A quiet lady

The Coe homestead, replacing a structure burned during the Revolutionary War, stood in Newark into the twentieth century.

TRACES in the historical record such as are found for William A. Whitehead’s father are lacking for his mother. No letters, no images have surfaced, the nearest thing to a portrait being the briefest of sketches by a great-niece that simply reads: “Mrs. Abby Whitehead, a quiet lady tall, thin and stately.”1 If she was indeed a woman of few words, her remembered quietness does not alone explain the blank where a person should be. Her own son, who studied avidly the era in which she was born, wrote little of her. It may be that the archives speak most loudly when they are silent, and call for the most careful hearing.

Abby’s paternal grandfather Benjamin Coe was a leading citizen of Newark. His children and many later generations of Coes would grow up on the property he had purchased on what was once the southwest edge of town. These lands, extending along Court Street from Washington west to High Street, are probably the environment in which Abigail or Abby Coe was born and raised.2

Abby’s family at the beginning of her life was forced to endure the dislocations and traumas of war. George Washington’s retreating army funneled into Newark when she was only two months old. After Washington departed, the King’s forces took his place.

Alexander MacWhorter, the Coes’ pastor and a committed patriot, fled the town before the British advance. Returning in early 1777, he wrote of “murders, ravishments, robbery and insults” endured by those who had stayed. Women in particular were brutalized regardless of age or status; he knew of three who were raped, one in her 60s.3

The brief occupation was devastating to property as well. Newark, once “a pleasant, well cultivated village,” more nearly resembled “a scene of ruin” in MacWhorter’s eyes. Among the homes ransacked was that of Abby Coe’s elderly grandfather and his wife, who first stayed, then fled for their lives. A statement of losses Benjamin Coe submitted at war’s end included his house and its contents: what the enemy couldn’t carry away had been burnt to the ground.4 Little Abby Coe may have experienced nothing of these terrors, but they wouldn’t have been far from the minds of those around her.

The south side of Court Street between Washington and High Streets in 1850. Visible are the homes of Abby Whitehead’s brothers Sayres and Aaron Coe, and of two daughters and a daughter-in-law of Sayres Coe.

Old Benjamin Coe, no friend to the British, holds a place in New Jersey’s Revolutionary lore for sending a distinguished slave to fight in his place, later giving him freedom and a parcel of land next door. “Jack” Cudjo, who went by the Akan name Banquante and claimed to be of royal stock, was only the most celebrated of a nucleus of free and unfree blacks living on or near the Coe property and striving to advance in post-revolutionary Newark, a town whose small population was differentiated, though not harshly segregated, by race.5

Abby may well have been helped into the world and nursed by mothers of these black families, could have played with their daughters, and toiled in the house or garden alongside them as they grew to womanhood. Any shift in the racial landscape, any progress in nonwhite mobility would have escaped her notice until conflict arose, with its predictable result: the measures Newark’s white citizens would take to control its blacks.6

At the same time Abby probably took little notice of what we’ve come to see as the glaring disparity of rights and opportunities between the sexes. In her day a girl’s education often ended at the threshold of her home: a sound knowledge of the domestic arts required no schooling. Newark Academy in the first decade of the new century created a “young ladies’ department” with its own principal and staff, who offered lessons in history, rhetoric and the natural sciences to those who would pay for them,7 but Abby Coe was a generation too early to entertain such possibilities.

Her marriage at age 25 to a widower with three small children, and their residence for the next three years in New York City, would have precluded much participation in activities outside the home. A benevolent organization called the Newark Female Charitable Society, founded shortly before the Whiteheads’ return to Newark, gave (mostly) prominent, older, married women a measure of leadership experience and influence, but there’s no evidence Abby Whitehead took part in it.8 After she married in the Episcopal church in New York, then proceeded to raise her own two sons in that tradition, her ties to Newark’s Presbyterian establishment and to Old First, the church of her father and grandfather, must certainly have weakened.

Knowing that young William Whitehead, the second of her sons, would grow to enjoy many deep friendships with educated, sophisticated females of his generation causes me to wonder why his mother remains so shadowy a figure. Abby Whitehead does seem to fit the profile of a woman more attached to the domestic sphere, perhaps feeling unequipped to venture beyond it.

Abby died in Newark in 1853 at the age of 77.9 A few years later, her son presented a paper to the New Jersey Historical Society on the history of women’s suffrage in New Jersey, a state whose laws had once been written or construed–until “corrected” in 1807–in ways that allowed the vote to some women, and even to most. In treating that brief window of equality Whitehead made some noteworthy errors: missing significant evidence of women voting, concluding that few ever exercised the franchise, and predicting–mistakenly–that what he believed to have been true would always be, that “the women of New Jersey then, as now, were not apt to overstep the bounds of decorum, or intrude where their characteristic modesty and self respect might be wounded.”10

Such could have been the pattern Abby Whitehead followed. Or it could have simply been how her son perceived her. But he should have listened more closely to the prevailing silence.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Sarah Eveline Parkhurst, “A sketch of the life of Sarah Coe wife of Sayres Coe” (dated 17 October 1893) 5, in Manuscript Group 291, Baldwin-Brown-Coe Family (Newark, NJ) Papers, The New Jersey Historical Society, Folder 12.

[2] For Benjamin Coe (1702-1788) see J. Gardner Bartlett, Robert Coe, Puritan. His ancestors and descendants 1340-1910 with notices of other Coe families (Boston 1911) 102-103. Abby Coe’s parents were Benjamin Coe (1738-1818) and Bethia Grummon (ca. 1744-1816); her birthdate is given as 9 September 1776 in Bartlett 142. Coe’s Place, a short thoroughfare opened between Court and Baldwin Streets in the 1850s, was still on the map more than a century later.

[3] “Extract of a letter from Newark, in New-Jersey, dated March 12, 1777,” The Pennsylvania gazette 23 April 1777 2:2. A version of this report was printed in William S. Stryker, ed. Documents relating to the Revolutionary history of the state of New Jersey, 1. Extracts from American newspapers. Vol. 1. 1776-1777 (Archives of the state of New Jersey, ser. 2, 1. Trenton 1901) 350-353. Rapes went under-reported, according to a committee formed to investigate enemy conduct, for “such is the nature of that most irreparable injury, that the persons suffering it, and their relations, though perfectly innocent, look upon it as a kind of reproach to have the facts related, and their names known.” Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789. Volume VII. 1777 January 1–May 21 (Washington 1907) 278 (18 April 1777); also Stryker 349.

[4] Of the looters MacWhorter wrote: “they plunder’d and destroy’d every thing in the house, and insulted them with such rage, that the old people fled for fear of their lives, and then, to show the fullness of their diabolical fury, they burnt their house to ashes.” “Extract of a letter.” Coe’s losses were valued at £337 14s. 4d., including “one dweling house sixty foot by thirty eight,” worth £250. “Inventory of property lost by fire, 1776, November,” in Manuscript Group 291, Baldwin-Brown-Coe Family (Newark, NJ) Papers, The New Jersey Historical Society, Folder 10; printed in “A Revolutionary incident,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, ser. 3, 1:1 (January 1896) 44-45.

[5] In 1864 a pseudonymous chronicler recalled that Cudjo’s family owned a house and lot on the west side of High Street below William Street. Banquante Cudjo “died at a very advanced age, leaving a family of children. He made claim to royal blood, being, as he said, the son of an African King. He was a quiet, orderly man. Whether his descendants have become extinct, or have gone to Africa to claim their prerogative to royal right, is not known – the name is not known among us.” “Newark as it was – No. 19,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 8 April 1864 2:3. In fact, the surname Cudjo appeared in city directories with considerable regularity through the 1860s. Bartlett 102 states that the grant of an acre of land to “Jack” Cudjo was only for his lifetime.

[6] The Coes, like many wealthy white families, long depended on African American workers whom New Jersey’s laws left “in various gradations of legal freedom, either as slaves, slaves for a term, or recently freed blacks.” James J. Gigantino II, The ragged road to abolition. Slavery and freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865 (Philadelphia 2015) 110. His granddaughter remembered that Abby’s brother Sayres (Sayers or Sears) Coe, “being an extensive land owner and farmer, had many men in his employ, most of them being colored, and living under his own roof.” Parkhurst, “A sketch” 3. His accounts name some of these men employed, as early as 1806, to build and maintain the Newark-to-Springfield turnpike. See Manuscript Group 89, Sayers Coe, Farmer, Records, The New Jersey Historical Society, record inserted at p. 13 of Account book 1793 [1791]-1872, Box 2, Folder 1; cf. Daybook 1806-1864 passim, Box 1, Folder 1. A tradition holds that a room in one of the Coe houses was granted to slaves for the entertainment of their pastor. “Old landmarks and reminiscences in Essex. Old Coe homestead,” Newark (N.J.) Star and Newark Advertiser (evening edn.) 15 May 1909 8:6-7. Limits on the free movement of blacks, however, were an early and persistent feature of the law. Sayres’s and Abby’s father Benjamin was named in 1801 to a committee of whites established to prevent the following: “the unlawful residence in the town of free Negroes, or such as falsely declare themselves to be free, and negro slaves; … negro slaves from meeting together in an illegal manner; … their unlawful absence from their owners after 10 o’clock at night; [and] … persons unlawfully dealing with or employing negro slaves.” Centinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 20 January 1801 3:3; cf. “Notice,” Centinel of freedom 6 January 1801 3:3.

[7] Newark Academy, New-Jersey: Young ladies department, under the care of the Rev. Timothy Alden (Newark 1809).

[8] Minutes 1803-1822, in Manuscript Group 9, Newark Female Charitable Society (Newark, NJ) Records, The New Jersey Historical Society, Box 1, Folder 1. William A. Whitehead’s wife Margaret became a leading figure in the Charitable Society once the Whiteheads settled in Newark in the 1840s.

[9] Monumental inscriptions of Essex County vol. 1A. Collected in 1904 24, New Jersey Historical Society Library, REF N 929.017 M815.

[10] William A. Whitehead, “A brief statement of the facts connected with the origin, practice and prohibition of female suffrage in New Jersey. Read before the Society, January 21, 1858.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, ser. 1, 8 (1858) (101-105) 102. This paper was partly a reply to the December 1857 tax protest by Lucy Stone in nearby Orange, New Jersey; see “Lucy Stone and taxation,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 16 January 1858 2:4. Years later Whitehead transmitted a copy of his paper to Susan B. Anthony, presumably at her request, and it was reproduced in Elizabeth Cady Stanton et al., edd. History of woman suffrage (New York 1881-2) 1:447-451. Cf. Susan B. Anthony, Tenafly, N.J., 14 February 1881, to Wm. A. Whitehead, in Manuscript Group 1258, New Jersey Historical Society Archives, The New Jersey Historical Society, Box L7, Folder 7. (The printed versions of Whitehead’s paper include Stone’s letter, in a footnote, under the erroneous date of 1858.)

Images: 1) Historic Newark. A collection of the facts & traditions about the most interesting sites, streets and buildings of the city (Newark 1916) 39. 2) Map of the city of Newark N.J. (New York: M. Dripps, 1850), detail; courtesy Newark Public Library.

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