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HSP's 2014 Annual Report is now available for viewing, featuring the institution's activities and initiatives over the 2013-2014 Fiscal Year. Please click the image located to the left to view the report.   

Edward Biddle: A Forgotten Patriot & Member of the First Continental Congress of Philadelphia

While the end of October usually brings to mind images of ghosts, goblins, and trick-or-treaters, it’s fitting to remember that it also brought about the conclusion of a momentous event over 200 years ago. From September 5 through October 26, 1774, the First Continental Congress was held here in Philadelphia. It laid the foundation for the future War of Independence from Britain, as well as the beginnings of a separate American institution of government.  Among the list of Pennsylvania’s representatives are well known names such as  George Ross, Thomas Mifflin, and John Dickinson, however one influential representative, Edward Biddle, has often been overshadowed by more well-known attendees.

The Biddle Family of the Delaware Valley has played a major role in the history of the area and of the United States. From Commodore James Biddle who served in the war against the Barbary pirates, to Clement, Nicholas, Charles, and others, members of the Biddle family were involved in military, financial, and political circles throughout the American Civil War and beyond.

As early as 1757, Edward Biddle was in the Provincial army during the French & Indian War. He had a successful military career, advancing in rank from Ensign to Captain, and received five thousand acres of land after his retirement. He was present at the taking of both Fort DuQuesne and Fort Niagara. After leaving the military, Biddle became a lawyer in Reading and was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He was elected to Speaker of the Assembly on October 15, 1774, replacing Joseph Galloway.  As Speaker, on October 19th, 1774, he wrote a “Message to the Governor from the Assembly” in regard to disbanding the Frontier Rangers. He goes on to note that to ensure the safety of the Province, he requested their arms and supplies be “deposited in some place of security.”

At the First Continental Congress, through the efforts of Edward Biddle, Pennsylvania received the credit for being the “first constitutional House of Representatives” in the Colonies to ratify the acts of the General Congress.  Biddle continued to serve the cause of liberty as a member of the Committee of Safety from June30, 1775, through July 22, 1776, and once again as a representative to the Assembly in 1778.

Regrettably Biddle suffered a debilitating accident on January 23, 1775, on his way from Reading to Congress, falling overboard into the Schuylkill River. Sleeping in wet clothes, he acquired a cold and a form of inflammatory rheumatism that aided in bringing about a deterioration of his health and the loss of sight in one of his eyes. Edward Biddle’s last act of service was that as a member of a committee of four, appointed on February 5, 1779, “to bring in a bill for abolishing slavery in Pennsylvania.” 

Ironically, Edward Biddle expired on September 5, 1779, five years to the day from when he had first begun serving as a delegate from Pennsylvania to the First Continental Congress.  James Read (or Reed), President of the Supreme Executive Council for Pennsylvania, would remark how, “As a public character very few were equal to him in talents or noble exertion of them…Love to his country, benevolence, and every manly virtue rendered him an object of esteem and admiration to all that knew him.”

Stories from the Archives: Politics of Cultural Institution Building in the Early Mid Atlantic Region

Mark Boonshoft, PhD candidate and a Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Fellow discusses Benjamin Chew and the Academy College and Charitable School of Philadelphia as part of his research in "Education, Civil Society, and State Formation from the Great Awakening to the Early Republic."

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Supports HSP's Hidden Collections Initiative

HSP is pleased to announce that it has been awarded a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of Phase III of its Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR). 

HCI-PSAR is a three-phase project to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of the numerous small, primarily volunteer-run archival and manuscript repositories in the Philadelphia area, including local historical societies, small museums, historic sites, and other institutions.

FamilySearch, HSP Partner to Publish Historical Documents Online

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania—The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, one of the largest and most comprehensive genealogical centers in the nation, and FamilySearch, a nonprofit premier family history and records preservation organization, announced a joint initiative to digitally preserve select collections of the historical society’s vast holdings, starting with compiled family histories online. The project is now underway, and the digitized documents will be freely accesible at FamilySearch.org. 

The Remarkable Career of Sarah Wilson: Convict, Princess, and Marchioness of Colonial America

Prior to the Revolutionary War, thousands of indentured servants and convicts were transported (often against their own will) by Great Britain to either mainland America or to the British colonies in the West Indies. Though the majority of those who survived the voyage, disease, and physical abuse by their masters eventually became responsible citizens, a significant number failed to be reformed of their past criminal behavior. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these repeat offenders were women.

Various colonial newspapers are filled with hundreds of accounts of runaway servants which included women as well as men, some of whom led notorious and infamous lives. Ladies were quite innovative in their activities, identities, and fortune in the New World. A remarkable female convict, Sarah Wilson, led a life of uncommon activity well beyond the rest of her fellow convicts and criminals.    

Sarah Wilson was born in a small Staffordshire village in England. She arrived on a convict ship in the autumn of 1771, and was soon purchased by William Duval (or Devall) of Frederick County, Maryland. Wilson soon escaped and began a life of luxury up-and-down the coast of Colonial America. From Boston and New Hampshire in the North, to the Southern colonies of Virginia, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, Wilson was wined and dined by American aristocrats and governmental officials. She would introduce herself with sobriquets (aliases) such as: The Princess Susannah Carolina Matilda (sister to the Queen), Marchioness de Waldegrave, and the Princess of Cronenburgh. Once her true identity became known, the press would usually refer to her as the “extra-ordinary female traveler.”

One naturally wonders how a “lowly convict” would have been able to dupe so many of the well-to-do in various colonies. First of all, she had served as a maid to the Hon. Miss Caroline Vernon who was a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte of England. During her employment, Wilson was caught stealing a diamond necklace, gown, and other jewels, and sentenced to death. Out of the kindness of both her mistress and the queen, the verdict was overturned and instead the young woman was transported as an indentured servant or convict to America. Somehow, Wilson still managed to keep within her possession a miniature portrait of the Queen, as well as certain jewels and wealthy apparel.

According to the British publication Gentleman’s Magazine for July of 1773 (pictured left), Sarah Wilson toured the colonies as a member of British or European royalty and promising Royal appointments to many, yet all the time “imposing upon many credulous people, and defrauding them of considerable funds.” One contemporary publication remarked how she was so successful in her impersonations of the nobility, that she “made astonishing impressions in many places…so inimitably, that many had the honour to kiss her hand…” 

As can be seen in the image above taken from the Pennsylvania Gazette, William Duval had begun to advertise for her capture as early as October 11th, 1771, describing her for the next two years in newspaper accounts as having “a blemish in her right eye, black roll’d hair, stoops in the shoulders, makes a common practice of writing and marking her clothes with a crown and a B.” Though eventually apprehended by Duval through the services of attorney Michael Dalton, she would escape a second time and make her way northwards in 1775.  It’s here that Wilson married British Army officer Captain William Talbot, of His Majesty’s 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons.

Prior to her marriage, Sarah Wilson had aligned herself with one of the most famous male criminals in American Colonial history, a Mr. Patrick O’Connor, better known by the alias of Tom Bell, an Irish traveling merchant. For a period of time, he introduced himself as “Mr.Edward Augustus Montague,” a “gentleman of fortune,” and betrothed lover of the Princess Susannah Carolina Matilda.

The Providence, Rhode Island Gazette & Country Journal in January of 1774, remarked how Wilson “is the most surprising genius of the female sex that was ever obliged to visit America.” So much so, that she was never actually convicted of anything in the Colonies and eventually disappeared from history altogether. One wonders of her eventual fate.

An Artist Embedded


When we look back, we cannot know ALL that happened. The historical record is rarely, if ever, complete. When we present history, we fill in the gaps, create the voices that spoke, the characters that lived.  Are we creating fiction?  Have we made history un-true?  Or have we created a truth greater than mere fact? 


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