Thursday, July 3, 2008

Philadelphia: Birthplace of Liberty

In 1987 I had the opportunity to spend a week in Philadelphia on a tour run by the travel company I was working for. We stayed at a hotel right in the historic district, within walking distance of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Continental Congress met to decide whether America would be part of the United Kingdom or a free nation. We also took day trips to Valley Forge and the little town of Washington Crossing where, you guessed it, Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware to attack the Hessians in Trenton.

I've always been a history buff and it didn't take long for me to fall in love with Philadelphia's historic areas. I loved the stately Georgian architecture of Independence Hall and the tiny but delightful Elfreth's Alley where you can visit the house where Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag.

At the time I was just starting to think about writing, and the trip to Philly had spawned an idea for a historical romance set during the Revolution. The trip gave me a chance to visit the places my novel would take place and to pick up research material along the way. Alas, that book, Divided Loyalties, would never see the light of day, but I did manage to salvage one character, Sally Young, Rebel spy, for Seducing The Enemy, one of my Lyndi Lamont erotic short stories.

I still like the idea of a romance set during the Revolution, but it has been a long while since that time period was popular. My theory is that the US has been going through a conservative period in our history, and stories set in the Revolution are somehow politically incorrect. Don't let anyone kid you. Our Founding Fathers were revolutionaries, with radical ideas for their time. "All men are created equal..." Say what? In a century where monarchy was the norm, Jefferson's ideas were radical indeed.

So, in between the barbeques and fireworks, I hope you'll give some thought to our Founding Fathers and the birthplace of liberty.

Happy Fourth of July!


Note: Stock photos from "Art Explosiong 300,000 Premium Image Collection" on CD.


pattinase (abbott) said...

My hometown, Linda. But I left there at 18 so I don't have much sense of it as an adult. Pity.

deboradale said...

Great post, Linda. Isn't it amazing how being in a place of such history can fill us with this sense of longing and romance? The way you felt here is how I felt when I first visited Gettysburg. Bloody battles notwithstanding, there was something romantic about it - I suppose it's our defense against the tragedy that really occurred. Seeing romance where romance does not exist is a way to keep hope alive.
You've made me want to visit Philadelphia, now. :-)

Anonymous said...

Linda, what you said is so true-- our founding fathers were considered revolutionaries. My husband and I are a bit behind, finally now renting the JOHN ADAMS series which shows frequently shows scenes from Philadelphia. Revolutionary times have always fascinated me. -Kathleen Rowland

Linda McLaughlin said...

I know what you mean, Patti. I was 14 when I left Pittsburgh and haven't even been there since 1987. No idea what the city is like these days.

Debbie, yes, that's how I felt. Seeing the historic buildings and sites really inspired me. Loved my visit to Colonial Williamsburg, too. Philly would be a good educational trip for your daughter. (Hint, hint!)


Linda McLaughlin said...

Kathleen, let me know how you like the John Adams miniseries. I wanted to see it but we don't get HBO either. Boston is another great city to visit if you're interested in the Revolutionary War period. Just don't drive - the traffic is AWFUL, and most of the streets are one way. So confusing.


Anonymous said...

Linda, interesting what you said on your post that the US has become remarkably conservative. Keeping traditions for the sake of traditions isn't always good.-Kathleen

debra said...

I've never been to Philadelphia. I love history---and visiting places where history was made is fascinating.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Debra, if you like history, you'll love Philly, at least the historic area. Valley Forge is worth seeing, too.


Anonymous said...

Linda: I am from the old Fishtown section of Philly. Here is the start of my take on that period you describe. Keep writing. Jim


Not very many generations ago, a trip of what we today consider a short distance required so much effort it was done reluctantly, and a long journey - of about fifty miles or more, was so tiresome it was avoided whenever possible. In the early 1770’s, the ninety-mile trip by public coach from Philadelphia to New York was advertised as a one-day journey. In reality, it could take up to two, three, or even more days, depending on the weather, river levels, and luck. A lame horse or broken wheel could also deal a serious blow to the schedules, and those waiting at the destination would fear for the safety of the travelers, especially when one day gave way to the next, and still no word of their whereabouts.
The prudent traveler would bring extra clothing for the journey - bundled, and tightly tied to stay dry while lashed to the rear cargo shelf. It was no telling when or where the next meal would be, so a pouch of dried food and a bottle or two of wine or spirits was recommended. The coach carried a barrel of water for the horses and passengers to share, but having your own source of refreshment would satisfy thirst, as well as help to ease the discomfort. A cautious traveler might carry a concealed pistol to help overcome fear of the unknown.
As the hour of departure drew near, the horses would be hitched, everything and everybody would be loaded, and soon the bouncing coach would leave the city heading northeast along the river. After only a few miles, by which time the passengers would already be covered with dust, and feeling headachy from the jarring, it would turn north on the Frankford Road, at a place called Kensington. To the passengers, the journey would already be a hardship, with eighty-eight more miles to go.
Heavily rutted old Frankford Road was the main northern route from Philadelphia, carrying goods, travelers, armies, and highwaymen. It served as the conduit to nearby communities, as well as to the northern colonies. The war brought heavy usage to the old highway, and others like it, by friend and foe alike. After the war, commerce and travel continued to increase significantly, but another hundred years would go by before more than a few of the vital corridors were paved with plank or stone, and bridges built across the big rivers.
The small village just north of Philadelphia named Kensington was located along the Delaware River, and was one of a group of communities north of the city known as “The Northern Liberties”. The area was a busy place and well known for tradesmen, fishermen, shipbuilders, stables, taverns, and houses of ill repute. A small part of Kensington, in later years called Fishtown hugged the shore of the river. The name would be given to describe the main commerce of the inhabitants.
This riverfront part of Kensington was bucolic, a resort area you could even call it and a place to get away for a little rest and relaxation from the stress of the city. Several years before the famous summer of 1776, local celebrity Benjamin Franklin and a few of his associates founded a club along this part of the river for getaways. They acquired the land and built a fine meetinghouse on a pleasant river overlook, near Beach Road, about a mile north of its connection with the Frankford Road. The place was just close enough to the city to get there without too much inconvenience, but far enough to not be readily disturbed. They called it a place for intellectual discourse, with poetry readings and such. It was also a good weekend hideout, and the fish fries and grog were said to be superb.
The pleasant area was not only the best location to set up a business for catching the abundant river shad, but also was the place chosen by the British occupiers in 1777 to set up camp to watch for trouble makers. Fortunately for both Mister Franklin and the new nation, he was then in France, and out of their reach.
A half-company of Redcoats equipped with Short-Pattern Muskets tipped with their famously deadly bayonets could throw up a roadblock on the Frankford Road, bag an unsuspecting coach full of would-be traitors, and be gone before word of the danger got back to the city. Moreover, heaven help a coach passenger whose name was on a roadblock list. The Army Prison ships were anchored in the river and their sadistic guards were always looking forward to welcoming new guests.
When word got to the city that it would soon be overrun by the British, many who feared for their lives fled up the Frankford Road, not stopping until reaching refuge in the surrounding countryside beyond the reach of redcoat patrols. When Franklin and his compatriots daringly put their names to that famous declaration that was so offensive to the King, they also found themselves high on the priority list of foremost traitors. If caught, the celebrated offender would be whisked straight to London for a big show trial to be followed by a public hanging.
There was a lot of traffic heading north on the Frankford Road that year. Long-time settler Anthony Palmer’s land ran along the eastern side of the old road from where it started near the river, and continued north for about a mile. Its eastern end was Beach Road, near the river’s edge. The terrain was flat, fertile, and woodsy, and supported many tradesmen and fishermen, as well as a few shipbuilders. Palmer purchased the land in 1730, and gave it the name Kensington, after England’s gloriously wooded garden palace. Like many other community leaders, Palmer was torn over the prospect of war and estrangement from the mother country. This was his home, and he knew no other. He was a landlord, but most of his tenants were also his friends; such was the state of relations between the classes in those days. Aristocratic ways had long faded, and were widely frowned on in these enlightened colonies.
In 1777 and 1778, the British occupation brought chaos and brutality to Kensington. Redcoat Major John Simcoe’s regiment, known as The Queen’s Rangers were quick with the bayonet and the torch. Simcoe was convinced the locals were engaged in unending conspiracies and seditious acts against the Crown, and he repeatedly vowed to teach them a stern lesson. Each incident, even of a small nature was to him more evidence of barefaced treason, and a further excuse to order his troops to ratchet up their vengefulness a few more notches. The troops response to their new orders resulted in seasoning the soil of Kensington with the blood of many new patriots – who until that time were fence sitters, and more or less neutral in the conflict. Slight offenses, such as not halting twenty paces from a road sentry could get the offender a musket ball between the eyes. Not answering a soldier’s question promptly might result in being run through the belly with a bayonet.
Even the tradesmen who sold services to the occupiers were not immune to their fury.
Early one May morning in 1777, Isaac Wilkins, the blacksmith from near Beach Road was riding his big gray mare north on the Frankford Road. It was just after dawn and the new day’s intense sun was already breaking up the river fog and evaporating the night mist from the wet grasses. Like the day before, Isaac was expecting another scorcher and he was not looking forward to a hot day away from his shady shop. He was responding to a summons from British Sergeant Major Smythe, who wanted some quick work done on one of the camp draft horses. He had thought about ignoring the note that was delivered the afternoon before, but a second glance at the hostile face of the messenger told him it would be wise to heed the curt directive.
The mare knew her way along this old road. The two of them had traveled it so often they could both do it in their sleep. He only had to watch out for the camp turn off two miles north, and nudge the horse onto the west road. The camp would only be another mile from that point.
Isaac was not paying much attention to the road as his mind was filled with the unpleasant task ahead of dealing with the arrogant camp soldiers. Something in the road ahead startled him from his lethargy, when from the corner of his eye he spotted what turned out to be the crumpled and lifeless body of Wilhelm Schmidt, a local shad fisherman. The man was lying on the opposite side of the road, curled up alongside a fence post. Isaac suspected right away the man was dead. Kensington was few in numbers in those days and everyone knew just about everyone else, either on a personal level or by commercial trade. Isaac knew Wilhelm as an unassuming and sober family man, with a dutiful wife and eight children, with another one on the way. He had sometimes bought fish from Wilhelm’s wife at their little cabin by the riverfront. He never saw Wilhelm much and assumed that while his wife was selling the fish, he was inside fast asleep after a long nights work. Seeing the poor man in this condition brought regrets that he had not made an effort to recognize or acknowledge him more in life. Quickly dismounting, he lifted the lifeless man. There was no doubt he was dead, and there was no doubt that the instrument that did it was a standard issue British long bayonet. The ragged hole went clean through him, from front to back and the ground under him was soaked with blood.
Isaac didn’t know how to handle this situation, and he climbed back on the mare and went seeking Anthony Palmer for help. He often encountered Anthony at this time of day making rounds of his property, and he hoped it wouldn’t be hard to find him this grim morning. Continuing north another half mile, and as luck would have it, he spotted Palmer’s horse in the distance coming toward him at a leisurely pace. One of the skills of a community blacksmith is the ability to identify a rider from a distance by the familiarity of the horse being ridden.
“Hallo Squire Palmer” was his glum salutation as the mounts came alongside each other.
“Morning Isaac – how are ye?”
“Very poorly, in spite of the fine morning. I found fisherman Schmidt a half mile back, dead at the side of the road – looks like he was run though with a thin sword, but most likely it was a Ranger bayonet.”
Palmer’s jaw dropped as he shouted, “Damn - not another one! Show me where he is!”
The two riders turned south for the short distance to the body, and dismounted for a closer inspection.
“I think you are right – the puncture is narrow and round, not as a wide blade would make. And there are no cut marks around the wound” was Anthony’s opinion, who, as the senior of the two men had witnessed these type of deadly wounds before – too many in fact in recent months.
“It is horrible Isaac. We have to take care of him – I will ride over to O’Neill’s and have him come and collect Schmidt. You go and find one or two of Schmidt’s neighbors to go with you to his wife to explain what you found. Tell her I am taking care of things here and she should stay with her friends and the children.”
In agreement with the plan, the two separated; Isaac off to see what he could do for the new widow Schmidt, and Anthony to find George O’Neill, who would send a few of his labor crew over to collect Wilhelm Schmidt. Wherever stevedore work or heavy construction was needed in The Northern Liberties, O’Neill’s men and their wagons would be there. Their carpenter shop also did excellent work, fine sturdy coffins included and, day or night, grave digging - even in the hard ground of winter.
Anthony Palmer, as befitting a man of his stature and reputation in the community had quickly taken charge of the situation, which gave great comfort to traumatized Isaac. His generosity that morning extended to widow Schmidt, and would continue over the next few months by regularly sending provisions for her and the children, and forgoing rent on the little cabin they occupied. Two days after he was found in the road, Wilhelm Schmidt was buried in a small fenced-in graveyard east of the road that many years before, Palmer had given to the community. Luckily for the widow Schmidt, good and available women were hard to find, especially ones with a dowry of excellent fishing equipment and a boat, and it was not long before she was being courted.
Other brutal and unjust acts were being committed throughout the area. There was no recourse, and the citizens moved about with fear and foreboding. They were gripped with an apprehension that they, or any one of their neighbors might, at any time, be struck down for the slightest offense.
In the months after Isaac Wilkins stumbled across Wilhelm Schmidt, many of the tradesmen, fishermen, and residents of The Northern Liberties, and especially Kensington, including all of the members of the Wilkins family became committed Patriots. For the next four years, the Wilkins family members would, at every opportunity, encourage loyalty and support for the glorious cause from any fence sitter they encountered. They encountered more than a few – and more than a few heeded their call.

Anonymous said...

Jim: I hope what you are writing is fiction because if it is history, you have the facts are mixed up. Anthony Palmer died in 1749 and would not have any idea of the American Revolution.