Mistress Esteem Elliott's Molasses Cake
by Kate Upson Clark
Older boys and girls who are familiar with "The Courtship of
Miles Standish" will enjoy the colonial flavour of this tale of 1705.
"OBED!" called Mistress Achsah Ely from her front
porch, "step thee over to Squire Belding's,
quick! Here's a teacup! Ask Mistress Belding for
the loan of some molasses. Nothing but molasses and
hot water helps the baby when he is having such a turn
of colic. Beseems me he will have a fit! Make haste,
At that very moment Squire Belding's little daughter
Hitty was travelling toward Mistress Ely's for the purpose
of borrowing molasses wherewith to sweeten a
ginger cake. Hitty and Obed, who were of an age, met,
compared notes, and then returned to their respective
homes. Shortly afterward both of them darted forth
again, bound on the same errands as before, only in
Mr. Chapin, the storekeeper, hadn't "set eyes on any
molasses for a week. The river's frozen over so mean
and solid," he said, "there's no knowing when there'll
be any molasses in town."
There had been very peculiar weather in Colchester
during this month of October, 1705. First, on the 13th
(Old Style), an unprecedently early date, had come a
"terrible cold snap," lasting three days. This was
followed by two days of phenomenal mildness. The
river had frozen over during the "cold snap," and the
ice had melted during the warm days, until, on the 19th,
it was breaking up and preparing to go out to sea. In
the night of the 19th had descended a frigid blast, colder
than the original one. This had arrested the broken ice,
piled it up in all sorts of fantastic forms, and congealed
it till it looked like a rough Alaskan glacier. After the
cold wind had come a heavy snowstorm. All Colchester
lay under three feet of snow. Footpaths and roads
were broken out somewhat in the immediate village, but
no farther. It was most unusual to have the river
closed so early in the season, and consequently the winter
supplies, which were secured from New London and
Norwich, had not been laid in. Even Mr. Chapin, the
storekeeper, was but poorly supplied with staples of
which he ordinarily kept an abundance on hand.
Therefore when Obed and Hitty had made the tour
of the neighbourhood they found but one family, that
of Deacon Esteem Elliott, the richest man in the place,
which had any molasses. Mistress Elliott, in spite of
her wealth, was said to be "none too free with her stuff,"
and she was not minded to lend any molasses under the
circumstances, for "a trifling foolish" cake. Obed's
representation of the distress of the Ely baby, however,
appealed even to her, and she lent him a large spoonful
of the precious liquid.
That afternoon there was as much visiting about
among the Colchester housewives as the drifts permitted.
Such a state of things had never been known since the
town was settled. No molasses! And Thanksgiving
appointed for the first Thursday in November! Pray
what would Thanksgiving amount to, they inquired,
with no pumpkin pies, no baked beans, no molasses
cake, no proper sweetening for the rum so freely used
in those days?
Mistress Esteem Elliott was even more troubled than
the rest of Colchester, for was not her buxom daughter,
and only child, Prudence Ann, to be married on Thanksgiving
Day to the son of a great magnate in the neighbouring
town of Hebron? And was it not the intention
to invite all of the aristocracy of both towns to be present
at the marriage feast?
Mistress Elliott accordingly pursued her way upon
this Tuesday afternoon, October 19, 1705, over to Mistress
Achsah Ely's. There she found Mistress Belding,
who, remembering Mistress Elliott's refusal to lend her
molasses, was naturally somewhat chill in her manner.
Mistress Elliott had scarcely pulled off her homespun
leggings (made with stout and ample feet) and pulled
out her knitting work, when Mistress Camberly, the
parson's wife, a lady of robust habit and voluble tongue,
"And what are we going to do, Mistress Ely?" she
burst out, as soon as the door was opened at her knock.
"Not a drop of molasses to be had for love nor money,
and Thanksgiving Day set for the 4th of November!"
"Mistress Elliott has a-plenty of molasses," affirmed
Mistress Belding, with a haughty look at her unaccommodating
"I'd have you to know, Mistress Betty Belding,"
retorted Mistress Elliott, "that I have a bare quart or
so in my jug, and, so far as I can learn, that is all that
the whole town of Colchester has got to depend upon till
the roads or the river can be broken to Norwich."
Mistress Ely well understood this little passage-at-arms,
for Obed had told her the whole story; but as her
baby had been cured by Mistress Elliott's molasses, she
did not think it proper to interfere in the matter. Neither
did the good parson's wife, although she could not
comprehend the rights of the case. She simply repeated
her first question: "What are we going to do about it, I
should like to know?"
"I wonder if Thanksgiving Day could not be put off
a week," suggested Mistress Belding, who had a good
head, and was even reported to give such advice to her
husband that he always thought best to heed it.
"Such a thing was never heard of!" cried Mistress
"But there's no law against it," insisted Mistress
Belding boldly. "By a week from the set day there will
surely be some means of getting about the country, and
then we can have a Thanksgiving that's worth the setting
After a long talk the good women separated in some
doubt, but as Squire Belding and Mr. Ely were two of
the three selectmen, they were soon acquainted with the
drift of the afternoon's discussion. The result of it all
is thus chronicled in the town records of Colchester:
"At a legal town-meeting held in Colchester, October
29, 1705, it was voted that WHEREAS there was a
Thanksgiving appointed to be held on the first Thursday
in November, and our present circumstances being such
that it cannot with convenience be attended on that day,
it is therefore voted and agreed by the inhabitants as
aforesaid (concluding the thing will not be otherwise
than well resented) that the second Thursday of November
aforesaid shall be set aside for that service."
This proceeding was, on the whole, as the selectmen
had hoped that it would be, "well resented" among the
Colchester people, but there was one household in which
there was rebellion at the mandate. In the great
sanded kitchen of Deacon Esteem Elliott pretty, spoilt
Prudence Ann was fairly raging over it.
"I had set my heart on being married on Thanksgiving
Day," she sobbed. "And here it won't be
Thanksgiving Day at all! And as for putting off a
wedding, everybody knows there is no surer way of
bringing ill luck down than that! I say I won't have
it put off! But we can't have any party with no molasses
in town! Oh, dear! I might as well be married
in the back kitchen with a linsey gown on, as if I were
the daughter of old Betty, the pie woman! There!"
Then the proud girl would break into fresh sobs, and
vow vengeance upon the selectmen of Colchester. She
even sent her father to expostulate with them, but it
was of no use. They had known all along that the
Elliotts did not want the festival day put off, but nobody
in Colchester minded very much if the Elliotts
were a little crossed.
Prudence Ann would not face the reality till after the
Sabbath was past. On that day the expectant bridegroom
managed to break his way through the drifts
from Hebron, and he was truly grieved, as he should
have been, at the very unhappy state of mind of his betrothed.
He avowed himself, however, in a way which
augured well for the young people's future, ready to do
just what Prudence Ann and her family decided was
On Monday morning Mistress Elliott sat down with
her unreasonable daughter and had a serious talk with
"Now, Prudence Ann," she began, "you must give
up crying and fretting. If you are going to be married
on Thursday, we have got a great deal of work to do between
now and then. If you are going to wait till next
week, I want to know it. Of course you can't have a
large party, if you choose to be married on the 4th,
but we will ask John's folks and Aunt Susanna and
Uncle Martin and Parson Camberley and his wife. We
can bake enough for them with what's in the house.
If you wait another week, you can probably have a
better party—and now you have it all in a nutshell."
Prudence Ann was hysterical even yet, but at last
her terror of a postponed wedding overcame every other
consideration. The day was set for the 4th, and the
few guests were bidden accordingly.
On the morning of the wedding, on a neat shelf in the
back kitchen of the Elliott residence, various delicacies
were resting, which had been baked for the banquet.
Mistress Elliott's molasses had sufficed to make a vast
cake and several pumpkin pies. These, hot from the
oven, had been placed in the coolness of the back kitchen
until they should be ready for eating.
It so happened that Miss Hitty Belding's sharp eyes,
as she passed Mistress Elliott's back door, bound on an
errand to the house of the neighbour living just beyond,
fell upon the rich golden brown of this wonderful cake.
As such toothsome dainties were rare in Colchester at
just this time, it is not strange that her childish soul
coveted it, for Hitty was but ten years old. As she
walked on she met Obed Ely.
"I tell you what, Obed," said Miss Hitty, "you ought
to see the great molasses cake which Mistress Elliott
has made for Prudence Ann's wedding. It is in her
back kitchen. I saw it right by the door. Mean old
thing! She wouldn't lend my mother any molasses to
make us a cake. I wish I had hers!"
"So do I!" rejoined Obed, with watering lips. "I'm
going to peek in and see it."
Obed went and "peeked," while Hitty sauntered
slowly on. The contemplation of the cake under the
circumstances was too much for even so well-brought-up
a boy as Obed. Without stopping to really think what
he was doing, he unwound from his neck his great
woollen "comforter," wrapped it hastily around the
cake, and was walking with it beside Hitty in the lonely,
drifted country road five minutes later. The hearts of
the two little conspirators—for they felt guilty enough—beat
very hard, but they could not help thinking how
good that cake would taste. A certain Goodsir Canty's
cornhouse stood near them in a clump of trees beside
the road, and as the door was open they crept in, gulped
down great "chunks" of cake, distributed vast slices of
what was left about their persons, Obed taking by far
the lion's share, and then they parted, vowing eternal
secrecy. Nobody had seen them, and something which
happened just after they had left Mistress Eliott's
back kitchen directed suspicion to an entirely different
Not two minutes after Obed's "comforter" had been
thrown around the great cake a beautiful calf, the pride
of Mistress Elliott's heart, and which was usually kept
tied in the barn just beyond the back kitchen, somehow
unfastened her rope and came strolling along past the
open back door. The odour of the pumpkin pies naturally
interested her, and she proceeded to lick up the
delicious creamy filling of one after another with great
Just as she was finishing the very last one of the four
or five which had stood there, Mistress Elliott appeared
upon the scene, to find her precious dainties faded like
the baseless fabric of a vision, leaving behind them only
a few broken bits of pie crust. A series of "short,
sharp shocks" (as described in "The Mikado") then
rent the air, summoning Prudence Ann and Delcy, the
maid, to the scene of the calamity. Let us draw a veil
over the succeeding ten minutes.
At the end of that time Prudence Ann lay upon the
sitting-room lounge (or "settle," as they called it then)
passing from one fainting fit into another, and Delcy
was out in search of the doctor and such family friends as
were likely to be of service in this unexpected dilemma.
It was, of course, supposed that the calf had devoured
the whole of the mighty cake as well as the pies. It
was lucky for Obed and Hitty that the poor beast could
not speak. As it was, nobody so much as thought of
accusing them of the theft, though there were plenty of
crumbs in their pockets, while the death of the innocent
heifer was loudly demanded by the angry Prudence
Ann. It was only by artifice and diplomacy that Mistress
Elliott was able to preserve the life of her favourite,
which, if it had really eaten the cake, must
surely have perished.
The wedding finally came off on the 4th, though
there was a pouting bride, and nuts, apples, and cider
were said to be the chief refreshments. Prudence Ann,
however, probably secured the "good luck" for which
she was so anxious, for there is no record nor tradition
to the contrary in all Colchester.
Nothing would probably ever have been known of
the real fate of the famous cake if the tale had not been
told by Mistress Hitty in her old age to her grandchildren,
with appropriate warnings to them never to
commit similar misdemeanours themselves.
Little Obed Ely, the active agent in the theft, died not
long after it. His tombstone, very black and crumbled,
stands in one of the old burying grounds of the town,
but nothing is carved upon it as to the cause of his
The story of the Colchester molasses famine, and the
consequent postponement of their Thanksgiving, naturally
spread throughout all the surrounding towns.
It was said that in one of these a party of roguish boys
loaded an old cannon with molasses and fired it in the
direction of Colchester. How they did this has not
been stated, and some irreverent disbelievers in the
more uncommon of our grandfathers' stories have profanely
declared it a myth.