Margaret Morris Full Biography
I was born near Annapolis, Maryland in 1737, the tenth child in the socially prominent and well-to-do Richard and Deborah Hill family. Financial difficulties forced my family to move to the Azores. I was then sent to live with my recently married sister in Philadelphia, who raised me to adulthood. I received a good education based on Quaker principles.
I married Philadelphia dry goods merchant, William Morris, in 1758. He was committed to pacifist, anti-slavery and philanthropic causes, but died at the young age of 31. Now a widow with four young children, I moved to Burlington, New Jersey in 1770 to live with another sister and her family.
Throughout my life, I gardened and during the Revolution my garden was divided between food for my family and plants I could use to make medicines. From about 1780 to 1782 I ran a small apothecary shop selling medicines I had prepared. I was respected as a competent doctress and helped provide health care through Quaker organizations. At one point, I ran a smallpox hospital with up to thirty patients.
During the Revolution, I treated people on all sides impartially and kept a journal of my experiences. The month of December 1776 was especially troubling because of the recent American army defeats and the arrival of Hessian troops at Burlington. On December 8, I wrote, “every day begins & ends with the same accounts, & we hear today the Regulars are at Trenton – some of our neighbors gone, & others going … but our trust in Providence still firm, & we dare not even talk of removing our family.” On December 11, when some 4 or 500 Hessians arrived in Burlington, several men of our town went out to greet them and their Colonel was able to communicate that “he had orders to quarter his troops in Burlington that night, & that if the inhabitants were quiet & peaceable, & would furnish him with quarters & refreshment, he would pledge his honor, that no manner of disorder shoud happen to disturb or alarm the people.”
However, there were armed Pennsylvania State Navy gondolas on the river that fired on the Hessians. We took safety in our cellar until it ceased. On December 12, although the Hessians had left, there were reports that men from the galleys were going to set fire to the town, thinking there were still Hessians hiding out. Finding the Hessians gone, the gondola men searched for those people who were Tories. My son brought great danger on us when he took my little spyglass and was seen by the gondola men looking at them through it. They thought he was a Tory spy. Explaining things to the officer accusing him and offering him the spyglass, put an end to the problem. This officer was soon after killed at the Battle of Princeton.
I learned on December 27 about the surprise attack at Trenton the day before. Then, on the morning of January 3, “between 8 & 9 oClock we heard very distinctly, a heavy fireing of cannon, the sound came from towards Trenton, about noon a number of soldiers, upwards of a thousand came into town in great confusion, with baggage & some cannon. – From these soldiers we learn there was a smart engagement yesterday at Trenton, & that they left them engaged near Trenton Mill, but were not able to say which side was victorious.” These men quartered in our houses, but none with me. However, “about bed time I went in the next house to see if the fires were safe, & my heart was melted with compassion to see such a number of my fellow creatures lying like swine on the floor fast asleep, & many of them without even a blanket to cover them[.] it seems very strange to me that such a number should be allowed to come from the camp at the very time of the engagement, & I shrewdly suspect they have run away for they can give no account why they came, nor where they are to march next.”
In 1784, I moved my family back to South Philadelphia. I assisted during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793, during which my son, Doctor John Morris and his wife became victims of the disease. My own children were now adults, but I inherited five orphaned grandchildren between the ages of one and nine. Another yellow fever epidemic brought death to several other of my siblings and their spouses. To be nearer to my surviving family I returned to Burlington in August 1799. For the rest of my life I helped the younger members of my family and they cared for me as I aged. I died October 10, 1816 at age 79 after a long decline that partially paralyzed me, but did not prevent me from writing upbeat accounts to my relatives.
Margaret Morris: Her Journal. With biographical sketch and notes by John W. Jackson. Philadelphia: G.S. MacManus Co., 1949.
Webster, Nancy V. and Clarissa F. Dillon, eds. Margaret Morris – Burlington, N.J. 1804 Gardening Memorandum. American Horticultural Series, No. 6. Chillicothe, Illinois: The American Botanist, 1996.