The Sarah Riggs Humphreys-Mary Silliman chapter, 70 members strong in early 2010, unites two 116-year-old Connecticut chapters whose merger the NSDAR approved in October 2009. Two distinguished figures: one, the mother of a patriot; the other, the courageous wife of a Brigadier General, were women of prestige and honor during the Revolutionary War. While it is not known if they knew each other—Mary Silliman was 25 years younger than Sarah Humphreys—both experienced widowhood and remarriage during a stirring period in American history, and both were connected with Yale. Mary Silliman’s pivotal role in a prisoner exchange to secure her husband’s return from captivity and her participation in events surrounding the burning of Fairfield by British and Hessian troops in the summer of 1779 have been portrayed in a book and a film. Fittingly, the new chapter’s name perpetuates the identities of both Sarah and Mary.
Sarah Riggs Humphreys (1711-1789) was born to Captain John and Elizabeth Tomlinson in Derby, December 17, 1711. Sarah descended from Edward Riggs, 2nd, an original settler of Derby. In the first Riggs home, the regicide judges Whalley and Goffe found shelter when they were hunted from place to place by officers of the British king. This house was enclosed by a palisade and it is here the early settlers found protection in times of Indian outbreaks. It is probably the second house built on the home lot which became the birthplace of Sarah Riggs, and where she was married in 1732 to John Bowers, who died in 1738. Several years later she married Reverend Daniel Humphreys. Five children were born of this union. The most noted of her gifted family was her youngest son, General David Humphreys, aide and trusted friend of Washington, and a distinguished diplomat and man of letters as well as a brave soldier. Elegant in personal appearance, refined in education and manner, Sarah Riggs Humphreys became a familiar figure in the cultured college circles of Yale. For half a century, as wife of the scholarly clergyman, she carried the honorary title of “Lady Humphreys.” She died July 29, 1789, five weeks before her husband.
Mary Fish Silliman (1736-1818) was the daughter of the Reverend Joseph Fish and his wife Rebecca. She was born May 30, 1736, and was educated in religious schools. Mary loved to write and kept a daily journal, which she hoped would prove “instructive and entertaining to my dear children when the hand that writes can move no more.”
Mary Fish married General Gold Selleck Silliman (1732-1790), who was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, graduated from Yale and practiced law. He served as a crown attorney before the American Revolution. At the beginning of Tryon’s raid on Danbury, General Silliman, at home in Fairfield, on receiving word of the British landing, alarmed nearby towns and gathered the militia. By noon the next day, he reached Redding with 500 men and was joined by Major General Daniel Wooster and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold in the Battle of Ridgefield. Several years later, Tories invaded the Silliman home and took General Silliman and his son prisoner. How could the Americans obtain their release? Having no prisoner of equal rank to exchange for General Silliman, they captured one—the Honorable Thomas Jones. David Hawley’s leadership led to Mary Silliman’s joyous reunion with both husband and son. She died in 1818.
This brief history, abstracted from myriad details about the well-known Silliman family and Mary Silliman in particular, merits further study. Fortunately, there is excellent material in the form of primary documents, a book, and a film which Sarah Riggs Humphreys-Mary Silliman chapter can suggest to those interested.
The Sarah Riggs Humphreys-Mary Silliman Chapter supports the General David Humphreys Society, Children of the American Revolution (C.A.R.).