Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Angel Child: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 2

A full week of festivities would most likely have left the Shippen family exhausted and exhilarated in March of 1781. They had much to celebrate. Their daughter Nancy had, at 18 years old, secured herself into the prominent Livingston family, and to her fate must have seemed secure.

Nancy, her new husband Henry, and her father took advantage of the relatively peaceful spring in the northeast to travel up the North River to Rhinebeck (don't forget, there was still a war going on, though most of the focus had moved south with the English army that year). By carriage and sloop, the trio most likely made it by the end of the month to introduce the pretty young girl to her new family where she was safely deposited. By this time, Nancy was already pregnant with her first child.


Letters went slowly back and forth between Nancy and her family. She was busy with introducing herself to local society ladies and getting her house organized, as was expected of her. "If you encourage your natural good temperment, tis calculated to make every body happy around you & love you," advised her father. It was only half in jest when he told her he would be "much dissapointed" if she were not to become a popular and successful wife.


There were many people to meet. Janet Livingston Montgomery, she, and the Chancellor's wife Mary Stevens Livingston were all to become good friends. Her mother-in-law and the matriarch of the family, Margaret Beekman Livingston (at right) also took to the girl quickly.


In spite of enduring the difficulties of the war and still being in the process of rebuilding her house after a British attack, Margaret (or as Nancy affectionately called her "the Old Lady") was quick to sympathize with Nancy's situation. It wasn't just being pregnant at 18 that was going to be difficult for the girl. In fact, although she was a little young on the young side for marriage at that point in history, pregnancy was still considered a blessing--if a somewhat frightening one.

The problem was that Henry was already the black sheep of the Livingston family, news that had apparently not been adequately carried down to Nancy's home in Philadelphia. He had a small collection of illegitimate children and a temper which could get him in trouble. In the 4th new York Regiment he had been known for being quarrelsome in camp and been reprimanded for making unflattering remarks about a senior officer. He was proud, controling, and could be violent on occassion.

When Nancy attempted to return to her parents' comforting arms to give birth to her baby, trouble arose. At first it was hoped that Henry would come with her. "We insist on the Colonels accompanying you and staying here as long as he can..." wrote her father in July. it only made sense. She would need protection and company on the road, and her parents would have loved to see the "happy couple" together.
But the situation deteriorated. Henry refused to go. Her parents encouraged her to use her "influence," but to no avail. Her mother was particularly upset: "I have sent [to] France for Baby Linnen but you must expect nothing from me unless you come here." Perhaps, they relented as a last resort, they would come to New York to get her without her husband.
In October, about six months pregnant, Nancy was becoming fightened: Henry now refused to let her go either. "Col. L. has told me positively I shall not come," she wrote on Oct 4, 1781. "O!--my dear Mama what a cruelty to deprive me of being with the best of Parents at such a critical period."
Finally, with a great deal of convincing and the exchange of official "papers," Henry allowed her uncle Joe to fetch her to Philadelphia. It would have been a long, cold, and painful ride for a woman in her condition (in any condition it would have been at the least uncomfortable), but at least she woul dhave the comfort of her family around her through the frightening ordeal of labor.
On December 26, 1781, Nancy gave birth to her first and only child, a girl she named after her mother-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingston. She was instantly called her mother's "angel child."
This ordeal was not the end of Nancy's woes however. A new child would not calm Henry's temper. "Peggy" was to become the center of her world and, more ominously, the center of a major custody battle that involved multiple families, more trips between Pennsyvania and the Hudson Valley and many tears.

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