November 24, 2008

The Chew Turkies

In the past few months, there have been an extraordinary number of turkey references in the Chew collection. In celebration of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Leah and I decided to share some of them here.

The first document is selected from a larger group of surveys, agreements, and correspondence regarding a tract of land the Chews owned called "Turkey Nest."

I found this initially interesting because many of the tracts in Delaware and Maryland have "Neck" as part of the name (e.g. "Rich Neck"). I assume that the "neck" refers to the areas where land juts out into a body of water. When I first glanced at this group of documents, I thought this tract was called "Turkey Neck."

A more personal reference to turkeys in the collection comes from Samuel Chew's correspondence. He owned a farm in Maryland that was operated by John Mason. John experienced many upheavals in his work as a farmer--one of the more dramatic situations involved the barn, sheds, house, and hay catching fire. He lost most of his farm, but saved the animals and some of the structures. A relatively minor incident, by comparison, was the death of several turkeys. In his letter to Samuel Chew, he writes, "You may remember my showing you some Turkies I purchased. To my utter dismay, I found. on going out in the morning Two of my pets. dead. Upon investigating I discovered the painters had been here the day before. + had emptied the remains of paint on the ground...the Turkies had eaten too freely of white lead--no other casualties have occurred." (Dec. 1873) A sad tale, indeed.

All silliness aside, we hope you have a wonderful holiday. A little Chew-inspired card from Leah:

November 14, 2008

The telegram as directive

Within Anne Sophia Penn Chew's collection of correspondence are a large number of telegrams. This communication tool was widely employed by Samuel and Mary Johnson Brown Chew. Samuel and Mary split their time between Cliveden and Mary's family home in the city, so their belongings were housed in both places. Many of Mary's letters to Anne describe the day's events, give reports about the children, and, inevitably, ask for some article of clothing to be sent or some task to be completed at Cliveden in her absence. The telegrams serve as quick reminders to send this or that, notify Anne that the family will be coming to tea or dinner, or ask her to prepare something. Though Anne was not generally doing these things herself (she likely would have had her servants do them), the letters and telegrams have a tone of direction and expectation. Anne may have been living independently, but her life seems to have been lived in service to her nephews and their families.

In one of the first telegrams I read, Anne's nephew Ben requests that she have a warm bath for him in the afternoon:

An audacious request, in my opinion, but not out of the ordinary.

Other noteworthy telegrams include a request from Mary to send salad "at once" and another from Samuel to send "a quantity of celery and some lettuce."

Another odd request reads "Do not send laundress tomorrow. Send David's gun by Charles tomorrow. Mary J.B. Chew"

And finally, this request: "Please send some linen and underclothing today."

This last request is, it turns out, quite poignant. Samuel Chew was, at this time, taking care of his brother Ben before his death. In one 1885 letter, Samuel writes to Anne that Ben had lost all control of himself, and that he had used up all of the linen and underclothing in the house because of the constant changing that was required. It is unclear what disease finally caused Ben's death, but the symptoms Samuel describes include inability to express himself or understand what was happening around him and the inability to control his bodily functions. These letters (and other series throughout the collection) offer graphic representations of disease and care for the sick in the 18th and 19th centuries.

November 12, 2008

An Old Approach in Conservation

We came across a few interesting documents in the past few weeks. It was not the information provided within the documents necessarily, but the conservation method performed upon the documents.

The first, front and back:

And the second:

This sewing is an intriguing non-adhesive conservation method that has actually held up fairly well in both documents over the years!

November 6, 2008

The Wilson Lands

Two weeks ago, among the Chew papers, I came across stacks of deed polls, each one of which effectively transferred 400 acres of land from its original owner to James Wilson. For those of you unfamiliar with Wilson, he is one of only six framers to have signed both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. In addition, he was also a member of the first Supreme Court appointed by President Washington, and, beyond that, instrumental in the formation of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790. Surprisingly, with all these founding credentials, he is still a relative unknown. A large part of that anonymity can be attributed to the documents I found, because they act as a representative sample of the vice that likely cost Wilson his founding reputation – land speculation.

To be sure, Wilson was only one of many leading figures from his generation that speculated in the “undeveloped” lands of the American West. Washington, Patrick Henry, Robert Morris, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, along with many others, all were heavily involved in the practice that historian Alan Taylor maintains, “consumed the eighteenth-century American elite.” (Writing Early American History, 2005) Like Wilson, but perhaps not to the same degree, most of these speculators experienced the pitfalls of buying land on the early American frontier.

A good deal of their problems stemmed from the quantities of land they attempted to purchase and the way purchases were financed. In simplified terms, speculators typically tried to purchase massive tracts of land on credit – in many ways the same type of risk-taking that has resulted in our present day financial crisis. Using a process known as leverage, speculators bought land with mainly borrowed money. They acted under the assumption that, as land prices rose, they could then sell the land for more than the purchase price, thus being able to repay the original loan and pocket a profit. As with our own financial crisis, this type of risky behavior created an extremely unstable economic environment. When land prices were rising, an immense profit could be made, but when the prices were stagnant or falling, the original investment became a drain as borrowed money came due – essentially the same problem that took down Lehman Bros. and Bear Stearns.

Because Wilson’s land speculation rose to the point of obsession, he was particularly hard hit during the economic depression of 1796-97. Both he and Robert Morris, to name just two, spent time in prison because of massive land debts; in the process staining their reputation for posterity.

As for the multiple deed polls contained within the Chew papers, two questions arise: How did Wilson acquire all this land; and how did the Chew family end up with these documents? I am not certain of the answers to these questions at this time, but some clues are available within the documents themselves. First, the lands fell within Allegheny and Luzerne counties of Pennsylvania. Also relevant, the deed polls date from only two years,1794 and 1796. Additionally, the original warrant dates for when the land was first claimed by a private owner, all fall within the year 1792. It is important to note that this was just after the Pennsylvania legislature passed an act regulating the sale of land by limiting the number of acres an individual could buy; this, in an effort to keep lands newly open for sale out of the hands of speculators which could have effectively denied Wilson access.

However, if Elizabeth K. Henderson is correct, Wilson may have turned to underhanded means. According to her 1936 article on "The Northwestern Lands of Pennsylvania, 1790-1812," (PMHB, Vol. 60) she claims that Wilson got around the intent of the law by taking out land warrants under "fictitious names" and then transferring the land to his own name by way of the deed polls. That claim is difficult to confirm from the documents available. Another possibility is that Wilson, or his agent, may have obtained the lands from Revolutionary war soldiers who first obtained them as payment for their military service in lieu of monetary remuneration. In any case, Wilson ended up with these lands.

How the Chew family obtained the documents is, once again, uncertain, but likely has its roots in the massive borrowing Wilson did to finance his land ventures. It seems at least possible that Wilson borrowed money from Benjamin Chew and when he or his executors (Wilson passed in 1798) could not repay the debt, land title was transferred instead. Other evidence within the collection, such as account books and personal correspondence, may hold the key to solving this mystery. The answer to these questions, and many others await the interested researcher.

Posted by Dean Williams, Chew Papers volunteer