Laundresses at a Revolutionary Army camp, circa 1780.

Self-Guided Tour: The Work of Revolution in Cambridge


For many, the first image that comes to mind when thinking of Cambridge during the Revolutionary Era is that of General George Washington taking command of the Continental Army on Cambridge Common in July of 1775, under what would come to be known as the Washington Elm. Although we now know that this tale was a 19th century fabrication, the myth of the stoic, solitary general shouldering the burden (and the glory) of leadership endures.

Military and political elites, especially Washington, receive the attention and credit for the success of the Revolution, but who was making it all possible behind the scenes? What kinds of labor were essential for elites to be able to have time and space to think about and plan military and political maneuvers?

This tour seeks to expand our understanding of the work involved in planning, executing, and supporting the war and its accompanying political shifts by examining some of the sites where women and people of color performed the labor essential to keeping the Patriot cause operating during the Revolution.

Through their service as nurses, cooks, laundresses, stablehands, manual laborers and soldiers, white women and free and enslaved Black men and women provided the essential labor that kept the war and the government running, as well as generating the profits that allowed for educational, economic, and political institutions to be established and to thrive in Cambridge and beyond.

White, three story building with green front lawn, trees, and bushes
Ruggles-Fayerweather House. Photo courtesy History Cambridge.

Stop 1: Ruggles-Fayerweather House (175 Brattle Street)

We begin our tour at the Ruggles-Fayerweather House, named in part after its founder, George Ruggles. The Ruggles family owned multiple large-scale sugar plantations in the Caribbean, as did many of the wealthy families who called Brattle Street home in the eighteenth century.

Finding himself in debt, Ruggles – a Tory, or supporter of continued British rule – sold his property to Thomas Fayerweather in 1774 and managed to escape to England before the outbreak of the Revolution. The Fayerweathers were more sympathetic to the Patriot cause and, in the summer of 1775, moved to their estate in Oxford, Massachusetts and lent their Cambridge home to the Continental army, which used it as a hospital for sick and wounded soldiers. After the British evacuated the Boston area in 1776 and the Continental Army subsequently left Cambridge for New York City, the house was returned to the Fayerweather family.

We know that the Fayerweathers enslaved at least several people at their Tory Row house; Scipio Fayerweather, an enslaved man that the white Fayerweathers left behind in Cambridge when they moved to Oxford, subsequently acquired property on Belknap Street and petitioned the General Court for losses suffered when British troops ruined his property in 1776. We will talk more about the labor of enslaved Cantabrigians during our next stop at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House.

The use of the Ruggles-Fayerweather House as a hospital highlights the important contributions of women as nurses during the war. Women took up nursing for a variety of reasons, including patriotic sentiment, a desire for physical safety, and economic necessity. For some women, serving as a nurse in a Continental Army hospital was a means of expressing their support for the Patriot cause. But many more were motivated by the precarious situation they found themselves in during wartime. With husbands, brothers, fathers and sons serving in the militia, women were often alone in the family home, or were tasked with the care of children and elderly relatives. With the British forces occupying Boston and the surrounding areas, many sought safety in fortified places like army hospitals.

Economic security, too, was a concern for women; with men away at the front and often receiving their military pay late, if at all, many Cambridge women needed to secure a reliable income for themselves and their dependents. Pay for nurses (especially women) was meager, but it was steady work that sometimes also provided food and provisions for workers and their children. The startling difference in pay rates for Continental Army nurses (initially just $2 per month compared to $40 per month for doctors) illustrates both the gender imbalance in the monetary value of women’s versus men’s medical work and the dire need that many of these nurses had to provide for their families using even this very modest salary.

The conditions in Revolutionary War hospitals left much to be desired, and the ambiguous position of nurses as civilian employees in a military setting meant that they did not always garner the respect they deserved. Physically, the job of a nurse in the eighteenth century was grueling and dangerous. Medical treatment was still very rudimentary in many ways, and nurses’ duties mainly consisted of cleaning and dressing wounds, administering medicine, and keeping the patient as comfortable as possible. The vast majority lacked any kind of formal training (as did many doctors).

Nurses were also at high risk of contracting the diseases that so often swept through the army camps and hospitals, including smallpox and typhoid, as well as consuming contaminated food and water. Many also fell victim to the prevailing opinion that it was improper and unseemly for a woman to nurse men outside of her family or household. And as civilians, they could not benefit from the chance at upward mobility through the ranks that military service gave to poor and middling white men, although their position outside of the military system did mean that they were not always required to abide by the same rules as soldiers or even military doctors.

As the war progressed and demand for nurses increased, so did the level of respect afforded them; the Continental Army also dealt with a nursing shortage mid-war by increasing provisions and raising nurses’ pay to $8 per month – although this was still far below doctors’ wages).

blue bottle trees on the lawn in front of three story house
The “Forgotten Souls of Tory Row: Remembering the Enslaved People of Brattle Street” art installation in front of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, 159 Brattle Street. Photo courtesy History Cambridge.

Stop 2: Hooper-Lee-Nichols House (159 Brattle Street)

The original section of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House was built in the late 17th century, making it the second oldest house in Cambridge and one of the oldest houses in New England. From its location on Brattle Street, it has witnessed over 300 years of American history. We know about the history of the white families that lived in the HLN House. However, less is known about the servants and enslaved people associated with the house and the land.

The history of the house begins with Richard and Elizabeth Hooper, who bought an 11-acre farm from John Holmes in 1684 and built a 2½ story house.  Richard died in 1690, leaving Elizabeth with two young children. By the time Elizabeth died in 1701, she was destitute, and the house had fallen into disrepair.  It stood vacant until 1716 when her son, Henry Hooper, reclaimed the property and undertook significant repairs, additions, and alterations.  In 1733, Henry sold the house to Cornelius Waldo, the first slave owner who lived in the house. We have no direct evidence that an enslaved person ever lived in the house from 1733 until it was sold in 1758, but it was of course entirely possible. 

In 1758, Faith Waldo, Cornelius’s widow, sold the house to Joseph Lee.  A merchant and large speculator in land, he increased his social standing by marrying Rebecca Phips, the daughter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Lieutenant Governor, Spencer Phips. Three years after the marriage the couple bought the house to live among several of her socially prominent and wealthy relatives who resided on Brattle Street.  

Lee was thought to be a gentleman, respected by his peers, honorable, honest, and a good friend. He was a founder of the Loyalist Christ Church, Cambridge, gave parties for his neighbors and was an avid gardener on his extensive farm with its many outbuildings. Lee was chosen to fill several civic roles: a Boston constable (but did not serve); an auditor of the Treasurer’s accounts in 1721 and 1730; a member of two semi-political committees and a Justice of the Peace 1743-1744. He became a special justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1764, a regular justice in 1769 and rose to be a special justice of the Superior Court of Judicature. He was elected to the General Court, or legislature, in 1764. 

In 1774, Lee accepted a royal appointment to the much-hated Mandamus Council, a measure taken as one of the Intolerable Acts, which replaced a legislative and executive body elected by Massachusetts Bay Colony citizens. In response, a mob of Cambridge citizens rose against Lee and intended to invade his house, but relented after being offered liquor at a neighbor’s house if they did not. Lee resigned from the Mandamus Council and fled to British-controlled Boston. Perhaps due to his resigning from the Mandamus Council, his house was neither seized nor occupied by the Cambridge Committee of Correspondence, as were others of the neighborhood’s Loyalists. When the British retreated from Cambridge in 1776, Lee returned to his Brattle Street house. 

Upon Judge Lee’s death in 1802, he left an annuity to Caesar, an enslaved man whom he inherited from his father. Lee also appears to have owned a man named Mark Lee, also known as Mark Lewis, who may have been freed when slavery was abolished in 1783. Mark married Juno and was able to regularly acquire, sell, and rent land. He purchased a house and farmed one-quarter of an acre near Sparks Street in 1786 on the top of the hill that distinguishes the street. Making three more land purchases by 1792, the couple sold nine acres to local landowner Andrew Craigie in 1792 and moved to a farm Judge Lee owned in Sherborn, Massachusetts. In 1798, the couple returned to Cambridge and were taxed for a house, barn, and a small amount of tillage: the following year they rented twenty-nine acres of mowing, tillage, and pasture from Craigie. Lewis continued to farm this Cambridge land until his death in 1808.

We know more about the people Lee enslaved than the woman (whose name is lost to history) owned by Waldo or Cesar and the boy Prince. We do not even know if any of them lived in the HLN house. We know that Mark Lee/Lewis, on the other hand, was financially independent, acted to acquire and rent real estate, married and farmed, although this was probably after he was freed. But there is much we do not know about Mark: the quality of his life under slavery and as a free man were never recorded.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Stop 3: Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters (105 Brattle Street)

In July of 1775, when General George Washington arrived in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army, he and his family took up residence in the Brattle Street home that had belonged to Henry Vassall, whose Tory sympathies had led him to flee Cambridge for his and his family’s safety. Because Washington was a man of tremendous stature, and because military and political elites would be visiting him at his temporary home, he needed a household staff large and skilled enough to tend to his needs and those of his family and guests. Historians have identified at least twelve members of this live-in workforce, including seven white women, one Black woman, and two Black men.

Serving as housekeepers, laundresses, cooks and kitchen staff, these women were paid, but at rates far below their male counterparts. Lydia and Mary Austin, a white mother and daughter who worked for Washington, were the wife and daughter (respectively) of Timothy Austin, who served as the household steward. Many of the women – both white and Black – doing these jobs in Revolutionary-era households had family connections to other workers in the same household, whether parents, spouses or children. Like nursing, household labor was often physically taxing with long hours and difficult working conditions. Most Black women who performed these jobs, like Dinah, “a negro woman” who served the Washingtons as a cook, were enslaved (and thus unpaid), but not all. But although there were free Black women who were employed in these jobs, the fact that they were paid so little and that they were doing much the same kinds of labor that their enslaved counterparts were doing illustrates the low value that white society placed on their work.

Two enslaved Black men also served in the General’s household; Peter, “a negro man,” labored as a stable worker caring for Washington’s horses, and William Lee, Washington’s body servant, was enslaved by Washington at his Mount Vernon estate and travelled with him to Cambridge. It was the labor of these men and women – preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning, caring for the house, grounds, and animals – that allowed Washington and his family to live in relative comfort and to entertain other military and political leaders to plan the trajectory of the war.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Stop 4: Site of the Blue Anchor Tavern (11 John F. Kennedy Street)

Our next stop is the former site of the Blue Anchor Tavern just outside of Harvard Square. A number of Cambridge women served as tavern-keepers during the Revolutionary era at places like the Blue Anchor and Cooper’s Tavern. Many worked alongside their male relatives, but some were sole proprietors and/or took over temporarily while their husbands were serving in the military. By providing food, drink, and lodging to both soldiers and civilians, these women helped to create space for discussion among white men about Revolutionary issues and political strategy.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Stop 5: Old Burying Ground (Massachusetts Avenue and Garden Street)

The Old Burying Ground is the final resting place for a collection of local Revolutionary figures who gave their lives to the Cause, including two Black patriots, Cato Steadman and Neptune Frost. The idea of permanent burial plots is relatively recent – in previous centuries, when graves were left unkempt, they were acknowledged as free for the taking. Thus, it is estimated that the Old Burying Ground has eight times as many bodies as it does headstones; because of their low social and economic status, enslaved and free Black Cantabrigians are even more likely than their white counterparts to be buried in graves whose headstones have been lost or damaged (or to not have been given headstones at all).

At the start of the Revolution, both enslaved and free Black men were part of the Continental army in northern colonies like Massachusetts, but the overwhelming majority were performing manual labor – digging trenches and latrines, building roads, caring for supplies and horses, etc. This meant that many had not had formal military training prior to the Revolution, or had even participated in militia drills. By the time the war broke out, Black men were serving in their local militias, and these men represented a mix of free and enslaved individuals. The opinion of many Revolutionary leaders, including Washington, was that military service put Blacks on the same level as whites, which was problematic enough in the case of free Blacks but unacceptable in the case of enslaved men. As the war went on, however, the need for soldiers meant that military leaders were forced to shift their views and accept (and even recruit) Blacks into the army as soldiers as well as manual laborers. Some were promised their freedom if they served; others, particularly free Blacks, saw military service as a path to “respectability” and social and political advancement.

Stone building with a tower in a city setting in front of blue sky and bare trees
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Stop 6: First Church (11 Garden Street)

Many Cambridge elites made their money from enslaved labor on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, most notably in Jamaica and Antigua. Not only did this labor finance their Tory Row mansions and their estates in other Massachusetts towns, but large bequests from the profits of slavery went to establish and maintain educational, religious, and political establishments before, during, and after the Revolution. Cambridge’s largest churches, including First Church, were the beneficiaries of enslaved Caribbean labor, even as these wealthy white donors were publicly advocating for liberty with regard to the British-American conflict. Thus we can say that a large portion of the unpaid labor that supported Cambridge’s revolutionary efforts was being performed by workers thousands of miles away.

Cambridge churches had an intertwined and sometimes contradictory relationship with the enslaved laborers among them. Many allowed both enslaved and free Blacks to worship, although in segregated areas away from white parishioners. Different churches also allowed varying levels of involvement for Black individuals and families in sacraments such as baptism, marriage, and communion, but none were publicly opposed to slavery, and some local ministers enslaved people themselves. First Church has recently begun to reckon with its own history of racism and injustice – a process increasingly being taken on by churches in Cambridge and beyond.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Stop 7: Cambridge Common (Waterhouse Street and Mass Ave)

Although the mythical image of General Washington taking command of the Continental Army under the great Washington Elm has been proven to be just that – a myth – the soldiers did in fact make use of the Cambridge Common as a site of encampment during 1775 and 1776. During this period, women played a crucial role in the running of the camp, serving as cooks and laundresses for the soldiers. Many were following their husbands, fathers, or brothers who were serving in the army, extending their unpaid caregiving duties from the household to the encampment. The presence of significant numbers of women in the camps was largely a result of not wanting to – or being able to – stay in their living quarters while their male relatives were away, although many also wanted to be close to their loved ones and to keep their families together.

These women performed mostly unpaid labor, although some did get a small stipend, but they were provided with rations for themselves and their children. In their roles as cooks and laundresses, they were responsible for minimizing the transmission of disease through ensuring that the food and water served to the troops was uncontaminated and that uniforms and other linens were properly washed and sterilized. In an era when disease killed far more soldiers than battlefield injuries, and when an outbreak of typhoid, yellow fever, or dysentery could cripple an army in a matter of days, these women were providing a crucial service. Laundresses in particular understood their crucial role in stopping the spread of disease in the camps, and they used this to their advantage in negotiating higher wages and improved conditions. As the Siege of Boston ended in 1776 and troops moved on to New York and then further south to engage the British in other colonies, many of these women followed the army, performing the same kinds of labor throughout the Revolution.

This tour was generously funded by the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati