Out of the Mouths of Babes

Who Was Paul Revere's Mom?

This tougher-than-I-thought-it-would-be question came from my very own little homeschooler, my eight-year-old son. He really likes the Longfellow poem "Paul Revere's Ride," and he was looking at a picture-book edition of it the other day. Suddenly he asked, "Who was Paul Revere's mom?"

I had no idea, and said so. "Why do you want to know?" I asked, curious as to what had put it into his mind. I didn't remember the poem making any reference to it.

"I don't know," he said. "I just wondered."

Now, those are dangerous words to utter in a homeschooling household, since many of us launched out into this adventure exactly because we want our children to be able to explore what interests them when it does, rather than being glued to a school's idea of what is and isn't important on any given day. Homeschooling parents, I've noticed, tend to get even more behind the practice of pursuing the answer to a question born of idle curiosity than their children do. I immediately hit the computer to see what I could find out. Strike while the iron's hot, and all that.

The first thing I came across, on too many sites to count or pass along here, was a list of jokes relating to mothers of famous people and things they might have said to their offspring. The listing for Paul Revere's mother was: "I don't care where you think you have to go, young man. Midnight is past your curfew!" Which was cute, but not much help. I googled on.

There is a one-woman play being performed by Kate Carney in Massachusetts about Rachel Walker, Paul Revere's mother-in-law. His second mother-in-law, to be exact, since Revere remarried after his first wife died. He also had sixteen children in all, eight in each marriage. Quite aside from widowhood and not much wealth, his home life must have had its difficulties, since he was apparently more of a patriot than a family man. Which still didn't tell me who his mother was, though it was interesting.

Wikipedia had the answer, of course. I don't go there first because it's almost too easy, and also because after reading that recent New Yorker article about how Wikipedia's essays come into being, I don't want to rely on them too heavily. But this entry seemed fairly solid. It mentioned that Paul Revere was the oldest surviving son of Apollos Rivoire, a Huguenot refugee, and Deborah Hitchbourn, of English descent. (Apollos later changed his own name to Paul, and elided his last name to Revere, so as not to stick out like a sore French thumb in Colonial America.)

Good enough. And although both my son and I were pleased that Revere's mom should have such a wonderful first name, it wasn't really enough to write a whole essay about.

Except that, in looking for information about her, I came across an article about female silversmiths. It's fairly well known (isn't it?) that Paul Revere's father was a silversmith, and young Paul learned the trade from him. What isn't as well known is that Deborah Hitchbourn Revere was likely a silversmith as well.

Women were a minority in smith work at the time, in both Europe and America, but they were definitely a presence. Generally, women learned the trade exactly how and why men did -- from their fathers, in order to continue the family trade. As far back as 1434, two women were listed as blacksmiths in London guild records from the time, along with 65 men. Women in such trades faced the sort of obstacles you'd expect. When times were good, they were tolerated, possibly even encouraged, by their brother workers. When the economy took a downturn, they were resented as taking work away from the people who had a "right" to it -- namely, men.

We have records of women working in non-traditional fields in Colonial America. Often these were widows, left to carry on after their husbands died. Many women ran taverns under these circumstances, but as it wasn't uncommon for such places to be the joint endeavor of husband and wife while both spouses were alive, it probably didn't shock anyone to see Mrs. Whoosits taking over after Mr. W. had gone on to meet his maker. But there are also stories of women carrying on in more unexpected trades. I was especially interested to see that the printer who published Thomas Jefferson's Summary View of the Rights of British America was a woman who'd taken over the business when she was widowed.

More heartening, though rarer, were the women who learned a trade from childhood, as boys did, because they were interested and seen as capable by their male relatives. I especially loved learning that one Jane Aitken was left her father's Philadelphia printing business on his death. She had a brother, but apparently he was a drinker and an "idler." Dad made the shrewd decision to leave the family business by virtue of merit rather than gender.

Getting back to Paul Revere's mother. It appears that she took an active part in the family business. Her mark is on several silver pieces. Paul Revere's father died when Paul was nineteen years old. By law, apprentices could not own their own shops until they were 21. Deborah Revere officially owned the shop until Paul was old enough to take over. It's been assumed that she was only the nominal owner, and Paul did all the work to keep things going until he could be a master silversmith in name as well as fact. But finding Deborah's mark has to make one wonder if Paul was shouldering all the work during that time, or simply apprenticing under a different master until he reached his majority.

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