The General and his Slaves at the Muhlenberg House

by The Rev. Judith A. Meier, Historian

The Historical Society of Trappe, Collegeville, and Perkiomen Valley


`On Tuesday, July 29, 2008, the United States House of Representatives issued a long-awaited apology.  The resolution, passed by voice vote, stated that the House “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow.”  The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted the author of the resolution, Rep. Steve Cohen (D. Tennessee) as saying that part of forming a more perfect union “is such a resolution as we have before us today where we face up to our mistakes and apologize as anyone should apologize for things that were done in the past that were wrong.”

That historic apology holds meaning for those of us who care for the Henry Melchior Muhlenberg House and adhere to the ideals of its most famous inhabitants as well as the vision of those men and women who labored for the restoration of the house as an icon of history and a beacon for the free flow of thought.   The Rev. Dr. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, who lived out his retirement in this house in Trappe from the spring of 1776 to his death October 7, 1787, was not sympathetic with the system of slavery although he dealt every day with slave owners.

On a trip to Georgia in 1774  he observed a German Lutheran farmer who, in contrast to most of the landowners of that time, was able to run his plantation on his own, without the aid of Negroes.  “He and his wife cultivate the place themselves in the sweat of their brows and prove thereby that a man can live and find food and clothing without the use of black slaves, if he be godly and contented and does not desire to take more out of the world than he brought into it.”
On his return trip to Pennsylvania his ship was “heavily laden with animate and inanimate creatures, namely, (a) the English lady and her young son…, (b) eight English passengers, (c) four German women from Charleston, (d) a number of new Negroes who had lately arrived from Africa and had been sold, (e) the sailors were strong Negroes, the captain a young Englishman, (f) cargo and baggage.”

Consider these observations in light of statements made by one Virginia historian: “By the late 1600s Virginia began passing laws that made hereditary slavery binding on Negroes, mulattoes, and some Indians…..By 1776 African-Virginians were 40 percent of the population.”.

We know from reading his journal entries that Father Muhlenberg had trouble dealing with the necessity of his young adopted country taking up arms against its British rulers.  He had trouble with the fact that one of his sons, the restless Peter, was able to lay aside his preaching gown in favor of the uniform and sword of a rebel officer.  How must he felt when he first learned that Peter, long-time resident of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, had Negro slaves?  We have to ask ourselves how we feel, knowing that Peter and his wife and children, moving in with old Henry and Anna Maria in 1783, brought along their slaves?    According to Bean’s History of Montgomery County, slavery, although a forced institution upheld by the British government, was protested against as early as 1688, when the Germans at Germantown presented their objections to their fellow members of the Society of Friends.  By the time the protest had made its way to the Quarterly Meeting at Philadelphia and the Yearly Meeting at Burlington, it had lost its teeth.  Land-owners throughout Pennsylvania, more so the English than the Germans, continued to import, trade, and own slaves.  The English colonists enslaved native Americans as well.  The 18th century saw an increasing interest in the rights of man, accompanied by growing pressure to liberate the slaves..  At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, measures were passed in Pennsylvania which stopped the importation of slaves and called for the liberation of American-born slaves.  On March 1, 1787, an act was passed that stated that all persons including Negroes and Mulattoes born within this state shall not be considered servants for life or slaves.  The U.S. Congress did not take action on thisuntil March 2, 1807, when it declared the slave trade unlawful.

At the organization of Montgomery County in 1784 there were 108 slaves living in the county, the greatest number of which, 20, were living in Providence Township.  The 1790 Federal Census enumerated 440 free colored persons and 114 slaves.  In 1800, out of 33 slaves in Montgomery County, nine were in Providence.  By 1830 there was only one slave left in the whole county.

The prominent men of Providence and adjoining Perkiomen and Skippack Townships did own slaves.  Henry Pawling, who died in 1729, had owned Jack, a Negro man; Bess, a Negro woman; and Negro girls Cate, Jane, and Bet, and Negro boys Oilever, Tom, and Tim.  When John Pawling died in 1733, his will stipulated that his wife Ephia should have his three Negro women, Bettee, Peggee, and Rose, and after Ephia’s death, son Henry should inherit the slave women.  A later Henry Pawling, who died in 1792, saw to it that his mulatto girl Susannah should receive one calico gown and skirt.

John Pawling, a resident of Skippack and Perkiomen Township, was a vestryman at St. James’ Church in Evansburg for many years, but then he became active with Augustus Lutheran Church.  The Trappe Church records show that on October 6, 1745, the day of the dedication of the church, John Pawling sent his three Negro slaves, Johannes, Jacob, and Thomas, to be baptized by Muhlenberg.  Pastors Brunholtz, Wagner, and Newberger were their sponsors.

The Trappe records also include the baptism of Margreth, daughter of Robert and Anna (John Pawling’s niger), born August 28, baptized September 20, 1761; and the baptism of Robert, son of Robert and Anna (John Pawling’s niger), born December 1, 1785, baptized April 8, 1759; and Francis or Frank, born October 17, 1777; baptized January 9, 1778..

Muhlenberg mused in his journal about these baptisms.  On January 9, 1778, a Friday afternoon, “Squire Bull’s negress came and asked to have her child baptized.  Her husband was formerly with John Pawling and later came to His Excellence Gen. Bull.  I have for a long time been baptizing children for these two Negroes, but can find only three in the church book.  His name is Robert Mark, and his wife’s is Anna Margretha.”

When John Pawling died in 1792, his will stipulated that his Negro boys George and Robin were to be freed at 21 years of age.

John Pawling’s son Joseph was active at Augustus Lutheran until Slator Clay became rector at St. James’.  At the time of his death Joseph’s inventory included four slaves: Phillis, Peter, Anthony Mix, and Pegg, valued at $205.  Frederick Conrad’s Docket includes the entry that on August 10, 1792, “Negro Phillis, aged about one year and eleven months, a child abandoned by her late master, Joseph Pawling, dec’d, was bound by Jacob Horning and Jacob Reiff, Overseers of the Poor of Perkiomen, to Lewis Truckenmiller, his heirs and assignees, for the term of sixteen years, to be instructed in housekeeping and be taught to read intelligibly and have customary freedom due.”

Mortgage Book 4, p. 26, records the sale by Benjamin Pawling of Perkiomen Township, acting executor of the estate of Joseph Pawling, late of Perkiomen, to Israel Bringhurst, for seventy-five pounds, a certain Negro Slave (called Margaret or Peggy), part of Joseph Pawling’s estate, on September 5, 1797.   Israel Bringhurst sold Margaret and her servitude to Peter Custer.  On November 14, 1825, Peter Custer of Upper Providence sold Margaret to John Jackson, also of Upper Providence, for one dollar lawful money of the state of Pennsylvania..  (Miscellaneous Deed Book 2, p. 396).

Earlier Peter Custer had advertised in the Norristown Herald of February 14, 1806, the sale of a black woman about 35 year of age and slave for life, with two children, the one about nine and the other three years.

The Pawling Family Cemetery, near Graterford Prison, contains the graves of slaves and Indians.  One Negro grave is marked, that of Liza.

In addition to Henry and John Pawling, other Providence slaveholders were John Shannon, John Edwards, Jr., Jacob Schwenk, John Pawling, Jr., Jesse Bean, Samuel Gordon, Abel Morgan, William Thomas, Jacob Vanderslice, John Moyer, Joseph Stafford, Samuel Roberts, and Eliza Patton Muhlenberg dealt with slaveholders even in his own family.  On May 20, 1770, he baptized two Negro children belonging to the slaves owned by his brother-in-law, Frederick Weiser, in Heidelberg.  That same evening he married the Negro Richard Sloan and the Negress Martha.

After witnessing the trials of the Rev. Christian Rabenhorst at the Ebenezer Church in Georgia, Pastor Muhlenberg was prompted to write in his journal: “It is a burdensome, expensive, and hardly profitable business managing a place with Negro slaves, especially when one tries to maintain them in a Christian or at least humane manner, as Mr. Rabenhorst does.  The way most of the English planters keep their slaves, they may well derive greater profits, for they make them work six days and give each of them a half-measure of maize without lard or salt and little or no clothing. They keep taskmasters over them who employ all sorts of instruments of torture, and on the seventh day they let them off to plant and sow for themselves and raise a bit for their own livelihood, if they are not too old and worn out.”  In February 1775 Rabenhorst offered to give Muhlenberg the half-grown daughter of an old stooped, worn-out Negro, hoping he would treat her as his own child.  Muhlenberg was leery of Negroes, thinking that “they cherish a secret rancor for having been snatched from their homeland and sold into everlasting slavery in a strange land.”  Eager to secure their favor, he asked how this could be done.  Rabenhorst’s answer was “tobacco leaves, of which the men, women, and children are extremely fond and which make them as friendly and fawning as does a piece of meat a dog.”

So this was the prevailing climate when Peter Muhlenberg and his wife and children left Virginia and moved into the Muhlenberg House in the late fall of 1783.  Major General Muhlenberg traveled everywhere with the man Father Muhlenberg referred to variously as Joh P G’s servant, G’s boy, or the general’s Negro.  Maybe this was the man referred to in a florid re-telling of the perhaps apocryphal story of the recruiting sermon and the preacher’s gown. Calvin E. Chunn wrote in Not By Bread Alone, without giving his source, “He stayed up all night to prepare his sermon while his expectant wife, Anna Barbara, his three-year-old son, Henry, and the black servant, Mattie, slept. At dawn he finished his sermon, fell asleep a few minutes before Mattie awoke him for waffles.”  <>   Anxious to establish himself in some kind of business but in need of money, Peter agreed to auction off  “his Negro slaves, cattle, and household goods, which he had on the glebe in Woodstock.”  His mother-in-law pulled out of the financial agreement, and Peter was faced with supporting his wife and family “without any earnings or assistance.”  The death of their little daughter Elizabeth from “the burning fever” in the summer of 1784 added to Peter’s woes.

Significantly Father Muhlenberg and his wife gave Peter a three-acre lot near the church on the condition that he give his Mama £30 back if he couldn’t use it.  The purpose of the deal was to make him a nominal freeholder or citizen of the Pennsylvania republic.  Pastor Muhlenberg must have sensed that the one-time pastor, mustered-out general, and disappointed businessman had a destiny elsewhere.   In the spring of 1785 Peter’s family moved out of the old homestead up to Falckner’s Swamp, where they stayed until the spring of 1787.  In preparation for their return, Peter sent a mechanic who stripped the walls and covered them with paper.  Mr. and Mrs. Breyman moved out into the little house nearby, and old Father Muhlenberg and his sickly wife cleared out their living room and moved into the smaller room so that Peter and his family could move in.  Hannah Muhlenberg had a Negro maid with her.

In the meantime Peter Muhlenberg served on the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania.    Henry Melchior Muhlenberg died in the old Trappe house October 7, 1787.  Mother Anna Maria moved in with Polly and Francis Swaine, and Peter and his family stayed n the family home.   On March 3, 1791, Peter began serving as a Representative in the First United States Congress. He served the House with distinction and was re-elected several times.  In February1801 he was elected to the Senate but served only two days.  In June President Thomas Jefferson appointed him Supervisor of U. S. Customs in the District of Pennsylvania.  In January 1803 he was appointed Collector of the Port in Philadelphia.  In 1806 he bought a property near Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River at Passyunk, to which he and his wife repaired.  But Hannah became quite ill and died in October 1806.  On his 61st birthday, October 1, 1807,  Major General Peter Muhlenberg died and was buried in Trappe beside his wife and parents.

Peter Muhlenberg’s Last Will and Testament included a codicil directing his executors “to emancipate Kitty, a slave, and Hanna, an indentured servant be exonerated from remainder of time.”  It is quite unfortunate that we do not know what ever became of General Muhlenberg’s Negro man (we’re not even sure of his name, unless it was indeed Mattie), nor do we know whether “John Peter’s young Negro maid” of 1787 is that same slave Kitty freed by the codicil.  And what became of her?

And perhaps most important of all, what would Peter Muhlenberg, who served in the First House of Representatives, and Kitty, the Negro slave, and the unknown Negro manservant, who had accompanied Muhlenberg on all of his adventures,  have to say about the apology offered by the U. S. Congress in July 2008?.

reviewed 11-22-2013