Valley Forge Stories
Many people encamped at Valley Forge and each has a unique story to tell. We hope to share with you some pieces on the individuals who gave up everything to join General Washington and fight for our independence.
Maria Appolonia (Abigail) Hartman Rice
By Rachael Pei
A glimpse into the life of an honorable Revolutionary War nurse
The stories of women in the Revolutionary War, particularly those who were not wives of famous military leaders, are often overshadowed by accounts of male soldiers’ courageous feats in the battlefield. However, these women played a critical role in the war effort, serving as laundresses, seamstresses, cooks, or nurses for the army. One such woman, Maria Appolonia (Abigail, for short) Hartman Rice was a well-known nurse at Yellow Springs Hospital, where many of the Valley Forge soldiers stricken with disease were treated. Her story deepens our understanding of the civilians’ experiences during the war.
According to family records, Abigail was born in Germany on September 4, 1742. When she was seven years old, she arrived in Philadelphia on the Royal Union ship on August 15, 1750. Her family settled in Pikeland, PA, (located in the upper part of Chester County). They regularly made the 13-mile journey to attend St. Augustine’s Lutheran Church in Trappe, which involved traveling over bridle paths on horseback and crossing the Schuylkill River. The pastor there was Henry Muhlenberg, the main founder of Lutheranism in North America and father to Brigadier General John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, whose 1st Virginia Brigade also camped at Valley Forge.
When Abigail was 16, she married Zachariah Rice and gave birth to their first child two years later. In her lifetime, she had an incredible total of 21 children with Zachariah, 17 of whom lived to adulthood.
The Records of the Annual Hench and Drumgold Reunion relates Abigail’s encounter with George Washington, after the Battle of the Clouds was prematurely terminated by a torrential downpour on September 16, 1777: General Washington and the rain-soaked Continental soldiers were heading toward nearby Yellow Springs when the military leader stopped at the Rice home to ask for something to drink. Abigail reportedly prepared a “flip,” a common drink at the time made with water, sugar, rum and spice. She also agreed to let Brigadier General Anthony Wayne’s soldiers camp on the Rice family’s property that night.
A few months later, during the Valley Forge encampment, Yellow Springs (originally a health spa village boasting various mineral springs) gained new significance as the site of the only hospital commissioned by the Continental Congress during the war. At Valley Forge, disease was a major killer, causing an estimated 2,000 deaths—more than any single battle in the war. Due to the rapid spread of sicknesses like typhoid, pneumonia, dysentery, and typhus at the encampment, the Yellow Springs hospital, being only 10 miles away, was a relatively close refuge to house sick soldiers to avoid the spread of disease. Zachariah, Abigail’s husband, helped with the hospital’s construction. The building, known as Washington Hall, was completed in January 1778. Approximately 1,300 soldiers were treated there during the encampment.
The environment inside was likely very different from the sanitary hospital settings we are familiar with today. Not much was known about proper medical practice, leading to risky operations, such as amputations. The concept that specific germs are the direct cause of certain diseases (germ theory) had not been developed yet, so hygiene was not often the top priority. Furthermore, soap and medical supplies were not always available due to supply shortages.
Abigail was described in the Records of the Annual Hench and Drumgold Reunion as a “stout, well-built woman, warmhearted, and ready to lend a helping hand” (p. 81), visiting the hospital many times to bring food and delicacies for the sick or wounded soldiers. As her visits became more frequent, she started tending to the soldiers, and eventually became a nurse there. Revolutionary War nurses were in charge of keeping the hospital clean, as well as caring for and feeding the patients; however, unlike their present-day counterparts, they did not typically administer medical treatments.
While caring for the sick at Yellow Springs, Abigail unfortunately contracted typhoid fever. She died on November 6, 1789, (aged 47 years old) and was buried at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Chester Springs (a 15-minute drive from present-day Valley Forge Park). Her original grave marker is no longer there, but it read, “Some have children, some have none, here lies the mother of twenty-one.” At her funeral, all 17 of her surviving children walked in the procession to her grave. An attendee reportedly commented that it was the first and possibly last time such a sight would be seen at that church.
Ultimately, Abigail’s story endures as a tribute to the women who served outside of the glory of the spotlight, yet whose roles were crucial in our nation’s fight for freedom.
Copyright, road_less_trvled on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/4GgkG9
By Rachael Pei
A woman whose story embodies the kindness, courage, and indomitable spirit of the Oneidas
Native American allies played an important role in America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. A notable example was the Oneida Nation, which was part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy). They fought alongside American troops, as well as providing scouts, spies, and couriers in the war effort. One of the most prominent Oneida figures was Polly Cooper, who is most well-known for her contributions at the Valley Forge encampment.
In April 1778, when American soldiers were dealing with harsh conditions at Valley Forge, Oneida Chief Skenandoah (or Oskanondonha) sent Polly Cooper and 40-50 warriors to help the troops. After walking over 400 miles from central New York, the delegation arrived at the encampment in May, bringing with them hundreds of baskets of white corn. Unlike the sweet corn sold at grocery stores today, white corn needs to be dehulled and roasted before it can be consumed safely. The soldiers were so starved that they tried to eat the corn raw, but Polly stopped them and taught them how to properly prepare it.
When other members of the Oneida delegation began to leave Valley Forge, Polly stayed behind to care for sick soldiers, teaching people at the encampment about various nutritious/medicinal foods, including a soup made from hulled white corn. During her time at Valley Forge, Polly refused to accept pay for her help, though she did receive a black shawl from Martha Washington and other soldiers’ wives as a gesture of appreciation. The shawl has become an important historical relic, passed down and cared for by her descendants.
After Valley Forge, Polly continued to support the war effort by helping soldiers. In unpublished papers owned by the Oneida Indian Nation, Oneida Chief William Rockwell provides more detailed insight into her character: “When I was a boy, I used to hear my people talk about Polly Cooper’s bravery, about how she cooked and carried water to the soldiers…. Polly Cooper gave water to the enemy soldiers as well as to the men in the colonial army because she believed the war was not over water or food… Polly knew the war was about freedom in thought, to develop principles for the good of all living and the coming generations.”
In 2005, the Oneida County Historical Society inducted Polly into its Hall of Fame to recognize her honorable contributions. The Oneida Indian Nation has also commemorated Polly’s efforts through a statue that depicts her standing beside Chief Skenandoah and General George Washington. The memorial was gifted to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and serves as a reminder of the Oneida’s generosity and friendship during the US’s fight for freedom.
Pictures of the statue featuring Polly Cooper, Chief Skenandoah, and General George Washington. It can be viewed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Here is also a picture of her shawl.
Links to the pictures (in order):
Brevet Major John Van Dyk
By Jeff Wilford
Brevet Major John Van Dyk: A Portrait of Uncommon Patriotism and Resilience
While serving at Valley Forge, Brevet Major John Van Dyk (also spelled Dyke and Dyck) was in the middle of a military career that would place him at some of the Revolutionary War’s most significant events and in the company of the luminaries of the war. A descendant of one of the original Dutch families to settle northern New Jersey, Van Dyk was born in New York City, but grew up along the banks of the Raritan River. He served in the American Revolution as an artilleryman from May 16, 1775, to its close, beginning his service as a member of the New Jersey Militia and the NYC Militia. Most of his time, however, he was attached to Colonel Thomas Proctor’s 4th Regiment of the Continental Artillery Regiment and, later, the 2nd Regiment of the Continental Corps of Artillery under Colonel John Lamb. While at Valley Forge, these regiments were part of Brigadier General Henry Knox’s Brigade, which encamped in the Artillery Park area.
Serving in the northern theater, Van Dyk participated in some of its most notable events. In August of 1775, he assisted Alexander Hamilton with the removal of cannons from the Battery in New York City, while being fired upon by the HMS Asia. He was involved in twelve battles, including Long Island, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. He was also at both of the Morristown Winter Encampments as well as Valley Forge, where he served as a lieutenant and acting adjutant.
While Van Dyk was serving at West Point, Benedict Arnold betrayed General Washington, resulting in the capture of Arnold’s accomplice, British Major John Andre. Van Dyk remained in Tappan, NY, during Andre’s trial and was one of the four Continental officers to accompany him to the gallows. Later, after receiving a furlough from General Washington to go to sea to recover from an undisclosed illness, he served as a lieutenant of marines on the brig General Reed. The ship, however, was captured by the British, and he was confined on the notorious British prison ship Jersey, eventually being released as part of a prisoner exchange. Van Dyk recorded his recollections of both accounts for posterity.
As the war ended, he was present when the British evacuated New York Harbor and was an original member of George Washington’s Society of the Cincinnati. Perhaps his final act as a soldier was in New York City as one of the eight Lafayette Guards, all friends of the Marquis and surviving original Society of Cincinnati members, as they paid tribute on horseback in a procession to honor their former general at his passing in 1834. It is said that the only favor the Marquis de Lafayette ever asked of the new American government was to install John Van Dyk as an officer in the New York City Customs House, where he served with his former colonel, John Lamb.
By Rachael Pei
Hannah (Archer) Till
Hannah Till (originally named “Long Point” by her father) was born into slavery in Kent County, Delaware to an Oneida father and African American mother. Her birth is estimated to have occurred around 1721.
By 1776, she was owned by Reverend John Mason of the Associate Reformed Church in New York, who leased her to George Washington as his personal cook. Her husband, Isaac (who was also a slave) was leased by Captain John Johnson of Bergen County, New Jersey to cook for Washington as well.
The couple had at least three children when they started working for Washington. While staying at the Valley Forge Encampment, Hannah gave birth to another son named Isaac Worley Till.
Both Hannah and Isaac had an agreement with their owners and with Washington that they could purchase their freedom, and they achieved this on October 30, 1778. After gaining her freedom, Hannah continued working for Washington as a pastry cook. She eventually also worked for Major General Marquis de Lafayette for half a year.
After the revolutionary war, the couple cooked for families in Philadelphia to earn a living. They raised at least seven children together and became members of the First African Presbyterian Church.
In March 1824 (when she was around 102 years old), John Fanning Watson interviewed her. In his book Annals of Philadelphia, he describes her as “a pious woman, possessing a sound mind and memory” (page 552). His sister, who knew Hannah and occasionally visited her, also reported that General Lafayette came to see Hannah in 1824. At the time, Hannah was in arrears for her mortgage. However, after the General’s visit, she learned that he had kindly paid off the debts for her.
At 105 years old, Hannah died of old age on December 13, 1826. She was buried at the First African Presbyterian Church, then later reinterred at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, PA. On October 3, 2015, the Pennsylvania Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Pennsylvania Brigade of the Descendants of Washington’s Army organized a ceremony honoring her and placed a marker at the cemetery in her memory.