In the late 1800s, a genealogist in our family was working on a discrepancy in the ancestral record that had bedeviled him for decades. The matter was of some import, for he was in frequent correspondence with Henry King Olmsted, the author whose life's work would become the authoritative Genealogy of the Olmsted Family in America (1912), and he had to set the record straight. The problem was the supposed date of birth of his father, Moss Olmsted (1778), and his grandmother's statement that she married his grandfather in 1779. Esther Ingersoll Olmsted was the daughter of a prominent minister in Ridgefield, CT, and it was unthinkable to her Victorian-era grandson that she might have conceived her firstborn out of wedlock. Nevertheless, that is the implication of a birth date of January 3rd, 1778 for the child of parents who were wed on January 17th, 1779.
In this letter from 1878, a local historian in Ridgefield assures my ancestor that his Revolutionary War veteran grandfather would not have been posted to Ridgefield Ridge with General Putnam until the Fall of 1778, and so he "could not have been there as early as 1777 - Your Grandmother's statement is undoubtedly correct, & the mistake is easy to account for - the figures 7 & 9 in the old records are often made exactly alike." The statement to which he refers is her widow's claim for a veteran's pension made in 1838, in which she states; "
"in the month of January, 1779, he lay encamped with that part of the army which lay at Redding, Conn., distant from Ridgefield where the declarent then resided about 8 miles; that said Olmsted came over from the army at Redding and was married to this declarent on the 17th day of January aforesaid, and returned back to the army on the following morning..."
Unfortunately, this does not settle the matter, except to establish when she claimed to be married. The service record for her husband Ebenezer, who was also from Ridgefield, does indeed show long and honorable service from the first month of the war until after the Battle of Germantown in which he was wounded, but it ends with his resignation at Valley Forge on December 15th, 1777. Esther Olmsted's declaration says he performed additional military duties after that point which is certainly possible, and he might even have had reason to be with the army in Redding on January 1779, though there is no independant confirmation of this in the state or national archives. But certainly the writer of the letter, above, is mistaken in one important point: Ebenezer Olmsted could very well have been in Ridgefield as early as 1777, even though he was then in the army.
In January of that year he enlisted as a Lieutenant in the 5th Connecticut regiment under Col. Philip Burr Bradley. Col. Bradley and men in his command fought at the battle of Ridgefield in April of 1777, and it is all but certain that Lt. Olmsted was present to defend his hometown from the British raiders. Though it may blanch the shades of my ancestors to say it, the birth of his firstborn son 9 month's later could well be explained as a consequence of a union made in the aftermath of this engagement. Many a bodice- ripping plot has been spun out of such contrivance.
How common was premarital sex among our Revolutionary forebears, particularly those of Ebenezer and Esther's upbringing and status? I am no expert on this subject, but I find that Clare Lyons claims in Sex Among the Rabble; An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 that in the late Colonial period approximately 1 in 3 brides in Philadelphia were pregnant at the time of marriage. Christopher Hibbert asserts on page 7 of Redcoats and Rebels that this was true of "about half New England brides" as well. At least one other researcher has published that during this period there was a trend "toward a more individualistic marketplace of sexual desire and fulfillment, much to the horror of those who feared that greater personal freedom brought with it greater individual vulnerability." Premarital pregnancy surged and a declining proportion of young men married the women whom they seduced and impregnated." I also possess a single data point in the form of a letter written by another ancestor living in Elizabeth New Jersey discussing an increase in unwed mothers in her town in 1779.
Clearly it happened, even among the "better classes", and if that is the case in this instance, the outcome was that the Lt. and the minister's daughter were decently married when opportunity permitted and raised many more children together. When The Olmsted Genealogy was finally published, the marriage date and date of birth stood for this couple and their firstborn son. In response to which, I am sure my own grandmother would have laughed and said, as so often she delighted in reciting;
"As I grow old and totter toward my doom / it matters less and less who sleeps with whom."