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Westchester's Radical Founding Mother

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Hillary Clinton may call Westchester home, but nearly 400 years ago, Puritan leader Anne Hutchinson ranked as the Hudson Valley’s first lady. 

A pioneering feminist, religious activist, and early ancestor of Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, Hutchinson (née Anne Marbury) was born in England in 1591. At the time, Queen Elizabeth I was reigning over England’s Golden Age. Shakespeare’s plays were capturing London’s stages, and Sir Walter Raleigh was in search of the mythical City of Gold. 

A budding religious sect, however, sought change. The Puritans despised the Church of England’s gilded aristocracy. Hutchinson’s father, clergyman Francis Marbury, was one such conscientious dissenter, earning a prison sentence twice for lashing out at the Anglican clergy.

As a young girl, Anne admired her father’s piety. As an adult, in-between childrearing and midwifery following her marriage to London merchant William Hutchinson, Anne discovered a magnetic preacher named John Cotton. A prodigy who had been accepted to Cambridge at age 13, Cotton urged controversial reform, believing Anglican politics and ceremony would distract worshippers away from God.

The British crown did not turn a blind eye, and seeking safe harbor, Cotton set sail for the nascent Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633. Determined to follow Cotton, her religious mentor, Hutchinson persuaded her husband to move his dry-goods business to the New World, where he subsequently built a stately two-story home for their 12 children in what is now downtown Boston. The move not only provided Hutchinson, a skilled midwife, the opportunity to share her obstetric expertise but also impart to Boston’s women the knowledge she’d gained from Reverend Cotton.

Before long, Hutchinson began hosting weekly meetings at which women discussed the Sunday sermon while knitting rugs. Discussion soon turned to harsh criticism, and Anne came to believe that God spoke to anyone who listened.

It was a radical idea that a person’s spiritual center, not adherence to Church dogma, led to salvation. In the fall of 1637, Hutchinson declared that God had revealed the Bible’s intentions directly to her. Many were drawn to Hutchinson’s attack on the ruling patriarchy. Others smelled antinomianism—the heretical position that only faith, not moral law, guides redemption. 

Massachusetts governor John Winthrop sided with the latter camp. He worried that Hutchinson was “a woman…more bold than a man” and roused the state to level 82 charges against her for violating the Church (the separation of church and state was not yet law). Nearly three-dozen men judged the hearing, and hundreds came
to spectate. 

Hutchinson, now pregnant with her 13th child, stood trial in an unheated courtroom with neither food nor water for more than four hours. Nonetheless, she stood firm. Meanwhile, with his own career now at risk, Reverend Cotton distanced himself from his disciple, testifying that Hutchinson’s teachings “fret like gangrene and spread like leprosy, and will eat out the very bowels of religion.” The verdict: excommunication. 

Dozens of Hutchinson’s followers joined her on a six-day migration on foot to Rhode Island, squatting in abandoned Native American settlements along the way. After arriving at what would become Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Winthrop dispatched ministers to demand again that Hutchinson recant. Again, she held firm, and Winthrop threatened to invade Rhode Island. No longer feeling safe in the wake of her husband’s death, Hutchinson moved farther from Winthrop’s grasp, to New York’s Pelham Bay and the valleys of what is now Eastchester. Westchester, however, had become a war zone. 

In August 1643, Siwanoy Indians stormed the Hutchinsons’ settlement, killing Anne and all but one of her children. After her death, Hutchinson’s imprint on the region remained. Renowned author Nathaniel Hawthorne modeled The Scarlet Letter protagonist, Hester Prynne, after Hutchinson’s defiance. The Hutchinson River and Hutchinson River Parkway now bear her name, and Eleanor Roosevelt cited Hutchinson as one of the country’s first leading women. 

In 1987, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis officially pardoned Hutchinson. It was vindication, though perhaps not the one Hutchinson had most fervently sought.