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American Revolution: 1776–1783

Women, Native Americans, and African Americans during the American Revolution

Women in the American Revolution

From participating in economic boycotts to managing businesses and providing medical care on the battlefield, women assumed many roles during the American Revolution.

    Prior to the American Revolution, women's participation in communal life was mainly relegated to the domestic sphere and dependent roles. They cooked, cleaned, bore children, and assisted on the family farm. These gender-centric duties were often denigrated, leaving women with little sense of self-worth.

    As unrest grew in the colonies, gender roles began to shift. Patriot women became politically aware. They supported economic boycotts of British-made goods. Some joined in public protest meetings against British rule, while others collected money in support of the Patriots. When their husbands and sons joined local militias or the Continental Army, which had been established by the Second Continental Congress, women took on roles typically considered masculine. They managed the family farm or business and became accountable for any additional responsibilities of the men who were off at war.

    Both married and single women followed the army camps. Some did this to be close to their husbands, while others looked to the Continental Army for protection. In the camps, women performed chores such as washing laundry, mending uniforms, cooking meals, and providing nursing care.

    Some women, like Deborah Sampson Gannet and the legendary Molly Pitcher, found less conventional ways to support the Patriot cause. Deborah Sampson Gannet disguised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army. Molly Pitcher was a folkloric figure who carried pitchers of water to the battlefield to help cool the cannons while her husband fought. Many believe that Molly Pitcher was a real person. It is possible she was Mary Ludwig Hays McCauly—who joined her husband William Hays on the battlefield at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778.

    Through these widespread activities, women expanded Americans' concept of gender roles. By the end of the war women's sense of self-worth had been raised, and society now placed greater value on their contributions. Though the Constitution did not grant women the right to vote, many male legislators welcomed women's participation in electoral activities. In addition to their political activism, women emerged from the Revolution with increased access to education.
    Cannons became so hot in use they could explode if not cooled after each shot. Molly Pitcher delivered pitchers of water to prevent cannons from overheating during the Battle of Monmouth.
    Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ6-2336

    Abigail Adams

    Abigail Adams was wife to American Patriot and second president of the United States John Adams. Born in Massachusetts, Abigail Adams was educated at home and had a love of learning. During the American Revolution, she oversaw management of the family home and other matters while her husband supported the war effort at home and overseas.

    Abigail and John Adams exchanged over 1,100 letters before and during their marriage, many of which describe her belief in women's rights. In 1776, before her husband went to Philadelphia to help draft the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams encouraged him to "Remember the Ladies."

    Mercy Otis Warren

    Mercy Otis was born to a prominent New England family in Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Though she did not receive a formal education, she was permitted to study many of the subjects taught to her brothers. Otis married James Warren, a staunch Patriot. Her experiences, and those of her close friends and family, led her to hold secret protest meetings in her home. These gatherings ultimately led to the creation of the Committees of Correspondence. The Committees of Correspondence were Patriot activist groups whose aim was to publish their thoughts regarding colonists' rights and encourage resistance to British rule throughout the colonies.

    Before and during the war, Mercy Otis Warren wrote numerous satirical poems and plays. Her work was published in a Boston newspaper and helped rally support for the Patriot cause. She was also a close friend of Abigail and John Adams, and like Abigail, she supported women's rights. Mercy Otis Warren continued writing after the war, including a three-volume history of the American Revolution that was published in 1805.

    Native Americans and the Revolution

    While many Native Americans remained neutral during the American Revolution, some sided with the Americans, and others supported the British.

      One underlying cause of the American Revolution was the British Proclamation of 1763, a policy that prevented colonists settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. Although the proclamation outraged the colonists, it helped Native American tribes by discouraging settlement on their land.

      Native Americans who supported the British included many Cherokee. Several Iroquois Confederacy tribes also favored the British—including the Mohawk, the Cayuga, the Seneca, and the Onondaga. These groups did not necessarily support British policies but opposed American expansion. They believed a British victory was their best bet to keep their lands.

      Conversely, descendants of the Algonquins and the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes supported the American cause. Some lived alongside white settlers and formed close bonds with the colonists. Tribal members played an important role in the Siege of Boston. Many served as minutemen in New England or in militias in New York and New Jersey.

      Numerous Native Americans remained neutral during the conflict. Delaware tribal members committed themselves to "perpetual peace and friendship" in the 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt. The agreement was short-lived. The Delaware joined the British after Americans killed two native leaders and several Delaware who were not part of the conflict.

      Whether tribes were involved in combat or adopted a neutral stance, the American Revolution had a significant impact on Native Americans. At the 1777 Battle of Oriskany, four Iroquois Confederacy tribes fought on behalf of the British. This brought them into combat against two Iroquois tribes who supported the Americans. Cherokee tribes were devastated when American troops burned their crops and villages. Many American troops and colonists viewed all Native Americans as uncivilized peoples who should be moved aside to allow use of their land by white settlers.

      At war's end Britain and the United States negotiated the Treaty of Paris without Native American representation. Britain granted America all territory east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of the Great Lakes. Many Indian tribes were displaced, or forced from their land, including those who had supported the Americans. The Mahicans of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, were one example. Tribal members—allying themselves with the Patriots—joined the minutemen forces. While they were away fighting, white colonists moved onto their land and would not relinquish it when the Mahicans returned. Displaced and homeless, they moved west to new territory in Wisconsin.

      The United States seemed determined on westward expansion at all costs.

      Native Americans in the American Revolution

      Tribes That Supported the British Tribes That Supported the Patriots
      Some Cherokee and Creeks
      Delaware (after Patriot violation of Treaty of Fort Pitt)
      Some Algonquians

      African Americans in the American Revolution

      Free and enslaved African Americans joined the conflict, some supporting the British and others fighting for the Americans.

      Like Native Americans, African Americans contributed to the war on both sides of the conflict. At the outbreak of the war, slavery was present in all 13 colonies. The Southern economy was dependent upon it, but the middle colonies and New England were not.

      In November 1775 the royal governor of Virginia decided to play upon this dependence. He promised freedom to any enslaved African American who took up arms against the Patriots and fought for the British. An estimated 1,000 African Americans fought alongside the British, and countless others aided the British army as nurses, cooks, and general laborers.

      Both George Washington and the Continental Congress originally resisted having black soldiers in the Continental Army. As time wore on and many white soldiers were killed or left the service, however, Washington's opinion began to change. In January 1776 he permitted free blacks with "prior military experience" to join the army and one year later welcomed all free blacks. That same year, the Continental Congress allowed all free and enslaved blacks to join the army.

      African Americans in the American Revolution

      Free and enslaved black soldiers served on both sides of the American Revolution in a number of different capacities.
      Over 5,000 African Americans fought for the Patriot cause. African Americans joined militias in New England, and many fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Black soldiers in the northern states served in the same units as their fellow white soldiers and received the same pay. The First Rhode Island Regiment—a mixed-race regiment—included several all-black units of soldiers. The First Rhode Island recruited African American slaves for the Continental Army, promising them immediate freedom once they qualified for service. The state assembly declared, "Every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster … be immediately discharged from the service of his master … and be absolutely free." Led by white commanders, the First Rhode Island Regiment fought in the Battle of Newport and in the Siege of Yorktown.

      In 1779 the Continental Congress offered to pay plantation owners up to $1,000 for each enslaved African they sent to the army. There were no acceptances from the Southern states.

      Many African Americans chose to leave the United States with the British after it became clear their freedom would not be guaranteed in the new country.