The name of Mrs. Gaston is associated with that of her distinguished son, to whose education she devoted herself with assiduous care, and whose eminent character was most appropriately praised, when described as "the maturity of his mother's efforts." He himself always esteemed the possession of such a parent the greatest blessing of his existence, and attributes the part he acted in life to her watchful tenderness and judicious training. No honors are too high to be accorded to matrons who, like her, have formed the characters which shed lustre on the nation.
Margaret Sharpe was born in the county of Cumberland, England, about 1755. Her parents desiring her to have every advantage of education in the Catholic faith to which they were attached, she was sent to France when young, and brought up in a convent. She often recurred in after life to the happy days passed there. Her two brothers were extensively engaged in commerce in this country, and she came out to visit them. It was during her sojourn in North Carolina that she met Dr. Alexander Gaston, a native of Ireland, of Huguenot ancestry, to whom she was married at Newbern, in the twentieth year of her age. He had attended the expedition which captured the Havana, as surgeon in the British army; but being attacked by the epidemic, and suffering from the exhaustion of a warm climate, had resigned his post, to make his home in the North American provinces.
The happy married life of these two young persons was destined to be of brief duration. Dr. Gaston was one of the most zealous patriots in North Carolina - being a member of the committee of safety for the district where he resided, and serving in the army at various periods of the war; and his devotion to the cause of freedom, while it secured the confidence of the whigs, gained him the implacable enmity of the opposite party. On the 20th of August, 1781, a body of tories entered Newbern, being some miles in advance of the regular troops, who had marched with a view of taking possession of the town. The Americans, taken by surprise, were forced to give way after an ineffectual resistance. Gaston, unwilling to surrender to the foe, hurried his wife and children from their home, hoping to escape across the river, and thus retire to a plantation eight or ten miles distant. He reached the wharf with his family, and seized a light scow for the purpose of crossing the river. But before his wife and children had stepped on board, the tories, eager for his blood, came galloping in pursuit. There was no resource but to push off from the shore, where his wife and little ones stood - the wife alarmed only for him against whom the rage of their enemies was directed. Throwing herself in agony at their feet, she implored his life, but in vain! Their cruelty sacrificed him in the midst of her cries for mercy - and the musket which found his heart was levelled over her shoulder !
Even the indulgence of grief was denied to the bereaved wife; for she was compelled to exert herself to protect the remains of her murdered husband. Loud were the threats of the inhuman tories that the "rebel should not have even the rest of the grave;" and she kept watch in her lonely dwelling beside the beloved and lifeless form, till it was deposited in the earth. She was now left alone in a foreign land - both her brothers and her eldest son having died before the event. Her son William, three years of age, and an infant daughter, remained the sole objects of her care and love. Many women possessing her acute sensibility would have been overwhelmed in such a situation; but severe trials served only to develop the admirable energy of her character. Every movement of her being guided by religion, she was strong in its support, and devoted herself to the duties that devolved upon her, with a firmness and constancy by which all who knew her saw that she lived above time and above the world.
"Her footsteps seemed to touch the earth only to mark the track that leads to Heaven."
Though still young when left a widow, she never laid aside the habiliments of sorrow; and the anniversary of her husband's murder was kept as a day of fasting and prayer. The great object of her life was the instruction of her son, and imbuing his mind with the high principles, the noble integrity, and Christian faith which shone conspicuous in herself. Her income being small she practised economy to enable her to gratify her dearest wish, and procure for him a complete education; while her maternal tenderness did not dispense with implicit obedience, and strict admonitions, or yet stricter discipline, were employed to correct the faults of childhood and youth. One slight anecdote may give an idea of her method of education. When her son was seven or eight years of age, being remarkable for his aptitude and cleverness, a little schoolmate as much noted for his dullness said to him "William, what is the reason you are always head of the class, and I am always foot ?" There is a reason," replied the boy; "but if I tell you, you must promise to keep it a secret, and do as I do. Whenever I take up my book to study I first say a little prayer my mother taught me, that I may be able to learn my lessons." He tried to teach the words of the petition to the dull boy, who could not remember them. The same night Mrs. Gaston observed William writing behind the door; and as she permitted nothing her children did to be concealed from her, he was obliged to confess having been writing out the prayer for little Tommy, that he might be able to get his lessons.
When this cherished son, after several years absence, returned from Princeton College, where he had borne away the first honors of the institution from able and diligent competitors, her reception of him was characteristic. He was greeted not with the common effusion of a mother's joy and pride; but she laid her hands upon his head as he knelt before her, and exclaimed "My God, I thank Thee !" ere she allowed herself the happiness of embracing this only son of a widow. Her satisfaction in his success was enhanced by the knowledge that he preserved unsullied what was of far greater moment in her eyes - his youthful piety. During his absence her house and furniture had been destroyed by fire; yet her letters to him breathe no word even of regret for a calamity which, with her slender resources, must have been severely felt.
William Gaston married a distant relative in whose education his mother had taken a maternal interest. In the house of these her affectionate children she passed the autumn of her days, regarded by all who approached her with feelings of the deepest respect, with which a portion of awe was blended among youthful spirits; for she had very strict ideas as to the conduct of the young, and the deference due to age. Her daughter, when a young lady, could venture but stolen glances in a mirror; nor did she or any of her juvenile companions ever allow their shoulders the support of the back of the chair in Mrs. Gaston's presence. Those who spoke of her invariably named her as the most dignified as well as most devout woman they had ever seen. Her calm grey eyes, which were of surpassing beauty, could sternly reprove misconduct, while ever ready to soften into kindness towards the distressed. Her upright carriage of person, and scrupulous neatness in dress, were always remarkable. She kept primitive hours, taking tea at four o'clock in summer; her arrangements were marked by unsurpassed order, and in her domestic management, economy and hospitality were so well blended, that at any time she was ready to welcome a guest to her neatly arranged table, without additions which the pride of life teaches us to deem indispensable. She survived the husband of her youth thirty-one years, in which time she never made a visit, save to the suffering poor, yet her life, though secluded, was not one of inactivity. Her attendance on the sick and indigent was unwearied, and the poor sailors who came to Newbern frequently experienced her kind offices.
During the last seven years of her life, after her son's marriage, she seemed more constantly engaged in preparation for her final change. A room in her house was used as a Catholic place of worship whenever a priest visited that section of the State. She was to be found at all hours with her Bible or some other book of devotion in her hands; her thoughts were ever fixed on things above; while the fidelity with which her high mission had been fulfilled was rewarded even in this world - the gratitude, love, and usefulness of her children forming the crowning joy and honor of a life devoted to good. Her character is well appreciated throughout North Carolina, and the memory of her excellence is not likely soon to pass away. Her remains rest in the burial ground at Newbern.