Was There Really a Teenage, Female Paul Revere?

Sybil Ludington has been honored for her contributions to the American Revolution, but there’s little to indicate they were real

The Sybil Ludington commemorative stamp was issued by USPS in 1975. (National Postal Museum)
smithsonian.com

There are a lot of stories about the American revolution, and many of them are at least partially untrue.

Paul Revere, for instance, wasn’t the only one on the midnight ride. And Sybil Ludington—the young woman who has gone down in history as a female version of Paul Revere, riding through the surrounding area of what would become New York—may never have ridden at all, at least according to one historian.

If true, Ludington’s story puts Revere’s to shame, writes Valerie DeBenedette for Mental Floss. She “rode twice as far as Revere did, by herself, over bad roads and in an area roamed by outlaws, to raise Patriot troops to fight in the Battle of Danbury and the Battle of Ridgefield in Connecticut,” DeBenedette writes. “And did we mention it was raining?”

Ludington was the daugher of a local militia commander. When Col. Henry Ludington received news that British troops were attacking Danbury, he had to stay to rally the response effort, while the messenger who reached him was unfamiliar with the area. So Ludington mounted off and rode 40 miles, warning people along the way, on this day in 1777.

Although she didn’t get a whole lot in the way of recognition at the time (much like the non-Revere members of the midnight ride), Ludington has since been recognized with a stamp, books and even a board game, DeBenedette writes.

So far, so good. But there’s no reliable historical evidence that Ludington ever rode at all, according to a study published in The New England Quarterly.

The story of her ride originally appeared in an 1880 history of New York City by Martha J. Lamb. Two of Ludington’s grandchildren privately published an account of her ride in 1907, which added to the story.

In this period, Ludington’s story is nowhere to be found in other histories of the New York area during the Revolution, or in books about women’s Revolutionary contributions,  historian Paula D. Hunt writes in the study. In a time when middle-class white women were eager to highlight their Patriot peers’ role in the Revolution, Ludington’s story is conspicuously absent.

But the story as related by Lamb and the Ludington family got picked up in the twentieth century and has been repeated numerous times, Hunt writes. Its central figure, Sybil Ludington, has changed to meet the times. Ludington has been a patriotic, pro-America youth during the 1950s Communist scares; an ahead-of-her-time feminist icon in the 1960s and 1970s; and a classroom staple drawing fire from conservative groups on the lookout for left-wing politics in schools.

“Sybil appealed to groups and individuals because her story exemplified values and beliefs they held about America,” Hunt writes. The American Revolution, and its heroes “have continued to be a convenient wagon to which disparate, sometimes opposing factions hitch their agendas.” Ludington’s story, which doesn’t have historical facts to get in the way of interpretation, has given groups from the Daughters of the American Revolution to the Putnam County Golf Course an opportunity to get in on the action of reimagining the Revolution and what it says about America.

“In the end,” she writes, “Sybil Ludington has embodied the possibilities—courage, individuality, loyalty—that Americans of different genders, generations and political persuasions have considered to be the highest aspirations for themselves and for their country. The story of a lone, teenage girl riding for freedom, it seems, is simply too good not to be believed.”

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