Although Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army marched near what is today Church Road and Washington Lane in Cheltenham Township on the way to nearby Whitemarsh and then Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 during the Revolutionary War, there had been minimal historical attention given to someone who was vital to the future first president’s survival through that brutal winter encampment: a former black slave and cook, Hannah Till.
And that’s one of the reasons why a dedication for a very handsome stone monument to Till was held Saturday, Oct. 3, at the historic Eden Cemetery in Delaware County’s Collingdale, Pa., co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania State Society, Pennsylvania Brigade, Daughters of the American Revolution and Society of Descendants of Washington’s Army at Valley Forge.
“For several years, there has been an interest in locating the final resting place for the remains of Hannah Till,” says Dr. Marion T. Lane, a retired public school educator and board member of the Friends of Valley Forge National Historical Park and the upcoming Museum of the American Revolution, soon scheduled for completion in Philadelphia.
“Hannah was a woman of color who served as a cook to General Washington…,” continued Lane, one of few black members of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, in a recent email.
Intensive and comprehensive research was conducted at several local repositories and other institutions for primary documents, with Lane leading the way and contributing mightily, based on advice from such renowned scholars as Charles Blockson, a legendary researcher, antiquarian and collector of black memorabilia, especially pertaining to Pennsylvania history.
Intriguingly, Lane reveals that Till was born into slavery in Kent County, Del., and given the initial name of “Long Point,” certainly an eyebrow-raiser during those very trying times, but probably representing a place near Smyrna, Del., where her father was in a “successful conflict with a buck,” according to the 1830 book, “Annals of Philadelphia” by John Fanning Watson; although it’s not clear if the confrontation was with a male deer or Native-American warrior.
“Her master,” Lane continues, named John Brinkly, Esq., sold her at just 15 years old, before being sold at age 25 to Parson Henderson of Northumberland County, Pa. “Her final move as a slave took place at age 35 when she was sold to Parson Mason of New York,” the research reveals, remaining with him until the Revolutionary War erupted and Till was able to purchase her own freedom.
And along the way, Hannah apparently married Isaac Till. Indeed, they must have been one heck of a cooking team since “both” were subsequently “hired” to be cooks during General Washington’s major campaigns, Lane notes.
“Amazingly,” historical records indicate that “Hannah gave birth to a child, Isaac Worley Till, during the Valley Forge Encampment,” Lane’s research revealed. “He was baptized on the 4th Sunday of August 1779 at 19 months of age.”
One of husband Isaac’s professions, meanwhile, and according to the 1793 Septennial Pa. census, was “wipmaker,” says Lane.
And apparently, family members were “practicing Presbyterians,” belonging to the historic First African Presbyterian Church and denomination that was organized and founded during the first decade of the 1800s in Philadelphia.
Remarkably the church’s founder, the Rev. John Gloucester, was also a former slave, as well as pioneering theologian, whom I researched and wrote about in an essay for the African American National Biography book and online project, published in 2006 by the Oxford University Press and edited by Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Higginbotham.
In fact, Blockson’s extensive collection at Temple University was very helpful, Lane says, with “assisting me obtain information about primary records owned by the First African Presbyterian Church that verified Hannah and her children were members and had been buried in their original church burial ground.”
After that land was sold, “the remains were moved to the Lebanon Cemetery. Upon the sale of the Lebanon Cemetery, the remains were reinterred at Eden Cemetery …,” Lane said.
Hannah Till, in fact, died in 1825, according to an obituary in John Fanning Watson’s “Annals of Philadelphia,” the 1830 resource that the Blockson library also recommended to Lane and that’s available online via www.books.google.com, indicating that Hannah Till died at the remarkable age of 102 or 103.
In her old age, the writer described her as “a pious woman, possessing a sound mind and memory, and fruitful of anecdote of the Revolutionary War, in which she had served her seven years of service to General Washington and [the Marquis de La Fayette], as cook….”
The writer also “saw her in her own small frame house, No. 182, south Fourth street, a little below Pine street,” and garnered some very interesting human-interest details about Gen. Washington, the owner of hundreds of slaves, during the interview:
“He was sometimes familiar among his equals and guests, and would indulge a moderate laugh,” even occasionally using strong language, Till noted, according to the writer.
Further, she pointed out, and as Washington’s cook would certainly know, that the general “was moderate in eating and drinking.”
Yet, it was the Marquis, notes Dr. Lane and Watson, who visited Hannah Till as an elder woman and learned that she was in desperate need of money, likely to save her humble dwelling. The French-born and noble Marquis “made her a present to be remembered,” Watson wrote, with Till declaring, “Truly he was a gentleman to meet and to follow!”