Master John Sullivan and A Wife’s Apology
Master John Sullivan (1692-1796) and Margery Brown Sullivan (c. 1714 - 1801) and their remarkable family, Berwick, Maine
Sullivan site plaque, Berwick, Maine
Owen O’Sullivan and Margery Brown both arrived in York, Maine, on a ship from Limerick Ireland in 1723. Margery was a 9 year old Irish orphan. Owen was a 33 year old, well-educated man whose family had been a part of the ruling chieftains in Ireland. Despite his background, Owen was traveling with no money and only the clothes on his back. Some accounts say he left to escape the effects of William of Orange’s oppression of Catholic Ireland, others say he left because his mother did not approve of his love for a young woman of a different social class.
Owen O’ Sullivan anglicized his name to John Sullivan and was employed at the McIntire farm in York to pay off his debt for passage to the colonies. He became acquainted with Reverend Moody, a parson in York, Maine. He soon became tired of the difficult physical labor and to prove his learned background, he wrote the Reverend a letter in 7 different languages, asking for help finding a job as a schoolmaster. John soon became “Master Sullivan” and taught in Dover, Somersworth and Berwick in his long career.
In 1735, despite their 20 year age difference, Margery Brown and John Sullivan were married. They first settled in Somersworth (now Rollinsford, NH) and then later bought land in the Pine Hill area of Berwick.
John did not involve himself in the physical labor of running his farm, but instead spent his time studying and reading. Margery was known to be a quick witted, energetic person with a fierce temper.
While Master Sullivan poured over his books, she managed the farm, the household and six children. These children inherited the intelligence of their father and the grit of their mother. Four were revolutionary war heroes, and two were governors. She was quoted as saying “that she had dropped corn many a day with two governors: a judge in her arms and a general on her back.”
The work on the farm and the stress of raising children probably took its toll on Margery. Stories say that she became irritated with her husband and they argued. Master John left the house and did not return. After he had been gone for several days, Margery had this letter of apology published on July 25, 1743 in the Boston Evening Post.
“My dear and loving Husband,
Your abrupt Departure from me, and forsaking of me your Wife and tender Babes, which I humble acknowledge and confess I was greatly if not wholly on the Occasion of, by my too rash and unadvised Speech and Behaviour towards you; for which I now in this publick Manner humbly ask your Forgiveness, and here-by promise upon your Return, to amend and reform, and by my future loving and obedient Carriage towards you, endeavour to make an Atonement for my past evil Deeds, and manifest to you and the whole World that I am become a new Woman, and will prove to you a loving dutiful and tender wife.
If you do not regard what I have above written, I pray you to hearken to what you Pupil, Joshua Gilpatrick hath below sent you as also to the Lamentations and Cries of your poor Children, especially the eldest, who (tho' but seven Years old) all rational People really conclude, that unless you speedily return will end in his Death, and the moans of your other Children are enough to affect any humane heart....And why, my dear Husband, should a few angry and unkind Words, from an angry and fretful Wife (for which I am now paying full dear, having neither eat, drank nor slept in quiet, and am already reduced almost to a skeleton, that unless you favour me with your Company, will bereave me of my Life) make you thus to forsake me and your Children? How can you thus for so slender a Cause as a few rash words from a simple and weak Woman, chuse you to part from your tender Babes, who are your own Flesh and Blood? Pray meditate on what I now send, and reprieve you poor Wife and eldest Son (who take your Departure so heavily) from a lingering tho' certain Death, by your coming home to them again as speedily as you can, where you shall be kindly received, and in the most submissive Manner by your Wife, who is ready at your Desire, to lay her self at your Feet for her past Miscarriage and am with my and your Children's kind love to you, your loving Wife,
Summersworth, New-Hampshire. July 11, 1743”
It is hard to know if Margery’s apology was entirely sincere or somewhat tongue in cheek. To our 21st century ears her words sound overly dramatic and uncharacteristic of the strong character she was purported to be. However, by most accounts Margery and John had a relationship typical of the times. She called him “her father in age, her master in knowledge, and her husband by marriage,” and bragged that “she never did anything contrary to the will of her husband.”
She also probably recognized that life for a single mother of 6 on a rural New England farm without the support of any extended family would have been much more difficult than any apology. In the end, John returned to life with Margery on the farm where they lived together until his death in 1795 at the age of 105 years.
-- Beth Tykodi, 2012
Children of John and Margery Sullivan, raised in Berwick, Maine:
- Benjamin (1736-1767*) served in colonial navy; lost at sea before 1775. (*Historian Alfred Catalfo,The History of the Town of Rollinsford, New Hampshire: 1623-1973. (master's thesis). Following Scales, History of Strafford County, gives Benjamin's birth date as 1736 and his death date as 1767.)
- Daniel (1738-1782) - In 1765, he established a saw-mill near the town of Sullivan, Maine (then called Frenchman's Bay). In the American Revolution, he became a captain of minute-men, was involved in several battles, and in 1781 was captured in his home by British soldiers and confined to the Jersey prison-ship in New York harbor, which led to his death in 1782. Catalfo says, "In the defense of Castine, Maine, a British fleet sent a party of marines to the head of Frenchman's Bay where they captured him and burned his house. He refused to take oath that he would not re-enter the Continental Army, so he was imprisoned in New York in the Jersey Prison Ships. After fourteen months and through the intercession of his brother, General John Sullivan, he was released, but he died a day or two after leaving New York."
Photograph of the house believed to be Sullivan's school moved and remodeled. From an unidentified newspaper after 1945. Courtesy Berwick Historical Society
- John (1740-1795) -- General Sullivan - He practiced law prior to the American Revolution. According to the Encarta Encyclopedia General Sullivan was an "American military officer and statesman, born in Somersworth, New Hampshire. During the American Revolution, as brigadier general and later major general in the Continental Army, he held important commands at the siege of Boston from 1775-76; the battles of Long Island and Trenton in 1776; and the battles of Princeton, Brandywine, and Germantown in 1777. In the following year he headed the American forces that besieged Newport. Sullivan is particularly noted for his leadership, together with General James Clinton, of an expedition that decisively defeated a strong combined force of British Loyalists and Iroquois warriors at Newtown (now Elmira), New York, on August 29, 1779. He resigned his commission in November of that year and served (1780-81) in the Continental Congress. He later served also as New Hampshire's attorney general (1782-86) and president (1786-87, 1789) and as U.S. district judge of New Hampshire (1789-95)."
- James (1744-1808) - Judge James Sullivan, Governor of Massachusetts 1807–08 - After studying law under his older brother, John, James became active in politics, serving in several provincial government posts and then as a judge, continuing on the bench through the Revolutionary War. After the revolution, he served in Congress and in the Constitutional Convention. He served as Attorney General of the United States in 1790-1804 and as governor of Massachusetts. He is author of The History of the District of Maine (1798).
- Mary (c. 1752 - 1827) Catalfo says, "... their only daughter (Mrs. Mary Hardy) lived in Durham, New Hampshire, most of her life. She, like her father, became a famous schoolteacher at a time when women were rare in the field of education" (145). ["Mary...was born in Berwick in 1752, and married Theophilus Hardy of Durham, New Hampshire, on May 4, 1768. She was the grandmother of Samuel Wells, Governor of Maine for 1858-59, and of John Sullivan Wells, the Speaker of thee House, President of the Senate in New Hampshire, and a member of the United States Senate, and of John Bartlett Wells who died during a term of service as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, and Frederick Bert Wells who died while United States Consul to Bermuda. She died in 1827 and was buried in Durham, New Hampshire." -- from The Story of Berwick (p. 55-56)]
- Eben (c. 1753- after 1778). He served as a captain in the Revolutionary War, was captured and made a hostage to guarantee a prisoner exchange. Upon his eventual release, he served as an aid to General Sullivan in 1778. Catalfo says he was present at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and that he practiced law after the war.
From research by Terry Heller, Coe College, Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project following Thomas Amory, The Life of James Sullivan (1859) - With Norma Keim and Wendy Pirsig of the Old Berwick Historical Society, 2013
Right: Article from an unidentified newspaper after 1945. Courtesy Berwick Historical Society