Teenage Betsy Hagar apprenticed as a machinist and refitted weapons for the American Revolution.
Elizabeth Hager, “called “Betsy.” was born in Boston in 1750. Her parents were very poor and both died when she was only nine. Following the customs of the time, she became a “bound girl.” This meant that as an orphan, a family would take her in, freeing the city of charity costs, and in return, Betsy would become their servant. Betsy began her apprenticeship with a farmer near Boston. There she lived and was cared for as part of the family while working and doing her part.
She matured to become a very strong and able woman. Her skills were prominent in both household tasks, as well as in the construction of tools and machinery. She especially excelled as a weaver and could “make almost anything out of iron and wood,” earning the nickname of “Handy Betty.” Her childhood also included some formal education, as Betsy could read and write.
Betsy Hager’s inspiration for her achievements was rooted in a strong sense of patriotism. This can be expected from someone who was living in Boston right before the Revolutionary War, as the streets of Boston were filled with rebels eager to overturn the British government. Events such as the Boston Tea Party gave people a strong sense of nationalism, including Betsy. When the 1775 Battle of Concord signaled the beginning of the American Revolution, she helped care for the wounded. She supported the cause of creating a new nation: “Handy Betty” would always lend a helping hand.
Betsy, with a devout sense of patriotism paving the way, began contributing to the revolutionary efforts by working with Samuel Leverett, a blacksmith and farmer. This chapter of her life is where she earned the nickname of “Betsy the Blacksmith.” In preparation for the war, they both volunteered their time by secretly working in a room attached to the workshop. Her machinery skills came in handy as they refitted weapons that had not been used since Queen Anne’s War in the early 1700s. They repaired old matchlocks and muskets for use by the American soldiers.
After the Battle of Concord, she retooled six abandoned British cannons for use against the British six weeks later. For the rest of the war, Betsy made bullets and other ammunition. She worked in secret because making arms to be used against the government was, of course, illegal – and beyond that, most of what they repaired and gave to Americans was property that officially was owned by the British.
Despite her mechanical skills, she also was marked by traditionally “feminine” self-sacrificing attributes. She was always ready to visit the sick as her skills in the medical field grew. Her commitment and strength remained throughout her life.
After the war she married John Pratt, who had been a Concord minuteman, and they rented a farm. Times were rough, as the war had disrupted trade and many people went bankrupt in the 1780s and 1790s. John worked as a soldier, and Betsy managed much of their farm work. She also continued to speak her political opinions and was a strong supporter of the new federal government during Shay’s Rebellion. Like John Pratt, Daniel Shay was a veteran of the Revolution, but he nonetheless led debt-ridden farmers in western Massachusetts in unsuccessful rebellion. Betsy Hager Pratt and other women took sides on this issue, showing that women of this era held political opinions and did not hesitate to make them public.
In 1816 – when Betsy was 66 years old -- the Pratts moved from Massachusetts to northern Pennsylvania. With their eldest son, Thomas, they built a home in the woods and grew to be respected members of the community. Like other older women who had lifetimes of experience with illnesses, she practiced medicine there. Her willingness to take up a new residence and a new career demonstrates an attitude that was forever young.
Her presence was especially beneficial to this remote area because Betsy had learned inoculation for smallpox (something that was introduced to the Western world by Britain’s Lady Mary Wortley Montagu). Smallpox was an often-fatal disease that, in the best of cases, still left scars that were especially harmful to young women. In practicing inoculation – which many conservatives condemned – she again demonstrated a creative mind that was open to new science.
Betsy Hager Pratt not only practiced modern medicine, but also ate farm-fresh food and often worked outdoors. She enjoyed good health as a result. Her laudable life came to an end at the age of ninety-three. 1