Catharine Littlefield Greene (1755-1814) was the vivacious, free-spirited, and uninhibited wife of General Nathanael Greene, but by the standards of her time, she was so much more. Born on Block Island, the daughter of John Littlefield, a colonial legislator, and Phebe Ray, she moved to Warwick at age ten after her mother’s death. Here, she was raised and instructed in the social graces by her aunt and namesake, Catharine Ray, the wife of future governor William Greene Jr. and the sister-in-law of Governor Samuel Ward.
In 1774, nineteen-year-old “Caty” married William Greene’s distant cousin, thirty-two-year-old Nathanael Greene, a Quaker by faith and an ironmonger by trade. Within a year of their marriage, Nathanael had actively embraced the Revolutionary cause and moved from the ranks of the Kentish Guards, a local militia unit, to the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army.
Caty joined her husband at his camps during the war, a privilege his rank allowed. Most notable was her sojourn at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777/78, where she won the friendship and admiration of George Washington for her fortitude and high spirits. Described by her biographers, John and Janet Stegeman, as “uninhibited, witty, pretty, a stimulating conversationalist, and raconteur,” as well as a voracious reader, she established firm friendships with such Revolutionary leaders as Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and Generals Henry Knox and “Mad” Anthony Wayne.
The lack of financial opportunity available to the Greenes in New England after the war prompted them to accept grants of land offered by the grateful state of Georgia to its liberator. The most desirable gift was the “Mulberry Grove” plantation near Savannah, next to an estate owned by General Wayne. In 1786, as this venture began to prosper, Nathanael died suddenly of “sunstroke,” leaving Caty and their five children to struggle on.
The Greenes had fortunately brought their children’s tutor, Yale graduate Phineas Miller, to Mulberry Grove. He became Caty’s helpmate and, eventually, her husband in 1796. Miller also was responsible for the visit of another Yale graduate, Eli Whitney, to Mulberry Grove. By the time of Whitney’s arrival, Caty had won her long and courageous battle with the federal government to be reimbursed for the many expenditures made by her late husband in the prosecution of the War for Independence–an award of $47,000, blessed by President Washington. With this money, she invested in several business projects, including the efforts of Whitney to develop a machine for removing (or ginning) the seeds from cotton.
Unfortunately, the cotton gin was not an immediate financial success. This disappointment and other risky investments in land resulted in the sale of Mulberry Grove for back taxes. Caty and Miller then moved to another parcel granted to General Greene on Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast and built a home there that they called “Dungeness.”
When her husband died tragically in 1803 of blood poisoning from a thorn wound, Caty was widowed for a second time. Undaunted, she managed her plantation, continued her business dealings, and engaged in social activities at Dungeness, although often burdened with debt. On September 2, 1814, in the midst of another war with England, this unconventional, influential, and dynamic woman died of “coastal fever” at the age of fifty-nine.
Catharine Littlefield Greene was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2010.
For additional reading: Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.