Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Touring Philadelphia's Western Regions
Philadelpia County had two hundred farms in 1950, but is now thickly settled in all directions. Western regions along the Schuylkill are still spread out somewhat; with many historic estates.

City Hall to Chestnut Hill
There are lots of ways to go from City Hall to Chestnut Hill, including the train from Suburban Station, or from 11th and Market. This tour imagines your driving your car out the Ben Franklin Parkway to Kelly Drive, and then up the Wissahickon.

To Germantown: A Short Appreciation

A breezy summary of European geopolitics, including many rough inaccuracies, will probably irritate residents of that region but may help Americans understand the history and composition of the Germantown area of Philadelphia.

The Western World was long defined as a province of Rome, and all roads led there. At the top of the Italian boot can be found the Swiss Alps, forcing Romans to go around through what is now Provence in France. An old jingle defines the river system of Switzerland as " The Rhine, the Rhone, Danube, and Poa rise in the Alps, and away they go!"

So northward-bound Romans, Caesar and all, went West around the Alps up to the Rhone Valley, and eventually came upon the Rhine River flowing north to Rotterdam, just across the English channel from London, or Londinium as they called it. The crossover between the Rhone and the Rhine was at Strassbourg where the European Parliament now meets. For two thousand years, the main highway from Rome to London was the Rhine River.

Essentially, everybody to the West of the Rhine was Roman Catholic, and everybody to the East of the river was Protestant. At least, that was true in the Sixteenth Century. The head of the river in Switzerland was Calvinist Protestant, and the mouth of the river in Holland was Reform Protestant. Along the main part of the river, Alsace, Lorraine, Palatine, Luxembourg, divided East and West but for centuries pieces of land shifted control back and forth. The reformation movement started by Martin Luther ended up as the Thirty Years War, from which the region took another hundred years to recover, and more hundreds of years to forget and forgive. You might call it a religious Mason-Dixon line, remembering of course that the American Civil War was mostly fought on the Potomac, not the Mason Dixon.

Professional soldiers teach Military students that there is no war worse than a religious war. Lots of people, probably thousands, were burned at the stake during the religious wars along the Rhineland. Rape and pillage were common Partee. And so, if you lived in a little farming village in this region, and some Englishman named William Penn came around with an offer to emigrate to his peaceful kingdom in America, it sounded wonderful. Religious toleration was an important part of the attractiveness, and nowhere to be found in Europe.

William Penn's mother was Dutch. It is likely he spoke the local languages. For a number of years he had traveled in the Low Countries and the Rhineland, preaching the ideas of George Fox the Quaker. And then, one day he arrived with a new idea. The King of England had given him a huge stretch of uninhabited land in the New World, no doubt influenced by the idea that Quakers were a nuisance and this was a good way to get rid of them. Whatever. Penn was selling land grants, and he could be trusted. Why not give it a try?

Germantown Before 1730

In 1730, there was a great influx of German peasantry to America, stimulated by the English government giving bounties to ship captains who would help fill the country with settlers. Protestants only, of course, so the ships were forced to land in England on the way, so Catholics on board could be returned to Europe. The majority of these ships landed in Philadelphia, but one group of thirty families did land in New York where they found the Dutch inhabitants had maintained their dislike of those sects from upriver on the Rhine. Both the Calvinists and the Dutch Reformed were interested in religious freedom, but both were uninterested in religious toleration. The thirty German families then went up to the Hudson to Albany, were treated badly there, too, and eventually cut their way through eighty miles of forest to the headwaters of the Susquehanna at Coopertown, New York. From there they floated down that river to the backwoods of Pennsylvania and started a colony in what is now called the Pennsylvania Dutch country.

The flood of German immigrants into Philadelphia after 1730 soon made Germantown German. From 1683 to 1730, however, Germantown had been settled by Dutch Quakers and some Swiss ones. These earlier immigrants were townspeople of the artisan and business class, rapidly establishing Germantown as the intellectual capital of Germans throughout America. This eminence was promoted further by the establishment by the Rittenhouse family (Rittinghuysen, Rittenhausen) of the first paper mill in America. Rittenhousetown is a little collection of houses still readily seen on the north side of the Wissahickon Creek, with Wissahickon Avenue nestled behind it. The road which now runs along the Wissahickon is so narrow and windy, and the traffic goes at such dangerous pace, that many people who travel it daily have never paid adequate attention to the Rittenhousetown museum area. It's well worth a visit, although the entrance is hard to find (try coming down Wissahickon Avenue).

Even today, printing businesses usually locate near their source of paper to reduce transportation costs. North Carolina is the present pulp paper source, before that it was Michigan. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, a paper came from Germantown, so the printing and publishing industry centered here, too. When Pastorius was describing the new German settlement to prospective immigrants, he said, " Es ist nur Wald" -- it's just a forest. A forest near a source of abundant water. Some of the surly remarks of Benjamin Franklin about German immigrants may have grown out of the competition from Christoper Sower (Saur), the largest printer in America.

Francis Daniel Pastorius was sort of a local European flack for William Penn, assembling in the Rhineland town of Krefeld a group of Dutch Quaker investors called the Frankford Company. When the time came for the group to emigrate, however, Pastorius alone actually crossed the ocean; so he had to return the 16,000 acres of Germantown, Roxborough and Chestnut Hill he had been ceded. Another group, half Dutch and half Swiss, came from Krisheim (Cresheim) to a 6000-acre land grant in the high ground between the Schuylkill and Delaware. The time was 1683. They were soon joined by Mennonites, followers of Menno Simons, a reform group similar to Quakers but a hundred years older. The truly Dutch origins of these original settlers give an additional flavor to the term " Pennsylvania Dutch&#34.

Where the Wissahickon crosses Germantown Avenue, a group of Rosicrucian hermits created a settlement, one of considerable musical and literary attainment. The leader was John Kelpius, and upon his death the group broke up, many of them going further west to the cloister at Ephrata. From 1683 to 1730 Germantown was small wooden houses and muddy roads, but there was nevertheless found the center of Germanic intellectual and religious ferment. Several protestant denominations have their founding mother church on Germantown Avenue, Sower spread bibles and prayer books up and down the Appalachians, and even the hermits put a defining Germantown stamp on the sects which were to arrive after 1730. The hermits apparently invented the hex signs, which was carried westward by the more agrarian later German peasant immigration, passing through on the way to the deep topsoil of Lancaster County.

Germantown After 1730

The early settlers of Germantown were Dutch or German-speaking Quakers; they were also of the craftsman class. Consequently, they were rather poor subsistence farmers. With a whole continent stretching beyond them, professional farmers would not likely choose to settle on a stony hilltop, two hours away from Philadelphia. Their future lay in a religious congregation, in papermaking, textile manufacture, publishing, printing, and newspapers. Plenty of stones were lying around, so stone houses soon replaced the early wooden ones. Since Philadelphia in 1776 had only twenty or so thousand inhabitants, and only thirty wheeled vehicles other than wagons, it was not too difficult for Germantown to imagine it might eventually eclipse the nearby English seaport. Two wars and two epidemics brought those dreams to an end, but in a sense, those calamities were stimulants to the town, as well.

In 1730 the German peasants began to arrive in large numbers from the Palatinate section of the Rhine Valley. While it is true they arrived as survivors of a horrendous ocean sailing experience, packed in such density that it was not unusual to find dead bodies in the hold that had only been supposed to have wandered into a different part of the ship. Quite often, they paid for their passage by selling themselves into what amounted to limited-time slavery, and the usual pattern was for parents to sell an adolescent child into slavery for eight or ten years in order to pay for the voyage of the family. They were uneducated, even ignorant, and often were proponents of small new religious sects. But they were professional farmers, and good at it. They knew, and a quick tour of Lancaster County today confirms their belief, that if you had a reasonable amount of very good land, you could live a life that approached the craftsmen in comfort and usually far exceeded them in personal assets. They have taken a long time to rise from farm to sophistication, but the already sophisticated craftsmen in Germantown wasted no time in abandoning farming. The newcomers arrived in Philadelphia, made their way to the nearby town of Germantown, learned a little about the new country and the refinements of their Protestant culture, and then pressed on to the great fertile valley to the West. Some of them, of course, stayed on permanently in the steadily growing little metropolis on the hill.

During this period, Germantown also invented the Suburb. Benjamin Chew, the Chief Justice, built a magnificent stone mansion on Germantown Avenue. Present-day visitors are still impressed with the immensity and sturdy mass of his home. Grumblethorpe, Stenton and a score of other country homes were placed there. Germantown still wasn't a very big town, but it was plenty comfortable, quiet, safe, intellectual and affluent. The first disruption came from the French and Indian War.

Germantown and the French and Indian War

Present-day interest in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and related issues tend to drown out what was once a lively interest in the French and Indian War (1754-1760) as the pivot of American colonial history. Benjamin Franklin was so important in the French and Indian War that he could have died in 1761 at the age of 48 and still be remembered as one of our most far-sighted and influential statesmen. He was, however, not a plaster saint. Little Germantown was peripheral to events in those days, little interested in what was happening in Quebec or Albany. Like Hamlet's schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, the Germantowners got drawn into events they did not entirely understand and played an unwilling part in history.

The French and Indian War was mainly about control over the Ohio Valley. Having established a communications system running out of Quebec, and carefully placing forts in the area beyond the Allegheny Mountains from which to trade with and possibly convert the Indians, the French had a rather elegant strategy for controlling the center of the continent. It involved urging their Indian allies to attack and harass the English-speaking settlements along the frontier. It was a nasty business. The survivors of General Braddock's defeated army at what is now Pittsburgh reported hearing screams for several days as the prisoners were burned at the stake. Rape, scalping and kidnapping children were standard practice, intended to intimidate the enemy. The Scotch-Irish settlers beyond the Susquehanna, which was then the frontier, were never terribly congenial with the pacifism of the Eastern Quaker-dominated legislature. The fact is, they liked to fight, and gouging of eyes was almost their ultimate goal in a moral dispute. They had an unattractive habit of inflicting what they called the "fishhook" involving thrusting fingers down an enemy's throat and tearing out his tonsils. As might be imagined, the English Quakers in Philadelphia and the German Quakers in Germantown were instinctively hesitant to take the side of every white man in every dispute with a red one. For their part, the frontiersmen were infuriated at what they believed was an unwillingness of the Quaker-dominated legislature to come to their defense. Meanwhile, the French pushed Eastward across Pennsylvania, almost coming to the edge of Lancaster County before they were pushed back and ultimately defeated by the British.

In December 1763, once the French and Iroquois were safely out of range, a group of settlers from Paxtang Township in Dauphin County attacked the peaceable local Conestoga Indian tribe and totally exterminated them. Fourteen Indian survivors took refuge in the Lancaster jail, but the Paxtang Boys searched them out and killed them, too. Then, they marched to Philadelphia to demand greater protection for the settlers. Benjamin Franklin was one of the leaders who came to meet them and promised that he would persuade the legislature to give frontiersmen greater representation, and would pay a bounty on Indian scalps.

Meanwhile, Franklin was active in raising troops and serving as a soldier. He recognized that thirteen divided colonies could not easily mount a coordinated defense against the well-organized French strategy, and called a meeting in Albany to propose a united confederation. The Albany Convention agreed with Franklin, but not a single colony ratified the plan, and Franklin was disgusted with them. Out of all this, Franklin emerged strongly anti-French, strongly pro-British, and not a little skeptical of colonial self-rule. As a leader of a political party the Pennsylvania Legislature, he was very familiar with the tendency of the German Pennsylvanians to vote in harmony with the Philadelphia Quakers. It must be noticed that Franklin's main competitor in the printing and publishing business was the Sower family in Germantown. Franklin persuaded a number of leading English non-Quakers that the Germans were a coarse and brutish lot, ignorant and illiterate. If they could be sent to English-speaking schools, perhaps they could gradually be won over to a different form of politics.

Since the Germans of Germantown was supremely proud of their intelligence community, they were infuriated. Their response was almost a classic episode of Quaker warfare. They organized, off Market Square, the Union School, which was eventually to become Germantown Academy. Its instruction and curriculum were sufficiently outstanding to justify the claim that it was the finest school in America. Later on, George Washington was to send his adopted son (Parke Custis) to school there. In 1958 the Academy moved to Fort Washington, but needless to say, the idea of forcing the local ignorant Germans to go to a proper English school was rapidly shelved.

The Battle of Germantown: Oct. 3, 1777

After its brief commotion from the unwelcome reverberations of the French and Indian War, Germantown settled down to a period of colonial prosperity and quite vigorous growth. Most of the surviving hundred historical houses of the area date from this period, and it might even be contended that the starting of the Union School had been a beneficial stimulus.

Almost two decades passed. What we now call the American Revolution started rumbling in far-off Lexington and Concord, soon moved to New York and New Jersey. General William Howe, the illegitimate uncle of King George III, then decided to occupy the largest city in the colonies, considered getting his brother's Navy up Delaware but decided against a naval attack on the chain barrier blocking the narrow mudflats of the river at what is now The International Airport. Instead, he sent the navy down to Norfolk and back up te Chesapeake, landing the troops at the head of the Elk River. Washington was soon defeated at the Battle of the Brandywine Creek trying to head him off. So Howe invested Philadelphia, organizing his main defensive position in the center of Germantown against an attack by Washington that was soon to come. His headquarters were in Stenton and Morris House, General James Agnew was at Grumblethorpe The Center of British defense was at set up at Market Square where Germantown Avenue crosses Schoolhouse Lane. With Washington holed up in Valley Forge, that should take care of that. Raggedy rebels were unlikely to attack a prepared hilltop position with a river on either side, defended by a large number of British regulars.

Washington did not look at things that way, at all. He had watched General Braddock conduct an arrogant suicide mission in the woods near Ft. Duquesne, and also knew the British didn't like to get too many yards away from their navy. His plan was to attack frontally down the Skippack Pike with the troops under his direct command, while Armstrong would come down Ridge Avenue and up from the side. General Greene would attack along Limekiln Road, while General Smallwood and Foreman would come down Old York Road. In the foggy morning of October 3, the main body of American troops reached Benjamin Chew's massive stone house, now occupied by determined British troops, and General Knox decided this was too strong a pocket to leave behind in his rear. Precious time was lost with an artillery bombardment, and unfortunately, the flanking troops down the lateral roads were late or did not arrive at all. The forward movement stopped, then the British counter-attacked. Washington was therefore forced to retreat, but he did so in good order. The battle was over, the British had won again.

But maybe not. Washington had not routed the British Army or forced them to leave Philadelphia. They did leave the following year, however, and there was meanwhile no great desertion from the Colonial cause. Washington's troops suffered terrible privation and discouragement at Valley Forge, but the crowned heads of Europe didn't know that. For reasons of their own, the French and German monarchs were pondering whether the American rebellion was worth supporting, or whether it would soon collapse in a round of public hangings. From their perspective, the Americans didn't have to win, in fact, it might be useful if they didn't. But if they were spirited and determined, led by a man who was courageous and resolute, their damage to the British interests might be worth what it would cost to support them. The Battle of Germantown can thus be reasonably argued to have been a victory for Washington, even if he had to retreat in an orderly withdrawal.

In Germantown itself, the process of turning a defeat into a victory soon began, with the alienation of the German inhabitants against the inevitably destructive experiences of British military occupation. Germantown would never again see itself as the capital city of a large German hinterland. It was on its way to becoming part of the city of Philadelphia.

1793: Germantown Nurses the Yellow Fever

The French Revolution continued from 1789 to 1799 and created the opportunity for a second revolution in the colonies which an overstretched mother country would lose. The slaves of Haiti just about exterminated the white settlers, except for some who escaped, taking Yellow Fever and Dengue with them. Both diseases are Mosquito-borne, so they flare up in the summer and die down in the winter, although the Philadelphians who received the exiles didn't know that. Yellow Fever was bad in 1793, came back for three more years, and flared up badly in 1798. It could easily be seen that it was worse in the lowlands, absent in the hills. It reached a peak in October, disappeared after the first frost. In the early fall, people died a horrible death, jaundiced and bilious.

The Yellow Fever epidemic had a profound effect on many things. It was one of the major reasons the nation's capital did not remain in Philadelphia. It made the reputation of Dr. Benjamin Rush who announced the highly unfortunate treatment of bleeding the victims, thus provoking numerous anti-scientific medical doctrines which were essentially based on the comparative value of doing nothing at all. It took a full century for American scientific medicine to recover from this blow to its reputation. One very good thing the epidemic did was put an end to the torch-light parades of window-breaking rioters, agitating with Jefferson's approval for an American version of the guillotine and the terror. Federalists like Adams and Bingham never forgave him for it, and this class warfare movement would likely have got much worse if suddenly everyone had not dropped tools, and headed for the safety of Germantown.

The President of the new republic, George Washington, was in Mt. Vernon in the summer of 1793, wondering what to do about the Yellow Fever epidemic, and particularly uncertain what the Constitution empowered him to do. He finally decided to rent rooms in Germantown and called a cabinet meeting there. His first rooms were rented from Frederick Herman, a pastor of the Reformed Church and teacher at the Union School, although he later moved to 5442 Germantown Ave, the home of Col. Franks. Jefferson chose to room at the King of Prussia Tavern.

During this time, Germantown was the seat of the nation's government. As was fervently hoped for, the cases of yellow fever stopped appearing in late October, and eventually, it seemed safe to convene Congress in Philadelphia as originally scheduled, on December 2.

Although Germantown was badly shaken by the experience, it was a heady experience to be the nation's capital. Meanwhile, a great many rich, powerful and important people had come to see what a nice place it was. Germantown then entered the second period of growth and flourishing. Walking around Germantown today is like wandering through the ruins of the Roman forum, silently tolerant of visitors who would have never dared approach it in its heyday.

Contemporary Germantown

The Strittmatter Award is the most prestigious honor given by the Philadelphia County Medical Society and is named after a famous and revered physician who was President of the society in the 1920s. There is usually a dinner given before the award ceremony, where all of the prior recipients of the award show up to welcome to this year's new honoree.

This is the reason that Henry Bockus and Jonathan Rhoads were sitting at the same table, sometime around 1975. Bockus had written a famous multi-volume textbook of gastroenterology which had an unusually long run because it was published before World War II and had no competition during the War or for several years afterward; to a generation of physicians, his name was almost synonymous with gastroenterology. In addition, he was a gifted speaker, quite capable of keeping an audience on the edge of their chairs, even though after the speech it might be difficult to remember just what he had said. On this particular evening, the silver-haired oracle might have been just a wee bit tipsy.

Jonathan Rhoads had likewise written a textbook, about Surgery, and had similarly been president of dozens of national and international surgical societies. He devised a technique of feeding patients intravenously which has been the standard for many decades, and in his spare time had been a member of the Philadelphia School Board, a dominant trustee of Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, and the provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Not the medical school, the whole university, and is said to have been one of the best provosts of the University of Pennsylvania ever had. When he was President of-of the American Philosophical Society, he engineered its endowment from three million to ten times that amount. For all these accomplishments, he was a man of few words, unusual courtesy -- and a huge appetite in keeping with his rather huge farmboy physical stature. On the evening in question, he was busy shoveling food.

"Hey, Rhoads, wherrseriland?". Jonathan's eyes rose to the questioner, but he kept his head bowed over his plate.

"Rhoads, Westland?" The surgeon put down his fork and asked " What are you talking about?"

" Well," said Bockus, " Every famous surgeon I know, has a house on an island, somewhere. Where's your island?

"Germantown," replied Rhoads, and returned attention to his dinner.

Originally published: Monday, June 26, 2006; most-recently modified: Thursday, June 06, 2019