In December 1775 the war in America was not yet a year old, but most of the 7th and 26th Regiments of Foot were already prisoners of war. They had been captured when undermanned garrisons on Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River were overrun by an American expedition bent on seizing the city of Quebec. Now housed in barracks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, these two British regiments awaited an unknown fate, for no one knew how long the war would last or what the outcome would be.
When the garrisons of British posts fell, soldiers and their families became prisoners of war together. Among those at Lancaster was Befordshire native William Willson, a private soldier in the 26th Regiment, his wife Elizabeth, and their four children. William, a tailor by trade, had joined the army in about 1763 and probably continued to practice his trade while a soldier. When he married Elizabeth, and where she was from, are not known.
In the first half of 1777 the prisoners were finally exchanged. The soldiers and their families marched to the British-held city of New York. The soldiers soon took the field once again while Elizabeth Willson, like most army wives, worked to help support her family. She sold fruit in the city, demonstrating the resourcefulness of these women whose lives were inherently itinerant due to their husbands’ profession. She may have met acquaintances from New Jersey where the 26th had been posted in 1768, 1769 and 1770, who had fled to the city after war broke out.
The 26th remained in the New York area for a few years. But in 1779 the regiment received orders to return to Great Britain. What happened to William is not clear – he does not appear on the regiment’s rolls prepared in England in 1780, but decades later William deposed that he was discharged from the regiment in 1783. He may have remained in New York on some sort of special duty. He was certainly in England in June 1783, where he went before the pension examining board at Chelsea and was granted an out-pension for his twenty years of service.
It is also certain that Elizabeth Willson did not accompany him to Britain. In October 1783 she was still in New York, selling fruit from a stand “at the Head of Coenties Slip,” a byway that ran from Water Street to the East River. But she had become “much addicted to liquor” and was “frequently intoxicated.” A local resident who knew her “knew of no place of abode,” but had “frequently seen her lying drunk behind stoops.” In the late morning of October 21, she was found dead on the ground floor of an abandoned house, 52 Grand Dock Street “near the Royal Exchange in the South Ward.” The coroner found “no external marks of violence on her body to cause her death,” and ascribed her death to “liquor or sickness.”
Information for this article comes from the following sources:
Return Of The Prisoners Of The 26th Regiment, Taken At St. Johns And In The River St. Lawrence, And Arrived At Lancaster, Pennsylvania State Archives
Muster rolls, 26th Regiment of Foot, The National Archives of Great Britain
Out Pension Admission Books, The National Archives of Great Britain
Coroner’s report on Elizabeth Willson, British Headquarters Papers, The National Archives of Great Britain