loyalists opposed to independence who stole cattle and horses to sell to the British, whilst the skinners were equally troublesome, often pro-independence, raiders.  Both groups would ambush convoys, pilfer civilian farms and provide intelligence information about the activities of the other side.[vi]

Cowboys and Skinners Plundering Civilians during the Revolutionary War
Cowboys and Skinners Plundering Civilians[vii]

The British Redcoat army was supported by 34,000 German auxiliaries, known as the ‘Hessians’ because 65% came from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau, and these auxiliaries made up more than a quarter of the British land forces.  The Hessians were effectively mercenaries serving together as entire units, fighting under their own flag, commanded by their own officers, and wearing their own uniforms. Despite their reputation as well disciplined, skilled, and professional fighters, the Hessians often spoke little or no English and were distrusted by both sides in the conflict. [viii]   

Eighteenth-century illustration of two Hessian soldiers with the caption: Erste Officiers [= Offiziers] Unif[orm] ("first officer's uniform") & Gemeiner ("private").
Hessian Soldiers[ix]

A Hessian camp was set up in the field adjacent to the Whetten’s home and Margaret, as she could speak fluent Dutch so could communicate with her new neighbours, quickly set up a positive relationship with their commanding officer who, in turn, tried to ensure the house was protected while many other homes nearby were being destroyed.  He was not entirely successful and, on one occasion when searching the house for suspected rebels, the Hessians stole a cask of cider from the cellar.  The house was also raided by British soldiers on several occasions, but Margaret had already sent any property of value away to safety.[x]

During their time in New Rochelle, the Whettens had several very unpleasant experiences with both the Hessian and British soldiers stationed nearby as it grew increasingly difficult for anyone to get food and tensions were running high on all sides.

On one occasion, Margaret’s two teenage daughters, Sarah and Margaret, were walking home from their grandmother’s house, when they met an American captain who offered to walk with them.  Suddenly a British Redcoat officer leapt the fence from an adjoining field and the girls watched in horror as he ran towards them firing his gun at the captain.  They were quickly joined by several soldiers from both sides and a skirmish ensued, but the girls manage to escape and run to the safety of their home.[xi]

On another occasion, Margaret heard noises outside late at night and assumed that American soldiers were looking for provisions.  When her husband opened the door, outside were some British soldiers who demanded “Are you King’s men or rebels?”, to which he replied, “I am a friend to humanity”, but he was pushed aside as the soldiers forced their way into the house.  Margaret was hiding in a bedroom with her younger children when a soldier broke in demanding money and threw her sleeping toddler off the bed onto the floor.  Although Margaret bravely struggled with the soldier, he made off with her snuff box but luckily none of the Whetten family was harmed.[xii] 

It was a challenging time with the family constantly without food and Captain Whetten was now close to death.  A British officer, Brigadier-General James Agnew, took pity upon the family and sent word to Margaret that the family could have some milk as he’d been lucky enough to acquire a cow.  However, by the morning nothing was left of the cow except the head and skin as the Hessians had killed it and taken the meat to feed their own troops[xiii].

After nearly two years the situation had become so dire that the Whetten family decided to return to New York, although they were initially unable to take possession of their old home.  Sadly, the move was too much for Captain Whetten and he died on 7 June 1778 leaving Margaret with teenage daughters Sarah and Margaret, and son John, together with several younger children.[xiv]

At that time, the war was not going well for the Americans and, despite having invested all their resources into paper bonds, Margaret steadfastly refused to exchange her bonds for hard currency as she passionately believed this would be disloyal to the Patriot cause.  She is quoted as having said “I will never undervalue the currency established by Congress!”.[xv]

As a result of her single-mindedness, Margaret and her children were now penniless and effectively homeless in a city firmly controlled by the British.

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[i] New York Times 6 Mar 1898

[ii] Marriages from 1639 to 1801 in the Reformed Dutch Church, New Amsterdam / New York City via last accessed 18 Aug 2022       

[iii] A view of New York in 1775 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

[iv] The Women of the American Revolution (Vol. 3) by Elizabeth Fries Ellet published 1856 last accessed 13 Aug 2022

[v] Military map showing troop movements before, during and after the Battle of White Plains 1777 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

[vi] last accessed 23 Aug 2022

[vii] Illustration from Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy, 1821: The Revolutionary War Journal last accessed 17 Aug 2022

[viii] last accessed 17 Aug 2022

[ix] Hessian Soldiers Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[x] The Women of the American Revolution (Vol. 3) by Elizabeth Fries Ellet published 1856 last accessed 13 Aug 2022

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid

Other sources include:

A genealogy of the Todd Family by Malcolm Newton Todd published in 1951 via last accessed 13 Aug 2022 last accessed 13 Aug 2022