“A rank secessionist”

On October 2, 1862, a group of men sat down to write a letter.  The Civil War had been raging for over a year, and then men were writing to report the presence of a traitor.

The letter was addressed to Algernon Jenkins, Esquire, the director of the Springhouse and Sumneytown Turnpike.  Jenkins was also a member of Gwynedd Friends Meeting and the father of Howard M. Jenkins, author of Historical Collections Relating to Gwynedd.  You can click on the letter to make it larger.

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While the anonymous letter writers do not name the traitor who works for the turnpike, they do not mince words, calling him a “rank secessionist” and a “black traitor.”

This letter comes from one of the more extensive collections at the Historical Society, the Charles F. Jenkins Collection.

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Free Black Men

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A couple of weeks ago we looked at a will and inventory of Belinda, a free black woman of Montgomery County.  This week we have a deed from 1803 transferring property from John Davis and his wife Jane to James Black and George Chester, two free black men.

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Purchased in May of 1803 for $126, the property consisted of nine acres and two perches (a unit of 16 1/2 feet by 16 1/2 feet) in Providence Township.  The deed describes the property as beginning by the Schuylkill, so it was probably in what is today Upper Providence.  The deed does not contain the men’s signatures.  The deed was written on parchment and was too long to fit all at once even on our oversize scanner.

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Like Belinda’s will, this deed gives a small glimpse of African-Americans in early Montgomery County history. It’s possible that there are more records of James Black and George Chester waiting to be found in our collection.

Norristown’s Lost Museum

Did you know Norristown once had a natural history museum?

In 1915, Howard Severn Regar, partner in the manufacturing firm H.K. Regar & Sons, purchased the collection of William H. Werner, a naturalist from Pennsylvania.  Werner had displayed his collection on the Atlantic City boardwalk for many years, and Regar purchased the collection from his son.

Regar was born in Philadelphia, but the family settled in Norristown.  He graduated from A. D. Eisenhower High School in 1907 (he later composed the school song, “The Blue and the White”).  His father’s firm, of which he eventually became a partner, was a hosiery manufacturing firm.  He also was active in politics, serving on the Town Council as the representative of the Eight Ward.  He was, of course, a member of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, as well as a Mason, and a member of several naturalist societies.

The Regar Museum of Natural History was a two story building at DeKalb and Fornance streets.  The collection consisted of American birds, some of which were extinct by the time the museum opened in 1915, including the passenger pigeon, whooping crane, and the Carolina parakeet.  In addition to the mounted birds, the museum displayed the nests and eggs in order to recreate the bird’s environment.  The Audubon Society of Norristown also used the museum as its meeting place.

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In 1918, Mr. Regar delivered an address to the Historical Society about the importance of museums in civic life and urging other collectors in Norristown to follow his example and provide access to their collections for the betterment of their fellow citizens.

“Norristown is growing and some day will rank as one of the great cities of Pennsylvania.  In that day our children’s children mourn the loss if we allow these collection to become scattered.  We must keep them here; provide a suitable building for their exhibition, and make that our contribution to posterity.”

HSMC Sketches, 1918

Regar took his collection out of Norristown when he moved to Alabama in 1929.  He donated the collection to the city of Anniston, Alabama, where is remains in the Anniston Natural History Museum.  You can see a little of the collection here .  The Historical Society has in its collection a 1943 letter from Regar to S. Cameron Corson, in which he writes,

“I have always been sorry that Norristown lost the interesting and valuable collections which it once had.  You may remember I gave a paper at one of the Historical Society meetings called attention to the fine collections in that were in Norristown and urged that a place be provided so that they could be left to the town….I could not however work up any real interest…. As for me I am more than satisfied at the way my gift [to Anniston, Alabama] turned out…for I am very proud of the institution bearing my name in Anniston.”

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He died in Eufaula, Alabama in 1968.

Bilinda – a Free Black Woman

In honor of African-American history month, we have a will and inventory for a woman named Bilinda, of Moreland Township.  At the beginning of the will, she describes herself as a “free Black woman.”  Unfortunately, we only a photocopy of the will, originally written in 1813.  The location of the originals is unknown.

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The photocopies are difficult to read, but Bilinda lists her daughters Hannah and Mary as heirs, leaving them all her clothing.  The rest of her estate is divided in thirds, one part going to each of the daughters and one part to a son whose name appears to be “Cuffe.”

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Bilinda passed away about 3 years after writing the will in 1816.  Her inventory tells us a little more about her life.

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Bilinda (recorded here as “Blinda”) left a significant estate of over $1200, much of that was from the estate of her son Thomas.  Looking over the list of her possessions, we see she owned a spinning wheel and several bags and chests of linen. Perhaps she did piecework or took in sewing.

It would be wonderful to know more about Bilinda and her family, for example, the neither the will not the inventory give her last name. Was she born free?  Does she have descendants still living in the county?  In a way, this document helps reveal how little we know about the experience of African-Americans in early Montgomery County.