Mary Fish Noyes Silliman (1736-1818) was a matriarch in Revolutionary and post-colonial Connecticut, USA, whose moral authority and determined spirit helped her family weather the hardships of war, illness, and debt. The 1993 film Mary Silliman’s War told the story of Mary’s experience during the American Revolution.
Mary Fish was born on May 30, 1736 in Stonington, Connecticut to Nathanial Fish and Mary (Pabodie) Fish. At the age of fifteen, she entered the school of Sarah Osborn, an accomplished woman and a model of female independence.
Marriage to John Noyes
On Nov. 16, 1758, Mary and John Noyes – the son of the Rev. Joseph Noyes of the First Church in New Haven – were married. Her new husband was a former rector of the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven who preached occasionally, engaged in modest dealings in the shipping trade, and suffered from epilepsy. Together, they lived in a house on Elm Street in New Haven and had five children: Rebecca in 1759 (died four days after birth), Joseph (called Jose) in 1761, John in 1762, James in 1764, and Mary in 1766 (died in 1770). Their mother’s dear sister Becca died of smallpox in the winter of 1766 and their father died shortly after, in the fall of 1767. John had died intestate, and Mary became his executrix. All three of their sons went on to enter the ministry, following in the footsteps of their father and grandfathers.
Marriage to Gold Selleck Silliman
Mary and Colonel Gold Selleck Silliman, a lawyer and member of one of Fairfield County’s most influential families, were married on May 24, 1775 in Stonington following a courtship sustained by frequent letters. The new couple moved to Gold’s farm in Fairfield soon after, merging their previously independent households. Their marriage was rooted in lasting friendship, deep affection, and mutual respect. Mary and Gold had two children together: Gold Selleck (called Sellek) in October 1777 and Benjamin in August 1779.
Knowing that military involvement in the Revolution could rob her of her second husband through absence or death, Mary learned the workings of his farm as well as knowledge of his financial affairs. Mary fell ill with dysentery in 1776 but upon recovery, ran the Silliman farm, entertained militia officers, housed refugees of war violence, managed the labor of several slaves and her adult stepson, drew accounts, and collected rent on her late first husband’s farms, all while her husband led the state militia.
On May 2, 1779, a band of Loyalists allegedly under the command of General Clinton captured Gold and his son from a previous marriage, Billy, holding them prisoner on a Long Island farm. The captors acted in response to Gold’s role in convicting two Loyalists for treason. At the time of his capture, Mary was six months pregnant with their second child; suffering child-labor without her husband was just one of many hardships she endured during his captivity. Money was a constant struggle, as the family assets suffered from Gold’s indefinite absence and General Washington’s refusal to offer assistance to Gold who, though an officer, was not on active service. Gold survived a bout of smallpox early in his captivity and often went without the comforts of adequate food and clothing. Correspondence between husband and wife was sparse and delayed.
Mary was fully involved in the consequences of the war itself and the efforts to secure her husband’s return. On the morning of July 7, 1779, for instance, a British fleet arrived to mount a full-scale attack on Fairfield. Mary was prepared for the emergency, calmly evacuating her household to North Stratford. Throughout her husband’s captivity, she wrote letters to well-connected men, like Connecticut’s Governor Trumbull, in order to appeal for their help in securing an exchange for Gold. Because the Patriots had no acceptable prisoner to exchange for Gold, some of his friends decided to take one. They chose Tory leader and Chief Justice Judge Thomas Jones of Long Island. On November 6 with the consent of the Governor, Captain David Hawley of Stratford and Captain Samuel Lockwood of Norwalk captured both the Judge and a young man named Willett, whom they hoped to exchange for Billy. Mary entertained Judge Jones as a guest in her home for several days. On April 27, 1780, a boat which Mary had hired departed Black Rock Harbor with Judge Jones aboard to return him and bring Silliman back. By coincidence that very same day, Silliman’s New York captors had chosen to send him home, so both prisoners returned safely home.
Following Gold’s death on July 21, 1789, Mary was left in considerable debt. She sold two of her slaves. Despite financial troubles, she was determined to send her sons Sellek and Benjamin to Yale so that they could benefit from the same education as their brothers and father. Both sons studied law at New Haven. In April 1804, Mary and Dr. John Dickinson of Middletown were quietly married by her son James in Wallingford. After a series of illnesses and misfortunes, Mary died on July 2, 1818.
Mary Fish Noyes Silliman possessed influence, authority, and tact, for which she has been remembered in publications and film. She instructed her children in religion and manners in order to develop in them inner grace as well as scriptural knowledge. She commanded moral authority derived from her ability to translate her piety into action, and she was competent in her role as a contributor to the household. As her sons grew independent and had children of their own, Mary assumed the role of family matriarch, advising and nurturing her spreading family circle. Her son Benjamin described her as a “heroic woman.” Ultimately, historians Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel, Jr. describe Mary as “less a daughter of the Revolution than a child of the Puritans.” The Silliman Family Papers, housed at Yale University, include a wealth of Mary’s writing in the form of her journal, papers, and letters, and are a rich resource.
The story of Mary’s experience during the American Revolution is rendered by the 1993 film Mary Silliman’s War, produced by Heritage Films. The film, based on Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel, Jr.’s The Way of Duty, seeks to dramatize three major themes surrounding the Revolution: the war’s divisiveness within colonial communities, the role of women in the struggles of the Revolution, and the role of religion in light of the war. Mary is compellingly portrayed as a devout prosperous matron determined against all odds to reunite with her beloved husband.
- Women in the American Revolution
- List of plays and films about the American Revolution
- First Great Awakening
- Buel, Joy Day, & Richard Buel, Jr., The Way of Duty (New York City, 1984), pp. 3, 18, 20.
- Buel, Duty, 22-52, 191.
- Buel, Duty, 76-77, 94-96.
- Wilson, Lisa, Ye Heart of a Man: The Domestic Life of Men in Colonial New England (Yale University, 1999), pp. 75-77.
- Buel, Duty, 137, 159-160.
- Buel, Duty, 98.
- Kulikoff, Allan, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, (Univ. of N. Carolina, 2000), pp. 255-256.
- Buel, Duty, 145-170.
- Buel, Duty, 196-213, 223-245, 281.
- Buel, Duty, xiii-xv.
- Schechter, Steven, Mary Silliman’s War, Review by: Carol Berkin, The Journal of American History, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Lincoln, Neb., 1994), pp. 1396-1398.
- Mary Silliman's War: A Convincing Social Portrait, American Historical Association (from the Film and Media column in Perspectives magazine, April 1995).