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History

Welsh Settlement in Pennsylvania

The house we know today as Harriton was built by a Welsh Quaker named Rowland Ellis in 1704. Ellis was a significant member of his Welsh community, serving as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and as an overseer of the Quaker schools in Philadelphia. It was Rowland Ellis who received the nearly 700 acre estate from William Penn in the 1680's. He called his estate "Bryn Mawr" which means "high hill" in Welsh. The three-story, T-shaped stone house, which he built, with its flaring eaves and its tall brick chimneys survives as a unique and sophisticated example of early Pennsylvania architecture. The original interior paneling and closed-string staircase show stylistic elements from this early period.

Ellis had only a small subsistence farm at Bryn Mawr, describing in a letter to his son-in-law that he had approximately 15 acres under cultivation in the middle 1690's, mostly in wheat, oats and Indian Corn. Although he hoped to have as much as 40 acres under cultivation in the near future, that 15 acre farm was about the size of the park which remains today.

18th Century Tobacco Farming

Rowland Ellis' small farm simply could not support him and his family, and he was forced to sell the property in 1719. The name of the estate changed from "Bryn Mawr" to "Harriton" when Ellis sold the property to a Maryland tobacco planter named Richard Harrison. Harrison, like Ellis, was a Quaker. He increased the number of acres under cultivation at his new property called Harriton, and he introduced tobacco culture as well as slaves to the estate. Some believe Harriton was the northernmost tobacco plantation in the 13 colonies operated on the slave economy. Tobacco was grown successfully here until Richard Harrison's death in the 1740's. Tobacco grows well in Pennsylvania, and some are surprised to learn that it was a principal crop in Pennsylvania when William Penn first settled the colony. Visitors will find a small plot of tobacco growing here each summer, though the tobacco is not for any use except ornament with its attractive little funnel-shaped purple or white flowers.

Charles Thomson

Charles Thomson was Harriton's best known occupant, and it is Charles Thomson who is the focus of the restoration of the 1704 Harriton House. Thomson is most famous for his role as the first and only Secretary to the Continental Congresses. Thomson originally acquired the house and estate through his marriage to Richard Harrison's daughter, Hannah Harrison, in 1774. In 1789, after serving 15 years as the Secretary of the Continental and Confederation Congresses, Charles Thomson and his wife Hannah retired to Harriton, where he remained until his death in 1824. Thomson was a Scotch-Irishman by birth. He emigrated to America at age 10 . Before Thomson became the Secretary of the Continental Congresses, he had several careers. Thomson taught Latin and Greek in the Quaker schools in Philadelphia. He later became a merchant and distiller of rum in the growing city. In 1765, Thomson helped lead local resistance to the hated Stamp Act.

Among his many accomplishments as Secretary, Thomson designed the Great Seal of the United States. The United States of America continues to use the Great Seal on all of its official documents, and anyone can easily locate the Great Seal on the reverse side of the one dollar bill.

Charles Thomson traveled to Mt Vernon in April, 1789, to inform George Washington that Washington had just been elected first President of the United States under the new Constitution. By July, Thomson was retired from Congress, having submitted his resignation to President Washington and having turned over the Great Seal of the United States to him.

Charles Thomson pursued two major interests in his retirement at Harriton. The first was scientific agriculture, which was America's principal 'industry' immediately following the Revolution. Thomson had had a long-standing interest in scientific agriculture. In 1785, while still serving as Secretary, Thomson helped to found the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, which survives today as the oldest continuing agricultural organization in the country. He had also written a pamphlet, published by the American Philosophical Society in the same year, entitled Notes on Farming. While at Harriton, Thomson experimented with new agricultural techniques and crop production. He was also an avid beekeeper. Perhaps most importantly, Thomson was an ardent abolitionist who managed his farm with paid labor and by letting his land on shares with his workers. He had a continuing correspondence with his old friend Thomas Jefferson, and in a letter to Jefferson, Thomson argued that slavery was like a cancer on this great new country which would come to bloodshed if it could not be resolved by religion, philosophy, or reason.
Charles Thomson's second major interest in retirement was to return to his classical studies. While at Harriton, he translated the Bible from ancient Greek texts into English. The Bible was printed in Philadelphia in 1808 by a woman printer named Jane Aitken. The four-volume work was the first translation of the Bible from Greek texts on the North American Continent.

The old house and much of the farm was tenanted through the 19th century after Thomson's death in 1824.  About 1908, descendants of Hannah Thomson's brother  started the "Harriton Guernsey Dairy" , utilizing the old house as a home for their dairyman  and about 85 acres of the original estate for crops and grazing.   Registered Guernsey cattle were housed in a great dairy barn.  A farm breeding program was based upon the famous Glenwood Guernsey line of southern New Jersey, and descendants of those registered Guernsey cows continue to provide benefit to the Nation's milk supply today.   

The Present and Future of Harriton 

Today, the 1704 house has been faithfully restored to the period of Charles Thomson's occupancy between 1789 and 1824. The house is furnished with a fine collection of 18th-century American decorative arts, including objects owned and used by Charles Thomson.  The Harriton Association maintains a growing collection of both primary and secondary sources relating to the site and its occupants.  The Harriton House is surrounded by a spacious park, complete with gardens and a stream. A community vegetable garden and orchard have been started, which are complemented by the site apiary and beekeeping program.   Our agricultural heritage is recalled by Steady the horse, three sheep, and two goats who live in the former dairy barn and paddocks.   The historic 1704 house is open to the public every Wednesday through Saturday, although we recommend visitors contact us in order to schedule a visit. The park and grounds are open during daylight hours every day.

The Harriton Association has converted the remnants of the large 19th century stone dairy barn into an administrative and interpretative center, complete with a lecture hall and rest room facilities. This Education Center is a fragment of the large stone barn, the foundations of which were converted to a poolhouse and pleasure garden in 1929. The center is designed to improve visitor reception and community service by providing for expanded educational programs and improved preservation of our historic area. The center also provides a space for our growing collection of documents written by Charles Thomson. In addition, the Association is better able to accommodate busloads of school children who visit Harriton House each spring and fall. The building, like the Harriton House itself, reflects how southeastern Pennsylvania transformed itself during the twentieth century from a traditional agricultural region into a comfortable suburban residential area. The Center space is available for rental for business meetings and private functions. Please contact us for further information.

We invite you to visit and learn from Harriton something of our local and national heritage, and we urge you to help support the continued preservation of this historic site with a tax-deductible contribution to the Harriton Association. Join us today, stay with us in the future, and help us to preserve the past. Click on this link to make a contribution through the secure JustGive program:  DonateNow . Use our e-mail or United States Postal Service address or our telephone number to contact the Harriton Association if you would like to gather more information about the historic site or its occupants.


 

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