Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lydia Barrington Darragh – American Spy and Patriot

This Memorial Day I wanted to share a recent discovery in my Barrington family history, one that I am so excited about!

Most of the time when military heroes are written about, they are usually of the male persuasion.  And there are many, many military men in my family history who undoubtedly deserve recognition for their contributions to American history, but this time, I would like to introduce you to a brave Quaker woman who defied the British army and helped thwart an ambush against George Washington’s troops.

How is she related to me?

  • Lydia is the daughter of the brother (John Barrington) of my 6th Great-Grandfather Nicholas Barrington.

Lydia Barrington Darragh  (1729-1789)
Lydia Barrington, sixth child and youngest daughter of John and Mary (Aldridge) Barrington, was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1729. She married the family tutor, William Darragh, on November 2, 1753.  About 2 years after they married (1755) they immigrated to the United States and settled in Philadelphia, William working as a teacher and Lydia becoming a midwife. During the years that followed they had nine children, but only five survived past infancy.

When war broke out between America and Britain in 1775 their oldest son Charles, despite his Quaker upbringing, volunteered and served with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army.

On September 26, 1777, during the American Revolutionary War, British troops occupied Philadelphia. Lydia began sending information regarding the British plans to her son Charles, who was stationed with Washington’s army, by writing the information in code on scraps of paper hidden in the large buttons sewn on her clothing. She kept her activities secret from her husband William, fearing he would be the one to take the blame if she was found out.

British General William Howe had taken over the former residence of General John Cadwalader, located directly across the street from the Darragh household. Major Andre, aide to Gen. Howe, requested use of the Darragh’s house for Howe’s staff but Lydia protested, stating they had already sent the younger children to live with family in another city and that they had nowhere else to go.  She went to Howe’s residence to bring her protest to the General, and in so doing, met her 2nd cousin Captain William Barrington, who was a British officer. He took up her case, and the result was that she and her family were allowed to remain, with the understanding that Gen. Howe would have access to the large house parlor for staff meetings.

Because Quakers were pacifists and known to be unsupportive of the war Lydia and her family appeared to pose no risk to the British army.

On December 2, 1777 Lydia was told that she and her family needed to be in bed by 8 o’clock, and that the soldiers would wake her when finished with their meeting to let them out. She pretended to sleep, but slipped out during the meeting and hid in a closet to listen in on their plans. Hearing that the British planned to surprise attack Washington’s troops at Whitemarsh on December 4 she knew she had to act.

The following morning she received permission from General Howe (doing this was a regular
occurrence for the women of the city) to cross British lines to go to a mill in Frankford to get flour for her family. Dropping off her empty bag at the mill, she then headed toward the American camp. Soon after Lydia met a family friend, Colonel Craig, and told him about the impending British attack. He immediately rode to warn General Washington. Her mission accomplished, Lydia turned around and returned home, picking up the bag of flour along the way.

After the British surprise attack failed, they returned to the city and Lydia was questioned as to whether a member of the family had been awake or not. She told him no, and was not questioned again.

It has been said that months later Washington himself came to thank her, although this information cannot be proven.

In 1778 the British left Philadelphia, and the other children returned home. Her husband William died in 1783.  Because of their involvement in the war, which went against their Quaker religion, their son Charles lost his membership to the Society of Friends in 1781, Lydia lost hers in 1783. In 1786 Lydia and the children moved and she operated a store until her death on December 28, 1789.

In 1926-1927 the Lydia Darrah School was built in her honor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Between 1974-1976 the Franklin Mint issued a limited edition series of Medallions commemorating the great women of the Revolutionary War era.  Here is the medallion for Lydia Barrington Darragh.

The inscription states: "Lydia Barrington Darragh - Though she was opposed to war, this gentle Quakeress was an ardent patriot. She risked her life to warn Washington of secret British plans for a surprise attack."

There is so much more to Lydia’s history, and the account I’ve written has been cobbled together from multiple sources. I encourage you to follow the links and read them for yourself.  And while there are subtle differences in each account, the bottom line is that this little Quaker woman, with great courage and quick thinking, provided General Washington with the needed intelligence to thwart the plans of an invading army. I am so happy to add her to the Family Tree!

Just a note:  I’ve found a photo posted on several websites, including her Find-A-Grave Memorial, which claims it is a photo of Lydia.  I have reason to doubt the truthfulness of this claim.  In the book, “Lydia Darragh, One of the Heroines of the Revolution” by Henry Darrach, the exact same photo is listed on page 390 and it is attributed to her daughter, Ann Darragh.  Because of that, I am not posting it here.

Devotion of the Women of '76 - Lydia Barrington Darragh (Darrah) - pictures from this book
Lydia Darragh, One of the Heroines of the Revolution
The Boudinot Journal - Lydia Barrington Darragh

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