This year’s recipient of the annual Martha Washington Woman of History Award is New Paltz native Dawn Elliott: historical interpreter, reenactor, preservationist, educator and researcher. The honor is bestowed each year by Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, upon a woman in the Hudson Valley who has been influential in promoting the study and preservation of history in the region.
Elliott qualifies for the honor on so many levels — immersed as she is in a number of local history-related endeavors — that it’s difficult to sum up the entirety of her past experience and current efforts in a few paragraphs.
As site manager at the Locust Lawn Farm estate in Gardiner (not to be confused with the Locust Grove site in Poughkeepsie), she oversees all operations of the historic property on Route 32, which includes the 18th-century Terwilliger House original to the property and the 19th-century Federal-style mansion built for Colonel Josiah Hasbrouck.
Elliott is also employed as a collections associate at Museum Village in Monroe, where the holdings include such eclectic finds as mastodon bones and steam engines. She’s part of a team that plans and installs exhibits there, cares for the collection, manages a volunteer team updating the database and does event planning and social media marketing.
At both locations, as well as periodically at other museum sites up and down the Hudson Valley, Elliott does costumed interpretations and reenactment characterizations when called for (President’s Day weekend she did a tin-smithing demo at Museum Village). She regularly demonstrates historical activities that include open hearth cooking, candle-dipping, fish-netting, weaving, sewing and darning. There’s even a blacksmithing credential in the mix.
Elliott is a founding member of the “Scions of Patria,” an organization that interprets Dutch Colonial domestic life, and she enjoys a long association with the Brigade of the American Revolution, a nonprofit living history association that recreates the life and times of the typical 18th-century soldier. She’s a member of that organization’s board as well as holding down a seat as commissioner on the Town of New Paltz Historic Preservation Commission, which protects the community’s significant historic resources, designating historic landmarks and reviewing all proposed exterior changes to historic properties.
It’s a lot of diverse affiliations, she acknowledges — and we haven’t even mentioned her decade with Historic Huguenot Street yet — but Elliott maintains that all of these activities represent interlocking pieces in the entirety of her lifelong focus on local history. “It may look like I’m a bit ‘scattershot,’ all over the place, but all of these experiences are intertwined, and I think they overlap pretty dramatically, even though it may not look like it on the surface. I think everything I do is very much equally connected.”
For example, she says, the material culture knowledge she gains at one site ends up informing an interpretive characterization at another location, and her affiliations overlap at times, such as the planned visit this summer by the American Brigade to Locust Lawn.
Elliott was born and raised in New Paltz, with her forebears among the first settlers in the area. She grew up on an old dairy farm that hadn’t been operational in a while, playing in its barns and digging in the refuse and “bottle dump” on the grounds. “And that’s what got me into collecting,” she says. “I saved old buttons and old bottles and things I found that were just there, but they became mine.”
Elliott says she collected antiques without really understanding them as antiques from the time she was in the first grade, appreciating the objects as beautiful things but not yet thinking about where they came from. Eventually, while bottle-digging and finding recognizable labels and brands, she realized these things had a past.
Material culture — the study of objects — remains her “great love in history,” says Elliott. “I think I got that to some extent from my family, too. My great-grandmother could show her quilts and point out which fabrics came from different family members’ clothing.”
Having elder family in her life reinforced her appreciation for history, she says, but there is no single ‘aha’ moment that led her to become so steeped in historically related activities today. “It’s more like a foundation of bricks, I think. Each experience built on the previous ones. Even the weaving I do… that came from an art teacher I had at Lenape [Elementary School] who did a weaving program with us. I’ve been weaving ever since, incorporating that into my historical demonstrations and recreating things for collectors and museums as a sideline.”
By age 14, Elliott was volunteering at Historic Huguenot Street. After a job-shadowing opportunity there through New Paltz Middle School, following around the site’s restoration crew, curator and director, she says she “didn’t want to leave,” and began getting dropped off by the school bus at the site after school to do volunteer work in the archives. She later became a weekend tour guide and went on to ten years of employment there, where she created innovative programs like the haunted Halloween tours and the Civil War Weekend event.
Elliott was nominated for the Martha Washington Woman of History Award by Dutchess County Historian Will Tatum, a colleague and friend since they were both teens. Hearing that she was to receive the honor was “kind of surreal,” she says. “I didn’t tell anybody for a few days! I thought maybe the person who told me about it misunderstood. But it’s great. And it’s oddly motivating; I feel like I need to make sure I live up to it.”
The award originated 16 years ago as the idea of a former programs assistant at Washington’s Headquarters, Kathleen Mitchell, whose interest in Martha Washington’s contributions to American history was piqued by working at the site. The initial award was given in 2003 to author and historian Janet Dempsey. Other past recipients include Carol Ash, former commissioner of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; Mary McTamaney, city of Newburgh historian; and Village of Walden Historian Mary Ellen Matise.
The honor was inspired by Martha Washington’s largely unsung activities on behalf of her husband, General George Washington, during the Revolutionary War. Martha joined her husband in the various strategic locations he was stationed at throughout the American Revolution — including the Newburgh headquarters — travelling at great risk to her own safety (as the wife of the commanding general of the Continental Army, she was a target for capture by the British). She acted as hostess to an endless stream of military and civilian visitors, helped aides-de-camp with paperwork and expense accounts, and after one particularly brutal winter, organized a campaign to enlist America’s women to provide direct aid to suffering soldiers. Through it all, she was noted for her grace under pressure.
The recipient of the annual Martha Washington Woman of History Award must be a woman who has demonstrated similar character while contributing to the promotion and preservation of history in the Hudson Valley. The award presentation this year will take place on Sunday, March 18 during the site’s Women’s History Month program, “The General’s Lady,” which begins at 2 p.m. at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, 84 Liberty Street in Newburgh. The public is welcome to attend. Admission is free. For more information, call (845) 562-1195 or visit https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/17/details.aspx.