Mercy Scollay and the lifelong work of mending
In April 1775, as shots rang out at Lexington and Concord and the Massachusetts countryside blazed with the outbreak of the American Revolution, 33-year-old Mercy Scollay of Boston took shelter miles from the tumult, accompanied by four young children.
Secreted at a house in Worcester for the next several months, Scollay would serve as protectress and caregiver for the four children of widowed Boston physician and Patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren had not accompanied Scollay and the children but remained behind – first in Boston, where he had dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes on their fateful midnight rides, then at the American encampment in Cambridge where he helped lead Patriots’ efforts against the British. Before Scollay and the children’s departure from Boston, Warren had enlisted Worcester physician Elijah Dix and his wife, Dorothy, to help support Scollay and the children as they settled into the house Warren had procured for them.
Though thrust upon each other as strangers during the turbulent spring of 1775, Scollay and Dorothy Dix forged a strong bond over the next several months as the revolution raged around them. Ultimately, the relationship between the women would span 50 years; they exchanged letters for the remainder of Scollay’s life. Scollay’s letters to Dix survive and are maintained by the Cambridge Historical Society in the Mercy Scollay Papers, 1775-1824 collection.
In her letters, Scollay often reflected on the happy times shared with the circle of friends and children that gathered at the Dix’s fireside. Having access to such a support network while 50 miles from home would prove invaluable to Scollay when news reached Worcester that Warren had been killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June.
Soon after Warren’s death, his relatives assumed care of the children. Having been stripped of her charge of them, Scollay left their Worcester sanctuary and returned to her parents’ house in Boston where she began penning letters to Dix. In these letters she shared her grief over Warren’s death, the desolation she felt over the unceremonious removal of the children from her care, as well as her struggle to conceal the depth of her sorrows from family and friends.
Scollay is reputed to have been the fiancée of Warren at the time of his death. Though there is no explicit mention of a betrothal in the letters, Scollay’s affection for Warren is clear, and she executed with the greatest fidelity the care and safeguarding of his children as he took part and then fell in the revolution.
After Warren’s untimely death in battle, little money remained in his estate. Scollay, evincing a deep interest in the well-being and education of his children, embarked on a valiant, yearslong effort to gain state-sanctioned financial support for them. In correspondence and in-person conversations, she urged Samuel Adams and John Hancock to wield their influence with the Continental Congress on the children’s behalf. Over the course of her unflagging efforts, Scollay gained an unlikely ally – Benedict Arnold. Arnold, who would defect to the British after his traitorous plans to hand over West Point were discovered, petitioned Congress for support of Warren’s children.
Ultimately, Congress provided funds for the maintenance and support of the children, paying for the education of the oldest and annually granting the younger three the half pay of a major general – Warren’s rank at the time of his death.
Despite the passage of years, Scollay’s friendship with Dix remained constant. During the heady years of revolution, Scollay’s letters were peppered with accounts of besieged Boston and the fervor of the people, her uneasiness at the specter of British attacks, her frustration with the seeming indolence of the Provincial Congress and her concern for the health of her parents: John Scollay, who served as the chair of the Boston Board of Selectmen, and his wife, also named Mercy.
But as the decades unfolded and the Revolution receded into the past, Scollay’s mention of those turbulent times ceased. Her letters to Dix quiesced into gentle updates concerning family and health and inquiries into the well-being of the Dix family. Scollay spent her final years ensconced happily among extended family in Medfield, where she took comfort in writing, reading and sewing.
Despite multiple illnesses and physical travails, even as an octogenarian Scollay never lost her vigorous disposition or formidable mental acuity. She outlived not only fellow revolutionaries John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and strange bedfellow Benedict Arnold, but, tragically, three of the four Warren children. At age 82, Scollay wrote her last known letter to Dix. Two years later, in January 1826, the pen of Mercy Scollay, one of the last of the founding generation, fell silent.
To learn more about Cambridge women through history, visit the Cambridge Historical Society website
About the Cambridge Historical Society
We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.
Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.
Katie Turner Getty is an independent researcher and writer.