Knight, Sarah Kemble Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Excerpt from The Journal of Madame Knight

Reprinted in Early American Writing

Published in 1994

Edited by Giles Gunn

"This Rode was poorly furnished with accommodations for Travellers, so that we were forced to ride 22 miles by the post's account, but neerer thirty by mine, before we could bait so much as our Horses. . . ."

Historians have learned quite a bit about the colonial period from records kept by explorers, settlers, and travelers. European explorers recorded their impressions of the New World (a European term for North America and South America) in reports they sent back to their home countries to encourage future exploration or colonization (see "Christopher Columbus Reports to Ferdinand and Isabella"; "Alonso de Benavides Reports New Mexico Indians Eager for Conversion"; and "Jolliet and Marquette Travel the Mississippi"). Founders of colonies tried to attract new settlers with books and pamphlets that promoted the benefits of living in America (see Thomas Harriot's A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia and William Penn's The Propriety of Pennsylvania). Frequently Europeans went to America on business and later published their impressions of the colonies (see Per Kalm's "Impressions of New Jersey and New York").

Private journals and diaries also offer glimpses of how people lived—and how they managed to travel long distances—in various parts of America. One of the most popular works of travel literature from the colonial period is The Journal of Madame Knight by Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727). Published in 1825, nearly a century after Knight's death, it is an account of her journey through New England in 1704. This remarkable diary provides a detailed portrait of the landscape and culture of early colonial Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. It also reveals Knight's strong personality, which enabled her to overcome the limitations placed on women. At that time many women could not read or write, let alone take on a difficult journey through the wilderness. In addition to writing the journal, Knight was a successful businesswoman and legal advisor.

Knight was born on April 19, 1666, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Thomas Kemble and Elizabeth (Trerice) Kemble. Her mother was the daughter of Nicholas Trerice, a shipowner in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Knight's father was a merchant who owned land in the area that is now Maine. As a young woman, Knight acquired the education that enabled her to write her famous diary and to participate in business and legal activities. Before her father died in 1689, she married Richard Knight, a widower (a man whose wife has died) and shipowner who was much older than herself. The couple had one child, Elizabeth.

Upon the death of her father, Knight took over as head of his household and ran a boarding house (a lodging house where meals are provided), where many of her relatives lived. In addition she engaged in legal activities such as assisting in settling estates (the property of deceased persons) and recording public documents. Historians have found hundreds of official papers that bear her signature as well as court records presumably written by her. There is little evidence, however, to support the popular claim that Knight taught the future scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin (see Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words) at the writing school she operated after her husband died in 1706.

Because of her legal skills, Knight was able to take on many business responsibilities. In 1704 one of the boarders at her Boston residence married her cousin, Caleb Trowbridge, who lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Trowbridge died within two months after the marriage. In October of that year, Knight set out for New Haven to help Trowbridge's widow with legal matters. The trip through the wilderness from Boston to New Haven was extremely difficult and hazardous. For a woman to undertake such a journey alone—and on horse-back—was considered unthinkable.

Things to Remember While Reading an excerpt from The Journal of Madame Knight:

  • Knight made her trip at a time when land travel between colonies was extremely difficult. The number and condition of roads depended on the population of towns and villages and funds provided by colonial legislatures. As a result, in many places roadbeds (the foundations laid for railroad tracks or roads) were poor and there were few bridges. Often travelers had to wade through fords (shallow places in streams and rivers) that became deep and dangerous during heavy rainstorms. Roads turned into mud holes. Even in dry weather traveling was rough and became rougher when routes went inland. Since there were very few roads or bridges, Knight had to seek the help of guides during her journey from Boston to New Haven. (She followed the route now used by the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.)
  • Despite encountering hardships, Knight gave lighthearted, humorous impressions of the trip in her diary. She recorded all the "Bugbears [problems] to a fearful female travailer," such as "Bridges which were . . . very tottering and of vast Length." When there were no bridges she crossed rivers in canoes (long, narrow boats) or on horseback. Knight described farmhouses and inns, she wrote about country people and their local dialects (speech patterns), and she commented on food and lodging. Knight rose above the dangers of her journey by mocking obstacles, and she provided a vivid account of the culture in New Haven, where she remained for two months. During this time, she met Thomas Trowbridge, who was probably Caleb' father, and decided to accompany him to New York City. They arrived at their destination in three days, and Knight once again wrote about the local culture. After finishing their business in New York, she and Trowbridge returned to New Haven. She then proceeded on to Boston in late February, arriving in early March.
  • The following excerpt is taken from Knight's account of the Boston-New Haven trip. (Knight often used unusual spellings of words, which are clarified in the margin.)

Excerpt from The Journal of Madame Knight:


About three o'clock afternoon, I begun my Journey from Boston to New-Haven; being about two Hundred Mile. My Kinsman, Capt. Robert Luist, waited on me as farr as Dedham [Massachusetts], where I was to meet the Western post.


About four in the morning, we set out for Kingston (for so was the Town called) with a french Docter in our company. Hee and the Post put on [rode their horses] very furiously, so that I could not keep up with them, only as now and then they'd stop till they see mee. This Rode was poorly furnished with accommodations for Travellers, so that we were forced to ride 22 miles by the post's account, but neerer thirty by mine, before wee could bait so much as our Horses, which I exceedingly complained of. But the post encourag'd mee, by saying wee should be well accommodated anon at mr. Devills, a few miles further. But I questioned whether we ought to go to the Devil [Knight was associating the man's name with Satan, or the Devil] to be helpt out of affliction. However, like the rest of Deluded souls that post to the Infernal denn [go to the Devil's den, or hell], Wee made all possible speed to this Devil's Habitation; where alliting in full assurance of good accommodation, wee were going in. But meeting his two daughters, as I suposed twins, they so neerly resembled each other, both in features and habit, and look't as old as the Divel himselfe, and quite as Ugly, We desired entertainm't, but could hardly get a word out of 'um, till with our Importunity, telling them our necesity, &c. [etc.] they call'd the old Sophister, who was as sparing of his words as his daughters had bin, and no, or none, was the reply's hee made us to our demands. Hee differed only in this from the old fellow in to'ther [the other] Country: hee let us depart. . . .

Finally the travelers found rooms at a boarding house. Knight gave a humorous account of the elderly landlady, who spent the evening complaining about her aches and pains to the French doctor. The next day Knight parted from her companions and continued the journey alone. When she came to a deep river she met an old man who said he would help her across after the water level went down. He invited her to his house, where she met his family, who were "the picture of poverty," and a strange guest.

. . . . This little Hutt was one of the wretchedest I ever saw a habitation for human creatures. It was suported with shores enclosed with Clapbords, laid on Lengthways, and so much asunder, that the Light come throu' every where; the doore tyed on with a cord in the place of hinges; The floor the bear earth; no windows but such as the thin covering afforded, nor any furniture but a Bedd with a glass Bottle hanging at the head on't [on it]; an earthen cupp, a small pewter Bason, A Bord with sticks to stand on, instead of a table, and a block or two in the corner instead of chairs. The family were the old man, his wife and two Children; all and every part being the picture of poverty. Notwithstanding both the Hutt and its Inhabitance were very clean, and tydee. . . .

I had scarce done thinking, when an Indian-like Animal come to the door, on a creature very much like himselfe, in mien and feature, as well as Ragged cloathing; and having 'litt, makes an Awkerd Scratch with his Indian shoo, and a Nodd, sitts on the block, fumbles out his black Junk, dipps it in the Ashes, and presents it piping hott to his muscheeto's, [mustache] and fell to sucking like a calf, without speaking, for near a quarter of an hower. At length the old man said how do's Sarah do? who I understood was the wretches wife, and Daughter to the old man: he Replyed—as well as can be expected, &c [etc.] . . . as ugly as hee was, I was glad to ask him to show me the way to Saxtons, at Stoningtown; which he promising, I ventur'd over with the old mans assistance . . . I Ridd on very slowly thro' Stoningtown, where the Rode was very Stony and uneven. I asked the fellow, as we went, divers questions of the place and way, &c. I being arrived at my country Saxtons, at Stoningtown, was very well accommodated both as to victuals and Lodging, the only Good of both [the best so far] I had found since my setting out. Here I heard there was an old man and his Daughter to come that way, bound to N. London; and being now destitute a Guide, gladly waited for them, being in so good a harbour. . . .


about 3 in the afternoon, I sat forward with neighbor Polly [Polly sat behind Knight on the horse] and Jemima, a Girl about 18 Years old, who hee said he had been to fetch out of the Narragansetts, and said they had Rode thirty miles that day, on a sory lean Jade, with only a Bagg under her for a pillion, which the poor Girl often complain'd was very uneasy.

Wee made Good speed along, which made poor Jemima make many a sow'r face, the mare being a very hard trotter; and after many a hearty and bitter Oh, she at length Low'd out: Lawful Heart father! this bare mare hurts mee [she was sitting behind her father on his horse] . . . I'me direfull sore I vow; with many words to that purpose: poor Child sais Gaffer—she us't to serve your mother so. I don't care how mother us't to do, quoth Jemima, in a passionate tone. At which the old man Laught, and kik't his Jade o' [on] the side, which made her Jolt ten times harder.

About seven that Evening, we come to New London [Connecticut] Ferry: here, by reason of a very high wind, we mett with great difficulty in getting over—the Boat tos't exceedingly, and our Horses capper'd at a very surprizing Rate, and set us all in a fright. . . .

Being safely arrived at the house of Mrs. Prentices in N. London, I treated neighbour Polly and daughter for their divirting company, and bid them farewell; and between nine and ten at night waited on the Rev Mr. Gurdon Saltonstall, minister of the town, who kindly Invited me to Stay that night at his house, where I was very hand somely and plentifully treated and Lodg'd; and made good the Great Character I had before heard concerning him: . . . that hee was the most affable, courteous, Genero's and best of men.

What happened next . . .

Although Knight did not receive fame for her journal during her lifetime, she became a known for her other accomplishments. Her mother died in 1712, and her daughter Elizabeth was married the following year to John Livingston of New London, Connecticut. When the newlyweds moved to Connecticut, Knight sold her property in Boston and went with them. She bought property in Norwich and New London. From 1714 until her death, she operated a shop and a house of entertainment, managed many farms, and conducted business with Native Americans. When Knight died in 1727 in New London, her estate was apparently inherited by Elizabeth.

After Knight's death her journal passed into private hands and remained in manuscript form. About a hundred years later the diary was discovered by Theodor Dwight, Jr., who had it published as The Journal of Madame Knight (1825). Over the years the book was reprinted a number of times and read by generations of new readers. The Journal of Madame Knight provides a more realistic portrait than most literature of the period. Presenting the vivid contrasts between wilderness and civilization, the diary gives accounts of a variety of cultures as well as the author's own cheerful personality in the face of hardship.

Did you know . . .

  • In 1718 Knight and several other Connecticut business owners were accused of selling liquor to local Native Americans. (Many colonies had passed laws prohibiting the sale of rum and brandy to Native Americans because they had become highly addicted to alcohol, which had been introduced to them by Europeans.) Although Knight blamed a servant for the deed, she was still forced to pay a fine. However, the incident did not affect her standing in society.
  • When Knight died, she left an estate worth 1800 pounds (an amount of British money), which was more than one hundred times the wealth of the average property owner in Connecticut at the time.

For more information

Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall 1991, pp. 235–36.

Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin, 1994, pp. 269–73.

Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner's, 1946–1958, pp. 340–41.

James, Edward T. and others, eds. Notable American Women, 1607–1950, Volume II. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 340–41.

Motion: A Travel Journal—Time Travelers: Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727). (Contains the only known portrait of Sarah Kemble Knight) Available September 30, 1999.

Sigerman, Harriet, ed. Young Oxford History of Women in the United States: Biographical Supplement and Index. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 92–93.