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Sarah Knight hits the road

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published July 21. 2013 4:00AM

Even kings should be careful of what they wish for. The Boston Post Road, a network of mail routes between New York and Boston, began in 1673 because King Charles wanted his subjects to be in closer communication with each other. For years the road was simply a set of Indian trails, but these trails would link people and ideas in ways the monarch couldn't have predicted, and a century later they would carry the soldiers and supplies of revolution.

I always thought the Boston Post Road was synonymous with Route 1, but it was actually three major arteries. The upper road linked Boston and New York through Hartford and New Haven. The lower route passed through Providence and New London, while a middle spur cut across central Connecticut. There were offshoots along the way to places not on the primary routes.

You may be envisioning stage coaches rattling along these highways, but that didn't happen until the 1770s. For a century men on horseback traversed these rough roads, but in 1704 a 38-year-old Boston woman defied convention and did it too.

Sarah Kemble Knight supported herself by taking in boarders and copying legal documents. When she needed to go to New Haven and New York to settle an estate, she followed the lower post road, guided by carriers who were required to assist travelers as well as to deliver mail. We know about Sarah's excellent adventure because she kept an entertaining journal.

Problems started on the first day when the post rider Sarah was supposed to meet in Dedham didn't show up. At a nearby tavern a greedy inn-keeper and her beer-addled patrons offered no help. After some haggling Sarah hired the owner's son to lead her to the next stop.

She found the carrier there, but he wasn't happy about traveling with a woman. Later on, another post rider demonstrated the same irritation by periodically galloping out of sight, knowing that it would be hard for a woman riding side-saddle to catch up.

Much of Sarah's journal describes the lodgings where she stayed. At one inn her room was next to the bar and she was disturbed all night by drunken men loudly debating the meaning of the name "Narragansett." Wide awake but apparently in good humor, Sarah got up and wrote a poem which begins, "I ask thy Aid, O Potent Rum, To Charm these wrangling Topers Dum!"

At another inn Sarah's mattress was filled with corn husks that rustled whenever she moved. In the middle of the night the maid brought in two men to occupy the beds next to hers. The beds weren't as long as the men were tall, resulting in complaints that ended her attempts at sleep.

She described tavern food as varying from good to disgusting; one meal consisted of greasy cabbage and a white ropey lump slathered in "evil-looking purple sauce."

Sarah chronicled her constant discomfort and occasional fear. She made white-knuckled river crossings by canoe, trekked over rotted bridges, and traveled by ferry and on horseback. Crossing the Pawcatuck River when the estuary was high was especially terrifying, and it was from this point on that she hired guides or was escorted by kinsmen.

Sarah was a keen observer and everything she saw interested her. Her opinions of the people she met ranged from brutally candid to complimentary to compassionate.

Sarah left Boston in October and returned the following January, having successfully completed her business during lay-overs in New Haven and New York. When her daughter married, Sarah moved to North Parish (Montville) to be with her. She died in 1727 and is buried in Ye Antientist Burial Ground in New London.

Remember Sarah Knight the next time you're fuming in traffic on Route 1 (in your air-conditioned car with a mug of cappuccino in the cup holder), and do what she would do. Buck up.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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