Post by Contributing Author, Susan Jackson
My previous article that focused on the beginnings of formal government in the Colonial town of Edenton, North Carolina, was an easy post to get together. But Edenton is so rich in history, that honing in on one subject to write about next was kind of difficult for me. I wanted a piece that had some correlation with Claire Fraser–she is our heroine, after all! I was looking through photos of Edenton, and I kept seeing the lovely Penelope Barker House at the Edenton waterfront, because it’s always a popular choice for photographers and visitors. Then it hit me: Penelope Barker was one of the strong–and probably feisty–women of the Revolutionary period in Edenton, just like Claire! She may not have been a time-traveling healer who settled in the wilds of the North Carolina highlands, but she had a toughness that only a woman who had experienced hardship can have, and plenty of influence, because she was a woman of genteel birth.
We’ve all learned about the Boston Tea Party, and how Bostonians were sick and tired of taxation without representation, and how they dumped tea (not ice-cold, sweet tea, but the leaves that make tea!), into the Boston Harbor in protest to King George’s demands. Well, Penelope Paggett Barker, who, before the age of seventeen was an orphan, ran the family plantation while raising her dead sister’s children, was widowed twice before age 20 with boys of her own, and the richest woman in the state of North Carolina, (she married up, y’all), decided that she would organize a little tea rebellion of the Southern kind.
Penelope’s third husband, Thomas Barker, sailed to England in 1761 as an agent of the Crown for North Carolina, and because of her personal history, was confident that Penelope would be able to handle all of their affairs while he was away. Thomas was stranded in London, thanks to the blockade of American ships, and was away for seventeen years! During his time abroad, the Revolution was in high gear, and soon, Patriot leaders were encouraging the Colonists to rebel against the ridiculous taxes when Parliament passed the “intolerable acts” after the Boston rebellion. Leaders encouraged the women of the Colonies to boycott cloth and tea from Britain, both of which were mainstays of life in the 18th century.
So, Penelope Barker took action.
In the Autumn of 1774, Mrs. Barker hopped into her carriage and hit the streets of Edenton, and convinced the women of the town that they should fully support the rebellion of the King’s taxes. Someone drafted a resolution, which read, in part,
“We the ladyes of Edenton do hereby solemnly engage not to conform to ye pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea or that we, the aforesaid Ladyes, will not promote ye wear of any manufacture from England, until such time that all Acts which tend to enslave this our Native Country shall be repealed.”
About fifty women signed the resolution, and held their tea party at the home of Elizabeth King on October 25, 1774, enjoying tea made of mulberry leaves and other local herbs.
The first political women’s protest in the country took place in little ol’ Edenton, North Carolina.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
Penelope reportedly sent a copy of the resolution to London, and it was published in newspapers and magazines by early 1775. While the resolution was celebrated in the Colony, the British were shocked, and a popular cartoon was soon making the rounds that caricatured the women as promiscuous and not taking care of their children! (See a photo of the actual cartoon below.) The leaders were appalled that women would dare protest so publicly, and one man, Loyalist Arthur Iredell, wrote to his brother, James in Edenton, and asked him if there was a Woman’s Congress in Edenton as well, and sarcastically said that those loyal to the British Crown had plenty to worry about with women fighting for the Patriots. What a jerk.
Women of the Colonies were resourceful and found plenty of local substitutes for products they were not using from England. The local teas that Colonists continued to brew during this period of rebellion caught on, and there was even one blend that was dubbed “Liberty Tea,” reportedly made up of red rose petals, linden blossoms, elder, red clover, violets and goldenrod, according to the Women History Blog.
To commemorate these courageous women, there is a 250-pound bronze teapot statue atop a Revolutionary War Cannon near where Elizabeth King’s home once stood. It was placed there in 1905 by farmer Frank Wood, who lived at Hayes Plantation where Penelope is buried. Wood commissioned foundry man Frank Baldwin of Watertown, Connecticut to create the memorial using a silver teapot once owned by a former North Carolina governor Samuel Johnston as a model.
I know the Edenton Tea Party time has passed by the time of the setting of ABOSAA, but maybe, just maybe, Diana Gabaldon decides in BEES, (book nine, currently being written), that Claire needs to meet the remarkable Penelope Barker. These two remarkable women could get a lot accomplished if they were to put their heads together!
So, while you’re enjoying a glass of ice cold tea–with sugar, if you’re Southern–think about the women who stood up for themselves and their hopes for independence, who foraged for leaves and flowers that they had to pick, dry, and store just to have a nice cup of tea. Raise your glass to Penelope Barker, strong, courageous leader of Edenton, North Carolina.
The Penelope Barker House, which serves as the Welcome Center for Edenton and Chowan County, is located at the waterfront end of Broad Street in Edenton. It’s a beautiful three-story house that used to sit a few blocks north when Penelope and her family lived in it. If you’re visiting Edenton, stop in at the Barker House, where you’ll learn about the Historic Walking Tour, and other historic facts and places about the town. For hours and directions, visit http://ehcnc.org/places-of-interest/the-barker-house/ . For even more information, check out these links: Visit Edenton and Historic Edenton.
Have you ever visited Edenton or heard of Penelope Barker, the Edenton Tea Party and their place in Revolutionary War history? What about Penelope reminds you of Claire?