In the middle of the cemetery under a tree, lies a very unassuming stone with a story you’ve likely never heard before unless you were reading some obscure Revolutionary War books. Miss Anna Brewster lies there quietly, her story regaled eons ago in newspapers, rumor mills, and fictional literature.
Anna Brewster was born in 1768, the daughter of Edward Brewster and Experience Reeve. After her father’s death in 1775, her mother married Major Samuel Strong, a member of Colonel Jesse Woodhull’s regiment here in Orange County. Anna was born with dwarfism and her diminutive stature would spawn stories that reached as far as California over 70 years after her death!
The first publication I’ve found that mentions Anna Brewster was Samuel Eager’s 1846 An Outline of the History of Orange County that was published just a few short years after Anna’s death. On page 545 you can find a whole section on Anna:
Eager’s also refers to an unknown poet who, on October 8, 1794, wrote an acrostic poem dedicated to her after spending “an evening in her company.” The first letter of every line spells ANNA BREWSTER.
A pretty, charming little creature, N eat and complete in every feature, N ow at New Windsor may be seen, A ll beauteous in her air and mien. B irth and power, wealth and fame, R ise not to view when her we name: E very virtue in her shine, W isely nice, but not o'er fine. S he has a soul that's great, 'tis said, T hough small's the body of this maid: E 'en though the casket is but small, R eason proclaims the jewel's all.
This book also details a much repeated incident in which Mrs. Washington invited Anna to visit where the Washingtons were living in New Windsor. Anna declined, fearing she would be a “curiosity.”
In 1889, Sergeant Uzal Knapp, one of Washington’s last Life Guards, gave his remembrances to Benson Lossing, which was published in his book Hours with the Living Men and Women of the Revolution: A Pilgrimage after he interviewed 20 people (men & women) who were alive during the Revolution. He would also go on to write the Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, in which Anna Brewster was also mentioned. The excerpt of Sergeant Knapp’s remembrances of Anna was published far and wide but his account doesn’t necessarily add up… (but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself).
In 1907, Anna’s tale was still being told even as far as the West Coast. This little bit was published by James Elverson, Sr., a newspaper man and publisher out of Pennsylvania, and drew upon the same bits that had been rehashed by others throughout the years.
In 1927, Adelaide Skeel Kelley and William H. Brearley wrote Anna into a piece of early historical fictional called King Washington; a Romance of the Hudson Highlands, placing her at a party hosted by Lucy Knox, wife of General Henry Knox. Anna’s character was tearful at the prospect of Mrs. Washington wanting to “see a real dwarf.” This version of Anna is extremely stereotypical and dismissive of Little People in the era it was written, describing her as having an “almost bird-like claw” and having Mrs. Knox referring to her as “child” and “child-woman.” This book has Anna carrying around that poem, as if she were some lovelorn maiden, and has Lucy trying to get Anna to meet some raunchy Frenchman at Headquarters. It’s not a flattering depiction in any case.
To really get to know the TRUE version of Anna, we can thankfully turn to a reliable and contemporary source – her nephew, Joseph Henry Strong. Joseph was born in 1827 to Anna’s half brother, William Strong & Clarissa Howell, and knew his aunt well before she passed away when he was 17. Around 1910, Joseph penned this letter to his niece, Anna Strong, and it was found in the family documents before the sale of the John Y Gerow farm in Washingtonville. In this letter, he refers to Anna as “Aunt Nancy,” a moniker used by those closest to her and directly refutes that Anna was a guest of the Washingtons, though she might have met the general on a few occasions with her uncle. In his letter, Joseph also mentions Lossing’s and Eager’s books and that same repeated poem, so the family was aware of Anna’s “fame” that reached far and wide!
Please enjoy these letters by clicking to enlarge and getting to know the REAL Anna Brewster from those that knew her best. Thank you to Pam Wood for sharing these letters with us! And if you’re in the cemetery, please stop by to visit Anna and say hello to this remarkable woman!
Written by Jill Moore for the Washingtonville Cemetery Committee.