So Who Was this "Molly Stark" Woman?
THERE SEEM TO be certain New England legends that evolve out of no logical sequence of events at all. Merely a little something someone said can catch our imagination, be repeated and perhaps somewhat embellished, and eventually … voila! It takes its place among the New England legends we love.
There are dozens of examples I could cite, but perhaps the most puzzling is the legend of Molly Stark. Puzzling because Molly never said anything or did anything of note. However, her husband, New Hampshire General John Stark, said and did a lot of things. It was John who made Molly a legend at the Revolutionary War battle of Bennington, Vermont. “There are the Redcoats,” was his battle cry just prior to the battle that morning, “and they are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”
Then, along with Vermont’s Seth Warner and Samuel Herrick, he went on to a decisive victory over the British, a victory that contributed significantly to Burgoyne’s subsequent surrender at Saratoga two months later. Stark was also a hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill and is said to be the originator of New Hampshire’s state motto, Live Free or Die.
But no one remembers poor John Stark for any of that. Sure, Manchester, New Hampshire, has preserved his boyhood home, but it served for years as the meeting place of the Molly Stark Chapter of the DAR. A small fort in New Castle is named for him and there’s a statue of him in Manchester and another in Concord, which served as the model for a John Stark commemorative bottle of bourbon several years ago. However, because the figure into which the bottle was molded depicted Stark in full military uniform, with his hand shoved inside his coat, everyone thought it was Napoleon.
Now Molly is something else again. For reasons never fully explained by anyone, her name is appearing all over New England. For instance, the road between Brattleboro and Bennington, Vermont, is called the Molly Stark Trail. (Incidentally, there are several state markers along it that show a female figure standing beside a cannon. Probably someone somewhere along the line confused Molly Stark, who never fired a cannon, with Molly Pitcher, heroine of the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, who did.) And in New Boston, New Hampshire, a brass cannon used at the Battle of Bennington and fired each July 4 is known as — you guessed it — the Molly Stark Cannon. A Bennington school bears her name. There’s a Molly Stark State Park, a Molly Stark hospital, Molly Stark gift shops and restaurants and streets and motels and almost every commercial venture you can imagine. Seems like half of everything in Vermont is named Molly Stark.
The people at the Bennington Museum have told me that tourists are constantly asking them, “So who was this Molly Stark woman!” They say there’s not really much to tell. She was born Elizabeth Page in 1737 in Haverhill, Massachusetts; she married John Stark in 1758; they had 11 children; she was a good, courageous pioneer farm wife; and one night in 1814, she turned the tables on that stirring battle cry that made her a legend, and John sadly slept a widower, never realizing he’d just lost a wife who would live on in New England forever.