Stephen Decatur and the Burning of the Philadelphia

This is an excerpt from Michael Schreiber’s new book, “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America.” The book has just been published and is available in area bookstores.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, who grew up in Philadelphia [in a house on Front Street in Queen Village], became an American hero for having led the nighttime raid by sailors who torched the frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor. 

Robert Smith: Philly’s Foremost Master Builder

Whether you call Robert Smith a master builder, architect or just a magnificent carpenter, one thing is clear…

If you removed his many stunning Philadelphia buildings – including 8 churches – our city would be far less beautiful and impressive.

As it is, this Scottish immigrant from a family of masons has been called the most important builder/architect in the colonies. But possibly because his last name is so common, he’s simply not that well known today.

Among the 52 projects he created in his 29-year work history, though, are some of Philadelphia’s most important buildings.

Wood Homes in Queen Village

Clapboard, frame, or “stick” houses, which used wood for exterior siding, were built in abundance by early Colonial settlers.  However, due to their flammable nature, the City of Philadelphia outlawed the construction of wood buildings in 1796.  During this time period, the Southwark District municipality governed suburban “Queen Village”.  Despite the elevated risk of fire, frame houses continued to be built in Southwark until the District was merged with the City in 1854.  Perhaps this difference in zoning laws accounts for the many historic and reconstructed wooden gems present in Queen Village today.  Here are stories behind a few of these wonderful homes.

Commentary on the Will of Mary Houlton (1730-1811)

MARY HOULTON “Maiden” (1730-1811)
Parents:   John Houlton (1695-1769) &  Elizabeth Brooks (1700-1759)

(On June 11, 1722, New Garden MM, Chester County, Pennsylvania, “Margaret Johnson & Rachel Miller make report that the marriage of John Houlton & Elizabeth Brooks was orderly accomplished.”)

The will of Mary Houlton was written in 1805 and the opening words are:

I Mary Houlton of the City of Philadelphia Maiden

The exact date & place of birth are unknown.  Her death is recorded in ”The Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia Burial Record Record of Burials at Arch Street, 1806-1828.”   The date of interment is May 24, 1811, age 81.  Her date of birth has been calculated from this information.  Existing records indicate that the Society of Friends was a large part of her life.  Persons other than family members mentioned in her will were Friends.  In the 1772 will of William Logan, probated 1776, Mary Houlton is mentioned as “housekeeper.”  William Logan was a prominent merchant of Philadelphia and was made attorney of the Penn family in 1741.  Detailed in Bequeath #17 you will find her name mentioned in wills of other prominent Quakers of Philadelphia of the 18th century.  The Philadelphia MM, Feb. 17, 1798, records an  “application being made for the admission of Mary Lanstroth {sic} into our Alms house and also that her aunt Mary Holton may accompany her.”  Mary Langstroth is named in bequeath #4.

Captain Gustavus Conyngham, USN, King George III’s Worst Nightmare

This daring Errol-Flynn-type character terrorized English ships, capturing more vessels than Commodore John Barry and Captain John Paul Jones combined

In my youth, when my family drove to upstate Pennsylvania on summer vacations, I remember noticing the name “Conyngham” on road signs along Route 80 near Luzerne County.

I always wondered about the origin of this strange name. Little did I know it belonged to one of the most important – and now least-known heroes of the Revolutionary War.

Gustavus Conyngham (or Cunningham as some spell it), started the war as a privateer, bringing needed supplies back to the colonies. On March 1, 1777, he received a commission from Benjamin Franklin in Paris signed by John Hancock.

James Thomas and his family

Between 1681 and 1682, a fleet of twenty two ships brought William Penn and the first 2,000 colonists across the Atlantic Ocean.  Although the ship manifests from these vessels have not survived, it is likely that James Thomas and his family were amongst the earliest group of settlers to arrive in Pennsylvania.

James Thomas was born in 1660 in Pontemoil, a small village located at the foot of the Drynos mountains in Monmouthshire, Wales.  His parents Lewis (d. 1689) and Grace (d. 1694) had married and settled in the area sometime before 1650.  Quaker meeting records indicate that James had six siblings: Micah (b. 1650), Elizabeth (b. 1652), Rebecca (b. 1655), Mary (b. 1657), Gabriel (b. 1661), and Rachel (b. 1665).  Another sister named Mary, born in 1654, may not have survived to adulthood.

Ignatius Beck

Ignatius “Nace” Beck was a common man forced by prejudiced state of affairs to uncommon levels of accomplishment and action. He was a person of courage, integrity and sound judgment, who was proclaimed “respectable in his appearance and demeanor, and unimpeached by a whisper against his veracity or general character.”  He was an individual noted for his piety and temperance.  Acknowledged respectfully in his later years by the African American community as “Uncle Beck,” he was a dedicated family man and an early member of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Beck was a trusted associate of its founder, Reverend Richard Allen, who appointed him a “Class Leader.”  In addition, Beck was the first chairman (1830) of the Free Produce Society of Philadelphia. The Society advocated for the purchase of food and textiles only raised by the labor of freemen and to boycott those items that were raised by the labors of enslaved men and women.

Charles Toelpe (1835-1882)

This is a brief biographical sketch about Charles Toelpe (sometimes spelled Topel, Tölpe or Tolpie). Toelpe was a successful sugar refiner who developed a small portion of the former LaBrousse vineyard.

Charles Toelpe was born in 1835 in Prussia and died 47 years later during an explosion in a sugar factory. Sadly, he had little time to enjoy the grand home that he had built for his family on Morris Street.

Isaiah Zagar

After moving to Philadelphia from the suburbs in 2008, I was fascinated by the colorful, shimmering mosaics I found on Gaskill, Leithgow, and South Streets.

But I didn’t know who had created them.

So, I went to “the Google” – as President George W Bush called it. Surprisingly, one of the first stories I found on artist Isaiah Zagar, the man responsible for more than 200 mosaic murals in the city, was from the Seattle Times‘ Sally and John Macdonald.

Paul LaBrousse, an Early Winemaker in Southwark

Paul LaBrousse (also known as Paul L’Abrousse or Paul Le Bruce or Paul LaBrousse Dubreuil) was born in 1758 in France. A few years after moving to Philadelphia, Paul LaBrousse established a vineyard on the former Bankson family plantation in Southwark.

Believe it or not, some of our early colonists thought that Pennsylvania offered ideal conditions for harvesting grapes and producing wine. Shortly after arriving on this side of the Atlantic, William Penn boasted of discovering an “extraordinary” native grape plant which could be “cultivated into an excellent wine.” According to estate records, Penn had installed a vineyard at “Springettsbury Manor,” his property located outside of the city, in the neighborhood we know today as Francisville. Unfortunately, Penn’s attempts to produce wine were ultimately unsuccessful as all of his grape vines had reportedly died by 1699. Francis Pastorius, the founder of Germantown, had also experimented with winemaking at his own estate around the same time with little success.

Stephen Carmick (1718-1774)

Stephen Carmick

This is a brief biographical sketch about Stephen Carmick (sometimes also spelled Carmack).  Near the end of his life, Stephen Carmick owned a large plantation in Southwark, a small portion of which later became Morris Street.

Stephen Carmick was born around 1718 and died a few years before the start of the American Revolution.  He married Anna Christina Kock at Trinity Church in New York in 1755.  Although family records differ on the number of children they had, his obituary stated that at the time of his death there were “ten small children” who survived him.

Who is John Barry?

One of my warm-weather delights is to pick up a bagel and coffee about 8 a.m., sit on a bench at the south side of Independence Hall and read the morning papers.

As a side benefit, I hope to absorb a bit of the genius and creativity our Founding Fathers displayed here during our country’s earliest and darkest days.

While sipping my coffee one fall day, I suddenly noticed a large bronze statue of a military man with just the word Barry on the front of it.

I don’t know how I had missed this impressive statue before. I also wondered why a military man was honored here in a place known for political decisions? What was his contribution?

Little did I know that Commodore John Barry played an extraordinary role in our country’s history. Without his heroism and leadership, we might well be swearing allegiance today to the Queen of England.