Chester County celebrates Humphry Marshall, the founder of Marshallton

Photos by Jim Graham

The small county town of Chester is celebrating the 300th anniversary of its well-connected founding father and history in the Main Line region.

Befitting his Quaker upbringing, Humphry Marshall had a keen interest in the Chestershire wilderness that surrounded him. A largely self-taught farmer, stonemason and amateur astronomer with a passion for botany, Marshall became an important figure, though he never traveled far from the last remnants of the Lenni Lenape plots bordering his father’s farm – lands related to William Penn. Born in 1722, Marshall would have turned 300 this year. During his 79 years, he was able to enjoy productive relationships with Benjamin Franklin and others of international renown.

Franklin Marshall at the grave of ancestor Humphry Marshall.

Mark Slouf can understand how difficult it must have been in such a remote location. “By the time he put a letter in the hands of Ben Franklin in London, it could take three months, and then three months for Franklin to respond,” Slouf says.

West Chester builder and designer, Slouf is a member of the Humphry Marshall 300th Task Force, a community group organizing a year-long series of events to commemorate a milestone and spread the legacy of the city’s founding father. There will be a lecture series in June and a grand opening of the park in October, Marshall’s birthday month. Other events were in the works at the time of going to press.

With its dense forests, abundant water and fertile soil, Marshallton was a perfect place to support milling and farming operations. The township hamlet of West Bradford was organized in 1705 and officially named 100 years later once the post office arrived. Besides farming, the area had blacksmiths, coopers, cobblers and wheelwrights who plied their trade near the once bustling Strasbourg road. Built in 1750 and remodeled in the early 1970s, the Marshallton Forge is a well-preserved example of colonial-era architecture. Along the main street stand the preserved remains of Martin’s Tavern, originally Center House. While spending the night of September 10, 1777, Esquire Thomas Cheyney saw a large British force marching near the forks of Brandywine Creek. He and other local militiamen headed for Chadds Ford, alerting George Washington so the general could avert disaster. Marshallton also claims Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who were living at the Harlan Farm when they surveyed the Mason-Dixon Line from an astrological vantage point known as “Stargazer’s Stone”.

A first cousin of Philadelphia botanist John Bartram, Marshall has been called the father of American dendrology, the science and study of woody plants. Built between 1773 and 1774, his house still exists. There he created the second true botanical garden in the country, surpassed only by his older cousin. But Marshall’s commercial success surpassed that of Bartram, a highly respected naturalist who also sold seeds and plants to the world.

The Humphry Marshall House was documented by the Historic Buildings of America Survey in 1958, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Marshall built the 2.5-story structure himself according to specifications that have favored its management and collection of botanical specimens. He is buried across what is now West Strasburg Road at the Bradford Friends Meeting Burial Ground – unmarked, according to Quaker tradition.

Originally from Gratton in Lincolnshire, England, Abraham Marshall came to America around 1697. He settled near Darby and married Mary Hunt, sister of John Bartram’s mother, Elizabeth Hunt. Her husband was James Hunt, a companion of William Penn.

marshall house

The Humphry Marshall Farm.

The painting

Adrian Martinez at work on his latest commission, celebrating surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.

In 1707 Abraham moved to the Forks of Brandywine Creek near the West Branch, purchasing large tracts of land from among the Indians. He lived there until his death in 1767 at the age of 98. Of Abraham and Mary’s nine children, Humphry was the eighth, born at what the family called Derbydown on Northbrook Road. Today much of the original acreage is a horse farm known as Castle Rock.

Married twice (first to Sarah Pennock in 1748), Humphry Marshall never had children. Upon his father’s death, he inherited the family estate and later purchased his own land, expanding his collection of plantations through personal exploration, transatlantic correspondence, and mutually beneficial botanical exchanges. He also commissioned friends and relatives to collect plants and seeds during their travels. For years Marshall has supplied seeds and plants to customers in England, Scotland, France, Italy, Brussels, Holland and Germany, sometimes in exchange for scientific instruments. Plants from his nursery adorned the gardens of King George III of England and King Louis XVI of France. He also provided Chester County neighbors and generally wealthy friends in Lancaster and Philadelphia.

The rise of Marshall’s botanical activity owes much to his work of 1785, Arbustum Americanum: The American Grove, or, an Alphabetical Catalog of Forest Trees and Shrubs, the first American imprint on the subject. Dedicated to Ben Franklin, it was rather an international success, selling only a dozen copies here in the first three months. Marshall intended it to serve as a trade catalog as well, noting in his introduction, “The foreignercurious about American collections, will thus be better able to make a selection adapted to his particular fancy.

The book ended with a full-page advertisement for Marshall’s “BOXES of SEEDS and growing PLANTS, FOREST TREES, FLOWERING SHRUBS, etc. of the United States of America.

marshall reading glasses

Reading glasses from Humphry Marshall and certificate of election from the American Philosophical Society.

Marshall hoped to stimulate further research here, encouraging the organization of a scientific expedition to the West. It was no coincidence that his nephew and Resident Assistant, Moses Marshall, was approached by Caspar Wistar and Thomas Jefferson to undertake a trip to the Pacific. It would have been a 20-year precursor to the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1805, but it never happened. Moïse, a doctor, continued to honor requests for plants after his uncle’s death, although he lost interest in tending the garden, busying himself as a local justice of the peace. At the time of his death in 1813, the garden was in ruins.

Mark Slouf has started writing a series of articles about Humphry Marshall in the West Bradford Township Newsletter, noting that the task force will approach Chester County Commissioners this month with a request to declare 2022 l year of Humphry Marshall. West Bradford Township has been asked to do the same. One of his supervisors, Jack Hines, even has a dog named Humphry Marshall.

The site of Martin’s Tavern/Humphry Marshall Historical Park is on a small piece of land owned by the township west of the ruins of the tavern. He will share the mission and possibly the historic plantings and interpretive signage of Marshall Square Park in West Chester, which opened in 1848. The Marshallton Conservation Trust hopes to plant a local garden with specimens consistent with Marshall’s catalog.

Starting in July, there are also plans to hang banners featuring Adrian Martinez’s portrait of Marshall. About five years ago, the Downingtown-based artist put together an exhibition inspired by Marshall that included a dozen paintings. “Everything Humphry has done is so timely again,” Martinez said.

“He’s one of our superstars,” adds Linda Kaat, task force member, Marshallton resident and longtime curator in the area. “We all have such respect for this remarkable and underappreciated genius in the desert.”

Kaat sought to get a commissioned postage stamp honoring Marshall, a process that takes years. The subject must be deceased and free from scandal. “I don’t know if Humphry Marshall had any,” she said.

Another idea is to create a permanent Marshall repository at the Chester County History Center, and a short documentary is also planned. “We would like to focus on educating school children and the general public about Humphry Marshall and his accomplishments,” says Slouf, “but also how his thoughts and actions apply to today, especially in this concerning the environment. I can’t think of another person in the county with more impact at international level. He is a notch below Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Everyone knows those names, but they don’t know Humphry’s name.

At press time, it was unclear if the celebration would include tours of Marshall’s ancestral home. Kept pure, it is owned by a reclusive couple who did not respond to interview requests. “I bought my house because it overlooks the Marshall House and possibly the largest collection of winter aconites in the world,” Kaat explains. “Marshallton’s real story began there.”

If there is one controversial piece in Marshall’s history, it involves the ancestral home and its contents. In 1982 they were bequeathed by the estate of Campbell Weir to the Chester County Historical Society. By the early 1990s, the organization had broken its will, auctioned off property, and sold the real estate to individuals. Catheryn Campbell Weir, a niece, still runs the Humphry Marshall Fund.

Access to the house is crucial for the documentary, says Slouf, who visited the house a few times before buying it. Slouf marveled at his drying room, essentially a greenhouse for plants created by two interconnected chimneys channeling heat through the walls of a second floor that once included a small observatory for astronomical studies. “The place was supposed to be a museum,” says Franklin Marshall, an 88-year-old scion of a local family. “No one knows where all the furniture has gone [after auction]. Part of it belonged to Humphry. We asked the historical society, who said it was stored in York, but we can’t prove it. Too bad the place is not used as it should be. »

The retired sawmill operator inherited Humphry’s 1786 certificate of election as a corresponding member of the American Society, one of the organizations that merged to form the American Philosophical Society. It’s signed by Ben Franklin. He also has his ancestor’s reading glasses and other relics. “I’m certainly proud,” he said. “That’s pretty good ancestry, I think.”

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