Philadelphia Family-Ties and the British Occupation: Part I

September 1777.

Our Capitol, Philadelphia, has been captured and is now occupied by the British.

Ordinary, peaceful people are faced with the stark and irrevocable choice: will you stand loyal to your mother county and benevolent King... or, take up arms and fight against the law and order of the day, in the pursuit of greater opportunities and liberty from a system of government no longer representing your immediate best interests?

There is no turning back. Life as you know it will change forever. Where will you stand, as history is being made?

We all assume, given the choice, that we would happily take on the patriot cause. Of course! …right?! Right?? Are you really sure?

In the coming weeks, two of our houses, Grumblethorpe and Powel House, will be participants in two separate partnerships which highlight this unique (and little focused-on) time in Philadelphia’s history—the roughly nine months when Philadelphia was in the hands of the British from September 1777 to mid-June 1778.

Starting the night of October 6th, Grumblethorpe will be “occupied” by British troops, just as it was 240 years ago. On Saturday, October 7th, the troops will join many other Revolutionary-era reenactment groups to celebrate the Battle of Germantown as part of the Revolutionary Germantown Festival. We hope you will take this opportunity to enjoy the reenactment of the battle, as well as join us at Grumblethorpe for both the morning muster and march to the battlefield and later in the afternoon at our Battle Bash party. At Battle Bash you can have a beer with a Red Coat, sing along with the Sea Dogs, and party like a Patriot. Everyone is welcome!

Grumblethorpe has an interesting occupation story… which has to do with the death of British General Agnew and a bloodstained parlor floor (still remaining 240 years later!) go here to learn more.

During the weekend of October 14-15, the Powel House will be a featured site during the Occupied Philadelphia event at Museum of the American Revolution. Tickets are purchased onsite at MoAR, but Sunday’s tour will include an open house at Powel, with a unique experience to “listen in” on a conversation between Elizabeth and Samuel Powel (from 10 AM to noon only.)

Like Grumblethorpe, the Powel House was also occupied by the British, but for only a brief time in the spring of 1778. But unlike most other property owners, the Powels were invited to stay in residence along with their “guest” occupier.

Along with their family and neighbors, Samuel and Elizabeth Powel would have done some serious soul-searching in September 1777 as the British forces were drawing near to Philadelphia. If the British took the city, should one stay or go? For those who had conspicuously sided with the patriots, the question answered itself: they had no choice but to leave town. The wealthy, like Samuel Powel and his wife’s brother, Thomas Willing, had, great incentive to stay and try to protect their property investments, provided they did not feel at personal risk vis-à-vis the British. How they may have gone about measuring such a risk, and whether they obtained any assurance in advance, is something we cannot know for certain.

Early on, Thomas Willing sought to broker a negotiated peace by entering into conversations with the British commanding officer, General Howe. When the proposed terms were relayed to General Washington (Commander of the Continental troops), Washington flatly rejected them. “I am surprised,” wrote Washington in November 1777, to the president of the Continental Congress, “[that] Thomas Willing should suffer himself to be imposed on by such flimsy measures."

For as much as we can know about this time period, there is much we do not know. Those who remained in Philadelphia were exceedingly careful about what they put in writing since meddlesome authorities on both sides often opened personal letters for inspection. As Elizabeth Powel remarked in the one letter we have of hers from that period--addressed to her sister Anne Francis, who had taken refuge in New Jersey with her patriot husband—she felt constrained by “a certain irksomeness that I have to write at this time when our Letters are liable to be read by every Impertinent.”

So, what do we know?

Often hailed in guide books as Philadelphia’s “Patriot Mayor,” Samuel Powel twice served as mayor, each time briefly—just as the Revolution was about to begin, and toward the end of the 1780s when he was returned to office as the first mayor after the Revolution. The only opportunity he had to demonstrate his patriotism as mayor was during his first term which abruptly ended with the Declaration of Independence. Prior to the Revolution, Samuel benefitted from a sizeable inheritance and thorough education, which included a seven-year European grand tour. He solidified his social standing through his marriage to the well-connected Elizabeth Willing in 1769. Between the connections of her father Charles (a wealthy merchant) and her mother Anne Shippen Willing, Elizabeth brought many prominent relations to the marriage. After substantial rococo upgrades to their Third Street home, Samuel and Elizabeth were ready to provide hospitality to the Colonial elite. Their burgeoning relationship with General and Martha Washington would further establish their society bona fides.

During the British occupation, the Powels appear to keep a deliberately low profile. This did not mean they felt any sense of privation (beyond the social). Entries from Samuel’s ledger book include payments to suppliers of beer, sugar, soap and candles, bread, and medicine (opium included) which support Elizabeth Powel’s statement that “sensible well-bred People” like the Powels did not want the necessities of life (during this time.) Yet this period of British occupation was one in which loyalties would be repeatedly tested. One just has to look at the Powels' nearest neighbors to get a sense of how difficult a balancing act this all was.

Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Willing, and his large family, lived less than a block away at the corner of Willings Alley and Third street. A person of consequence, Thomas also took over both his father’s house and mercantile business, operating in partnership with Robert Morris under the name of Willing & Morris. Before the Revolution displaced its members, Willing was a Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, he declined to vote for independence, on the alleged ground that the legislature had not authorized him to do so. During the British occupation, he elected to stay with his family in Philadelphia. As far as ardent patriots were concerned, he fell in a suspect category, especially given his aforementioned dubious peace agreement activities.

Directly next door to the Powels was the Chew mansion, built by Elizabeth Powel’s brother-in-law William Byrd just after he married her older sister Mary in the early 1760s. Benjamin Chew had earned a reputation as an outstanding lawyer who represented the Penn family interests before the Revolution. In reward for that service, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Provincial Supreme Court. Patriots regarded Chew with sufficient suspicion that they required him to leave Philadelphia for what amounted to extended house arrest in New Jersey for most of the British occupation.

On the corner of Third and Pine Streets, diagonally across from St. Peter’s Church, lived the Reverend Jacob Duché in a house he was gifted by his father as a wedding present. During this time, he was the rector of the united churches of Christ Church and St. Peter’s. The officiating clergyman at the wedding of Samuel Powel and Elizabeth Willing, he became their close friend and confidant, having passed, in Elizabeth’s words, a “Thousand hours … at our Fire side … in innocent and instructive Conversation.” Ultimately, Duché proved to be erratic in both his religious and political impulses. While he was initially named chaplain to the First Continental Congress, he withdrew from the position after independence was declared and then sent a highly imprudent letter to George Washington, urging him in effect to throw in the towel. These actions did not save him, as the British, upon their taking Philadelphia, arrested him as a notorious patriot. While the British remained in the city, Duché found his position untenable and sailed for England in December of 1777, leaving behind his wife and children.

On Fourth Street, just opposite the western end of Willings Alley, stood the home of Elizabeth Powel’s cousin, Judge Edward Shippen, Jr., the father of Peggy Shippen, who at age nineteen married Benedict Arnold. Well before his son-in-law’s treason became known in 1780, the patriots looked upon Judge Shippen as a veiled adversary. They placed him on parole, ordering him not to give any assistance or intelligence to the enemy. He and his family stayed in Philadelphia during the British occupation, where they appeared to be on familiar terms with British General Howe and his staff officers.

So what should we make of this tightly-connected little neighborhood? It is no secret that British Major André made friends of several of Philadelphia’s young beauties. Two of his most well-known friends were Peggy Shippen and Peggy Chew (daughter of Benjamin.). After the British left town, Peggy Chew received a letter (May 1779) from André in which he wrote: “I trust that I am yet in the memory of the little society of Third and Fourth Street[s].”

Situations could become ever-more complicated when we think about the many outside networks that connected these households. Assuming the Powel’s ultimate allegiance to the patriot cause, they were always one step from potential scandal. One example was a tradesman-poet named Joseph Stansbury with whom the Powels maintained a running account over several years for chinaware. Stansbury stepped forward as an ally of the British during the Philadelphia occupation and continued thereafter in an undercover role as a participant in Benedict Arnold’s treason plot. The Powels also made a one-time payment in 1770 “for Cedar Posts” to the house-carpenter Abraham Carlisle, a man who would be executed for treason after the American army retook the city in 1778.

The question remains... how difficult was it for the Powels to remain above suspicion?

Stay tuned for part 2 to discover what happened to the Powels and their neighbors after the British left town!

#ThePowelHouse #ElizabethWillingPowel #BritishOccupationofPhiladelphia #HiddenHistories #AmericanRevolution #MuseumoftheAmericanRevoution #RevolutionaryHistory #Womenshistory #RFG2017 #historichousemuseums

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