Letter from George Strawbridge of New Orleans to His Son, 1858

Following is a brief excerpt from a very long letter written by George Strawbridge, 1784-1859, brother of Jane Ledyard, to his son, Henry H. Strawbridge. This George was a judge in New Orleans; his picture appears elsewhere on this site. This text is taken from a typed transcription of the letter, which was written in April 1858. This excerpt contains about the first 4 of 42 typed pages; the transcription notes that it omits at least 10 other pages, so the full letter would consist of at least 52 typed pages. This first portion recounts the family history.

My dear Son:

It was at your desire I write this sketch, which I now commit to your discretion. When I began, I found the task irksome and unpleasant. I was in ill health, scarcely looking to recovery; my spirits depressed: my property embarrassed and destroyed, with other misfortunes, which made life a burden and made it questionable whether it would be borne. In fact, without that feeling, which ever has been uppermost “love for my family”, it is not likely this work would ever have been undertaken; now that the struggle is over I ask myself “What have I to live for?” I cannot answer the question, but to say “To suffer”. That history full of errors as it is, has been varied enough to have been of some interest under a different tone of mind, but with the consequences of these errors and sins severely visited on me in these latter days, it is left a meagre statement of family history, chiefly useful as it may guard you against the like, so little are the better portions of my character known or appreciated in this community, where I have now resided nearly forty years, that they are scarcely worth being spoken of.

It will be of interest to my children, however, to know:

That John and Jane Strawbridge, my grandparents, came from the north of Ireland, about the year 1750, and settled in Cecil County, Maryland — where two families of the name of Moffat or Maffit (for singular to say it, they spelled their names differently, charging each other jocularly, with not knowing how to spell the name) yet reside; a third daughter married John Lawson and settled in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, where I found quite a large family. Lawson, the father, being dead and several of his children grown up and providing forthemselves.

My father was the eldest son and took the real estate, according to the common law then in force. His brother, James, lived a batchelor and died in Philadelphia, I think, in 1806. He was a very fine looking man, an officer in Smallwood’s Maryland brigade. My father was sheriff of the County, and ex officio Col. in the Militia, in which capacity he was called on by Genl. Washington, when , in company with Lafayette, he was making a reconnaisance of the country around the head of the Chesapeake, there being an apprehension that the British army might transfer their operations from New York. The sheriff of the district, and of course, well acquainted with it, accompanied them and gave them such information as led them to believe that no such attempt would be made there. On parting, Genl. Washington proposed to him to join the army, offering his interest to obtain the same standing he held in the militia: this was declined. Three years afterwards, he was again thrown in Washington’s presence, who recognized him and renewed the offer.

At the close of the revolution, he sold his property, went into Virginia, invested the proceeds in tobacco, established correspondence with the planters, and settled himself in Philadelphia, then the great tobacco mart, as a factor. I believe most of the business of that city passed through his hands. I can remember when his counting house on Walnut Street was lumbered with tobacco samples. I should judge, if my memory serves, the business was much more extensive than since. At any rate, he found it a lucrative business. Since I was married, I passed some short time in Virginia, where I met some of his former correspondents, who spoke in very favourable terms of their connexion.

He died in the yellow fever of 1793 (16th Sept): a handsome tribute was paid to his memory in a pamphlet published afterwards, giving a history of that sad visitation, not forgotten to this day. I have heard my mother say I was his favorite child: it may be so, there was a distinction made. I can remember several pretty smart floggings, which my brothers did not share in, or receive separately the like.

My mother was the eldest of eleven children of George Evans and Rachel Gilpin of Delaware. He was unfortunate enough to survive them all, and died at the age of 84, since your birth, my son, though too young to have any recollection of him. He was an active Whig during the Revolution, was at the Crossing of the Delaware with Washington, and I think, at Trenton and Brandywine, on which latter stream he was for many years, a miller. The Gilpin family were from that neighborhood. It is said the original couple took up their first residence in a cave on the Brandywine, where they lived to rear a family of 16 sons and daughters, and see this numerous progeny around at once. They were distinguished by the old citizens, as “The descendants of the Cave.”

I have heard of an amusing scene, which occured on a public stage between Wilmington and Philadelphia.

There happened to be amongst the passengers, a gentleman full of himself, full of politics and full of religion, and very dogmatic with all. He was very annoying and disagreeable to the company. My mother, in a good humoured way, engaged with him, and soon showed herself an overmatch. There was amongst the passengers, also, a certain Johnny Webster, a well-known apothecary, a humorist and gossip, knowing and known to everybody, who encouraged the fun, roaring out at every advantage “hurra for the Cave” “I know thee for one of the descendants of the Cave.” Till at last the man was silenced by laughter and the journey finished without further declamation.

After the death of my father, she retired to Wilmington, where she quietly passed the rest of her days, respected and esteemed by all who knew her, from the gay French emigrants of St. Domingo, who formed an important part of the population, to the plain Quaker, who formed even a more numerous sect.

She was a woman of clear, strong understanding and sound judgement, of a plain and even temper, which I have very rarely known to be ruffled, yet with quite as much firmness and decision as generally belongs to the sex. Clear and exact in her own principles, but most liberal and tolerant to others; even Quaker exclusiveness gave way to it, and it was considered by the aforesaid Johnny Webster, that friend Strawbridge might make a tolerable Quaker, nay, might sit in the gallery, if she would only take that cockade out of her bonnet.

John Dickinson, author of the celebrated Farmers Letters, and the only member of the Federal Convention who refused to sign the Declaration of Independance, which greatly helped to open the Revolution—the Farmers Letters– said to her one day, “Friend Strawbridge, I know of no one who is entitled to so much credit for the manner of bringing up their children as thee.”

My eldest brother, John, is yet living in Philadelphia: his intellect has failed and he is bedridden, but surrounded by a large and kind family.

My brother, James, died in Philadelphia on the day the news of the capture of the Guerriere by the Constitution arrived; he was a seaman who, in consequence of a quarrel with his Captain, left his place as Mate in Smyrna, and to get home, took the same place on board an English vessel bound to London. In the English Channel, they were attacked and captured by two French privateers and carried into, I think, L’Orient. As Mate of the English vessel he was treated as an Englishman and imprisoned. It so happened that at this time the U. S. Ship Hornet entered the port, on board of which his cousin, Sam Moffit, happened to be Purser. How the communication between them was established, I do not know, but through him, he was able to establish his citizenship and discharge. Much censure fell on the Captain for discharging an American in a foreign port; I can’t say how wrongfully. That Captain, afterwards, fell into the power of John Strawbridge, who let him off, pardoned. I am not sure I should have been so forgiving of his trespasses. However, James was put by the American Consul, on board the Hornet and had a very rough passage to the United States, and arrived with health much shattered; in fact, his lungs were affected, which shortly closed his career.

My brother, Joseph, was brought up, as we say, in a counting house, but before he had grown up, the same disease of the lungs, which was fearfully prevalent in Wilmington, laid hands on him. He went with two gentlemen I knew well, to Canton, but returned worse. His good temper, capacity for business and drollery, which after his death, I found by accident, had made him his mother’s favourite and cherished one, in fact had made him so with all his acquaintances: we lost him a few months later at the age of 18. It is a fearful thing to look back on the ravages of that disease; I am sure I have aided to carry at least a dozen of my fellows to the grave, victims of
that disease. Give me New Orleans, Havana, Batavia, Cholera and yellow fever, but keep me from the healthy North, where consumption bides it’s time to take, at 18 or 20, the fairest flowers. I know not whether it yet dwells there. I have reached mature age through climates called unhealthy, but I’ll take them again rather than the beautiful, healthy city of Wilmington.

My only sister, Jane, did not much resemble her mother, except in manner; you all remember her, as her death is quite recent (4 Feb. 1855, age 61). She married J.D. Ledyard, Esq. of Cazenovia, N.Y. and reared a large family, of which connexion, it is best to say briefly, she was the head, in which it is not possible to fill the vacancy, and where, had she lived, I might have passed last summer with great advantage to my health and happiness. She should have given us the family history, and had abundant material which she gave and which has, I understand, been published, at least so much as gives the history of Wilmington in those days.