The Women of the Reed Family

Photo titled "A New England kitchen, A hundred years ago." The drawing, published in 1876, shows women, children and a man working in a colonial-era kitchen
Photo titled “A New England kitchen, A hundred years ago.” The drawing, published in 1876, shows women, children and a man working in a colonial-era kitchen. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Most of the documents in the collection pertain to the men in the Reed family, requiring secondary research to uncover the lives of these women.

Roles of Women on the Farm

It is generally thought that women had no power in colonial times. This idea was true when it came to property, but not when it came to gender roles and divisions of labor. A woman’s main sphere of influence was in the household. She was in charge of preparing meals, taking care of children, tending the kitchen garden, washing clothes, and milking cows. Although women were not required to work in the fields, there was frequently a shortage of labor in colonial New England. If help was scarce, a wife would take part during planting and harvesting time.

Women usually began their day around 4am. They built a fire, carried in water from the well, and began cooking breakfast. Breakfast was usually served after other members of the household had worked for two hours. The main meal of the day was dinner and was served around 2pm. At night, women served a light supper, often leftovers from earlier in the day.

Wives were also involved in managing the farm, which required literacy and basic accounting. Women were required to do this on top of their more traditional duties. In colonial New England, husbands and wives were partners and their spheres of activity blended together.

This partnership changed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a result of industrialization, the home was no longer the center of activity. The daily lives of men and women were increasingly separated during this time. This change occurred in cities and large communities where industrialization freed middle-class families from time-consuming agricultural and household duties. However, because Arlington was a small, quiet farming community, the Reeds were not affected by industrialization until the mid-19th century.


The level of education for women in colonial America was dependent on class, location and race.

The New England Primer, 1764. Courtesy of the General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
The New England Primer, 1764. Courtesy of the General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

In Massachusetts, both girls and boys attended schools as early as the 17th century. They both attended a “dame school,” usually taught by an unmarried woman or widow in the community. This primary school education was the equivalent of kindergarten and children were taught a basic curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic. The teacher would also instruct girls in domestic skills such a knitting and sewing. Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, wrote that even in the best families, education for girls went no farther than writing and arithmetic. After dame school, secondary schools offered boys a chance to continue their education.

The 19th century brought changes to education for women. After the Revolutionary War, people put an emphasis on education, especially in the North. States rapidly established public schools and by 1870, all states had free elementary schools. This change is apparent in the Reed family with Susan, Captain Daniel and Priscilla (Wyman) Reed’s daughter. The only personal record in the Fowle-Reed-Wyman collection is a story written by Susan when she was around thirteen years of age.

Mabel Reed

The Abstracts of Early Woburn Deeds uncovers information on Mabel Reed, wife of William and grandmother to the eldest Daniel Reed (1666-1741). William and Mabel sailed to the colonies in 1635 with their children and later settled in Woburn, MA where William bought 50 acres of land from Nicholas Davis. They later returned to England where William died in 1656. After his death, Mabel returned to Woburn, Massachusetts to be with her children.

On November 21, 1660, Mabel married Henry Summers of Woburn. Not much is known of their marriage and Henry died in 1675. In his will, Henry left his house and lands to Mabel and required that his son Henry Jr. care for her. The will stipulated that upon her death, the estate would be transferred to him. Tension may have arisen in the family when Henry Summers married Mabel, and the will upset his son. According to Mabel, after ten years, Henry Jr. broke his agreement and refused to continue caring for her. Mabel struggled to get by and relied on her son George Reed to take care of her for five years (1685-1690).

Mabel argued that because Henry Jr. broke his agreement, he forfeited his rights to the house and land. Mabel then granted it to her son, George Reed. Mabel’s action against her stepson Henry Jr. led to several lawsuits. Even after Mabel’s death in 1690, there was further argument over her will.

What is remarkable about this incident is that Mabel took action in the first place. Women were not granted the same rights as men were, especially in the 17th century. They did not own land or take part in town meetings. Widows were given land and homes to live in, but those lands would later pass into the hands of the eldest son. Mabel believed that she had the right to override Henry’s will because his son had broken a written agreement. Although the land was later given to Henry Jr., for a time the house and land was in possession of George Reed.

Susan (Reed) Huffmaster

Susan was the daughter of Captain Daniel Reed and Priscilla (Wyman) Reed and was born around 1791. She married Thomas Huffmaster on July 28, 1818. Susan was not the daughter of a farmer. She was the daughter of Captain Daniel Reed, who was often listed as a gentleman in documents. She would have been given a decent education, which allowed her to learn more than how to read and write. It allowed Susan’s creativity to blossom.

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A story titled “Fraternal Affection” by Susan Reed, 1804.

In 1804, she wrote a story titled “Fraternal Affection.” The story is about a ship that carried twelve hundred passengers to the Portuguese colony of Goa in East India in the sixteenth century. Two men on the ship who were educated in geography and navigation realized that the ship was headed to a dangerous rocky area. They told the captain to alert the pilot of the danger. This information offended the pilot who did not want to be told how to navigate a ship and he ignored the captain’s orders. The pilot’s decision to ignore orders led to the ship hitting the rocks and sinking. The ending is ambiguous, but implies that most if not all twelve hundred passengers died.

This story implies that Susan could have been educated in the classics. Plutarch wrote an essay titled, “On Fraternal Affection.” In chapter 15, he writes, “Brothers should not be like the scales of a balance, the one rising upon the other’s sinking; but rather like numbers in arithmetic, the lesser and greater mutually helping and improving each other.” Plutarch believed that brothers should not work against each other, for that maims them. In Susan’s story, the pilot was not willing to work with the two men, and in turn, kills passengers on board. This may also be a morality story in arrogance. The pilot considered his job an art and was offended that someone would tell him what to do.

Aside from this remarkable story, not much is known of Susan’s life. Her husband Thomas Huffmaster was a farmer and was killed in when a tornado tore through Medford, Massachusetts in 1851. After the tornado, Susan lived with daughter Martha R. Norton and her husband, John.

Below is a gallery of documents in the Fowle-Reed-Wyman collection relating to the Reed women:

Next: 19th Century to Present


References: Abstracts of early Woburn deeds : recorded at Middlesex County Registry, 1649-1700[database on-line]. Provo, UT: Operations Inc, 2005.

Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1967.

Hawke, David Freeman. Everyday Life in Early America. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Holliday, Carl. Woman’s Life in Colonial Days. Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House, 1968.

Wayne, Tiffany K. Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-century America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.