Lady Deborah Moody

One of my favorite women in American history is little known.  I stumbled upon her by accident, when researching the Leaming/Spicer branch of my geneology.  I was using a geneology database where you can search old books for names and places, when I found in a Spicer geneology that Samuel Spicer and his family accompanied Lady Deborah Moody in leaving Massachusetts and founding the town of Gravesend, on Long Island, New York.  In another book, The Civil, Political, Professional, and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record othe the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, N. Y. from 1683 to 1884 by Henry R. Stiles, I found more.  I thought this was unusual, since women leaders are rarely featured in histories of the late 19th century, except Anne Hutchinson.

Unfortunately, not much is known about her, even the exact dates of her birth and death are unknown.  Much of the information in this post comes from “Lady Deborah Moody and Gravesend, 1643 – 1659” by Lucille Koppleman in De Halve Maen, vol. 67, issue 2, published in 1994.  Lady Deborah (Dunch) Moody was born in Avedon, Wiltshire, England, sometime between 1582 and 1584, the daughter of Walter Dunch, a lawyer and member of parliament, and Deborah Pilkington, who was the daughter of a radical Protestant bishop.  She was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, and was well educated.  In 1606 she married Henry Moody, a wealthy landowner.  He was made a baronet by James I in 1622.  They had two children Henry, and a daughter, about whom nothing is known.  Sir Henry passed away in 1629.

She became associated with the nonconformists in England.  Many of her relatives were persecuted during the reign of Charles I.  In 1639, she followed John Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay colony.  In 1642, she was cited in the local court along with three others (including Mary Tilton, my 8th great-grandmother) for not believing that the baptism of infants was an ordinance of God.  John Winthrop wrote about her “The lady Moodye, a wise and anciently religious woman, being taken with the error of denying baptism to infants, was dealt withal by many of the elders an others and admonished by the church of Salem . . . persisting still, and to avoid further trouble, etc., she removed to the Dutch, against the advice of all her friends.” 

In 1643, she was granted a patent from Director-General Willem Kieft to establish a settlement in New Netherland, where they were allowed freedom of worship and self-government, as trading in furs and owning and cultivating land.  In New Netherland, women had more freedoms under Dutch law than English law in land ownership and business management.  Shortly after settling Gravesend, there was a Native American attack.  All the homes were burned except for hers, which was defended by forty men. 

Plan of Gravesend

The town plan of Gravesend was unique, and there are no known prototypes.  It is unknown if she designed it or not.  She was the certainly the leading citizen of the town, conducting town meetings, securing land titles from the Native Americans, and working with Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged Dutch Director-General of New Netherland, to maintain their freedom of religion and self-government.  In fact, the first Quaker meeting was held in Lady Moody’s house in Gravesend in 1657, and my ancestors, Samuel Spicer and his wife Esther Tilton, became Quakers.  It is unclear if Lady Moody became a Quaker herself. 

It is unclear when Lady Moody died, but it was probably around 1659.  Her son Henry took over things for a while, but he eventually left Gravesend and moved to Virginia.  My ancestors, the Spicers, along with several other families, moved south to New Jersey in 1665 and founded Cape May, New Jersey. 

I wonder why so little is mentioned of her in histories.  She seems so interesting and should belong in with the other prominent dissenting women such as Anne Hutchinson and Quaker martyr Mary Dyer.  I only found two articles on her, the one previously mentioned, and “Lady Deborah Moody and the Founding of Gravesend” by Linda Biemer in The Journal of Long Island History vol. 117, issue 2 from 1981.  Most of their information comes from older sources, such as the 1881 history that I found her in.  She appears mostly in local histories.  The only exception I found was that she appears in Notable American Woman, a Biographical Dictionary edited by T. James and published in 1971.  The current trend in women’s history is to focus more on the everyday women and minority women, which is good, but I still wonder.  As Lucille Koppelman wrote in her poem at the end of her article:  “Deborah Moody haunts me / a figure veiled by time.”

This house is believed to be Lady Moody's Gravesend home.

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7 Responses to Lady Deborah Moody

  1. Angela says:

    What a wonderful story, she sounds like quite a lady! It’s so interesting to discover these unknown stories when you’re looking for information on someone else, although it usually sends me off on a tangent and I spend way too much time going in a completely different direction! But still, it’s exciting to learn about people and events that helped shape our country and communities. I hope you’re able to find more information about her!

  2. foreignfilm1 says:

    Wow, what an incredibly interesting woman! That is fascinating that you found out about her through your genealogy research. Like Camille, she is an underappreciated and forgotten female genius.

  3. PHIT says:

    I am in agreement with Angela and Elise. Lady Moody was a courageous woman. I can’t help but think of U.S. Women’s History from last quarter. Did you write about her for your final research paper? The New England region has such a vast and rich history, thanks to woman such as Lady Moody. Good luck in your research. She is lucky to have a fan such as you!

  4. Linda Biemer says:

    Wish I could have found more info on her when I was doing the research in the 70s…she was a fascinating woman….

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