How 3 Women Left Their Mark on Valley Forge’s History

Valley Forge National Historical Park in Valley Forge, Pa., Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Lena Pothier

August 3, 2023

From the kitchen to the battlefield, the contributions of Polly Cooper, Molly Pitcher, and Hannah Till at Valley Forge were crucial to the survival of George Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

Initially, General George Washington believed that women should not follow their enlisted loved ones in the Continental Army to Valley Forge, suggesting their presence would slow troop movements. In time, Washington came to realize the value of having the estimated 400 women at the encampment, as they were essential to the survival and morale of the troops preparing to battle the British during the Revolutionary War. 

From nurses, to seamstresses, to cooks, the efforts of women during the Revolutionary War are often overlooked, despite the fact that these domestic tasks were crucial and contributed greatly to the war effort. 

Without women in the encampment preparing food, caring for the sick, or prioritizing hygiene, perhaps the Continental Army would not have been successful in forcing the British to withdraw from Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time. We’re highlighting the efforts of three women who lived at Valley Forge with General Washington and the Continental Army. 

Polly Cooper

During much of the Revolutionary War, many indigenous nations chose to remain neutral. But, after British loyalists destroyed their village of Oriska, the Oneida nation decided to fight with the Continental Army. 

Polly Cooper came with 46 other Oneida members to Valley Forge, bringing bushels of corn that the hungry soldiers at Valley Forge were eager to eat. Cooper taught the soldiers how to prepare, cook, and eat the corn, and prepared many different meals for them. This boosted morale and helped many soldiers survive at a time where rations were low.

Cooper refused payment for her services, but according to legend, she went shopping in Philadelphia with some other soldiers’ wives where she admired, but did not purchase, a black shawl and bonnet. To thank her for her selfless courage and service, Cooper was gifted these items, some say by Martha Washington herself. 

The shawl is considered a relic by the Oneida people because of Cooper’s legacy at Valley Forge. According to the Oneida Nation, the stories of her service at the Valley Forge encampment and the shawl “expresses the unswerving friendship and timely aid offered by the Oneidas in the most perilous hour of the fledgling United States.”

After the war, the United States government betrayed many of their native allies, breaking treaties for land and for money. Cooper’s story reminds us of the aid, support, and friendship indigenous people provided soldiers during this time.

Molly Pitcher

We aren’t talking about the rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

According to many historians, the stories associated with Molly Pitcher are actually a conglomeration of several women in the Revolutionary Era. Nonetheless, she represents the courage and bravery displayed by women during this time period. The identity of Molly Pitcher is mainly attributed to one woman: Mary Ludwig Hays. 

Mary Ludwig Hays was married to William Hays, who enlisted in the 4th Continental Artillery Regiment. She was one of the many women that lived at the Valley Forge encampment where she washed clothes and cleaned sheets.

The lore about Molly Pitcher centers around one main event: The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, in New Jersey, in June of 1778. She was bringing water to men on the battlefield (hence the name, Molly “Pitcher”) when her husband was wounded in battle. Having watched him training at Valley Forge, Hays felt she understood the basics of loading cannons, so she took his place, putting herself in danger. Williams Hays died from his battle wounds in 1786, and Mary would eventually marry John McCauley, taking the name Mary Hays McCauley.

In 1822, long after the war had ended, Hays was finally awarded her veterans pension of $40. She’s buried at what’s known as the Old Graveyard in Carlisle, where a cannon and statue grace her final resting place. Her legacy lives on today, representing the potentially thousands of women whose combat in the Revolutionary War is forgotten.

Hannah Till

Hannah Till was an enslaved Black woman who worked with her husband, Isaac, as a cook and servant to George Washington at the Valley Forge encampment. Her role as a cook is significant: poisoning was a popular assassination technique at this time. So not only did Washington clearly trust her, but she was vital in keeping the nation’s first president alive.

The Tills purchased their freedom in October of 1778, and Hannah continued to work for Washington as a salaried cook. She also worked for Marquis de Lafayette for six months following the Battle of Yorktown.

When Till was 102 years old, historian John F. Watson interviewed her in March of 1824. He wrote, “she was present in all the celebrated battles in which [Washington and Lafayette] were engaged. She could speak, in a good strong voice, of all the things she saw in her long life, with better recollection and readier utterance than any other narrator with whom I have had occasion so to converse.”

Till passed away at the age of 104, and was buried at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale. She was honored as a patriot of the Revolutionary War by the Daughters of the American Revolution at her gravesite on Oct. 3, 2015.

Most African Americans that fought in the Revolutionary War were not recognized for their services, and many of them were re-enslaved by both Americans and the British. Hannah Till’s experiences at Valley Forge shed light on the role that Black women played in the war and directly with Washington himself.

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