Early Bryn Mawr Black History, 1719-1824

Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

by Grace Pusey

Unlike the projects that inspired Black at Bryn Mawr, including the Black and Blue walking tour at the University of North Carolina and student-led digital humanities projects on histories of slavery at Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale, Emma and I assumed that Bryn Mawr had no ties to American slavery when we started our research five months ago. That all changed when we visited the local colonial cemetery and started asking questions about its unmarked graves. In our search for answers we learned that Richard Harrison, who built Harriton Family Cemetery in 1719, owned the northernmost tobacco plantation cultivated by slave labor in the American colonies prior to Independence. While most of the unmarked graves that sparked our curiosity did not belong to slaves, we learned that two graves were thought to belong to Harrison’s house slaves, and that there was a separate cemetery on Gulph Road where his field slaves were buried. We learned that the Vaux family, related matrilineally to the Harrisons and also buried in the graveyard, bequeathed part of Harrison’s 688-acre estate to the College, including the building that is now English House, and donated the mineral collection displayed in Park Science. Thus, our initial curiosity about rows of rocks yielded a surprising discovery: Bryn Mawr College likely benefitted handsomely from wealth founded on slave labor.

At the end of the spring semester, however, I still had questions about Harriton Family Cemetery. I was curious: The cemetery’s history obviously disrupts the myth that only the American South is implicated in the legacies of slavery, but is it also significant for understanding the role of white women in those legacies? Even though women could not will property under colonial Pennsylvania law, when Richard Harrison died in 1746 he gave the property to his wife, Hannah, bypassing his sons for unknown reasons. When Hannah died in 1774 she bequeathed the property to her daughter, also named Hannah, who joined deeds with her husband Charles Thomson in 1798 to convey the property to the descendants of her son-in-law Robert McClenachan. Under this arrangement, the plantation went to McClenachan’s granddaughter Naomi, who allocated one-third of the property to her eldest daughter Sarah. Sarah married George Vaux. Did Richard Harrison’s descendants purposely manipulate the law for generations to pass the property down to women in the family? Why? Did these women inherit Harrison’s slaves, or have any control over the wealth he built on slave labor? If they did, what did they do with their inheritance?

I also wanted to learn more about the work Harrison’s slaves did, their relationship to the Harrison family, and any other details that Bruce Copper-Gill, Curator and Executive Director at Harriton House, could provide. In the days leading up to my visit to Harriton House last week, I read about colonial Pennsylvania history and early settlement on the Main Line. My independent research, combined with my visit to Harriton House, revealed that the town of Bryn Mawr harbors a complex and astoundingly dynamic Black history. Harriton Plantation is a useful case study for understanding both enslaved and free Black life in the eighteenth century — two strands of historical experience often obscured in a country that remembers the era first and foremost for the Founding Fathers.

Founding Bryn Mawr

When Rowland Ellis, a Quaker scholar and preacher from Wales, settled on the land he named Bryn Mawr (“high hill” in Welsh) in 1697, he immediately began building the largest and architecturally most sophisticated house in the Welsh township of Meirion (now Merion) west of Philadelphia. Ellis was but one of many Welsh Quakers who settled in eastern Pennsylvania between 1682 and 1715. The settlers’ original intent was to establish an autonomous Welsh-speaking Barony with some 40,000 acres purchased from Pennsylvania proprietor William Penn in order to escape the religious persecution they faced in their homeland. Ellis himself was imprisoned for several years in Wales for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance and Supremacy to the King of England.1

William Penn acquired the 1,200,000 acres that now comprise much of Pennsylvania by compensating the native Lenape 1,200 pounds sterling in exchange for a quitclaim to vacate their territory. Though the sum is widely regarded as a fair exchange, the circumstances under which the exchange occurred were extreme. Between 1600 and 1750, the native Lenape population plummeted to 10% of its size prior to European colonization. Wars with early Swedish and Dutch settlers, the introduction of diseases to which the Lenape lacked immunity (such as smallpox, measles, mumps, and scarlet fever), and emigration propelled by settler exploitation of Lenape natural resources accelerated the population’s decline. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Lenape attempted to reassert control over their land and fend off further British encroachment on their territory. In an unlikely twist of fate, Charles Thomson, who managed Harriton House from 1774-1824, was appointed by the Lenape to advocate on their behalf at the Easton peace conference at the end of the war. Unfortunately, the compromise reached in 1758 with the Treaty of Easton required the Lenape to move westward into Ohio and beyond. Thomson nonetheless continued to advocate for the Lenape, publishing An Enquiry into the Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawanese Indians from the British Interest in 1759.2

Charles Thomson acquired the Harriton property from his wife, Hannah Harrison Thomson, daughter of Richard Harrison who purchased Rowland Ellis’ farm in 1719 when Ellis ran into financial difficulty and was forced to sell Bryn Mawr. When Richard Harrison bought Bryn Mawr farm, he renamed it Harriton. Today, the original Ellis estate is known as Harriton House, but the surrounding town is called Bryn Mawr.

Revolt: A Legend Retold

Early morning sunlight filtered through the window overlooking Richard Harrison’s plantation, bathing the table where he and his wife Hannah were sitting down for breakfast in soft light. Perhaps the couple adopted the Pennsylvania German tradition of scrapple and sweetcakes for breakfast, or savored the tart bite of raisins, currants, and cranberries stirred into cornmeal mush – the English cuisine. Butter, spices, sugar, and sweetmeats were luxuries in the colonies, but the Harrisons wanted for nothing. If either of them had glanced outside the window at that moment, they would have seen their field slaves already hard at work in the tobacco fields. The Pennsylvania Assembly had passed a law forbidding smoking in public decades before, citing the ill health effects of “tobacco oil” (nicotine) as grounds for imposing a “sin tax” on anyone caught lighting up on Philadelphia’s streets. Nonetheless, tobacco was a lucrative crop, and Richard Harrison knew it. In 1719, eighteen years after the no-smoking law was passed, he migrated north from Herring Creek, Maryland in hopes of monopolizing the Philadelphia market. Overseeing the northernmost tobacco plantation cultivated by slave labor in the colonies certainly gave him an edge over his non-slaveholding competitors.

Whether drawn by the tantalizing scent of meat or the promise of milk in the cornmeal mush, a sliver of a cat lurked nearby, waiting hungrily for a scrap of the Harrisons’ breakfast to fall to the floor. As Richard and Hannah recited their morning prayers, a knock came at the door. Clumsily, Richard knocked over a cup of hot chocolate in his rush to answer it. Seizing its opportunity, the cat darted over to the pool of bitter liquid and lapped it up. Perhaps Hannah scolded her husband when he returned to the table, admonishing him to be more careful. After all, their marriage had been a calculated arrangement, not a passionate affair: Hannah, the daughter of prominent Quaker Isaac Norris (who settled what is now East Norriton Township, near Norristown) and granddaughter of Deputy Governor Thomas Lloyd, had needed a husband, and the ever enterprising Richard needed status. Unhappy for the first two years of her marriage in Maryland, Hannah persuaded her husband to relocate nearer to her native Philadelphia. Whether or not the change of scenery redressed all her grievances, however, remains a speculative matter.

Whatever their differences were, Richard and Hannah were both fond of the cat. When the cat died minutes after lapping up the spilled chocolate, both were alarmed. Suspecting that the cocoa had been poisoned, and that the poison had been meant for either him or his wife, Richard flew into a rage and rounded up all his slaves. He would not rest until the culprit — or culprits — confessed. No one knows what he did to elicit a confession, but eventually several slaves stepped forward and admitted they conspired to commit the crime. For this, they were “severely punished.”

The punishment’s details are left to the imagination.

The room in which the "poisoned cocoa" legend is rumored to have occurred. Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

The room in which the “poisoned cocoa” legend is rumored to have occurred. The large portrait is of Hannah Thomson, daughter of Richard and Hannah Harrison, who married abolitionist Charles Thomson in 1774. She manumitted all the slaves at Harriton Plantation after her mother died that same year. Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

SO THE STORY GOES, according to Barbara Alyce Farrow’s book, The History of Bryn Mawr, 1683-1900.3 Harriton House abounds with similar tales. One legend proffers that Harrison owned ninety-nine slaves and that every time he reached one hundred, one would run away. The darkest story is that of an enslaved woman called Tuggy the Witch, who stole away to the family cemetery one night to drive a stake through the heart of her mistress’ stillborn daughter. Some say Tuggy intended to raise the dead girl’s body to do her bidding; others say she was determined to cast a deadly spell on the Harrisons. Unable to see in the dark, she accidentally drove the stake through the hem of her dress. She is said to have panicked, thinking the stake was the child’s hand pulling her down into the grave. With a final bloodcurdling scream, Tuggy died of fright.

It is impossible to substantiate the veracity of these tales. At best, their popularity in local lore tells us that Harrison’s slaves were miserable, and everyone knew it. Conversely, their sensationalism obscures the realities of enslaved life. These stories probably fueled fear of slave retribution to a far greater extent than they inculcated condemnatory attitudes toward slavery. As English abolitionists Thomas Day and John Bicknell observed in their 1773 epic poem “The Dying Negro,” “[Slaves] cannot but be a subject of terror to those who so inhumanely terrorize over them.”4 Anxieties about slave revolt were not unfounded: in the eighteenth century, the entrenchment of a plantocracy in the U.S. was anything but inevitable. Historians now know that slave restiveness and acts of subversion were the norm, rather than the exception, in American history. Particularly in the era preceding the American Revolution, the position of slaveholders was especially precarious.5 Regardless of whether Harrison owned one hundred slaves or twenty, he would be completely outnumbered if his slaves united against him.

Sifting Historical Fact from Fiction

The exact number of slaves Harrison owned is unknown. We do know that in 1720 – less than a year after Harrison arrived in Pennsylvania – his religious peers at Merion Quaker Meeting admonished him for owning “too many” slaves.6 When Harrison died in 1746 his personal estate, not including the value of any land, was valued by an inventory at £1,285.11 (pounds sterling.)7 There is no reliable metric by which to assess the current dollar value of £1,285.11, but for comparative purposes, the value of Harriton Plantation in 1746 was £85.11 greater than the sum William Penn paid the native Lenape for 1,200,000 acres to settle Pennsylvania at the end of the seventeenth century. Harrison’s slaves were valued at £690, more than half his estate’s total value. He also left behind £65 of tobacco. At a then current price of two pence per pound, his £65 of tobacco probably weighed 7,620 pounds. This was perhaps seven to ten acres of tobacco on his 688-acre estate.8 Given this data, Bruce Copper-Gill, Curator and Executive Director at Harriton House, estimates Harrison owned at least twenty to twenty-five slaves.

The terminal date for slavery at Harriton Plantation is unknown. When Richard Harrison died in 1746, his son Thomas took over plantation operations. When Thomas died in 1759, his mother, sister, widow, and three daughters left the estate and settled in Philadelphia. The estate was probably rented to tenant farmers, who worked either for wages or shares in the proceeds until Hannah Harrison Thomson, Richard and Hannah Harrison’s daughter, returned to the estate with her husband Charles Thomson on his retirement from public life in 1789. There are no records indicating what happened to Harrison’s enslaved Africans in the thirty year interim. Some may have been manumitted, or sold, or permitted to sharecrop on the estate. We do know that when Hannah Harrison passed away she willed no fewer than twelve slaves to her heirs, including a young boy named Peter and a little girl named Sall.9 Although Hannah Harrison included her sons in her will, her daughter Hannah was her sole surviving heir when she died on July 31, 1774. Because Charles Thomson never owned slaves, Hannah Harrison Thomson likely emancipated all the slaves in her possession before marrying him on September 1 that same year.

Unlike her parents, Hannah married for love. Her mother opposed the idea of her marrying a Presbyterian, but after her mother died Hannah defied her wishes and wedded the man she loved. Hannah must have been nearly thirty, if not older, when she married Charles. It was her first marriage and his second: Charles’ first wife died in childbirth several years before. Perhaps it was Hannah’s age that gave her an unusual amount of self-assurance. Though she had a very privileged and sheltered childhood, she was a woman with strong convictions that differed from her parents’, and later, even from her husband’s. Even though the Society of Friends gave its members a two-year ultimatum in 1774 to free their slaves, Hannah’s engagement to a Presbyterian meant she could have abandoned the Friends if she wished. Her betrothed, however, was an abolitionist. Given her refusal to bend to her mother’s opposition to their union, it seems probable that she shared Charles’ anti-slavery sentiments. Hannah refused for her identity or political opinions to be subsumed by her husband’s, however. She made her own choices and thought for herself, beginning with her decision not to join her husband’s church when she married. Not only did she remain Quaker throughout her life, but she stayed loyal to the Crown while her husband signed the Declaration of Independence and gained fame as an ardent Patriot.10 To those who knew them, Charles and Hannah Thomson surely seemed an odd couple.

Hannah and Charles never had children, Charles’ records suggest that his “mulatto servant,” Page, became something like a son.11 There are two competing “origin stories” for Page: the first is that he was born into slavery on the Harriton Plantation, the son of one of Richard Harrison’s slaves.12 The second is that he was hired by Charles Thomson during a trip Charles took to York County, where he possibly conducted research for Notes on Farming, a pamphlet published by the American Philosophical Society, by observing Pennsylvania German agricultural methods.13 The two origin stories exist because Page’s name was accompanied by two different surnames throughout his lifetime: H. Swan (where the “H” is believed to stand for Harrison) and Codorus, after Codorus Creek in York County. During the time that Page lived on Moyamensing Avenue in Philadelphia’s free Black community, however, he used Page H. Swan, not Page Codorus, which only appears in Charles Thomson’s writings about him. “Codorus,” then, may have been an endearment Thomson used for Page.

From Enslavement to Freedom: The Life of Page H. Swan (alias Page Codorus)

The fact that Page was described as mulatto is probably not insignificant. If he was indeed born into slavery on the Harriton Plantation, given his skin tone it is possible that he was either the grandchild of rape between Richard Harrison and an enslaved woman, or the child of a rape perpetrated by Thomas Harrison. His mother’s parents or grandparents could probably trace their roots to Africa. His ancestors were likely transported across the Atlantic during the 1700s “slave boom,” when an increased demand for cheap tobacco labor compounded by a dwindling influx of indentured servants from England caused the enslaved African population in the Middle Colonies to swell from 100,000 to 1 million.14 From a young age, Page would have begun learning the labor-intensive process of cultivating tobacco.

Tobacco plants have a pretty purplish or white funnel-shaped flower and can grow five or six feet high, but are very fragile. For this reason, profits hinged on skilled and efficient labor units. Tobacco needed to be weeded, hoed, wormed by hand, topped to keep plants from flowering, suckered to keep a single, strong stalk, primed by pulling individual ripening leaves as the plant grows, and hoed again. It was also harvested by hand: the stalk was cut at ground level, left to wilt, then speared for hanging upside down under cover. Later, each stalk was stripped of its leaves, which were then bundled and “prized,” or packed, into barrels or hogsheads for transport.15 Each hogshead could weigh between 450 and 900 pounds. This meant that nearby water access was a necessity for transport. Because Harriton Plantation lacked water access, Richard Harrison probably employed a system used occasionally in the South of turning hogsheads on their sides, then fitting the ends with rims, axles, and shafts. Horses or oxen would then draw a train of these to the wharves in Philadelphia, eleven miles away.16 Tobacco cultivation required a level of expertise acquired through years of meticulous training, and Page was probably skilled at it before the age of ten. It was not uncommon for children on cotton plantations, where an ability to perform backbreaking labor was needed more than careful skill, to be sold as young as three, and often before the age of seven.17

When Thomas Harrison died in 1759, Page was probably still young. Until Hannah Thomson inherited the estate in 1774, he may have worked as a sharecropper on the plantation. After the Civil War, sharecropping rates remained highest in areas where tobacco was grown due to the increasing popularity of cigarettes.18 In areas where tobacco was not grown, Black land ownership reached significantly higher rates.19 Sharecropping was often so exploitative that historians have since called it “debt slavery,” or simply “slavery by another name.” The extent to which Page and his family may have been exploited by the Harrisons under this arrangement is unknown, since no records from the period have survived.

When Page became Charles Thomson’s manservant, however, he was permitted to come and go from the plantation as he pleased. Page lived on Moyamensing Avenue in Philadelphia for a time, at the heart of the city’s free Black community. Philadelphia’s free Black population grew from about 240 in 1780 to 1,849 in 1790, over 6,000 in 1800, and 8,942 by 1810; an increase from 2.1% of the total population in 1780 to 10% by 1810.20 A free Black man’s world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, was both dangerous and hostile. In a 1799 petition, African American abolitionist and clergyman Absalom Jones demanded federal action against the kidnapping and sale of free Africans into Southern slavery. Kidnapping remained a persistent crisis in Philadelphia, however, until the Civil War.21 Antislavery groups like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society provided important legal support and educational opportunities, but free Black Americans also organized charities, fraternities, schools, literary societies, and churches to create their own space free from the control or oversight of whites. Of these institutions, independent Black churches became the hub of free Black spiritual, intellectual, and political life.22 Page eventually returned to Harriton, however, and worked for the Thomsons until Charles’ death in 1824. In his will, Charles left Page a small farm at Spring Mill for his personal use.23

Conclusions

When Emma and I started researching for the Black at Bryn Mawr project five months ago, neither of us anticipated that we would find that Bryn Mawr had ties to American slavery. When we learned that English House and the mineral collection housed at Park Science were donated by a family whose ancestor Richard Harrison built his wealth on tobacco cultivated by slave labor, we started to wonder how the College might be implicated in the legacies of slavery. I was personally intrigued by what the Harrison family’s history might have to tell us about the role of white women in those legacies. What I found was not what I expected. Bryn Mawr has a rich, dynamic Black history that dates back to at least the early eighteenth century which opens avenues to understanding both enslaved and free Black experiences in colonial Pennsylvania. Though little is known about him, Page H. Swan (alias Page Codorus) stands as an example of how one man embodied these two strands of historical experience prior to Emancipation in 1863. A closer look at Hannah Harrison Thomson, who is often overlooked in narratives that center her husband, reveals that women, too, could and did play active roles in abolition and had political opinions of their own. Her choices demonstrate that just because a person was raised in a slaveholding family did not mean they were blind to its fundamental injustice.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Bruce Copper-Gill, Curator and Executive Director at Harriton House, for sharing these histories with me, clarifying multiple details, and correcting misconceptions I had about Harrison’s family history.

Further Reading 

Farrow, Barbara Alyce. The History of Bryn Mawr, 1683-1900 (Bryn Mawr, PA: Committee of Residents and Bryn Mawr Civic Association, 1962.) Available for download at http://repository.brynmawr.edu/bmc_books/14/.

Horne, Gerald. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2014.)

Lapansky, Phillip. “Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic,” Library Company of Philadelphia, 2011.

Wulf, Karin A. “’Despise the mean Distinctions [these] Times Have Made’: The Complexity of Patriotism and Quaker Loyalism in One Pennsylvania Family.” 

  1. “Harriton of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania,” The Harriton Association, 1988: pp. 6-7. []
  2. In the 1860s, most Lenape who remained along the eastern seaboard were removed to the Oklahoma Territory, where they were incorporated into the Cherokee Nation by U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1894 and 1904. In 2006 the Lenape appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate their status as an independent federally recognized tribe, but the Court refused to hear their case. Today, there are Lenape people living in Ontario, Canada; Oklahoma; Ohio; Wisconsin; New Jersey; and Pennsylvania. There remains a community of urban Indians in West Philadelphia, not limited to members of the Lenape tribe, who have adopted the namesake Lenapehoking to where they live. Many members identify as having both African and Indigenous ancestry. []
  3. The History of Bryn Mawr, 1683-1900 (Bryn Mawr, PA: Committee of Residents and Bryn Mawr Civic Association, 1962.) Available for download at http://repository.brynmawr.edu/bmc_books/14/. []
  4. Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2014: p. 216.) While the poem was a bestseller in England, nearly one fourth of the poem’s text and passages condemning the slave trade were removed by Congress before publication in the U.S. []
  5. See Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2014.) Horne argues convincingly that the American Revolution was in fact a conservative “counter-revolution” sparked by slaveholding colonists against Britain, where abolition seemed all but inevitable in the second half of the eighteenth century. The position of slaveholders was especially precarious in the prelude to 1776 not only because London-imposed abolition throughout the colonies was a real and threatening possibility, but because free and enslaved Africans themselves allied with England, France, Spain, and indigenous peoples to stage successful insurrections against slaveholders. []
  6. It was not uncommon for Quakers to own slaves during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in the 1750s a number of Quakers in the colonies began to advocate for abolition, and by 1774 the Society of Friends issued a two-year ultimatum to its members to free all slaves. []
  7. “Harriton of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania,” The Harriton Association, 1988: p. 11. []
  8. “Fragile Caro: Tobacco in Pennsylvania,” The Curator’s Report, Bulletin of the Harriton Association (Summer 1995): p. 4. []
  9. Hannah Harrison’s Will (no. 65), Register of Wills, County of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1774. []
  10. Karin A. Wulf, “’Despise the mean Distinctions [these] Times Have Made’: The Complexity of Patriotism and Quaker Loyalism in One Pennsylvania Family.” Web. Accessed June 9, 2015. http://revolution.h-net.msu.edu/essays/wulf.html. []
  11. Conversation with Bruce Copper-Gill at Harriton House, Friday June 5, 2015. []
  12. “Harriton of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania,” The Harriton Association, 1988: p. 19. []
  13. This possibility was suggested by Bruce Copper-Gill. []
  14. Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina, 1986. []
  15. “Fragile Caro: Tobacco in Pennsylvania,” The Curator’s Report, Bulletin of the Harriton Association (Summer 1995): p. 2. []
  16. Ibid, p. 4. []
  17. Desiree Lee, “Childhood in Slavery.” Maryland State Archives, Legacy of Slavery in Maryland: An Archives of Maryland Electronic Publication. http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov/html/antebellum/essay1.html. []
  18. “Rural Life in Virginia,” Virginia History Explorer Collection, Virginia Historical Society. Web. Accessed June 9, 2015. http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/rural-life-virginia. []
  19. Ibid. []
  20. “Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic,” curated by Phillip Lapansky, Library Company of Philadelphia, 2011. Web. Accessed June 9, 2015. http://librarycompany.org/blackfounders. []
  21. Ibid. []
  22. Ibid. []
  23. “Harriton of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania,” The Harriton Association, 1988: p. 19. []

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