Friday, March 7, 2014

A Different Kind of Laborer: Jane Lewis and Betty Simmons

Much like the unsung African American laborers who worked on the early State House, women’s contributions to the running of the State House went largely unrecorded. While we may know more about women of the upper-classes, like Molly Ridout, many working-class women have been long been lost to time. However, research into the Old Senate Chamber frequently comes up with rather unexpected results - and records of two women’s contributions to the running of the State House are among them. There is a lot we don’t know about these women, but what is known is interesting enough to hint at a possibility of many different stories.

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Reproduction of the John Shaw flag by CRW Flags, 2009. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-3348.

Followers of the blog may have seen the name Jane Lewis before, perhaps connected with Annapolis cabinetmaker, John Shaw. On May 13, 1778, the Orphans’ Court proceedings recorded, “The Court binds Jane Lewis, the Daughter of Ann George, an Infant of 9 years of age, as an apprentice to John Shaw of the City of Annapolis, as a Seamstress, the Said John Shaw obliging himself to cause her to be taught to read and write, and to pay her the sum of six pounds currency at the expiration of 16yrs her time of Servitude, in lieu of freedom dues.” Where Jane Lewis came from, who her mother Ann George was, and what happened to Jane after this record remains a mystery for now. However, what we do know from this rather peculiar record provides a considerable amount of information.

We can guess why Jane was taken on as an apprentice. Only two weeks prior to the creation of the Orphans’ Court record, John Shaw’s wife, Elizabeth, had given birth to their first child. With Shaw’s parents overseas, it is possible Elizabeth needed help around the house. It could be assumed that, under Elizabeth's tutelage, Jane may have helped with household duties in addition to learning seamstress skills.

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Jane Lewis' apprenticeship record to John Shaw, discovered in eighteenth-century Orphans' Court Proceedings. Maryland State Archives, MSA C125-1, MdHR 9524, p.11.


There is a very interesting connection that can be made between this 1778 apprenticeship record and the State House. In November 1783, John Shaw was paid for providing the State House with two identical flags in honor of Congress’ arrival. In 1783, Jane would have been nearing the end of her apprenticeship and was, at this time, the only known seamstress in Shaw’s shop or household. So, provided that Jane Lewis survived and continued her apprenticeship to 1783, it is almost certain she would have assisted in making the famed Shaw flag, a replica of which will return to the rotunda in 2014.

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Payment of £1.2.6 to Betty Simmons "for cleaning out the public necessary" on May 11, 1805. Maryland State Archives, MSA S1005-92-13915.

In the early nineteenth-century, a second name appears on State House receipts. Between 1805 and 1838, Betty Simmons was paid, usually at regular intervals, for cleaning the public temple (or bathroom) on State House grounds. During this time, Simmons would have worked alongside free or formerly enslaved African-Americans.

At this time, we know only a little more about Betty Simmons than we do about Jane Lewis. Born sometime around 1785, Betty was listed in the 1830 census as the head of household, living with an older man and woman - very likely her parents. On April 8, 1830, there is a marriage record for an Elizabeth Simmons to a Levy Cole in Annapolis. Levy Cole, presumably the same one who later moved to Annapolis, had been married before in Massachusetts and was around 68 at the time of his marriage to Elizabeth. He died sixteen years later, in 1846, and no children had resulted from the marriage. What had become of Elizabeth, we may never know.

While much of history inevitably reflects the records of the bourgeois, the limited information we do have about working-class women is vital to telling the larger narrative of early Annapolis. Thanks to these records, we have names for at least some of the women who contributed their labor and skills to the State House. Rather than staying a silent population, we can see from these records that women were outside the home, doing what needed to be done. Perhaps some of their stories will help to change the way we view women’s roles in the early years of the State House.

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