Abigail Hartman Rice and Public History from the Bottom-Up

Throughout the country you will find monuments, parks, and historic sites dedicated to soldiers who have fallen in battle. Valley Forge National Historical Park is one of the few preserved places in the U.S. that focuses attention on the suffering of ordinary soldiers off the battlefield. This unique position, therefore, provides public historians a specific opportunity to highlight stories not of privileged white men and martial heroics, but rather individuals long ignored in conventional narratives. The life of Abigail Hartman Rice is one such individual story we attempt to highlight at Valley Forge. She served on the frontlines against one of the Continental Army’s greatest enemies: disease. As a nurse at Yellow Springs hospital, Abigail tended to sick men, an ordinary sacrifice that would cost her life.

Abigail Hartman Rice Grave

Abigail Hartman Rice’s grave, at St. Peter’s UCC Cemetery in Pikeland Township, Pennsylvania.

Maria Appolonia “Abigail” Hartman Rice was born in Germany in 1742. In 1750, the British ship Royal Union docked in Philadelphia carrying Abigail, her family, and roughly five hundred other German immigrants about a month before her eighth birthday. Young Abigail was one of tens of thousands of immigrants coming to the Philadelphia in the middle of the eighteenth century. Her family settled in what is presently Pikeland Township, Pennsylvania, and regularly attended Trappe Lutheran Church, where Abigail was confirmed (likely by the founder of North American Lutheranism, Henry Muhlenberg) in 1756. A year later Abigail married Zachariah Rice, a carpenter and millwright. Their first child, John, was born at the end of the decade. For Abigail, twenty more pregnancies would follow. Seventeen of her children would live to their adulthoods.[1]

In late summer 1777, events far beyond Abigail’s control would bring the American Revolution literally into her backyard. In September, the Crown Forces engaged the Continental Army at the Battle of Brandywine. According to the Rice family genealogy, an exasperated Washington and his staff retreating through Chester County following that battle stopped at the Rice home, where Abigail offered the men a drink. The Rice family also surrendered their land as a campsite to General Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania brigades, following the near-clash at the Battle of the Clouds (September 16).[2]

By February 1778, the Continental Army had established a military hospital in Yellow Springs, a few miles from the Rice home. There, Abigail served as a nurse for a couple of years, in the building her husband helped construct. During the Valley Forge encampment Yellow Springs struggled to obtain necessary medical supplies. Requested items like blankets, clothing, soap, and liquor arrived at sporadic intervals. With few medical professionals available, local civilians like Abigail, became the first line of defense against disease. And between 1,800 and 2,000 Americans died during the Valley Forge encampment, more than at any single battle of the American Revolution. Hundreds of men passed through the walls of the hospital, and surely many recognized Abigail Rice. At Yellow Springs she contracted typhoid fever, and never was fully able to recover from the disease. Six years after the war, she died at the age of forty-seven.[3]

Yellow Springs Ruins

Ruins of Yellow Springs Hospital.


More and more women are included in the historical narrative of the Revolutionary period. Yet still, the mantle of “Patriot” is largely reserved in the public mind for people who look like Washington or Joseph Plumb Martin. While exceptional women such as Abigail Adams or Margaret Corbin are often celebrated, the story of Abigail Hartman Rice is significant in its very ordinariness. This founding mother was not from a significant political dynasty or a martial heroine. She was a working immigrant, not from a wealthy family, who by the accidents of fate and geography was thrust into the Revolution’s battle against illness.[4] Her story generates empathy, and helps to break the myth that the human cost of the Revolution was paid exclusively by white men. When we think of the Revolution, we should broaden our understanding of “Patriot” to include people like Abigail Hartman Rice.

As a tour guide at Valley Forge, this story has become an important element of my presentation. Visitors are certainly shocked to hear of her twenty-one pregnancies, but also equally interested in her immigrant past, and the important realization that not all sacrifices are made on battlefields. Placing a spotlight on individuals like Abigail is part of a larger undertaking, to recognize those moments in public history when traditional narratives can be replaced by bottom-up stories. While audiences certainly perk up when they hear the familiar names such as Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, etc., I find they are equally interested when I say, “Now let me tell you about someone you have never heard of before.”

     [1] I. Daniel Rupp, A Collection of Upwards Thirty Thousand Names of German, Dutch, Swiss, French and other Immigrants in Pennsylvania from 1727 to 1776 (Philadelphia: IG. Kohler, 1876), Internet Archive, 228; Lelia Dromgold Emig, Record of the Annual Hench and Dromgold Reunion (Harrisburg: United Evangelical Press, 1913), HathiTrust edition, 78-84.

     [2] Emig, 81; Winthrop Randolph Endicott in U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970, Ancestry.com.

     [3] James E. Gibson, Dr. Bodo Otto and the Medical Background of the American Revolution (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1937), 154, 157; “Abigail Hartman Rice” in Abstract of Graves of Revolutionary Patriots, Ancestry.com.

   [4] “Transcript of the Tenth Eighteenth Pence Rate,” Pennsylvania Archives, Series 3, Volume XI, Fold3, 355.

A special thank you to Jennifer Bourque, a Park Ranger at Valley Forge, who not only led me to this story, but was also kind enough to share some of her archival and online research. 

Blake is interested in early American and public history at Villanova. He helps edit the Muster Blog for the Journal of the Civil War Era. He can be reached at bmcgread@villanova.edu.  

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