New Discoveries on the Powel Children Pt. III

In my last post I wrote about Samuel Jr, the oldest son of Elizabeth and Samuel Powel. For my final post I will explore the remaining three Powel children and how the relationships the Powel’s established with their close friends, nieces, and nephews provided some relief and happiness after their losses.

Based on published records, we know that the Powel’s had two sons: Samuel Jr. who died on July 14, 1771, and Samuel C. Powel, who died on July 11, 1775. However, based upon my findings, the Powel’s actually had at least four children, including Samuel Powel Jr. and Samuel C. Powel. The other two children were a daughter born on August 6, 1771 and a son born on April 2, 1772. These two children, were both stillborn or as Elizabeth wrote, “at most but just breathed”. They did not live long enough to be christened like the other two sons, which may be why they have been lost to history.

Descriptions of the births and deaths of the Powel daughter and second Powel son |

Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Envelope that held a lock of Samuel C. Powel’s hair in the Philadelphia Landmarks collection, |

Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks

In my studying of Elizabeth Powel’s surviving correspondence, I found that she mentions her “children”, “pledges”,or “angels”, twelve times. She does not mention the amount of children she lost, but she does refer to her “sons”, in a letter to her nephew, John Hare Powel.[1] She never acknowledges having a daughter.

Before I found this transcription, I came across a financial entry in the Powel financial ledger. It is an entry written in April of 1772, in which Samuel pays for a “coffin for my daughter”. [2] Since seeing this financial ledger, I have been under the impression that their daughter died in April 1772, but, after finding this transcription, it seems that is not the case.

Financial ledger entry | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Once I found this transcription, and looked again at the financial ledger, I found that the Powels' paid William Shippen Jr., Elizabeth’s cousin and the Powels’ family doctor, for “Attendance & Advice for Mrs. Powel”, on August 6, 1771, and again on April 2, 1772, the date her third child died.[3] Samuel made another financial entry, talking about “opening a grave for my son”, on April 18, 1772,.[4] As you can see, according to the transcription and these ledgers, the two middle children are buried with the two christened sons. Unfortunately, they are not included on the headstone, but now we know that they rest with their parents and siblings.

After finding the transcription and pairing it with the financial entries, it is very clear that their daughter died less than a month after their first son, and then their second son only eight months later. I do wonder why their last son’s birth and death are not included in this transcription, but it is likely she either did not add the additional information of her last son’s death, or there is a missing page that was lost or not transcribed. There is no surviving correspondence from this time period, but a letter from 1783 shows a glimpse at the heartbreak Elizabeth felt about the loss of her children, eight years after the death of her last child. She wrote,

Letter from Elizabeth Willing Powel to Mrs. Anna Bolling Randolph Fitzhugh

Image courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association

“…You wish me to be again a Mother, you know not what you wish. Indeed I am no longer what you once knew me those fine spirits, that I used to flatter myself would never be broken, have at length yielded to the severe Trials that have spoiled me. My Mind, habituated to Mortification & Disappointment, is become weaker; & unfortunately, my Sensibilities stronger. A thousand Circumstances that formerly were Sources of Pleasure to me have now lost their charm. Time does not lesson real Griefs. In some Instances it augments them by removing to a greater distance the Objects on which our Happiness depends. I fear I am doomed never to be happy in this World; but I am not without hope that God, in mercy, will reunite me to my dear Children in a better State.”[5]

Though childhood mortality was high in the eighteenth century and sometimes considered “expected”, it still had a devastating impact on the parents, as shown by Elizabeth’s sentiments in her letter.[6]

Although burdened by grief, it was during this time period that Elizabeth and Samuel made new connections and became well-liked by the younger generations. Based upon other’s accounts, Elizabeth was very mothering, taking care of a number of nieces, nephews, and family friends, including Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew. Bushrod studied at the University of Pennsylvania in 1784, and wrote to his mother during the time he spent with the Powels about how much he enjoyed their company, specifically Elizabeth’s. He wrote,

“My friendship for [Elizabeth] increases every day, I wonder where it will end… You see, I cannot help talking to you over and over on the same subject. – You well, you must excuse me – The friendship I feel for her And Mr. Powel is so much like the Love I bear for you & Papa, that to mention them excites these two sentiments.”[7]

Bushrod is an excellent example of the Powels generosity and care. Twenty-six years after Bushrod wrote that letter, Elizabeth purchased his black silk robes for his appointment as a Supreme Court Justice. She also sent him a recipe for how to make muffins in 1816. [8] [9]

Letter from Bushrod Washington to his mother, Hannah Bushrod Washington |

Image courtesy of the George Washington Masonic Memorial

Before I sign off for this series, I also have to mention John Hare Powel, the nephew of Elizabeth Willing Powel. He was born as John Powel Hare, and changed his name officially in the 1807, after which Elizabeth threw a banquet in his honor.[10] The Powels first informally adopted John 15 years after the loss of their oldest son, Samuel Jr., was when he was sent to their home as an infant to avoid a case of scarlet fever at the Hare home. He unfortunately still caught the fever. John wrote in an 1851 memorandum about his life that Elizabeth, “nursed me until I recovered and, she has often told me, I became dear to her from my sufferings.”

Elizabeth must have felt the similarities between the two cases, which is shown in John’s writing. At times both Samuel and Elizabeth were “anxious in their attention to his well-being” but showered him with “manifestations of kindness, great affection, and solicitude”. Based upon John’s memorandum, we know that Samuel was also a wonderful father figure. John mentions flying kites with him, riding out to the land that the Powelton mansion was eventually built on, and watching him direct his experiments in agriculture. While I wish I could include the entirety of the memorandum in this post, you can find it online.[11]

I hope you have enjoyed my series on the Powel children. I will be back to write more in the future! For now, please read my short biography on Elizabeth Powel.[12]

Engraving of John Hare Powel after Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait, originally painted 1810 |

Image from the book “Philadelphians, Now Deceased” (1859)


1 - “And Had my sons lived they would have been educated for some profitable Profession and your Brothers are Men of business, my Ancestors and those of my Husband were all industriously employed in some lucrative pursuit.”, in, Elizabeth Willing Powel to John Hare Powel, October 1-3, 1809, Powel Family Papers (Collection 1582), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

2 - Financial entry: “George Claypoole — 1772, April 10 — For a coffin for my daughter.”, pg. 149, Ledger (1760-1793), Powel Family Papers, The Library Company of Philadelphia.

3 - pg. 137, ibid.

4 - pg. 149, ibid.

5 - Elizabeth Willing Powel to Mrs. [Anna Bolling Randolph] Fitzhugh, December 24, 1783, Historic Manuscripts Collection, Fred W Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. (

6 - This is actually the second example of someone wishing for Elizabeth to be a “mother” again. In 1778, Elizabeth wrote a slightly less intense response to her sister Ann’s wish for her to take her youngest daughter, who came six years after her last child and when Ann was 44. Elizabeth wrote, “I feel a pre-Sentiment that my little unwelcome Namesake will more than compensate for her unseasonable Visit, &if I shou’d prove a true Prophetess you will retract your generous wish of her being mine instead of yours.”The child she is referring to is Elizabeth Powel Francis (1777-1856), the last daughter of Ann and Tench Francis. (Elizabeth Willing Powel to Ann Willing Francis, April 2, 1778, Powel Family Papers (Collection 1582), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

7 - Bushrod Washington to Hannah Bushrod Washington, June 7, 1783, Manuscript Collection, George Washington Masonic Memorial.

8 - Elizabeth Willing Powel to Bushrod Washington, April 28, 1799, Historic Manuscripts Collection, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. (

9 – Recipe for Muffins, Elizabeth Willing Powel to Bushrod Washington, 1816, Bushrod Washington Papers, Fred W. Smith National Library for the study of George Washington.

10 - Ann Willing Francis to “son”, April 26, 1807, Joshua Francis Fisher Papers (Collection 1858), Historical Society ofPennsylvania.

11 -–“”Hare-Powel and Kindred Families”, by Robert Johnston Powel, pgs. 204-211,

12– “Elizabeth Willing Powel”, Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia

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