Catherine “Caty” Littlefield was born in New Shoreham, R.I., on Block Island. The 3rd child of 5, she was the 1st daughter of John & Phebe (Ray) Littlefield. Catharine Littlefield was born off the coast of Rhode Island on Block Island, which her family had helped settle in the 1660s. Her father, John Littlefield represented the town in the colonial assembly from 1747 to the Revolution. Her mother, Phebe Ray, was a descendant of the earliest settlers of Block Island.
Caty's mother died, when she was 10 years old; & she was sent to live with an aunt & uncle, Catharine Ray & William Greene, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Her aunt, Catharine (Ray) Greene, was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin & corresponded with him for years. Her uncle William Greene was a leader of the Whig Party & governor of Rhode Island. Benjamin Franklin was a regular visitor at the Greene house, while Caty was growing up. Another frequent caller was Nathanael Greene, a successful merchant who was a distant cousin of her Uncle William's. Nathanael, the son of Rhode Island Quakers, who was 14 years older than she. The two began a courtship in 1772.
At William & Catharine Greene’s house in Warwick that Kitty Littlefield on July 20, 1774, was married to Nathanael Greene of Coventry, R.I. Nathanael Greene, brought up as a pacifist Quaker but turned to military concerns by the threats to his country’s liberty, had left his father’s forge; & in 1774, was helping to organize the Kentish Guards, a volunteer military company. Catharine's new husband was selected by the Rhode Island Assembly as brigadier general, in charge of Rhode Island's 3 Continental regiments. During the war young Caty was not content to sit at home awaiting word of her husband. Instead, she visited him at his headquarters & joined him at his various encampments, where she witnessed many battles firsthand.
Catharine came to the notice of Washington & his troops at Valley Forge in the grim winter of 1777-78. She had followed her husband, soon to become quartermaster general, to the Schuylkill headquarters to sharing the hardships of those bitter months with the men upon whom the success of the Revolution depended. She was with her husband again the following winter at Morristown. “We had a little dance at my quarters,” wrote General Greene, “His Excellency & Mrs. Greene danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” Catherine’s gallantry of spirit won Washington’s grateful admiration, although some gossiped about her association with mostly men at these encampments. Catharine Littlefield Greene stood out among Revolutionary War military wives, engaging in political discourse, maintaining friendships with men & bearing her children at the same time.
Three of their 5 Greene children were born during those years-Martha Washington in 1777, Cornelia Lott in 1778, & Nathanael Ray in 1780. George Washington Greene, the oldest, was 8, when peace came in 1783; Louisa Catherine, the youngest, was born the following winter. Greene's presence at her husband's encampments endeared her to the troops & to the other military leaders. George & Martha Washington became friends & supporters of Greene. The trips were made more challenging, when she began to have children. By 1779, she had three—George, Martha, & Cornelia—& was expecting a fourth. She was looking forward to joining her husband again; when word arrived, that he had been appointed commander of Washington's southern forces. It was not until 1781, that she was able to head to Charleston, South Carolina, to join him. By then their 4th child, Nathanael Ray, had arrived.
When the war finally came to an end & the family was reunited, Caty looked forward to having Nathanael there to share in the responsibility of raising the children & handling family business affairs. His presence at home "brought a peace of mind unknown to her since the conflict began." She was eager to let Nathanael take charge & to settle herself into the life of a respected, well-to-do gentleman's wife.
Though Nathanael was not required to be of further service to his country, his involvement in the war continued to affect their lives. During his Revolutionary command in the south, he faced very harsh conditions. In order to clothe his soldiers during the winter, he had to personally guarantee thousands of dollars to Charleston merchants. He later discovered that the speculator, through whom he had dealt, was fraudulent. At the end of the war, the merchants began pressing him for payment on the notes & judgments began coming down from South Carolina courts. He was without sufficient funds & heavily in debt.
In recognition of General Greene’s war services, Georgia deeded him a sequestered loyalist estate that included Mulberry Grove plantation on he Savannah River. Here he hoped to make a living by cultivating rice & pay off their debts by selling their other lands, when real estate markets proved favorable. This decision was particularly hard on Catharine. She had lived her whole life in the north. She would be leaving behind many friends & what was left of her family on Block Island. There the family settled in the autumn of 1785, while the 43-year-old Nathanael undertook to restore the long-neglected land to productivity. He would die only 9 months later.
When her husband died of “severe sunstroke” in June 1786, the widow Greene was left alone to raise their 5 children & oversee the family plantation. Catharine decided to remain in Georgia. The plantation was still not a financial success; but by 1788, with the help of the new plantation manager, originally their children’s tutor Yale grad & Connecticut native, Phineas Miller 1764-1803, Mulberry Grove was thriving.
She also gratefully yielded to General Lafayette’s request to let him educate her eldest, son of his beloved comrade-in-arms, with his own son in France. Retaining her place in the “court circles” of the new republic, Mrs. Greene returned every summer to the cooler air of Newport, a center of Rhode Island society. Her cultivated manners & warmth hade Mulberry Grove a gathering place for all her southern neighbors, as well, who valued such status & social graces.
In 1791, the Greene family of Mulberry Grove entertained George Washington during his presidential tour of the South. Soon after that visit, Catharine personally presented to the United States Congress a petition for indemnity to recover funds that Nathanael had paid to Charleston merchants. On April 27, 1792, President Washington approved & signed an act that indemnified the Greene estate. In a happy letter to a friend, she wrote:
I can tell you my Dear friend that I am in good health & spirits & feel as saucy as you please-not only because I am independent, but because I have gained a complete triumph over some of my friends who did not wish me success-& others who doubted my judgement in managing the business & constantly tormented me to death to give up my obstinancy as it was called-they are now as mute as mice-Not a word dare they utter... O how sweet is revenge!
On her journey homeward from Newport in the fall of 1792, a traveling companion was Eli Whitney 1765-1825, newly graduated from Yale, whom tutor-turned-plantation-manager Phinaes Miller had secured as a tutor for a South Carolina family across the Savannah River.
During Whitney’s youth, the tall, heavy-shouldered boy with large hands & a gentle manner was a blacksmith, a nail maker on a machine he made at home & at one time, he was the country's sole maker of ladies' hatpins. In his early 20s, Whitney determined to attend Yale College; so unusual a step for anyone not preparing for either the law or theology, that his parents objected. He was 23, before he got away from home & 27, when he received his degree, almost middle-aged in the eyes of his classmates. Again the most serious drawback facing him was that no profession existed suited to a man of his talents.
When Whitney’s teaching plans collapsed, Mrs. Greene invited him to accompany her to her plantation & read law. In the meantime, he could make himself useful in one way or another helping the tutor-turned-plantation-manager, Phineas Miller. Miller was also a Yale alumnus, about a year older than Whitney. Whitney accepted the offer.
Being from New England, Whitney was unfamiliar with cotton farming, but Greene quickly brought him up to speed. She explained the difficulties of raising green-seed cotton. Struck by his ingenuity in designing & fashioning a new tambour frame for her embroidery, Catherine Greene persuaded him to turn his talents to devising a machine that could rapidly strip the tenacious seeds from short-staple cotton & thus make it a profitable crop to raise.
Some believe that she not only suggested the idea of the cotton gin, but she drew the rudimentary design, made corrections for improvement, & later financed the patent & fabrication. In Woman as Inventor, written in 1883, Matilda Joslyn Gage asserted that it was Caty & not Eli Whitney who should be credited with the invention.
Gage wrote that the cotton gin “owes its origin to a woman, Catherine Littlefield Green.” Gage goes on to describe Whitney as familiar enough with “the use of tools” to be able to build the machine. Nonetheless, the young man’s first contraption featured inefficient wooden teeth & he nearly quit, but the widow Greene’s suggestion to substitute wire for wood proved successful.
At the urging of Catharine Green & Phineas Miller, Whitney watched the cotton cleaning process of the slaves & studied their hand movements. During the slow process, one hand held the seed while the other hand teased out the short strands of lint. The machine he designed simply duplicated this. To take the place of a hand holding the seed, Whitney made a sort of sieve of wires stretched lengthwise. More time was consumed in making the wire than stringing it, because the proper kind of wire was nonexistent.
To do the work of human fingers, which pulled out the lint, Whitney had a drum rotate past the sieve, almost touching it. On the surface of the drum, fine, hook-shaped wires projected which caught at the lint from the seed. The restraining wires of the sieve held the seeds back, while the lint was pulled away. A rotating brush, which turned 4 times as fast as the hook-covered drum cleaned the lint off the hooks. Originally Whitney planned to use small circular saws instead of the hooks, but the saws were unobtainable. That was all there was to Whitney's cotton gin; & it never became any more complicated.
Whitney worked developing his cotton gin for 6 months in a basement room of the plantation house. In that interval Caty’s older son, returned from France, drowned in the Savannah River.
When Whitney announced in April 1793, that he had completed a working model of an engine, or “gin”, his hostess called the attention of influential planters in the neighborhood to the potentialities of the new machine. With no more than the promise that Whitney would patent the machine and make a few more, the men who had witnessed the demonstration immediately ordered whole fields to be planted with green seed cotton.
Word got around the district so rapidly, that Whitney's workshop was broken into & his machine examined. Within a few weeks, more cotton was planted in the area than Whitney could possible have ginned in a year of making new machines. Before he had a chance to complete his patent model, or to secure protection, the prematurely planted cotton came to growth. With huge harvests pressing on them, the planters had no time for the fine points of law or ethics. Whitney's machine was pirated without a qualm.
Descriptions of the main features of the gin leaked out; as it was simple to build, copies began to appear in Georgia, almost before Whitney secured his patent in March 1794. A newly formed partnership with tutor-turned-plantation-manager Phineas Miller, could manufacture few more than half a dozen gins. A prolonged struggle to establish the partners’ rights early threatened the new firm with bankruptcy.
Whitney’s partnership with Miller ran into problems immediately. The agreement was that Whitney was to go north to New Haven, secure his patent, & begin manufacturing machines, while Miller was to remain in the South & see that the machines were placed. Having no precedent of royalty arrangement to go on, the partners' initial plan was that no machine was to be sold, but simply installed for a percentage of the profit earned. Since they had no idea that cotton planting would take place in epidemic proportions, they did not know that they were asking for an agreement that would have earned them millions of dollars a year. It had been Miller's idea to take 1 pound of every 3 of cotton, & the planters were furious. Meanwhile, cotton, one of the easiest growing crops, was coming up out of the ground engulfing everything around.
Catherine Greene in 1795, enabled the venture to continue by committing her entire resources to the effort. According to The National Archives, Greene’s “support, both moral & financial were critical” to Whitney’s efforts. When Miller began charging farmers a fee to use cotton gins, & disgruntled farmers started building their own.
By the time Whitney & Miller were willing to settle for outright sale or even a modest royalty on every machine made by someone else, the amount of money due them was astronomical. He & Miller were now deeply in debt & their only recourse was to go to court; but every court they entered was in cotton country. At length in 1801, Miller & Whitney were willing to settle for outright grants from cotton-growing states in return for which the cotton gin would be public property within the boundaries. By 1807, Whitney had re-established title to his invention, but his patent expired in that year, ending any real hope of financial return. He was penniless, & his patent worthless. Whitney was 39 years old, & most of the past 10 years had been wasted either in courtrooms or in traveling from one court to another. He returned north, turning his back on cotton, the cotton gin, & the South forever.
As for why Caty Greene did not attempt to patent the cotton gin herself, Gage suggested that doing so “would have exposed her to the ridicule” of friends & “a loss of position in society,” which disapproved of women’s involvement in any "outside industry." Perhaps she didn’t receive credit for the invention, because women were not allowed to hold patents. Regardless, neither Whitney nor Caty profited from the invention, after Congress refused to renew the patent, & it was mass produced.
An unforeseen by-product of Whitney's invention, a labor-saving device, was to help preserve the institution of slavery in the South by making cotton production highly profitable. Exports of cotton from the U.S. skyrocketed exponentially after the introduction of the cotton gin. Between 1820 & 1860, cotton represented over half the value of U.S. exports. Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, slavery was in decline. The profitably of crops grown with slave labor, such as rice, tobacco, indigo & cotton was steadily decreasing. Some slaveholders began freeing their slaves in response. By effortlessly separating the seeds from the cotton fibers, the cotton gin removed the main obstacle to producing cleaned cotton. As the price of cotton decreased, the demand for cotton soared; so too did the demand for more land & more slaves to grow & pick the cotton. The number of slave states increased from s6 in 1790 to 15 in 1860. By 1860, 1 in 3 Southerners was a slave. The labor-saving device Whitney created effectively rejuvenated the institution of slavery in the South & helped split American society.
Catherine married Phineas Miller on June 13, 1796 in Philadelphia's First Presbyterian Church. The President & Mrs. Washington served as witnesses to the wedding. Despite the couple’s best efforts, by 1798, Mulberry Grove fell upon hard times.
Catharine, in financing the cotton gin firm of Whitney & Miller, had lost a great deal of money. Caty was forced to sell the plantation along with many of Mulberry Grove's slaves, moving her family to Cumberland Island. There she & Phineas established a new home on land that had been given to Nathanael for his Revolutionary War service. The plantation, located near the southern end of the island & called "Dungeness," thrived. They held a total of 210 slaves to work the plantation. Miller succumbed to a fever & died in 1803, worn out at 39. Catherine Greene Miller died of fever at “Dungeness” in 1814, at 59, & she is buried there.