Sarah Porter Hillhouse was the first woman editor and printer in Georgia and is reputed to be the first woman editor and businesswoman in the nation.
Sarah was born in 1763 to Elisha and Sarah Jewett Porter of Massachussetts. Her family ties to New England were deep, tracing as far back as 1636.
In 1781 Sarah married David Hillhouse, a Yale graduate who had fought in the Revolutionary War. Five years later, Sarah and her husband boldly decided to uproot their family to take advantage of the headright system—a government plan through which rich Georgia land was granted to heads of households who agreed to settle on their claim. Leaving their two daughters behind with family in New England, Sarah and her husband set out for the Georgia frontier.
Settling in the town of Washington, David established himself as a contractor providing supplies to troops skirmishing with Indians. He also opened a general store and served as a local and state official.
The adjustment to frontier life wasn’t easy for Sarah, but through business and social ties she and her husband soon became vital members the small Washington community. Their stake in the community increased in 1801, when David purchased the local newspaper. Changing the paper’s name from the Washington Gazette to the Monitor, David assumed the role of publisher.
Two years later, he died.
With her husband’s death, Sarah made a remarkable decision: 40 years old, four months pregnant and 1,100 miles from her nearest relative, she resolved to maintain the paper and took over as publisher. As her son David recalled many years later, she “immediately took the management of the paper, and learned and practiced every mechanical service pertaining to the office.”
Sarah proved to be an adept editor. Under her direction the somewhat plain, four-page Monitor reflected a conscious effort to serve its subscribers. Its content showed an impressive diversity as well as a sense of humor, incorporating articles borrowed from other newspapers, dispatches from the North and Europe, legal notices, advertisements, land-lottery results and local news as well as political and social commentary. As most other papers of the time, the Monitor included official state and federal laws. Sarah also managed to secure contracts to print annual compilations and indexes of the state law—an impressive achievement for a rural printer.
A shrewd and even aggressive businesswoman, Sarah established a side business selling blank paper, legal forms and books while managing the newspaper and maintaining a household. With her successes, she earned the respect of associates while profoundly affecting the Washington community—not only through the Monitor but through economic development. She is credited with building the first three frame houses in town.
Some time around 1811 or 1812, Sarah turned over operation of the newspaper to her son, David.
In retirement, Sarah took occasional trips to New England. But the frontier life had changed her and she found social life of the city tiresome. She chose to spend her remaining years in Washington and died there March 26, 1831.