Chapter One: The First Hundred years at Valley Forge

In the summer of 1828, John Fanning Watson took his horse and gig over the Schuylkill River at a place called the Swedes' Ford and set off to visit Valley Forge, where little more than fifty years earlier George Washington's army had spent the winter of 1777—1778. Watson was then working in a bank in Germantown, but he was also a dedicated antiquarian in the process of preparing his multivolume Annals of Philadelphia, the collection of anecdotes and oral history for which he is today remembered. Like more and more Americans in the 1820s, he had enough time and disposable income to become a tourist, seeking adventure and amusement in parts unknown. Planning a story for a Germantown newspaper, he neatly recorded his impressions in a small notebook, creating one of the earliest tourist accounts of Valley Forge. He wrote admiringly of "Hill & Dale & wood & meadow & cultivated field" and the general beauty of the rich eastern Pennsylvania countryside. [1]

Upon reaching his historic destination, Watson searched for physical remains of the presence of the Continental Army. The hills of Valley Forge he found "all in a wild wooden state." [2] Near Valley Creek, which flows between two steep hills called Mount Joy and Mount Misery, he discovered modern factories, but in one wooded area near the road he did locate what he described as a "relic," the ruin of what had obviously been a defensive redoubt. [3] He also visited the small house where Washington had established his headquarters and where he was certain that the compassionate general had anxiously "felt for the sufferings of his ill clad followers." [4]

What Watson failed to find was evidence of attempts to preserve or glorify the physical Valley Forge. From the time of the Revolution until Watson's own day, Americans had taken surprisingly little interest in their own history, possibly because the Revolution that created the nation was perceived as a deliberate break with the past. History had not been stressed in the schools of the early republic and even Watson's Annals, so fascinating to historians today, received little attention from his contemporaries. Nor had Americans been preserving their historic places; Ben Franklin's house had been destroyed in 1812, and George Washington's presidential mansion in Philadelphia would meet a similar fate in 1832. [5]

The historic incident of the winter encampment at Valley Forge would be rediscovered in the Romantic Era of the mid-nineteenth century when the dreary tale of thousands of soldiers suffering and surviving the winter in a military encampment would be transformed into an inspiring legend in which virtue had triumphed after sacrifices had been made. The Valley Forge story would capture the popular imagination, bringing many more tourists to Valley Forge and eventually creating a need to preserve the remains of the encampment. Watson's travel account gives an early glimpse of the way in which nineteenth-century Americans would come to think about Valley Forge.

"What emotions press upon the reflecting mind!" Watson wrote. On those hills, were miserably hutted the forlorn hope of the country in its day of most gloomy peril." [6] He continued, "Poor sufferers! their clothing was scanty—, their blankets rags, & their feet always without stockings and almost shoeless!" [7] In Watson's imagination, patriots standing guard duty on cold winter nights wistfully conjured up hearth and home and patriotically contemplated the wrongs that their beloved country had endured. [8]

Watson also commented on the obvious prosperity of the area in his own day, and had he arrived the summer before Washington he might have made the same observation. In 1777, Valley Forge had been checkered with small, enclosed fields. About two-thirds of the area's land had been under cultivation for general farming. Farmers also raised horses, cattle, swine, and sheep. Oak, chestnut, and hickory trees growing on the steeper hills were a source of fuel and charcoal. [9] Swiftly flowing Valley Creek had provided power for local industry. A thriving industrial community had grown up where the creek flowed into the Schuylkill River. The wealthy Potts family had long been operating the forges from which the area took its name. There had also been sawmills, charcoal houses, a gristmill, a blacksmith, a cooper, and a company store. Dams channeled water into millraces that turned the waterwheels for some of these business operations. [10]

In August 1777, British commander Sir William Howe landed his formidable army at the head of the Chesapeake Bay and made for Philadelphia. Howe defeated Washington at a battle at the Brandywine River, and his forces met a contingent of Americans in a skirmish at Paoli. The two armies met again at Germantown, where fog and confusion robbed the Americans of victory. In mid-December, Washington decided to settle his men at Valley Forge for the winter. The terrain was defensible, the location would prevent Howe from raiding much of Pennsylvania's agricultural heartland, and, Washington hoped, the rich farms in the valley would help supply the soldiers during the winter.

No battles were fought at Valley Forge, but the presence of Washington's army devastated the countryside. Soldiers dug up the landscape to build entrenchments and redoubts. The farmers' fences and woodlots were sacrificed to provide shelters for the men. The residents' livestock and stores of grain were commandeered. One account implied that the soldiers also made off with a great deal of movable property, while the locals themselves were nearly reduced to want by the time the troops moved on. [11]

For a while, the American military continued using the old campgrounds at Valley Forge. They served as a hospital camp, an ordnance depot, and a place for detention of prisoners of war. [12] Some six months after Washington's army left, Captain Thomas Anbury, a British prisoner, was marched through Valley Forge under guard. He was quartered in one of the old soldiers' huts, where he recorded his surprise to observe that Washington's defenses had been so weak. Conversation with local loyalists made him aware of the sufferings of area residents, among whom the loyalists still could not understand why Howe had not attacked Valley Forge the previous winter. [13]

Even before the war was officially over, Valley Forge farmers were working to restore the area to its bucolic, antebellum state. There was no spring planting in 1778, but farmers returned their land to cultivation as quickly as possible. They pulled down the soldiers' huts for fuel and fencing material. By 1779, tax records showed that their livestock holdings had nearly reached pre-encampment levels. [14] In September 1781, American Lieutenant Enos Reeves lost his way en route to Philadelphia and found himself at Valley Forge. He wrote:

We . . . came thro' our old Encampment, or rather the first huts of the whole army. Some of officers' huts are inhabited, but the greater part are decayed, some are split up into rails, and a number of fine fields are to be seen on the level ground that was cleared, but in places where they have let the shoots grow, it is already like a half grown young wood. [15]

Industry also rapidly returned to Valley Forge. While the war continued, the American government established a musket factory there. A British raiding party destroyed the old forges, but Isaac and David Potts together with their relative William Dewees soon built a new forge and dam and began operations at a rolling and slitting mill. In the early 1800s, America's market economy grew, providing many opportunities for industrialists. The production of wrought iron at Valley Forge continued only until about 1816, but John Rogers constructed new facilities for the manufacture of domestic hardware. About the same time, Valley Forge acquired a saw factory, and the production of boiler plates began in the valley. By 1818, the Valley Forge also had a crucible steel furnace, built by the Rogers family. To serve the thriving community, Isaiah Thropp opened Valley Forge's first public store in 1822. [16]

At Valley Forge, the second quarter of the nineteenth century began with some economic uncertainty, but the area soon saw new life. Valley factories were converted for textile production, an industry in which efficient factory system methods were emerging. Charles Rogers ran one large mill, and just west of the village Isaiah Thropp began operating a second mill. [17] To the east of Valley Forge, in 1824, farmer Alexander Kennedy opened a lime quarry and built kilns to burn lime. His two sons expanded the business, and a prosperous village, known first as Kennedy's Hollow and later as Port Kennedy, grew up near Valley Forge. This town also became known for the remarkable caverns discovered during quarry operations. [18] By the 1830s, the valley's many successful businesses had attracted the transportation industry, bringing canal and later rail service to Valley Forge so that its products could more easily reach the cities. [19] In 1837, one resident wrote a relative: "The place is growing fast and may in a few years be something of a town." [20]

The industrial revolution brought quiet Valley Forge the same questions and conflicts the rest of the world was grappling with. Would industrialism create a new social order? What would be the relationship between worker and capitalist? A Scot named Robert Owen was advocating communal industrial communities in which members owned property jointly, shared all labor, and divided the rewards. Owen is most famous for the utopian community he established at New Harmony, Indiana. His principles inspired the foundation of a similar community at Valley Forge.

In 1826, a number of Philadelphia and Wilmington families founded the "Friendly Association for Mutual Interests." Their key benefactor was William Maclure, president of Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences and a devout disciple of Robert Owen. The association purchased buildings at Valley Forge and engaged James Jones of Chester County to supervise the colony. Jones established himself and his own family in the small house that had been Washington's Headquarters during the winter encampment. [21] Association members wrote for themselves a constitution expressing their commitment to pursue useful employment and share in the profits of their venture. Members promised to remain "MORAL, SOBER, and INDUSTRIOUS." Domestic chores would be shared; orphans would be provided for; food, clothing, and furniture would be distributed to all members who were in need. The Friendly Association ambitiously planned a permanent village with commercial buildings and dwellings of equal accommodation for all. [22]

The Friendly Association lasted less than a year. In general, Americans proved to be too individualistic for Owen's brand of utopian socialism. Maclure turned critical and came to doubt that the community at Valley Forge really understood Robert Owen's principles. [23] It has also been speculated that the community members suffered persecution because they reportedly did not believe in God. [24] Many members withdrew, but James Jones remained and purchased Washington's Headquarters. Apparently the Friendly Association was quickly forgotten, for during his visit in 1828 Watson never mentioned the very recent presence of this Owenite community.

On a hill in the woods near the Schuylkill River, Watson did notice the remains of rustic tables and benches where, he had heard, a great many people had recently feasted together. [25] Apparently Watson just missed the Harvest Home Meeting of Chester and Montgomery counties that had been held July 26, 1828, the first recorded mass meeting at Valley Forge. Had Watson been present on that clear, warm day, he might have seen 4,000 people assembled there. Although they called their gathering a Harvest Home, it was officially an Independence Day celebration held late in July for the convenience of farmers whose chores had kept them too busy for a holiday earlier in the month. At noon, the Declaration of Independence had been read; later there was music and oratory. [26]

Part of the day had been devoted to feasting and toasting. In a shady wood, the revelers had been seated at thirteen tables, each 164 feet long and each laden with beef, ham, potatoes, and bread. The formal and informal toasts showed that the gathering was also a political rally. Glasses were raised to the current president, John Quincy Adams, and his many virtues; to Adams's administration; to the union of the states; to Henry Clay, the champion of his country's rights; to the people; and to the government of Pennsylvania. Survivors of the American Revolution were increasingly cherished as death claimed more and more of them, and several had been invited for this special occasion. Peter S. Duponceau, a Frenchman who had been a captain at Valley Forge and an aide to General Von Steuben, rose to declare himself a friend to the incumbent president, preferring Adams to his political rival Andrew Jackson, in part simply because the name "Adams" had nostalgic connections with Revolutionary days. [27]

In 1844, Valley Forge saw another large political rally when Daniel Webster arrived to make a campaign speech for presidential candidate Henry Clay. By this time, many more Americans were voting and taking an interest in politics. Webster's reputation as a great orator ensured that the village would be thronged with eager people clutching banners, wreaths, and patriotic emblems. After Webster's train arrived at the little Valley Forge railway station, he politely surveyed the village's points of interest, including Washington's Headquarters. [28]

The printed program commemorating the 1828 Harvest Home did not dwell much on the story of what had happened at Valley Forge. Only briefly did it mention "the ground rendered sacred by the sufferings of the American Army under Washington" and the soldiers who had wintered there "amid snow and ice, and scarcity, and the apprehension of attack from a vastly superior British force." [29] The growing popularity of the Valley Forge story can be inferred from the fact that Webster capitalized much more on it and even attempted to link his candidate with the heroes of Valley Forge through the fact that both Clay and Washington had called themselves Whigs. "Ladies and Gentlemen," Webster began,

there is a mighty power in local association. All acknowledge it, and all feel it! . . . There are in this vast multitude who, like myself, never before stood on the spot where the Whig army of the Revolution, under the immediate command of their immortal leader, went through the privations, the sufferings, and the distress, of the winter of 1777 and 1778. . . . It is impossible to recall the associations of such a place without deep and solemn reflection. And when we, as Whigs, professing the principles of that great Whig leader and that Whig army, come here to advocate and avow those principles to one another, and professing to exercise the political rights transmitted to us by them, for the security of that liberty which they fought to establish, let us bring ourselves to feel in harmony with the scenes of the past. [30]

A record dating from the same year gives evidence of a grassroots desire on the part of local residents to gain national recognition and fame for Valley Forge and to preserve something of the physical place. In 1844, Isaac A. Pennypacker, a doctor in nearby Phoenixville and the grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran, addressed John Fanning Watson inquiring what could be done to preserve and promote Valley Forge. "When I think of the Epoch of that gloomy winter and know the importance of that period in the contest for Liberty, I cannot but feel that Valley Forge has been most shamefully neglected," he wrote. [31]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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