When Washington Lived in Market Square
by Burt Froom
MARKET SQUARE, THE HEART OF GERMANTOWN
The newly founded Germantown of 1683 had an area of eleven square miles, corresponding with the twenty-second Ward of Philadelphia today. There were twelve families, consisting of forty-two individuals, living in Germantown. In 1701, there were sixty families. Germantown historian Margaret Tinkcom says that “throughout the 18th century, Market Square could be designated the heart of Germantown.” This half-acre plot was the town market place, the center of commercial activity. Around this small block lived the men who controlled Germantown’s destiny for some two-hundred years. Here was located the Reformed church where town residents gave each other assistance. Here was the school where families met with one another. Let us become acquainted with this modest space that was the heart of the community.
A WALK AROUND THE SQUARE
The square was bounded on the north by School House Lane (presumably named for the Germantown Academy), and on the south by Church Lane (presumably named for the Reformed church). The center of activity was the market place, granted by royal permission in1691. Germantown’s status as an independent borough was disbanded in 1701. For some reason, no market building was constructed until 1741. The half-acre green or common, was crisscrossed by informal foot paths and was the site of the Saturday weekly market. In it, was the town pound (where stray livestock were impounded), the prison (built of logs), and the stocks (a wooden yoke pinning a prisoner’s feet in a public place, exposed to the weather, and subject to ridicule for punishment, in use 1500-1750). All these facilities were located in the southeast corner of the common. On the east side of the common was a well. Here also was built the firehouse in 1814 to house the fire engine. Around the square were built the homes of the wealthiest men of the town.
Built here in the south end was the market house, put up in 1741 to facilitate the sale of meat and produce by local farmers under cover from precipitation. Customers seemed ambivalent about this structure in their midst because it took fifty years to erect it. In 1848, one-hundred years later the state authorized its demolition. And there was no protest against this loss. The ca. 1820 painting of Market Square by William Britton shows these structures in the square. Though it appears as a quiet pastoral scene, contemporaries remarked at the crowded active place it was.
THE YELLOW FEVER VISIT
In 1793, the very dangerous yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia and made George Washington a refugee and a temporary resident of Germantown. Between August 1st and November 9th, five-thousand people, or ten percent of the population, died of yellow fever in this, the most populous colonial city with fifty-thousand people. Doctors tried every conceivable remedy, but mostly they used bloodletting (withdrawal of blood from a patient to cure or prevent illness), all to no avail. By the end of September, twenty-thousand residents, or one-half of the survivors, had fled the city. Other cities were also affected.
It was thought that the mosquitos were brought by a trading ship from Haiti. No one knew that it was an acute viral illness transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. That would wait for the pioneering work of the American army doctor, Walter Reed, over a century later.
WASHINGTON COMES TO MARKET SQUARE
In October 1793, President George Washington was in Mount Vernon and sought a safe location for himself and his cabinet so the government could continue to function. Washington found the substantial Germantown house of Isaac Franks attractive to lease for the last two weeks of November. Martha and his family stayed at Mount Vernon. The president was joined in this exile by his cabinet: Thomas Jefferson (State), Alexander Hamilton (Treasury), Henry Knox (Army), and Edmund Randolph (Attorney General). The cabinet met four times in these fifteen days. Issues they dealt with included the war between Great Britain and France, Washington’s Neutrality Declaration, the “Citizen Genet” crisis, and the Whiskey Rebellion.
Washington was sixty-one and in his second term as President of the United States: He had been Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, one of our Founding Fathers, President of the Constitutional Convention, a Virginia planter and a slave owner. He had overseen the establishment of a strong, well-financed national government that had maintained its neutrality during the French Revolution. Washington was so pleased with Franks’ house that he arranged to lease it again the next summer to escape the heat and the possible epidemic conditions in Philadelphia. Franks’ home is now known as the Deshler-Morris House, named for the first and last families who owned it. Let us see who these families were.
THE OWNERS OF THE DESHLER-MORRIS HOUSE
DAVID DESHLER (ca. 1711-1792), the builder of the house, was born in Heidelberg, Germany. His mother, Maria Wister, was the sister of the brothers Caspar Wistar and John Wister, the progenitors of two large and important early Germantown families. His father was Captain David Deshler, who was then an aid-de-camp of Louis, the reigning Prince of Baden, Germany during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Historian Anna Coxe Toogood says that the Deshler family ranked among the nobility on both sides.
David Deshler accompanied his uncle John Wister, to Philadelphia from Germany in 1730 and became his uncle’s associate in his successful mercantile business, and he started his own paint and hardware business. It became a by-word to be “as honest as David Deshler,” He was also known as a dandy (a man devoted to style, fashion and appearance), famed for his attire. He favored olive-colored silk velvet knee-breeches, and bright silver buckles and a three-looped cocked hat. Deshler married Mary Le Fevre, of a prominent Huguenot family, in 1739, and they became Quakers.
In 1752, Deshler bought a two acre lot in Market Square and he constructed a modest four room summer cottage on it. Twenty-years later, he built a three story, nine room addition to the front, today’s Deshler-Morris House. After the Battle of Germantown, Sir William Howe, commander of the British army, who was popular in Philadelphia, occupied the house for a brief period. Mary Deshler died in 1774 of scarlet fever during the Revolutionary War. In later years, David Deshler lived in the house with his daughters and granddaughters every summer until his death in 1792.
ISAAC FRANKS (1759-1822) became the second owner of the Deshler-Morris House in 1792. and he lived there for thirty summers. Franks was born to a large Jewish family, but he was a practicing Christian. His wife was Mary Davidson and they had two children. He joined the Continental Army at age seventeen, and he fought under Washington’s command in 1776 in the Battle of Long Island. Franks was captured by the British but soon escaped across the Hudson River to New Jersey in a leaky row boat. He joined the quartermaster division of Washington’s army and was sent to West Point. He was commissioned to ensign (standard-bearer) in a Massachusetts regiment in 1781, and later to lieutenant colonel in Pennsylvania. He resigned the following year, was married, and moved to Germantown. Isaac Franks lived summers at the Deshler-Morris House until his death in 1822. He was in poor health his last years.Franks maintained a personal acquaintance with George Washington. When Washington had to flee the yellow fever epidemic in 1793, he wrote Franks asking to occupy his Germantown home. Franks had moved to Bethlehem for safety, and he agreed. Karie Diethorn, Chief Curator of the Independence National Historical Park, told me that during the July 30-September 20, 1794 stay, the president’s household included the President and Mrs.Washington, and the President’s two adopted grandchildren. There were perhaps twenty-three servants. It seems to have been a crowded and busy household! In a later essay, we will meet the individuals in this First Family more closely.
LATER DESHLER-MORRIS OWNERS
ELLISTON (1747-1834) AND JOHN PEROT (1749-1841).
The Deshler-Morris House on Market Square was bought by the brothers Elliston and John Perot in 1822. They were reared in Bermuda, were Huguenots and became wealthy merchants. They occupied the house with their families for thirty-three successive summers.
SAMUEL BUCKLEY MORRIS (1791-1859).
Elliston Perot’s oldest child Hannah married Samuel Buckley Morris in 1825. He purchased his father-in-law’s house in 1836, five years after Hannah’s early death in 1831. Samuel then left his prosperous shipping business, and he and his three young children moved into the Deshler–Morris House permanently. He was an active Quaker. He was one of the first directors of the Philadelphia Savings Fund. He was widely known for his benevolent Christian politeness and geniality. He died in 1859.
ELLISTON P. MORRIS.
Samuel’s son was ELLISTON PEROT MORRIS (1831-1914). He lived at the Deshler Morris House for seventy-nine years. His life reflected his childhood upbringing under the devoted care of his father and the spiritual guidance of the Friends Society. At age twenty-three, Elliston assisted his father in the organization of the Savings Fund Society of Germantown. He was secretary of the bank for sixty years. He was an incorporator of the Provident Life and Trust Company eleven years later. He was a founder and long-time manager of the Friends Hospital. Elliston was a founder of Germantown Hospital in 1864, and a founder of the Friends Freeman Society in 1863. He died in 1914.
MARTHA CANBY MORRIS (1836-1919), of Wilmington, married Elliston P. Morris in 1861, and they had four children. Her activities complemented Elliston’s philanthropic endeavors. Following her death, five years after Elliston’s death, the Deshler-Morris House was willed to her unmarried daughter ELIZABETH C. MORRIS (1866-1947) in 1919. Elizabeth lived her whole life at the Morris home. After her death and that of her brother MARRIOTT C. MORRIS, the Morris family donated the Deshler-Morris House to the National Park Service in 1948.
THE GEORGIAN WORLD
The Deshler-Morris House is a Georgian style house constructed in two stages: In 1752, Deshler built a four-room summer cottage on Market Square. That first building later became the cooking and servants’ wing. Then, in 1772, David Deshler had a nine room, three floor Georgian home built on Germantown Avenue. The Georgian style of architecture was named for the Kings George I, II, III, and IV, who ruled England from 1714 to 1830. It replaced the old medieval style. A well balanced, symmetrical exterior and an ornate entrance were principle features of the house that wealthy people now built to impress their friends.
The Deshler-Morris house had a modestly decorated exterior. As you view the front, notice the symmetry of five double-sash windows below the cornice in each of the first two floors, with outside shutters at the first floor, and second floor interior shutters. Notice the paneled wood of the front door and the entry walls. Perhaps because of Quaker discomfort with ostentation, there is no fanlight or transom above the door. The exterior of the front doorway is graced by a pair of Tuscan columns supporting an entablature, and it is crowned with a triangular pediment that advertises its classical Greek and Roman pedigree.
If Market Square is the “heart of Germantown,” we have heard that heart beating as we have met the parade of some of the original residents and their successors. We have seen the square filled with craftsmen and financiers, Huguenots, Quakers and Jews, Blacks — enslaved and free — a President and his family, and worlds of the past and those to come. Together they created the soul of Market Square and of Germantown.
In my next essay, The Washingtons At Home in Market Square, we will become better acquainted with the Washingtons and their servants, free, indentured and enslaved as they were in 1793. I want to express my appreciation for his help with this article to Jaime Kehler.
Come, visit the Deshler-Morris House in Germantown! You may find more information at http://www.nps.gov/inde/historyculture/places-germantownwhitehouse.htm or by calling (215) 965-2305.
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