History's Women: Early America: Mary Fish Silliman - Patron Saint of the Revolutionary PeriodMary Fish Silliman
Patron Saint of the Revolutionary Period
1736-1818 A.D.

Mary Silliman, wife of General Gold Selleck Silliman of Connecticut, and daughter of Rev. Joseph Fish, was a woman of quick wit and great determination. She was the widow of Rev. John Noyes of New Haven when Colonel Silliman married her in 1775. He was a prosperous lawyer and colonel of the local militia at the time, and had one son by a former wife, a young man of nineteen. In June, 1776, Colonel Silliman was made a brigadier-general of the Connecticut troops and placed in charge of the defence [sic] of the south-western frontier of the province.

General Silliman’s activity here brought him to the notice of the British and in May, 1779, Sir Henry Clinton sent a party from New York to capture him. He was at his home on Holland Hill and was taken entirely unawares at midnight, along with his son William, then a major in his father’s command. It was three weeks before Mrs. Silliman knew where her husband had been taken. Then for the first time he was allowed to communicate with his wife and relieve her suspense. He was confined at Flatbush, L.I., and Major William Silliman was released on parole and at once returned to his home to make arrangements for his step-mother’s safety against the rumoured [sic] invasion of Fairfield.

The invasion came, and from the roof of her home Mrs. Silliman saw the British landing troops. Preparations had been made and soon she with her little son Selleck were on their way to Trumbull, where a month later, August, 1779, another son was born to Mrs. Silliman, afterward Prof. Benjamin Silliman, the distinguished scientist of Yale College.

As soon as possible after the birth of her son, Mrs. Silliman began making plans for securing the exchange of her husband. From the first she was met with the argument that the Americans held no prisoner of sufficient rank, for whom an exchange could be made. She consulted with Governor Trumbull and other of her friends, and finally decided that a prisoner must be taken of sufficient rank and standing to force an exchange. Judge Thomas Jones of the Supreme Court of New York was the victim selected. He was a noted loyalist who lived in a castle-like mansion near Hempstead, L.I. By November 4th, all of Mrs. Silliman’s plans were perfected. Captains Hawley, Lockwood, and Jones and Lieutenants Jackson and Bishop of General Silliman’s command volunteered for the service, together with men enough to man a whale-boat. They landed a few miles from the home of Judge Jones and after concealing their boat proceeded to his residence, which they reached about 9 o’clock on the evening of November 6th. The time had been well chosen. Judge Jones was entertaining a party of friends and the sounds of their merrymaking covered the approach of the invading party. From the sheltering shrubbery, Captain Hawley located his intended prisoner, who was standing near a window close to an outside door. The party smashed in the door and seizing Judge Jones and a man named Hewlett, with whom he was talking, beat a hasty retreat. The kidnapping party travelled [sic] all night and then lay in hiding until they had eluded their pursuers and reached their boat on the night of November 8th. They had taken two other prisoners, besides Judge Jones, and Mr. Hewlett, and had lost six of their own men who were captured.

Upon the arrival of the captive Judge, Mrs. Silliman invited him to breakfast, which he as allowed to accept under guard. She tried to make his captivity as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, assuring him that he and his family had her sympathy, but she writes that he was “insensible and void of complaisance and sullen discontent sat upon his brow,” all of which would seem to show that the learned Judge was lacking in a sense of humour [sic]. Judge Jones was removed to Middletown for safe keeping, but it was not until the following spring that negotiations were completed for the exchange, which was made by boat, the two prisoners meeting and dining together, midway, and were then transferred to the boats that were to take them to their respective homes.

General Silliman died in 1790 and the declining years of his widow were made more unhappy by financial embarrassments that she was forced to face. His services in the army had cost heavily; his law practice had run down, and the expenses of his imprisonment and rescue were heavy. As he was not an officer of the Continental line, and was not in active service at the time of his capture, she received no recompense from the government, and for several years suffered great inconvenience, but extricated herself and educated her sons. She was married a third time, in 1804, to Dr. John Dickinson of Middletown, Ct. She died in 1818, aged 83 years. A Chapter of the D.A.R. at Bridgeport bears her name.


Reference: 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 by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. Third Volume, Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

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