Why you should care
Because this American legend is a little too good to be true.
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Sitting on horseback above a bristling sea of tricorn hats and flintlock muskets, this tiny, cloaked girl is guaranteed to stand out at your average American Revolution reenactment. This isn’t Betsy Ross or Molly Pitcher, but a 16-year-old girl — and one who allegedly changed the course of history.
Sybil Ludington is one of the Revolutionary War’s most famous women you’ve never heard of. She occupies a quiet but persistent part of history as an unlikely but all-American heroine. There’s even a giant bronze statue of her in Putnam County, New York, lovingly maintained by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her nickname? The “female Paul Revere.”
The story goes that his daughter Sybil jumped on her horse and rode a whopping 40 miles in the dark.
According to stories passed down through the generations, Ludington was 16 when the British army rode on Danbury, Connecticut. It was the spring of 1777, and the ragtag Continental Army had a supply depot in the small northern town named after its settlers from Danbury, England. Sybil’s dad was a patriot and the head of the local militia just over the New York border, but when a breathless messenger pounded on the family’s door late one night with the terrible news that the British were marching on Danbury, Col. Henry Ludington enlisted some help.
The story goes that his daughter Sybil jumped on her horse and rode a whopping 40 miles in the dark from Patterson, New York, to Danbury to warn the locals. It’s unclear whether she yelled “The British are coming!” but for what it’s worth, that’s twice the length of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride. As historian Paula Hunt reveals, however, it’s very unlikely Ludington ever made the historic ride. The first record we have of her story appearing in print dates to 1880, in a history of New York City written by Martha J. Lamb. Though Lamb did apparently correspond with Ludington’s descendants, that’s the closest tangible proof we’ve got: a family history told 100 years after the alleged events. Lamb wrote of “a spirited young girl of sixteen” who, after a messenger rushed to her father’s house to raise the alarm, “mounted her horse in the dead of night and performed this service” of mustering the local militia. In her story, the legend of the female Paul Revere was born, and it spread like wildfire.
The thing is, Sybil’s story isn’t just good — it’s plausible. Records show that Henry and Abigail Ludington’s daughter did exist and was 16 years old when Danbury burned. Being the closest thing colonial Americans had to push notifications, horseback messengers were pretty common: It’s often forgotten that Revere himself was just one of dozens of riders.
But by this point, whether or not Ludington’s epic ride really happened is almost beside the point. What’s fascinating, instead, is our lasting willingness to believe this revolutionary folktale. As we come up on the 240th anniversary of Sybil’s fabled ride, it’s clear that the American public desperately wants more from their founding myths. In one camp, Donald Trump supporters trumpet the lasting sacredness of the Second Amendment; in the other, the character of Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway hip-hop smash Hamilton declares: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel — work!” Sybil’s longevity has a lot to do with our desire to see ourselves in the past — or, to paraphrase Hamilton, to put ourselves back in the narrative.
But the story of the girl who warned Danbury isn’t just a 21st-century feminist retelling of the past. When Lamb wrote Sybil’s ride into history in the late 1800s, Ludington embodied patriotic qualities considered healthy in women at the time. She had just enough spunk to help out in times of war, but she wasn’t out drumming up votes for women. It’s no surprise, says J. L. Bell, proprietor of the Boston 1775 website and author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, that Sybil’s popularity boomed at the turn of the century and again with second-wave feminism in the 1970s. By then, “many Americans were looking for revolutionary heroines who did more than manage the domestic sphere,” Bell explains. As far back as the early 1900s, “she could take on a temporary military role without upsetting notions of proper femininity,” he adds. But as those ideals changed, “she became an even more dynamic role model for young people.”
Over the years, she’s transformed into a propaganda tool, a war hero and even a cartoon hero to reflect the changing ideal teenage girl. Notably, her story has prevailed over less “feminine” real-life stories, like that of women who served as male soldiers. And today, Sybil Ludington remains a surprisingly solid link to a revolutionary past — especially for someone who seems not to have had much to do with the war itself. She was inducted into the National Women’s History Museum, and the story of her ride was recently featured in an episode of Drunk History. Ludington’s revolutionary past is not as radical as she seems, but her enduring myth has fueled a country’s imagination for hundreds of years.
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