The story of Sarah Tarrant is more than simply a tale of a single woman’s defiant act that almost began the American Revolution almost three months early, it is the story of the spirit of independence that inspired patriots from one end of the continent to another. From slaves to the richest men in the colonies, from young southern lads to Yankee ladies. Sarah Tarrant spoke what so many felt when she boldly challenged the British regulars.
On the 26th of February, just over eighty days before the fateful shots on Lexington Green “changed the instruments of warfare from the pen to the sword” as future President John Adams put it, a tempest was blowing in the bitter cold winter winds of Salem, Massachusetts. General Thomas Gage, the conflicted British Commander in Chief in the colonies had received word that a munition store, not unlike those in Concord that he dispatched his ill-fated troops to seize on April 19th, was in the town of Salem. Fortunately for it’s inhabitants the cool and steady leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Leslie at the command of this expedition prevented any bloodshed, but just narrowly.
After being delayed for nearly two hours by residents, who had roused themselves out of their houses of worship to defend their homeland on this chilly Sunday the patient Alexander Leslie had finally been allowed to cross a necessary drawbridge by the obstinate patriots (whose brethren had also scuttled and hid all ferries and other means of crossing) on the opposite shore where he desired to search for the arms and munitions, and a couple of rumored canons. With that contrived delay, naturally the militia’s stores had been secured in a new location, and with Leslie’s consent that he would harm no property and only go 500 yards from the opposite side of the bridge before turning about and going to Boston, the locals had little worry that Leslie would do any harm. So amid taunts and derogatory nicknames the Lieutenant Colonel and his men conducted his now pointless search and prepared to head back across the bridge in shivering dejection.
That is where the saucy Sarah Tarrant comes in. From an upper story window this plucky nurses’ pink face showed itself, with a boldness and audacity that was a little much for one of the regulars, especially when taunted with such invectives by a member of the fairer sex, which few seemed to believe had the right to speak up on weighty matters, and none in public settings to be sure.
“Go home and tell your master he sent you on a fool’s errand” she goaded them before launching into upbraiding them for breaking the solemnity of their Sunday meetings “and has broken the peace of our Sabbath. Do you think we were born in the woods, to be frightened of owls?” One equally hot-tempered British soldier wished to answer her fiery tongue with his firestick and leveled his musket at her as she challenged him from the upstairs window. Sarah’s defiant response still imbues the reader with a sense of boldness over two hundred and forty years after “Fire, if you have the courage, but I doubt it.”
Sarah lived in Salem Massachusetts and from her brief interview with the British on that frigid February day, we can surmise she was a woman of faith. One who was not going to sit by and watch her day of worship be desecrated by loud martial displays intended to frighten the populace into cowering before the most successful fighting force then treading the earth. She publicly despised the might and power of the British Empire, while simultaneously defying the norms of her day, where women’s opinions were not to be stated outside of their homes, private circles, and correspondence. A public display of patriotism by a female, would have been shuddered at a handful of years before, but women had been aiding in the boycotts and non-importation agreements, right alongside the men. The desperation of the times had eased the restraints on the gentler sex in some cases, such as Sarah’s. The patriot fathers understood that the support of both sexes was crucial to success. Charles Gadsden, the man behind the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag that still flies in defiance of oppressive government to this day, confessed that without the women, the embargo against the British would never work. The men needed the cooperation of their women-folk. The idea of a woman expressing the fervor of nationalism and a defiant attitude towards corruption was less appalling to the senses of the countryside already in turmoil, at least for the patriot colonist, the British clearly had a difficult time stomaching her heated speech. Her opposition summed up the grievances and determination of so many patriots of every race, sex, and creed. They would not see their Sabbath desecrated nor would they be bullied by the long strong-arm of the British Crown. They, their tea, their troops and the whole line of Tories from Amity to St Augustine could leave or be forced to leave, their sacred rights would not be infringed upon an inch without a fight.
Some of Sarah’s language seems foreign to us today in some aspect, ‘what’s all this business about owls and woods?’ could plausibly be a thought you had upon reading her words. Fortunately, I found an explanation for it to save you the effort of googling it yourself. And the meaning is possibly the most defiant part of Sarah Tarrant’s challenge, even more than the daring a man with a loaded gun and the government authority backing him to fire at you. “Do you think we were born in the woods to be frightened by owls?” was a common phrase employed to express your fearless regard towards something. It was the same as to say, I’m accustomed to dangers, and you, wind-burnt redcoat, are nothing compared to what I’ve already been through. Pause a moment and think of the woods of the time. The “backcountry” as it was called, or the wilderness. The “woods” of those days weren’t the nice places you go for a summer hike in. The woods still had bears and other hazardous wildlife which might try you for lunch. There was also still the clear and present threat of coming across hostile natives. The “woods” were full of dangers, surviving minus the Indians and the carnivorous wildlife was hard enough. Away from cities you had to rely on yourself or die for lack of food. Now picture all of those perils, and how much effect on you is the hoot of a screech owl in the night going to have on you? You’re more worried about the things you can’t hear, like the soft-tread of moccasins or the slither of an unseen poisonous snake or the loud approaches and primal growls of the bear and the wolf. An owl is not going to phase you in the woods of colonial America, and a British military display is not going to frighten you when you know you have the moral high-ground.
Little is known of Sarah Tarrant, except for her actions that day which nearly sparked the patriots to arms as Lexington was destined to do, but much can be learned from her. Defying social customs for a good cause, not arbitrarily for attention, but for the benefit of all, has a definite place in the range of what is proper for a woman, because it transcends your sex and speaks to you as a human who is not about to see things sacred and dear be tarnished by tyranny. To be bold as brass staring down a bayonet backed by the mightiest power on the earth is something in this day of ever-increasing government interference that ought to be remembered. It seems reasonable, that were Sarah Tarrant walking the streets of twenty-first century America in addition to her cell phone and a packet of disinfectant wipes (can you imagine how thrilled nurses of yesteryear would be about Lysol?) she would probably be packing heat to go with it. So remember the saucy nurse of Salem who nearly started the Revolution. She’s a hero worth holding up to the young women in our lives as something to strive to be, the spirit and strength of a real woman, something that is fastly fading in the modern era’s obsession with victimhood and passivity. Remember the defiant folk of Salem and Sarah Tarrant (also you could remember the Alamo, and that’d make my little Texas heart glow with joy too!)
You can connect with Austen at riversdontbreak.wordpress.com and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/AirForceBabeDanvers/?ref=bookmarks.