I hope that you have read the Captain Richard Duncan biography at the Biographi.ca website . By now you might be asking, “why do I have to do homework to read this blog?”. Well, you don’t really. I just wanted to give you two entirely different perspectives on the same historical person, Captain Richard Duncan, and if you read his “official” story, you’ll better understand those two perspectives.
Meet Mary Wright Duncan
On the way to Detroit, Miss Anne Powell stayed overnight at the home of Captain Richard Duncan. There, she met both the Captain and his wife. She doesn’t mention the wife by name, but we know that she was Mary Wright. She married Richard Duncan in October of 1784.
In her letters, Miss Anne writes about her 1789 meeting with Mary:
“We pass’d one night at the house of a Capt’ Duncan, whose Wife I had often heard mention’d by my sister and whose story I commiserated before I saw her person. She is one of the loveliest young women I ever saw, both in person and manners, is now only nineteen and has been 5 years married.”
Interestingly, we discover from Miss Anne’s writing that Mary is nineteen years old. She has also been “5 years married”. That means that Mary was wed at the very tender age of fourteen. This fact is not mentioned in the biograhpi.ca profile of Captain Duncan. As a family historian, if you were investigating this family’s story, you might have missed this fact if you had not dug a little deeper into the story. A marriage record might have revealed this, but perhaps not. In 1784, there were no official marriage civil registers. These were not begun until 1869 in Ontario, and considerably later in Quebec. Church records might be the only available source for this type of information. However, there was no standard format for recording such unions and the information contained in them varies. If I were researching the Duncan family, I would most certainly want to see any available marriage record after having read Miss Ann Powell’s letters.
I haven’t seen the marriage record for Mary Wright and Captain Duncan to know what information is contained in it, or indeed if it even exists. However, my point is not to prove Mary Wright’s age. My point is only that sometimes an unusual, “unofficial” source can yield some very interesting information.
I love the juicy-gossip quality of Miss Anne’s writing. My general perception of her is that she was a likeable, honest, and caring individual. If you read her letters, I’m sure you will agree. So when she writes about Captain Duncan himself, I’m inclined to believe what she writes about him.
Meet Richard Duncan
In the official biography, we learn that Duncan’s father, John, was an “Indian trader” operating out of Schenectady, New York. Further, “By the time of the American revolution the Duncans had acquired extensive landholdings but had also accumulated a joint debt of £3,000”. Generally, Duncan was a good soldier, rising from the rank of ensign, and having participated in the Battle of Saratoga. You can read about the infantry company he commanded during the war, some of his exploits, and the company’s modern re-enactors at http://royalyorkers.ca/duncans.php. After the Revolution, he was granted lands in Mariatown (near Morrisburg, Ontario), and continued to add to this allotment by purchasing more acreage around him.
Miss Anne confirms many of the facts presented in the official biography. But she adds an extra dimension. She tells us about the character of the man, Richard Duncan, rather than the military figure, something not in evidence in the more staid recounting of his life on biographi.ca. Please don’t get the impression that I’m picking on biographi.ca; it’s a great resource for this type of background information. Nor am I necessarily trying to intentionally impugn the reputation of an obviously very capable Loyalist soldier. My intent is only to show how resources like the letters of Miss Anne Powell can add that extra, human dimension to our research subjects.
Anne Powell doesn’t like Captain Duncan. She says as much, even as she expresses extreme sympathy for the position of her young hostess.
She describes Captain Duncan as: “a Man who is old, disagreeable and vicious, but he was suppos’d to be rich and her friends absolutely forced [Mary] to marry him.” She clearly despises his treatment of his young wife: “I never heard of such a series of cruelty being practiced on any poor creature in my life both before and after her marriage.” And she loathes Captain Duncan himself: “The disgust I felt towards him is now settled into a fixed aversion which can never change for it is founded on principle.”
Earlier, I used the quote from biographi.ca to show that Captain Duncan was a man deeply indebted to his creditors (“a joint debt of £3,000”). Miss Anne confirms this as she tells us, “After the sacrifice was made [i.e., after Mary Wright wed Duncan], her friends had the mortification of finding themselves deceived in his circumstances ; so far from being rich he was deeply in debt, and had nothing to live upon but his half-pay and his new lands which were then in a state of Nature.” By the way, I used a calculator on the realworth.com website to calculate that the Duncans’ debt of £3,000 would be equivalent to £4,000,000 ($6 million CDN) today, so his indebtedness was not a small thing.
This dishonesty in his representation of himself to Mary, and perhaps to her family and friends, might be why Miss Anne so harshly decries Mary’s condition, living in the wilderness in such a poor state: “There, however he brought her, and there she lived in a hut without society, and almost without the necessaries of life, ’till he built a house, which he has done upon so large a scale that it will never be finished.” Her description of Mrs. Duncan’s married life is in stark contrast to the life of affluence with Captain Duncan that evidently Mary and everyone else concerned expected.
A Good Flow of Spirits
Miss Anne concludes her description of the experience by expressing her hopes for Mary Wright Duncan: “I felt myself very much interested for this sweet young woman and should have great pleasure in hearing her Tyrant was dead, the only means by which she can be released.” This might not be a charitable way to express herself, but I think it clearly underscores the depth of feeling Captain Duncan evoked in Miss Anne.
Reading her letters, I grew to quite like Miss Anne Powell. She was not one to suffer injustice lightly. Certainly, she expresses quite clearly that she would never allow herself to be put into circumstances similar to her friend, Mary. She is, we find, particularly strong-willed for a woman of her time. She would rather die than to live the way Mary was living:
“I, at that moment thought with pleasure of a circumstance that has often mortified me, the slightness of my own constitution which will never leave me long to struggle under any great misfortune ; a good flow of spirits buoys me up above the common vexations of life; few people, I believe, bear them with more temper, but an evil too great for the strength of my mind would soon send me to the grave.”
That’s it for this week’s installment. Stop by again for another new adventure in history. Next time, I’ll tell you how I found this amazing story and what other free resources are available at the same website. As always, please feel free to comment on anything you read here on this blog.
End of Pt. II