History Lessons from the Morton Homestead
By Sharon Hernes Silverman
This Article Orignally Appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXV, Number 1 - Winter 1999
Years before William Penn and his Quaker followers set foot on America's shores, Swedish settlers had established a settlement along the Delaware River and Bay. On this land, now part of both Pennsylvania and Delaware, stands the Morton Homestead, an emissary from a past, an emissary that tells the story of a powerful Swedish king, a white, sandy shore and primeval forest, peaceful fur trade with the indigenous people, eventual relinquishment to the Dutch and English, and -finally-a heritage of Swedish culture and a bloodline that would produce one of Pennsylvania's signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Morton.
The two-and-a-half acre Morton Homestead in Prospect Park, in southeastern Pennsylvania, came to prominence as a public, tangible site around which to begin a discussion of the little-known colony called New Sweden and-because of the controversy over Morton's true birthplace-as a sobering lesson for present-day scholars about the ramifications of inattentive research.
"Every artifact and historic object," says Toni Collins, historic site administrator for the Morton Homestead and Brandywine Battlefield Park, both in Delaware County and both administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), "can be a platform from which to interpret its use, its maker, or its place in time. This can be equally true of Landscapes. A visit to Morton Homestead provides a unique and exciting opportunity to think about the earliest Pennsylvania settlements and settlers."
The Delaware Bay and Delaware River were explored first by the Spaniards and Portuguese in the sixteenth century, followed by English navigator Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, whose discoveries enticed the Dutch to create settlements in that area. The Dutch vied with the English, taking turns at gaining the upper hand. First they responded to the English demands of tribute payments by creating the United New Netherlands Company, whose 1615-1618 trading monopoly amounted to naught. Next, English dissenters living in Holland-the Pilgrims-were invited by the English to occupy the Delaware Bay area; their off-course arrival at Plymouth Rock proved fortunate for the Dutch.
In 1621, the Dutch chartered the West India Company, which set up posts a few years later, including Fort Nassauin New Jersey opposite the future site of Philadelphia. "Patroonships," land grants of sixteen miles of riverfront, were offered to anyone establishing fifty settlers within four years, Samuel Blommaert and Samuel Godyn became the first European landowners in the lower Delaware Bay, in 1629.
Captain David Pieter de Vries agreed to send settlers, who reached Lewes Creek in spring 1631, founding Swanendael, the "Valley of Swans." However, when deVries himself arrived in December 1632, he found that the Dutch settlers had been massacred by Native Americans. The patrons aborted their attempt at settlement, and sold their land back to the company three years later.
At the same time, in Europe, Sweden's King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632), whose mastery of military art saved the seemingly hopeless Protestant cause in the Thirty Years' War, brought his country out of a long winter of political obscurity. Sweden's next logical step was to increase its wealth, power, and prestige through overseas commerce. The New Sweden Company was created to inhabit Blommaert's former patroonship and develop the fur trade.
Interestingly, the New Sweden Company selected a Dutchman, Peter Minuit (1580-1638)-immortalized for the purchase of Manhattan Island for New Netherlands in 1626-to oversee the new colony. Two ships reached the Delaware Bay in March 1638. Minuit bought land from the Native Americans and established Fort Christina (the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware). The Dutch and English protested, but the Swedes ignored them and continued their efforts unmolested.
After Minuit died, on a return trip to Sweden, another Dutchman, Peter Hollandaer Ridder, took over. But New Sweden did not reach its zenith until the tenure of its third governor, Johan Printz. Arriving on February 15, 1643, he made Tinicum Island, roughly a mile from the site where the present-day Morton Homestead would be built, his headquarters, complete with a two-story log mansion called the Printzhof. An imposing man of four hundred pounds-and nicknamed "the big tub" by the Native Americans-Printz immediately went to work and turned the settlement into a profitable venture. He halted the planting of corn, available cheaply from the Indians, and encouraged growing a far more lucrative crop-tobacco. His far-reaching program included the construction of a gristmill, a storehouse, and a church.
Johan Printz also brought his military savvy to the problem of defensibility. Knowing that he would have to side with either the Dutch or the English at first, Printz worked with Director-General William Kieft of New Netherlands to thwart several attempts by New England enterprisers to settle on the Delaware. That accomplished, Printz turned on the Dutch, who had maintained Fort Nassau on the Delaware's New Jersey side, opposite Tinicum. Printz's strategy was to build Fort Elfsborg south of Fort Nassau to control traffic on the Delaware Bay. It was followed by three more forts along the Schuylkill River designed to intercept furs from the Minquas-Indians of the Iroquois family who supplied beaver and otter skins-before they reached the Dutch.
Peter Stuyvesant (1610-1672), who replaced Kieft as Director-General of New Netherlands in 1648, did not take things as lightly as his predecessor, and the "battle of the forts" was begun. Stuyvesant erected a Dutch fort farther inland on the Schuylkill, Fort Beversreede-"beaver road"-intended to be the first point of contact with the Minqua traders. Before the summer ended, Printz responded by building a Swedish fort immediately in front of Fort Beversreede, ensuring that the Indians would find the Swedes first-at the water's edge. Not to be outdone, the Dutch built Fort Casimir south of Fort Christina, giving them control of Delaware Bay, with cannons and two warships for enforcement.
Although Printz wrote long letters asking for help, King Gustavus Adolphus's daughter Christina (1626-1689), the new Queen of Sweden, seemed to forget about the little colony. Printz finally decided to return to Sweden himself for supplies, setting sail in October 1653. Meanwhile, Queen Christina had named Johan Classon Rising as commander of a new colonizing expedition. Rising landed at Fort Elfsborg, where he learned of Governor Printz's departure. No military genius like his predecessor, Rising made a strategic error, capturing Fort Casimir, which he renamed Fort Trinity, and incurring the wrath of Peter Stuyvesant. On September 1, 1655, seven Dutch ships entered Delaware Bay and discharged six hundred soldiers to disrupt Swedish communications. The Swedes surrendered Fort Trinity without firing a single shot. A little later Fort Christina capitulated, followed by the entire colony of New Sweden.
Although Rising and his soldiers left the territory on October 11, 1655, most of the Swedish settlers remained, including Morton Mortenson (the spelling of whose name has several variations, including Mortonson, Mortensson, and Martensson, among others, and which eventually became the surname Morton). Born in Finland, a part of Sweden at the time, the date of his emigration to New Sweden is not clear but was certainly in or before 1654. Of the no more than several hundred families of Scandinavians, about half were Swedes and half Finns. A plaque at the Morton Homestead site is dedicated specifically to these Finnish settlers.
For his homestead Mortenson selected a spot on the north side of Darby Creek less than a mile above its confluence with the Delaware River. This tract most likely encompassed the land upon which the present Morton Homestead is located.
The Dutch ceded their North American colonies to England in 1664, after relations between the two countries had degenerated into commercial and military rivalry. England's King Charles II (1630-1685) granted his brother James, Duke of York (1633-1701), land in New Netherlands, then dispatched a fleet to secure the "gift." Despite the urging of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch civilians in New Netherlands would not fight. When they surrendered to the English on August 29, 1664, New Netherlands became New York.
From New York the English administered the Delaware Valley and instituted two major systems for the courts and land ownership. Some Swedes, including Morton Mortenson, received patents for their land. In 1672, Governor Francis Lovelace issued a patent to him and two other landholders confirming their possession of more than seven hundred acres along Darby Creek. A 1683 map shows the houses of John (Jan) Cornelius and Morton Mortenson side by side.
The building at Morton Homestead today is a three-part cabin identified as south, center, and north units. For years, the Morton cabin was widely believed to be the oldest dwelling in Pennsylvania and one of the few surviving examples of seventeenth-century Swedish log structures in the Delaware Valley. However, in their detailed and meticulous examination of the facts-outlined in a 1989 historic structure report-Dale H. Frens and Susan Frens refuted the assumptions that had led to that belief. Their investigation synthesized history, archaeology, architecture, pain analysis, mortar analysis, and dendrochronology (the study of animal growth rings of trees or old timber).
The cabin's history can be divided into five time periods. The oldest archeological evidence to place within the first period is an English half-penny found in the backfill and dated 1666. Cuts in the bedrock, approximately fifteen feet by ten feet, are presumed to be foundations from this same time. The apparent difficulty of cutting into the rock could mean that the structure had a special purpose. Historians cannot provide hard evidence but offer several theories. One is that it might have been a dwelling much like the Swedish eldhus, a house built partly into the ground, or a bastu (steam bath or sauna). Another is that this was a "blockhouse" built to contain an insane person. Jan Cornelius, a joint owner of the Morton property, had indeed petitioned the Court at Upland in 1678 to build a structure to house his son, who had "turned quyt madd." The building may also have been a type of cave dwelling.
The original north unit, belonging to the second period, was possibly constructed as early as 1698, the date carved on the back of the fireplace lintel. But this assumption is questionable because such date stones were sometimes added to already-existing structures. Built with planked Atlantic white cedar logs, the 12'8" by 19'2" dwelling featured a stone cooking fireplace.
The third period is not clearly defined. It is possible that the center unit was added onto the north unit, or the center and south units together were added onto the north unit, or the south unit was constructed as a detached building, creating an open passage. During the mid-eighteenth century, a privately operated ferry was established between Tinicum Island and the mainland side of Darby creek. The Darby Creek Ferry House is first mentioned in 1758 records and may refer to the south unit at Morton Homestead. If the structure served as the ferry house, it may have included a waiting room, tavern, and/or living space for the ferry operator. In the fourth time period, ending in 1798, the center unit was built and all three of its rooms painted.
Ridley Township remained comparatively rural and agrarian until the late nineteenth century. Construction of the railroad in the early 1870s opened Ridley to suburban development, and creekside summer residences called "boat houses" were built. In the early twentieth century, the cabin at Morton Homestead fell into disrepair.
Culminating in the completion in 1938 of the site as a monument to John Morton (1725-1777), the cabin's fifth period may be the most interesting from a social historian's point of view-and the most frustrating from an archaeologist's or architectural historian's perspective. As early as John Hill Martin's 1877 Chester and Its Vicinity, Delaware County in Pennsylvania, the old cabin was cited as the birthplace of the "Signer of the Declaration." Light detective work would have revealed, as Ruth L. Springer notes in her book, John Morton in Contemporary Records, that the land on which John Morton was born was handed down not from Morton Mortenson or John Cornelius, but from their neighbor, Bartle Escheilson. But the heady possibility that the house had associations to such an illustrious figure took hold, and the birthplace legend was off and running.
John Morton was an attractive subject for adulation. One of nine Pennsylvania signers of the Declaration, Morton had replaced retiring William Peters as representative for Chester County in a special election of the Pennsylvania Assembly on June 28, 1756. Except for nearly three years as the county sheriff, Morton remained in the Assembly until it adjourned on September 26, 1776. He was the Speaker during the Assembly's final year and a half, a position he won by unanimous vote. Morton was also a Chester County justice, and later an associate justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774, 1775, and 1776.
When in this century it was thought that this dedicated public servant had actually been born in the dilapidated cabin on Darby Creek, wishful thinking overrode thoughtful research. "The site was a product of the early history of historic restoration when the idea of a 'folk presence' was significant," remarks Bruce S. Bazelon, Chief, Western Division, Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums, PHMC. Bazelon notes that "early restorationists were attempting to create a shrine or a mood-a place where people could come to worship their heritage and their ancestry."
In 1895, the John Morton Monument Association and the Delaware County Historical Society were chartered, and by 1926, the historical society had officially recognized and marked the Homestead as John Morton's birthplace. In 1930, intensive fundraising began, with the goal of developing the Birthplace as a fitting memorial to John Morton. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased the property in 1937.
The Bureau of Parks of the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters, with help from the Works Progress Administration, dismantled the rundown cabin. While it is probable that without their efforts the structure would have collapsed and been lost forever, it is also true that the renovators were indifferent, even negligent, about preserving a true picture of the past. For instance, photographs of window sash configurations and dormer roof slopes were ignored by reconstruction architect S. Kendrick Lichty, as were other details, interior detailing and finishes. Nonetheless, on Saturday, October 8, 1938, the building was formally dedicated as the John Morton Birthplace. The designation did not last for long after more research and a title search were done. In 1957, the house designation was officially changed to the Morton Homestead.
Errors in restoration and historical research, as Bazelon contends, can be attributed to hero worship. Yet it is a fact that these early attempts at historic restoration were the way that American historical sites evolved. They leave important lessons.
In the case of the Morton Homestead, the removal of the foundation-which may have shown whether the structure is essentially Swedish or English-is particularly frustrating to historians. Long grooves that produce tightly fitting log walls are typical of Scandinavian horizontal log technology, as are the lack of mud and clay chinking, and the corner-timbering and wall treatment. On the other hand, the roof framing is Anglo-American in style. The three-room plan approximates the Swedish parstuga, but it lacks a combination kitchen and entrance. Construction also has contradictions. The fireplace in the north section is basically English, but the masonry that turns the corner has no clear relation to any building tradition. Perhaps the builders melded Swedish and English models. Visitors can speculate for themselves.
Today's the site must cope with a myriad of pressures. Lori Tussey, an intern at Brandywine Battlefield Park, is currently working on an exhibit for the Morton Homestead, scheduled for installation in 1999, that will address several issues. For instance, some people would like the site's name changed once again, this time to honor the original owner, Morton Mortenson, or simply to call the structure a ferry house.
Encroaching building developments, budget constraints, and vandalism
all have taken their toll. Yet the Morton Homestead continues to excite visitors by evoking memories of New Netherlands and New Sweden, a part of this country's early past often overlooked. "Every historic artifact has the power to evoke strong emotion, and Morton Homestead is no exception," says Collins. "Any time you challenge long-held beliefs about an object or a place, you create or discover controversy. Much debate has surrounded this historic site; each debate is a chance to discuss the best way to preserve and present Pennsylvania's history."
Despite arguments that have developed around this historic site, the Morton Homestead continues to be of interest to Pennsylvania and the nation. As a vestige of the only Swedish colony ever to be settled in America, it not only inspires the study of this particular cultural legacy but serves as an affirmation that this country was, indeed, founded by a great diversity of people-a diversity that lent vibrancy and strength to the New World.
Named for the river which serves as its eastern boundary, Delaware County claims at least three dozen historical organizations, cultural institutions, preservation associations, museums and historic sites. The oldest historic dwelling, the Caleb Pusey House, in Upland, was built in 1683 and is the only building still standing where William Penn visited; today it is furnished with period pieces. Other historic house museums include the 1696 Thomas Massey House in Broomall, the Thomas Leiper House, Wallingford, the late-eighteenth century country estate of a prosperous Philadelphia tobacco merchant, and The Grange, a complex of fourteen buildings and structures noted for its eighteenth-century gardens. The Chadds Ford Historical Society administers the John Chad House, built about 1725 by a farmer and ferryman for whom the community is named, and the Barns-Brinton House, erected in 1714, well known for its fine interior woodwork and paneling.
The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford draws an international audience with its outstanding collection's and exhibitions of American art, emphasizing the Brandywine River Valley School, American illustration, and landscape and still life genres. Also located in Chadds Ford, the Christian C. Sanderson Museum features an unusual collection of curios, "relics," memorabilia, and ephemera assembled by its founder. The Widener University Art Museum in Chester houses American impressionist paintings, eighteenth-and nineteenth-century American and European paintings, and early Oriental art.
Genealogists and historians interested in Quaker history make use of the collections of the Friends Historical Association, on the campus of Haverford College in Haverford, and the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, located on the college's campus. Sports enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to Haverford College's C.C. Morris Cricket Library, which collects and exhibits objects and artifacts associated with cricket, in addition to housing the world's largest collection of books dealing with the game. Naturalists and gardeners are beckoned to the county by the Arthur Hoyt Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, showcasing more than five thousand different types of plants. The Tyler Arboretum in Lima preserves the area's rich horticultural heritage and welcomes both the general public and researchers. The Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation at Ridley Creek State Park near Media, the county seat, is a living history museum which interprets the daily life of a typical local farm family in the years before, during, and after the American Revolution, from 1760 to 1790. Brandywine Battlefield Park, administered by the PHMC, is the site where George Washington's courageous troops battled the British in September 1777 for control of strategic territory near Philadelphia. The historic site offers a look at two Quaker farmhouses which housed officers during the battle, as well as exhibits and dioramas in a visitors center (see "A Commonwealth Treasure: Brandywine Battlefield Park" by Nancy V. Webster, Fall 1997).
Established in 1895, the Delaware County Historical Society, Broomall, collects, preserves, and interprets the county's distinguished history and heritage.
Information about these and other popular destinations is available by writing: Delaware County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 200 East State Street-Suite 100, Media, PA 19063; or telephone (610) 565-3679 or toll-free (800) 565-0833; or by visiting its web site at www.delcocvb.org.
Sharon Hernes Silverman of West Chester, Chester County, frequently writes for Pennsylvania Heritage. Her most recent feature, "A Kentucky Frontiersman's Pennsylvania Roots: The Daniel Boone Homestead," appeared in the Summer 1998 issue.
For their invaluable assistance, the author thanks Toni Collins, historic site administrator of Morton Homestead and Brandywine Battlefield Park; Bruce S. Bazelon, Chief, Western Division, Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums, PHMC; Lori Tussey, intern; Norah Kienzle, custodial guide of Morton Homestead and Governor Printz Park; and Birgitta Davis, acting director of the American Swedish Historical Museum, Philadelphia.
For Further Reading
Acrelius, Israel. A History of New Sweden; Or, The Settlements on the River Delaware. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1874.
Fletcher, Stevenson Whitcomb. Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1840. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1971
Hoffecker, Carol E., Richard Waldron, Lorraine E. Williams, and Barbara E. Benson, eds. New Sweden in America. Newark, Del." University of Delaware, 1995
Johnson, Amandus. The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware: Their History and Relation to the Indians, Dutch and English, 1638-1664. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1911.
Jordan, Terry. American Log Buildings: An Old World Heritage. Chapel Hill, N.C. University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Martin, John Hill. Chester and Its Vicinity. Philadelphia: Wm. H. Pile, 1877.
Myers, Albert Cook, ed. Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey and Delaware, 1630-1707. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1912.
Springer, Ruth L. John Morton in Contemporary Records. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1967.
Weslager, C.A. The Log Cabin in America: From Pioneer Days to the Present. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.