Alexandria Celebrates Women: The history of America’s “deputy husbands”

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Alexandria Celebrates Women: The history of America’s “deputy husbands”
Photo/Office of Historic Alexandria Hannah Griffith operated the Alexandria Coffee House, located on the current site of the Gadsby's Tavern Musuem, from 1794 to 1800.
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By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

During most winters of the Revolutionary War, Martha Washington would be at her husband’s side. She would endure the cold journey from Mount Vernon to the general’s headquarters, bringing cartloads of supplies for the Continental Army.

Most soldiers’ wives could not make such a trip to the winter encampments in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Many were more than occupied running their household, raising their children and shouldering the assignment of “deputy husband.”

Coined by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the term “deputy husband” describes wives of the colonial period who, in times of necessity, acted as surrogates for their absent spouses, performing duties ranging from handling legal matters to livestock. Women usually became deputy husbands while their spouses were away at sea, away on extended business or away during war.

A 1780 broadside trumpeted the perseverance of early American women: “On the commencement of actual war, the Women of America manifested a firm resolution to contribute as much as could depend on them, to the deliverance of their country. Animated by the purest patriotism … they aspire to render themselves more really useful; and this sentiment is universal from the north to the south of the Thirteen United States.”

An Alexandria woman channeled the experience gained in her role as a deputy husband during the American Revolution to become a successful Virginia entrepreneur. Hannah Colvill Griffith operated the prestigious Alexandria Coffee-House, one of the buildings that today forms part of the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.

Hannah’s husband David Griffith was a friend of George Washington and served as a Continental officer from February 1776 until March 1779. During his service, Hannah Griffith managed the family plantation in rural Loudoun County, Virginia. After David Griffith finished his military service, the family gained prominence when he became rector of Alexandria Church, now known as Christ Church, of which George Washington was a member.

A decade later, Rev. David Griffith died at age 47, leaving Hannah Griffith and seven of their eight children – one son already having married – with a large amount of debt. The family was obliged to move from the rector’s house.

Griffith was more fortunate than many widows: The Griffths owned several lots in Alexandria. In 1789, Griffith moved her family to the city, where she promptly leased out the parcels of land. Griffith still had to provide additional income, and she knew that tavern keeping was one of the few businesses open to 18th century women.

In 1795, Griffith obtained a license to operate an “ordinary” and leased the smaller of the two buildings that make up the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum complex today. Griffith operated the Alexandria Coffee House from 1794 to 1800. Coffee houses – a more exclusive version of an ordinary – were sophisticated establishments most often managed by men, but Griffith succeeded in the industry. Tax records indicate that in 1799, she also ran an upscale boarding house.

Griffith and other ladies of the period channeled their “deputy husband” skills and set the stage for today’s women, using their status, experience and industriousness to not only survive but thrive.

Like Griffith, today’s Alexandria women are breaking down barriers to become entrepreneurs and leaders in industry.

“Alexandria is home to incredible female entrepreneurs. They are women who are blazing trails in every industry imaginable,” Maria Ciarrocchi, chief operating officer and vice president of public policy states for The ChamberALX, said. “In addition to that, these are women who care deeply about their community and who invest their time and energy in supporting other women and helping them succeed. It’s truly awe inspiring.”

Griffith would be proud.

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at [email protected].

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