A Dangerous Woman - The Life of Lady Deborah Moody

I know I have been neglecting this blog shamefully of late.  I apologize profusely.  I’ve been writing and sending out book proposals over the past couple of months, and also continuing my attempts to write fiction.  That has meant that I’ve been writing more book reviews and fewer posts about women.  Since March is women’s history month, I’ve decided to focus on some Noted and Notorious New York Women for your entertainment.  First up is Lady Deborah Moody, who I have long found fascinating, although there isn’t as much information on her as there is about some of her contemporaries such as Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dwyer or Elizabeth Winthrop.  She was the first woman to be granted a land patent in the colonies, founding one of the 6 original towns in Brooklyn, the only woman known to launch a settlement in Colonial America and the first woman to cast a vote in her adopted land.  She fought religious prejudice and braved native tribes at an age when most English women were happily in their dotage. She had to be tough as old boots and brave to leave England, her family, and everything she’d known to face an uncertain future.

Memorial for Lady Deborah Moody in Gravesend Cemetary, Brooklyn

Early colonial American history teems with women who bucked the status quo. Perhaps it is the very nature of picking up stakes and moving across the ocean to an unknown and foreign land that inspires women  to do and say things that they might not have done back in the old world. In some cases, such as Anne Hutchinson and Lady Deborah Moody, the New World just encouraged them to be even more open and ballsy they were back in England.

She was born Deborah Dunch in 1586 in London. Although Deborah’s father was a Member of Parliament, she spent most of her childhood on the family’s country estate in Wiltshire, along with her three sisters and her brother.  Deborah and her sisters were taught to read and write, along with the expected social graces of embroidery, music and dancing. In 1606, she married Henry Moody who was soon after knighted by King James. Now Lady Moody, she gave birth to two children; Henry (born in 1607) and Catherina (born in 1608). The couple soon climbed the social ladder at court when Henry was named Sheriff of Wiltshire and then made a baronet. Henry didn’t get to enjoy his success for long; he died in 1629 at the age of 47 after a brief illness. At the age of 43, Deborah was now a wealthy widow, with several large estates and manors.

Lady Moody's Triangle today, Gravesend, Brooklyn
During Deborah’s early years, the dominant religion was Protestant, Catholics had to worship in secret, and there many who were beginning to question the tenets of the Church of England, in particular the baptism of infants.  During the reign of Elizabeth I, she showed a considerable amount of tolerance towards other beliefs but her cousin and successor James I was of a different metal.  Believing wholeheartedly in the divine right of Kings, he had no tolerance for those he felt strayed from the one true path. That included Catholics, Puritans, Quakers and Anabaptists. Deborah believed as the Anabaptists did, that baptism was not for infants; that it was something only an older child should undertake once they were able to think for themselves. Although Deborah disagreed with many of the Church of England’s practices, she kept her feelings to herself to avoid persecution.

Lady Moody was not a young woman when she decided to leave England in 1639.  Charles I, who was even more autocratic than his father James I, had decreed that the nobility needed to stay on their estates and not come to London.  Instead of spending their money on frivolous things, they should plow their money back into their communities.  Deborah found this edict intolerable.  She enjoyed visiting her friends and family as well as learning about other faiths.  Her maternal grandfather, who was a Protestant bishop, had often spoken out about religious intolerance and Deborah believed quite strongly that people should worship as they pleased.  Deborah defied the edict that she leave London to return to her country estate.  This brought her to the attention of The Star Chamber, a court of criminal and civil jurisdiction. King Charles had given The Star Chamber far –reaching powers and its decisions were feared, the court stopped short only of handing out the death penalty when meting out punishment for offenses which could include perjury, libel and conspiracy.  Even jurors were subject to the Court, if they ruled decided against the Crown. When Deborah learned that the Star Chamber was investigating her activities, she decided that it was best for her to get the hell out of Dodge.

Deborah arrived in Boston in 1638.  She was warmly welcomed by the Governor of the Colony, John Winthrop.  Having a noble woman of Deborah’s stature was a coup for the colony and caused great excitement.  By 1641, Deborah had amassed considerable property in the colony, spending £1,100 to buy the estate of Sir John Humphrey who had decided to return to England.  The General Court also granted her 400 acres of land for a plantation near the town of Lynn, Massachusetts.  She bought a house in Salem and joined the local church.  But if Deborah thought she would find religious freedom in Salem, she was quickly disabused of that notion. The Puritans who had fled England to escape religious persecution were not inflicting the same punishment on the colony.  They believed that the strict religious laws helped to develop a strong state.  Punishments were meted out for card playing, dancing, and even public displays of affection.  Women could only wear certain styles of clothing, they were forbidden to cut their hair short or voice beliefs that were different from the clergy (which got Anne Hutchinson into trouble), and they were even forbidden to sing in church.

Even more horrifying to Deborah was the hypocrisy of the Puritans preaching about God’s love and then engaging in the slave trade.  The elders of the church in Salem insisted that she give up her Anabaptist leanings.  Instead Deborah decided to that it was time to leave Salem and go elsewhere.  When she left the colony, she didn’t go alone.  Several families decided to go with her.  Knowing that Holland had offered dissenters like the Puritans refuge, Deborah thought that the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam might be the answer.  The small group decided to take their chances at sea rather than risk the possibility of encountering hostile Indian tribes if they traveled by land. Immediately upon their arrival, they were forced to seek the protection of the local fort against a band of marauding Mohican Indians.

Deborah was tired of fighting and began to wonder if she had made a mistake.  She was now 57 years old.  But there was no turning back.   She’d been excommunicated by the Salem church and the Governor’s deputy John Endecott discouraged the community’s reacceptance of her, unless she repented.  “I shall desire that she may not have advice to return to this jurisdiction, unless she will acknowledge her evil in opposing the churches, and leave her opinions behind her, for she is a dangerous woman.”  Deborah just had to make the best of it.  The group petitioned the Governor Kieft of New Amsterdam for permission to start their own community were they could make their own laws.  In 1645, they were granted a patent for a tract of land on the southwest corner of Long Island to be called Gravesend. Gravesend was a planned community based on Kent, England, one of the earliest in the New World to employ a block grid system.  The outlines of Gravesend’s block formation are still faintly visible in the outline of the streets.

The 16 square acre tract of land was divided into 4 squares, 10 houses on each lot for a total of forty houses in all. A public plain was designated in the center of town for grazing, and to keep the town safe, a palisade fence surrounded it.  Eventually a school and a church would be built.  Town meetings were held and all settlers were required to attend. Homesteaders were required to build a habitable house, and to help maintain the wall that surround and protected the settlement. The group was allowed to govern themselves and to worship God freely in the privacy of their own homes as they chose.  The town eventually opened its doors to the Quakers, who fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, ultimately becoming the center for the Quaker religion on Long Island.

By the time Deborah passed away in 1659, the small town of Gravesend was thriving.  She founded the town hall government, started a school, and eventually established a church.  She also amassed one of the first libraries in the colonies, with over 200 volumes, which she eagerly loaned out. Buried in the cemetery at Gravesend, she could rest in peace knowing that the town’s policy of religious freedom set it apart from most colonial settlements.

Further Reading: 

Antonia Petrash, More than Petticoats - Remarkable New York Women. Guildford, CT, The Globe Pequot Press, 2002

Victor H. Cooper, A Dangerous Woman: New York's First Lady Liberty. Bowie, MD; Heritage Books, 1995


BurtonReview said…
Enjoyable post, Elizabeth, I hadn't heard of her while I grew up on LI so I enjoy learning about its history.
Mystica said…
Thank you for a very educational post. The subject matter is new to me so I certainly enjoyed reading about it.
Can't believe I somehow missed your fabulous blog on one of my favorite subjects -- gutsy women! On the other hand, I will have many enjoyable hours catching up and plan to check out your book. Thank you, Elizabeth!

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