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Elizabeth Annesley Lewis


Wife of Francis Lewis

Elizabeth Annesley Lewis, wife of Francis Lewis, was, like Hannah Floyd, driven to an untimely death by the hardships and persecutions she was forced to undergo from the British, because her husband was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Not much of definite information has come down to us of her girlhood or antecedents but what we have is evidence of her high character and undaunted spirit.

The story of the early life of Francis Lewis reads like a romance. The orphaned son of a Welsh clergyman of the Church of England, he received a classical education, supplemented by two years' training in the counting-room of a great mercantile house in London. Then, upon attaining his majority he found himself possessed of a considerable sum of money, which he invested in a stock of merchandise that he brought to New York. As the city was comparatively small, his consignment of goods was in danger of overstocking the market. In consequence, he formed a partnership with Edward Annesley, a prominent young merchant, and leaving a portion of the cargo with him to dispose of, he carded the remainder to Philadelphia, and made a large profit. He returned to New York to take up a permanent residence, and married hi~ partner's younger sister, Elizabeth. He entered extensively into foreign commerce, in the prosecution of his business, he travelled widely in Europe. Twice he visited Russia, pushing his trade into all the seaports from St. Petersburg to Archangel. He visited the islands of Northern Scotland and suffered shipwreck on the coast of Ireland. He took an active part in the French War and was with his friend Col. Mersey (or Mercer) in the fort of Oswego, as a purchaser of supplies for the British troops, when Montcalm reduced the fort and captured the garrison. Col. Mersey was killed and Lewis, who was acting as his aide, was made prisoner, and taken 'to Canada and afterward sent to France where he was exchanged. At the close of the war, the British Government gave him for his services 5ooo acres of land.

About 1765, Lewis moved his family to Whitestone, L. I., where he acquired a handsome estate. He retired from business but returned to New York in 177I for the purpose of establishing his son, Francis Lewis, Jr., in business. He removed his family back to Long Island again in 1775 and there Mrs. Lewis resided permanently, though her husband and sons were away a large portion of the time. Francis Lewis devoted his attention entirely to public affairs after his election to the first Continental Congress.

Like Floyd, Livingston, and Robert Morris, the other New York signers, Francis Lewis was proscribed by the British authorities and a price set upon his head. The enemy did not stop there. Very soon after they were in possession of Long Island, Captain Birtch was sent with a troop of light horse" to seize the lady and destroy the property." As the soldiers advanced on one side, a ship of war from the other fired upon the house. There was nothing to be done. Mrs. Lewis looked calmly on. A shot from the vessel struck the board on which she stood. One of her servants cried: "Run, Mistress, nm." She replied: "Another shot is not likely to strike the same spot," and did not change her place. The soldiers entered the house and began their work of plunder and devastation. One of them threw himself at her feet and tore the buckles from her shoes. The buckles looked like gold but were nothing but pinchbeck. "All is not gold that glitters," she remarked to the discomfited young man. The soldiers destroyed books, papers, and pictures, ruthlessly broke up furniture, and then, after pillaging the house, departed taking Mrs. Lewis with them. She was carried to New York and thrown into prison. She was not allowed a bed or a change of clothing and only the coarse and scanty food that was doled out each day to the other prisoners. For three weeks this continued during which time she was not permitted to communicate with any one outside. Then a negro man, an old family servant, who had followed her to the city, managed to find out where she was and to smuggle some small articles of clothing and some food in to her, and also to carry letters which he contrived to send through the lines to her friends. The matter was taken up by Congress and referred to the Board of War and demands made upon the British for her better treatment. The British were bent on making an example of her because of her wealth and prominence, and the poor woman found little relief: Finally, after nearly three months, the matter was brought to the attention of General Washington, who ordered the arrest of Mrs. Barren, wife of the British Paymaster-General and Mrs. Kempe, wife of the Attorney-General of Pennsylvania, at their homes in Philadelphia. They were confined to their own homes, under guards, and the intimation carried to the British authorities that unless an exchange was arranged immediately they would be subjected to the same treatment as was being received by Mrs. Lewis. The exchange was made, but Mrs. Lewis was not permitted to leave New York City.

Hardly had she a roof over her head than she was called upon to face a new trouble. The aged colored man-servant who had followed and served her and remained in the city, doing what little he could toward ameliorating her condition, was sick--almost at death's door. He was a Roman Catholic in religion and would not die without the last rites of his church. There was not a priest in New York and it seemed impossible to get one as the city was under martial law. Mrs. Lewis, weak and suffering from her long imprisonment and scarcely possessing the necessaries of life, yet contrived to send a messenger to Philadelphia, who found a priest there and helped smuggle him through the British lines into New York, in time to administer to the dying man who passed away in peace.

Mrs. Lewis never recovered from the inhuman treatment she had received at the hands of the British. After some months she was allowed to join her husband in Philadelphia. It was plain to be seen, however, that she was broken in health and constitution and was slowly sinking into the grave. Early in 1779, Francis Lewis, now elected for the fourth time a member of the Continental Congress, asked leave of absence in order to devote his whole time to his wife. About the same time, her second son, Col. Morgan Lewis, married Gertrude, daughter of Robert Livingston of Clermont and took his bride to Philadelphia to introduce her to his mother. A few days later, she sank to her rest.

Three children were born to Elizabeth Lewis and her husband: Francis, the eldest son, was married to the daughter of a Tory named Ludlow, whose family strenuously objected to the young man, "because his father would certainly be hung." Col. Morgan Lewis, the second son, married Gertrude, the daughter of Robert Livingston and Margaret Beekman, his wife. She was a sister of Chancellor Livingston and of Edward, "The Jurist." Ann Lewis, the only daughter of Elizabeth and Francis Lewis, fell in love with a post-captain in the British navy, named Robertson. Her father refused to consent to their marriage and a clandestine wedding ensued. Had she remained in America, it is probable that reconciliation would have been effected, but as Captain Robertson and his bride soon after sailed for England all intercourse ceased. Robertson was a brave, reckless sort of man, it is said, not given to taking much thought of the morrow. When in years afterward Mrs. Robertson was left a widow in straitened circumstances a small sum of money was sent her every year anonymously and it was not until the death of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, that the identity of the donor was made known. The Queen was reported to have said that the wife of a gallant sailor like Captain Robertson ought not to suffer penury. One of Mrs. Robertson's daughters married Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury, another married Wilson, Archbishop of Calcutta, and a third became the wife of Sir James Moncrief, Lord Advocate of Scotland.

"In the war of the Revolution," writes Julia Delafield, a granddaughter of the signer, in her biography of Francis Lewis, "Mrs. Lewis had more than one opportunity of showing the steady purpose, the firmness of nerve that would have distinguished her had she been a man .... To Francis Lewis she was Heaven's best gift. When his adventurous spirit led him to embark on long and perilous voyages, he knew that he left his children to the care of an able as well as a tender mother, who could train their characters as well as protect their interests. The conduct and careers of her children is the best eulogy of Mrs. Francis Lewis."

Source: Wives of the Signers: The Women Behind the Declaration of Independence, by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1997). Orignaly Published in 1912 as volume 3 of The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons). Pages 119-126. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)


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Last modified January 6, 2004