Thursday, July 5, 2012

Being a teen during the Revolution: Alida Livingston

Budding historian and Clermont tour guide Susan Naramore has developed a deep personal connection with Clermont over the years.  Growing up, she attended our history day camps, most events, and every single Old-Fashioned Independence Day for her entire eighteen-year life.  
As our guest blogger, she uses this connection to develop Alida Livingston Armstrong (daughter of Margaret Beekman Livingston) from a direction I had not thought of before...

A few months ago I came across a webcomic called The Dreamer by Lora Innes. In the comic heroine, Beatrice Whaley, is a 21st Century high school senior. Beatrice begins to have dreams about the American Revolution. These aren't like any other dream, they're vivid and always pick up where they left off. In Beatrice's 18th Century world she tags along with Knowlton's Rangers. For those of you who don't know that much about the American Revolution, Knowlton's Rangers were an elite group that went on reconnoissance missions.What makes this comic so fascinating for history lovers is that the 18th Century cast is full of historical figures, including: Thomas Knowlton, Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Warren, and Nathan Hale.  

On June 30th I drove all the way to New London, Connecticut. Why? Well, the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in New London was having an exhibit opening. Lora Innes and a team of researchers had created six comic panels that tell Nathan's story in New London. Walter Woodward (State Historian of Connecticut), Stephen Shaw (Nathan Hale Schoolhouses, New London and East Haddam), and Lora Innes all gave talks on their respective expertise. Ms. Innes didn't just talk about her webcomic and Nathan Hale, but also about narrative history. That got me thinking about the Livingstons and how we present them. I'm not going to start writing storybook style, but I do think that there's a way to make them feel more human and less facts on a piece of paper.  
Fictional Alan Warren and Nathan Hale having a "disagreement"
On Christmas Eve 1761 Alida Livingston was born. She was one of the many children of Margaret Beekman Livingston and Robert "The Judge". She grew up at Clermont surrounded by family. Of course the Livingstons weren't just any family. As a prominent family in New York they were very involved in the colony's politics. Alida's father and grandfather spoke out against the Stamp Act. Her father was even a member of the Stamp Act Congress. She didn't only have an influential father, but also a passionate patriot for a brother. Robert "the Chancellor" was fifteen years her senior. By the time Alida was three her big brother had already graduated from King's College (Columbia University). He was appointed to the Continental Congress where he helped draft The Declaration of Independence. Then in 1777 he became Chancellor of New York. With a brother like the Chancellor one can assume that Alida, like the rest of her immediate family, was a patriot. Then again she was thirteen when the war started, so she may not have had very strong opinions on the matter. 
(October 2010) Blue: Me as Alida, Pink: MBL,
Red: Chancellor's wife Mary Stevens, and the Chancellor 
Alida's childhood was like that of any girl of the era. Her mother was a strong woman and had most likely instilled that in her young daughter. She probably went to New York City in the years before the war to stay in the Livingston's city home. She most likely went to Kingston to shop or just because it was the colony's capital and she was a Livingston. When she got older chances are she looked after some of her younger siblings like her youngest brother Edward.

One can only imagine what kind of a whirlwind she was thrown into in 1777. By this point her father had passed away, the Chancellor was dealing with politics, and her brother Henry was enlisted. On July 21, 1777 a British officer, Captain Montgomery, was brought to Clermont as a prisoner. This man wasn't just a prisoner of war, but a relative of Alida's late brother-in-law General Montgomery. There must have been a great deal of tension in that household and sixteen year-old Alida had to live with it.

October 17, 1777 was a day that Alida couldn't forget. Most people wouldn't be able to. Prior to that day General Vaughan had been making his advance up the Hudson River. This was part of the British's failed attempt to cutoff the colonies from one another. As the British moved up the river they destroyed properties belonging to prominent patriots. Family stories say that the Livingstons decided to leave as they watched Kingston burn from across the river. If this story is true then it must have been a horrifying experience. Did Alida watch the city burn from the big windows in the drawing room? Was she scared or brave? Did she hesitate or immediately help her mother prepare? If her younger siblings were scared did she comfort them? Sadly we don't know the answers to these questions, but they're fascinating ones to ponder over. What we do know is that the family left for Connecticut in a hurry. They took what things they could and buried others.

Margaret Beekman Livingston didn't wait too long before she set her mind to rebuild Clermont as soon as possible. By April 1778 she had returned to the site where her home once stood and began work on regaining what she had lost. She was an incredibly brave woman and wouldn't let the British have the last laugh. While Margaret was back home her children were still in Connecticut with family, Alida among them.

Alida Livingston isn't a person to be overlooked. She may not have been a member of the Continental Congress, but imagine what she lived through! We know what she was happening during her teen years, but not how she dealt with it all. The closer one looks at her life the more one realizes how amazing she was. Now her adventures during the Revolution I'd love to read.

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