John Strawbridge Autobiography, Complete Version

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[Born near Elkton, Md., April 25th, 1780

Died at Germantown, Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia), Sunday, Easter, April 4th, 1858]

John Strawbridge, my grandfather emigrated from the north of Ireland about 1752, and settled near Back Creek, Eastern Shore of Maryland. He had previously married a Widow Miller, who survived him to the great age of 90 years and died in 1796, when I was about sixteen years old. Of my grandfather who died many years before I was born, I have heard only that he was a good tempered, indolent man of very moderate education. The support of her young family, three daughters and two sons devolved on the energy of my grandmother, who well discharged her duty assisted by my father who although a very young man and with but an imperfect education, as was common in those days, came to be considered the head of the family and received a large share in his mother’s pride and affection. His attention to her and to his sisters and their children was constant and untiring. In after years his mother with sons of his nieces or nephews passed several months of every winter at his house, all receiving kindness and many presents, three or four of them were well educated by him.

His mother after forty years was nearly as Irish in her dialect and notions as ever. She was a strict Presbyterian and very religious, yet too indulgent to her grand children. She never could bear to hear any of us scolded. Her children were Anne and Mary who married brothers Samuel and Thomas Moffitt, respectable men, living near North East, Cecil Co., Maryland, Peggy who married John Lawson, and in 1787 emigrated to that part of Pennsylvania now Lycoming Co., then a wilderness. They had children of whom I have seen several. The Moffitt’s are very numerous; but since my father’s death our intercourse has in a great measure ceased.

John, my father was the next child and the youngest was James. Considerably before the Revolution, the family left Back Creek, and owned a farm (a poor one when I saw it) three or miles from the Pennsylvania line, and afterwards a very pretty residence (Fair Hill eight or nine miles east of Elkton), both places in Cecil Co. I suppose they lived comfortably. I know they were highly respected by all the old neighbors. John must have been greatly esteemed as during the war, he was sheriff of the county and I have heard a major of the militia. It may be here noted that at this period, excepting Continental money, there was no currency but tobacco, and the rates of taxes, debts, etc., were estimated in pounds of that article as I have seen in the sheriff’s books.

It was at this time (August 1777) when my father was circumstanced as I have described that the British fleet, which had sailed from New York several weeks previous and was supposed to be destined for Philadelphia, after various demonstrations off the Capes of the Delaware came ito the Chesapeake, and landed a large force at Court House point, under Gen. Sir. William Howe. General Washington with the Marquis De Lafayette was in the neighborhood of Newport watching and expecting his arrival in the Delaware. My father was the first to communicate the news at camp. After being subjected to a searching examination, he was desired to accompany Washington and Lafayette, who, attended by the staff and escort, proceeded to Iron Hill to test the truth of his intelligence. My father rode between the two Generals. It was a very hot day, and he noticed that Lafayette wore long boots, but no stockings. When they attained the top of Iron Hill, a commanding emminence near Elkton, by the aid of glasses they could discern the British fleet and encampment. The Americans were brought up, several sharp skirmishes ensued, and on the 11th of Sept., the severe and unfortunate battle of Brandywine took place and the result was the loss of Philadelphia. Washington was highly pleased with my father and before they separated urged him to accept a captain’s commission in the continental army. This compliment he was compelled under all circumstances respectfully to decline.

About the year 1778 my father was married to Hannah Evans, daughter of George Evans, then a very respectable miller on the Brandywine. Often have I heard her tell as passing through our army with her family, they and all they could gather in a wagon, on the day before that battle was fought, and of hearing the cannonading all day. Her description of their alarm and anxiety and of the looks and sufferings of the poor sick and wounded was truly graphic. “God bless your pretty face” said one of the soldiers. “Don’t be afraid, you’ll see how we will whip the d-d rascals.” In her youth, my mother was very handsome, one of the best of wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. She remained a widow, irreproachable in all her relations and died at Wilmington, Delaware in November 1811. As long as she lived her house furnished an asylum for her aged father who survived her six or seven years and died in Philadelphia 1817 while on his way to his brothers in Montgomery Co., PA, his age was about 85 years. He was a good man of the Baptist persuasion and is buried in their ground of the Second st. Church. My son Stockton ought to remember these last two.

At the peace of 1783, my parents removed to Philadelphia and occupied a small house in Third st. below Market. My father’s store was on Walnut Street wharf. They lived like most people in those days plainly but comfortably. Notwithstanding some heavy losses, he got on fast and at the end of ten years seemed desirous to arrange his affairs and go to the country, more especially there to bring up his children. He was fond of rural life and topics and used to entertain his family with conversations on such subjects. He was disposed to make investments in the Back Lands of Pennsylvania as they were called, which in that day were thought highly of, as a mode of investment. We had a quantity of them, but they never came to much in our hands. In 1792 he was about buying a large property in Washington Co. for himself, this fell through and in the summer of that year he rented Peale Hall (the site of Girard College) and set about winding up his business.

In August, 1793, the yellow fever made its appearance in Philadelphia. My father visited the city daily. On the 7th he had adjusted all, the 9th, he was attacked, and died prepared, and resigned on the 16th of September 1793 taking leave of my mother and uncle with entire composure, of his children he could not bear to take leave. I passed his door twelve hours before his death, and still remember his face and position, he was 44 years of age, of middle size, very square and stout, good face, hazel eyes, and possessed a wonderful constitution. He was always a temperate and religious man. As one of the victims of ’93 his name appears in the record of that melancholy period as one of the most useful, benevolent citizens and intelligent, active merchants.

I may mention here as the evidence of the alarm and distress then prevailing in Phila. that in six hours, my good father was hurried to the grave. My uncle and two negroes alone attending him to our Arch St. ground. There is a monument with a long inscription by Dr. Green, which my mother never liked nor considered (however, just) as suited to his retiring modesty. For nearly five weeks after his decease, we were shut up, and nearly starved, such was the difficulty in procuring provisions. No one came near us, at last George Evans our grandfather took us to Newark, Delaware where we lived six months, then removed to Wilmington where my mother ended her days. My father had few close city friends but they were highly respectable. Dr. Ashbel Green then our young minister was one of them. I do not believe there was a more liberal and benevolent man in the city. He gave largely through others and was always retiring and unostentatious. Congress and Legislature both met here, he knew many of the members and their visits occupied most of the evenings. The events of the recent war, the Indians, then hostile within 100 or 150 miles of us of “old time” stories, of his family records of his youthful days, with indigents of country life were such interesting topics to me that many a time I had to be forced to go to bed and leave this delightful circle. I remember two of these gentlemen, Gen. William Montgomery and Judge Allison; on their knees I have sat and listened for many an hour, when about the age of Johnny C. Browne.

There was another class of tales which old Grandmother told me privately, which scared me so that I remember getting a whipping for telling my father flatly when sent to bed “I would not go.” After which I heard my indulgent mother say he grieved much and tried to put an end to such doings with his mother’s ancient tales and foolish fables.

James Strawbridge, my uncle, took charge of my father’s large estate. He was a kind, honest, liberal man. About the year 1801 he embarked all he had and our property in some investment which proved unfortunate, and nearly the whole was consumed. This for years occasioned hard suffering on my mother’s part. James S. was one of the handsomest men I ever saw. He never married and these untoward events ended his days (1806) in much trouble. I never think of him but with affection and regret. These misfortunes seem all for the best, they sobered my high notions considerably.

From 1794, I never lived at home, though a constant visitor there. Uncle James was indulgent, and I gay and extravagant, but not dissipated for I had then as my friends and patrons some of the best men in Phila., such as Robert Ralston, Samuel Archer, Alexander Henry etc. I was well educated, graduated at Princeton College 1797. George graduated at the same college 1802, the others James, Joseph and Jane had not much chance. After considerable trouble Mr. Ralston partially started me, in 1802 I made two prosperous voyages to India and settled in 1804.

To these reminiscences I now only add for the benefit of my children, my sincere conviction that I now for sixty three years have been most favorably dealt with by a kind Providence.

I have committed many errors and suffered for them, but I believe never forfeited the claim to honesty, and fair conduct in domestic relations, which after all is the only happy path.

Few have been more desirous of discharging the moral duties of husband and father. This I can say truly — but to God, the gracious Benefactor how far have I come short!

Philadelphia, April 1843