Sunday, April 10, 2011


Benjamin West 1771 - Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts


I’m fairly sure at least one of you at some time or other has needed to sell off a small (or large) bauble to settle a pressing debt.  I know I have, read through some of my much earlier travel stories and you’ll see the lengths I went to.  (Actually I flogged off  the bits and pieces so my Reluctant Traveller wouldn’t know just how much was put on a little plastic card I later cut to pieces.)

It was probably much the same scenario that settled the Browne brothers future.  If a King of England hadn’t been so deeply in debt to William Penn’s father, a retired Admiral, the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania may never have eventuated.

The history of my American Browns are tied irrefutably to the Penn’s, father and son, but their destiny was settled much earlier than that. It all began with a crusading minister, George Fox in the years when the Browne children were tiny babes.  He travelled the length and breadth of England preaching pacifism and freedom of religious worship.

Richard Browne, William's and Jame's father was an early convert.  



 By the 1600s, there were several hundred different religious sects in England; Apart from the Quakers and Puritans there were Seekers, Ranters, Antinomians, Soul sleepers, Adamites, Diggers, Levellers, Anabaptists, Behemists and Muggletonians. 

Some were only small groups and some obviously had limited creativity when it came to choosing a name.

The Quakers though in refusing to give tithes to state churches or in taking oaths to the crown made themselves targets of any standing government. Their religious beliefs prevented them from lending any support, either personal or monetary, to any group who engaged in physical violence, for theirs was a religion that embraced pacifism. As governments kept, and used armies, Quakers could neither, by the tenets of their faith, lend support, in any way; nor pledge allegiance to any but God, thus doubly angering the government.

Many Quakers were jailed for their beliefs and a large number died in those jails, others were executed and women were burned at the stake.  It was not the most ideal time to lobby for freedom of speech and worship.

 In 1681 the land which is now Pennsylvania was given to William Penn to settle a huge debt owed to his father, by the King of England. William Penn, a devout Quaker, used this land grant to create a Quaker colony, thus creating what was then known as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.


1650 -1746

Back in 1682 when an Englishman decided to up stakes and make his home in an entirely different continent it wasn’t simply a case of selling off his belongings in a car boot sale and replacing them when he reached his destination.  A great deal of thought and planning was needed.  He was after all removing himself and his family to the very ends of the Earth.

The brothers, William and James Browne, still in their early twenties were to have travelled to the new colony together but William’s wife was understandably nervous and William delayed their departure. As a result James arrived on board the Kent in 1677, in a part of America that would in time be known as Pennsylvania.

It would be five years before William and his wife Dorothy Presland with infant son Joseph finally boarded the vessel Bristol Factor to begin the long perilous journey to join brother James.  And perilous it was, some voyages taking three months to complete, some ships disappearing never to be seen again.

As it happened William’s wife had every reason to be nervous. Dorothy died aboard ship on the voyage leaving William and baby to continue alone.

In those days anyone contemplating such a move needed to plan very carefully.  No convenient corner store in the wilderness of the new America, nowhere to stock up on the odd piece of hardware, nails, tools, clothes for the growing children.

William Browne for instance shipped on board the Bristol Factor the following cargo: 4 cwt nails, 4 cwt wrought iron, 120 goads cottons, 2 cwt gunpowder, 1-3/4 cwt chesses, 1-1/4 cwt cordage, 11 cwt lead shot, 56 lbs brass manufactured, 28 lbs wrought pewter, 170 ells English-made linen, 2 small saddles, 48 lbs serges, 2 Spanish cloths, 2 dozen & 4 pairs woollen stockings, 1 firkin butter, 1/8 part of a chalder grindle stones, 2 bags of 1 chest wearing apparel, 1 lb. English thrown silk, 28 lbs haberdashery wares, 9 parcels of several sorts of wares value 14 Pounds.

I love the fact that the only foodstuffs he appeared to include were cheese and butter.  What? No crackers!

My daughter emailed me a long list of ‘must have’ items to bring on our first visit to her new home in Ecuador and I’m pretty sure James did the same with his brother William; sending a huge wish list of desperately needed items to include in the ships lading.

After all,  five years was surely enough time for a letter to reach home, even allowing for storms, ships lost at sea or a tardy 17th century mail service.

In those five years James Browne and his fellow immigrants, many of them from Yorkshire, set themselves the task of creating a town, erecting primitive buildings, a meeting house of sorts for worship.
And in those first years James also acquired a wife.  His marriage to Honour Clayton was the first recorded in the town of Bridlington, now known as Burlington,  the ceremony performed in the shelter of a tent.  Though by the time William and his small son arrived, his brother had moved on to establish his base in Chichester.

Burlington Meeting House 1686

Two years after his arrival the widowed William married Ann Mercer beginning the ongoing chain of young Mercer Browns that would eventually drive family historians crazy as they attempted to sort out which Mercer belonged to which son, grandson or sibling, or for that matter which generation even to slot them into.  In truth we all had the same problem sorting through the fast arriving baby Richards. 

To start the ball rolling William and Ann’s first son was called Mercer 1st, second was named after dad and the third was Richard 2nd.  James and Honour had grabbed first spot with their son Richard 1st.  

Sorting through them all became a nightmare.



The Susquehanna River today.

William at the time was called William the Immigrant to identify him from the many William Browns then making their mark in the new colony. He could also have been called the Quaker who outlasted four wives. 

Life in those early years was particularly harsh for the Quaker women many dying during childbirth. Ann Mercer died 12 years and six children after their marriage. 

 After Dorothy and Ann came Katherine Williams and when she passed on he married Mary Mathews. In total William fathered ten children dying in 1746 at the age of 89, and outliving his brother James by 31 years.

Both were renowned preachers but William was specially noted for his strong oratory speech. Of the two, James was the less zealous. The brothers together with their friends Andrew Job and John Churchman were among the first Quakers to settle William Penn’s Nottingham Lots in the early 1700’s.

Today you would call the lots a sub division;  a new housing estate designed to attract a certain type of resident;  as indeed it was.

 William Penn’s Nottingham Lots were originally established to provide a political buffer in a running dispute over border rights between Maryland and Pennsylvania. 

The Quaker Friends of Nottingham including William and James were existing residents of Chester County until the late 1600’s when the running of the famous Mason and Dixon line brought them suddenly within the limits of Cecil County, Maryland.

For Penn this meant his jurisdiction over the colony and subsequently the resident’s freedom would have been severely restricted and so he set up an alternative site beside the rambling Octorara Creek, between the two great rivers, the Susquehanna and the Delaware.  

The new settlement to be built on a tract of some 18,000 acres of land within the perimeters of Pennsylvania was to be known as the Nottingham Lots.

In 1701, a total of seventeen families, all Friends, as the Quakers were known, including John Churchman, Andrew Job, William and James Brown, and Henry Reynolds, removed from the old settlements around Chester to become land owners in the new Nottingham settlement, their names included in the  diagram listing the numbered allotments.

Neatly surveyed, the average lot holding was 500 acres.  The two pioneer brothers, James and William Browne, both Quaker ministers were among the first settlers paying ‘£8 for every 100 acres within one year of date hereof’ and one shilling for a yearly quitrent.

It’s claimed William cut the first tree on the new site and it brought to mind a line from Diana Gabaldon’s novel ‘An Echo in the Bone’ when Clair Fraser is visiting Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s capital in the 1800’s.

“...there were trees everywhere, thanks to William Penn’s dictum that one acre in five should be left in trees...”


William Brown owned Lots 23, 28 and 33; one of those lots was owned by William’s son, Mercer Brown, who may not have been of age when the lots were laid out.  James Brown owned lots 14 and 27: When the Mason-Dixon survey was completed, the eleventh ‘mile stone’ used in that survey was on James Brown's Lot number 14.


The first homes in the village, called "bee hives," were very small stone houses built on two levels.  By the 1730’s as wealth amassed in the community, somewhat larger, but still modest, four-room houses of brick and/or stone were built. They often had a "keeping room" with a cooking fireplace and had very simple, narrow staircases to the second floor. 

They were occasionally built with the help of neighbouring Friends. To this day, several homes built in the 1700's, such as the Messer (Mercer) Brown home, have the names of the builders inscribed in the exterior brick.

In 1728 young Mercer married John Churchman’s daughter Dinah and their house was built on the original Nottingham plot bought for him by his father William the Immigrant.  Over the years timber and log additions were made by successive Brown and Churchman grandchildren.  

These two families  and that of James Brown were closely intertwined, their grand children  continuing the ideals and work of their grandparents.

(As their sequence of photos show the present owner of the Mercer Brown property, the Plumsteads and the Goodales have done a magnificent job retaining the original ambience.)

I did warn you how difficult it became to work out the relationship of all these Mercers, Williams and Richards, not to mention their parentage;  to separate them further would require a long list of ‘so & so begat so & so on etc’ which would only make this story overly long

In 1752 two of these young men, one a Brown the other a Churchman, cousins by now, returned to England as Quaker preachers documenting their visit to England, Wales, Scotland and Holland, and no doubt catching up with their grandparents siblings still living in the old country.

I only wish, in their book  they had uncovered the family origins of those first Quakers Richard and Mary Browne of Podington. (Not Puddington, an understandable error when spelling matched pronounciation.)

With the photo below you get a better idea of the beehive house and the manner in which Mercer’s dwelling was added to.



Around 1710 Andrew Job, like the Browns a foundation resident of the Nottingham Lots, established the Blue Ball Tavern on Lot 35.  Born in 1750 on the voyage to the new colony he was a carpenter and the sheriff of Chester County between 1697 and 1701. 

Andrew didn’t marry until he was in his forties. A close friend of William Penn, he was well educated and it’s thought he returned to England at some time for his education.

The Tavern served travellers for over 100 years and is still standing, though now a private residence.  And as you can see he also had a distant relationship to the author Daniel Defoe.

William Brown’s role as a Quaker preacher pushed him into a position of authority within the Friends Monthly Meetings.  Apart from ministering to his flock he also, as a member of long standing, took an active part in governing the community.  His signature on Andrew Job’s Inventory of goods and chattels bears the word senior to separate him from his son William who was also a preacher.  

In later chapters you will read about a young Brown descendent who was not only admonished but also punished at a Friends Meeting assembly for daring to elope with a non Quaker.


Andrew Job’s death in 1722 provides this rare sample of both William Browne Snr and John Churchman’s signatures on the inventory of his goods and chattels. The amounts are given in pounds, shillings and pence and items in every room, the parlour, the middle room, upstairs, in the cellar and the kitchen are included in the inventory.

I’m especially grateful to the Job Family for preserving so carefully their ancestor’s history, and to the extremely thoughtful Job descendant who emailed to my daughter Jen this rare glimpse of our kinsman, William Brown’s signature.




Those early years in the raw settlement that became Pennsylvania were both turbulent and eventful.  Penn and his followers had to deal not only with the Native Americans but also with England’s bureaucracy.  The British Crown and its Parliament were ever present and ever meddling.

Penn’s dealings with the Lenni Lenape natives whose favourite camping ground was sited near the spring that Penn favoured for his Nottingham Lots was peaceful and fair.  However some considerable time after his death Penn’s sons produced a deed for land they claimed their father had acquired from the Lenni Lenape tribe. 

The Penn brothers claimed it stated the area of sale measured land as far as a man could walk in a day and a half. In order to prove their claim they then hired three of the three fastest runners in the colony, Edward Marshall, Solomon Jennings and James Yeates to 'walk' the western boundary of the purchase with the Indian Chief’s observers escorting the men.

The ‘walk’ began at dawn on September 17th 1737, the first man quit after 18 miles, the second collapsed and later died, but the third managed to cover 65 miles in 18 hours gaining for the Penn brothers 1200 square miles along the Delaware River.

Though the Chief knew he was being cheated he believed the deed of sale and its conditions were legal and true.  I have a strong feeling the boys father William Penn would not have approved.

While William Penn has rightfully emerged in the history of Quakerism as a benevolent father figure he died penniless, said to have been duped by unscrupulous business partners.



The brothers William and James Browne shared an amazing period in America’s history but they differed in small ways that became more obvious as their paths diverged and their offspring multiplied.

It’s said James was never the zealous Quaker though many of his children became inspired preachers taking their religion and beliefs to far flung parts of America and even back to the old country.  His branch of the Brown family went on to become lawyers and writers, their Quaker fervour leading them into the public arena.

William the Immigrant never deviated from his chosen path, as he aged he evolved into the role of Quaker patriarch, a guiding force within the Friends community.  His children multiplied, many of them, both sons and daughters becoming like him  preachers.

But one son would differ.  He would blend the pacifism of the Quakers with the business acumen of an English merchant.  The monetary results of his endeavour are still evident today.

This son, Richard Brown, the third born of William the Immigrant's sons, might well have been known as the Quaker Entrepreneur.


Next Quakers 3 – The Innovative Richard Browne 

To come   –          Mercer the Headstrong Quaker

Robyn Mortimer ©2011


  1. Robin-I too am descended from William and Mary Master (we hope) I have been to Cirencester but time did not allow me to go to Gloucester to search more records.I also contend they were weavers and he went to the wool market-I want to write a book about their likely meeting there. I am a retired architect and wish to fill this question before I die! Rebecca

  2. I hope Rebecca has read the added link attached to the first chapter of my Quaker story where my daughter Jenny and I have negated with proof the Mary Master claim....though I do agree it is highly possible the brothers could have been weavers.


I love hearing from you, your comments good, bad or indifferent are always welcome..your anonymity will be respected. But remember if you want me to reply you will need to supply a contact email address otherwise I will never know who you are.