Thursday, April 3, 2014

A truly Revolutionary doctor: Warren County's Peggy Warne

World War II brought us Rosie the Riveter, the fictional female defense worker who represented hundreds of thousands of real women who took jobs in industry to replace men who were called to war. "Rosies" around the country not only relieved a critical labor shortage, they proved that women were capable of taking on what had been considered "men's" work.

While Rosie is a lasting icon of the mid 20th century, there's no similar character to represent the women who ably filled the labor gap during earlier conflicts. Sure, Mary Ludwig Hays became known as Molly Pitcher when she took up the cannon in place of her injured husband at the Battle of Monmouth, but what of the women who didn't serve in combat? For the most part, one has to dig into history books, study roadside markers or scour graveyards to find them.

Warren County's Peggy Warne is a classic example.

A member of one of New Jersey's oldest families, Margrietje Vliet was born sometime between 1746 and 1751 in Six Mile Run (now part of Franklin Township), Somerset County. The Vliet family had already been in the New World for nearly a century by then, having emigrated from Holland to Flatbush, Long Island when the territory was still in the hands of the Dutch.

In her mid twenties, Peggy married Joseph Warne, grandson of one of the original proprietors of East Jersey (for a quick primer on the proprietors, check out this story. Suffice to say, the Warnes had lived in New Jersey for quite some time.). Joseph's father George gave the young couple 130 acres of farmland in what was then Mansfield-Woodhouse, Sussex County, now Broadway, Warren County.

The Warnes had a total of nine children -- six daughters and three sons -- but Peggy still had time to serve as midwife for the community. At the time, helping mothers through childbirth was the exclusive domain of women; doctors didn't handle pregnancies or deliveries, and few physicians lived in the sparsely-populated area, anyway.

When colonists began rebelling against British rule, both the Vliet and Warne families took up the cause. Peggy's father served as a captain under General William "Scotch Willie" Maxwell during the Revolution, while five of her brothers served in various ranks of the New Jersey Militia. While it's not clear whether Joseph Warnes fought in the war, three of his brothers did, leaving little doubt that he supported the patriot cause one way or another.

Peggy couldn't take up arms with so many children at home, but she could do the next best thing. Expanding her existing medical practice, she assumed the role of country doctor, caring for neighbors with ailments well beyond her usual obstetrical duties. According to Hunterdon County historian James Snell, "she not only practiced in her own neighborhood, but kept a horse ready night and day and rode into the surrounding country, through Warren and Hunterdon Counties, undeterred by rain, hail or drifting snow." Some accounts even credit her with tending to soldiers injured in battle, perhaps after they'd returned home.

Whether she did or didn't handle combat wounds, Peggy Warne definitely was an able replacement for doctors who'd left their local practices to join the Continental Army or New Jersey Militia. She's credited as being the first physician at the community now known as Broadway, and she continued her obstetrical practice well into the 1800s. The Phillipsburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is named in her honor.

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