Ben Franklin’s Mortgage on the Daniel Boone Farm
By J. BENNETT NOLAN
This account of the hitherto unknown episode of a mortgage loan placed by Benjamin Franklin upon the farm in Berks County where Daniel Boone was born and brought up is better understood after a brief consideration of Boone’s boyhood years.
The Pennsylvania Historical Commission, which has acquired the Boone tract as an historical shrine, is now engaged in restoring the homestead of two centuries ago. This project is one of national appeal and interest, since no figure in our early history has so completely captured the popular imagination nor does any command so engrossing a share in the admiring regard of our youth.
It is probable that many who read in the public of the establishment of this Memorial Cabin are surprised at its location. So much is the career of Daniel Boone linked with Kentucky and our southwestern frontier, as it existed before the American Revolution that few realize that the pioneer spent his first sixteen years in the Schuylkill Valley of Pennsylvania.
It was in April of 1750 that the arrangements for departure were finally concluded and the wagons loaded for the long journey over the mountains to Virginia. At the head of the foremost ox-team stood a stalwart stripling taking his last look at the Oley hills silhouetted in the spring sunrise. As he gazed, he may well have speculated as to just how much the development attained in these sixteen years spent in Berks County was to influence his future life.
Certainly there was little in his youthful Pennsylvania career to suggest the dazzling future which awaited him beyond the savage Appalachians. The gentle Quaker upbringing of Exeter Meeting seemed no more likely to rear a resourceful and formidable warrior than did the peaceful routine of the monotonous, agrarian, Palatine settlement to develop a leader of men, the savior of a border civilization. And yet, as the homely caravan wound its way down the Owatin, a glorious Destiny marched with the plodding oxen. Daniel Boone’s boyhood in Berks County was concluded, his career as a world figure was just begun. The narrative which shall follow is important, first, in that it shows Franklin in the unwonted role of trustee of an insurance company, lending money upon land, and secondly, in that it affords another demonstration, if such were needed, of his innate good-will and loyalty toward a boyhood friend.
The genesis of our anecdote lies in the incredibly had husbandry of Squire Boone, Daniel’s father. When Squire came over from Devon and pushed up through the present Bucks County to patent a piece of land in the present Berks County, he was a weaver and not a farmer. He reclaimed the tract from the forest and erected a log dwelling thereon, but he is not likely to have improved it in the seventeen years of his tenure. Nor was the tall, active, sinewy lad, christened Daniel, and sixteen years old when the family left for Virginia, apt to have been a useful farmhand; he was more interested in fishing, trapping, and field sports. So, in 1750 when Squire Boone, not too successful on his plantation and embittered by strife with the local Quaker Meeting, resolved to emigrate to Virginia, it was not easy to find a purchaser, and yet someone had to be discovered who would hold the bag.
In this juncture Squire bethought himself of a relative by marriage, William Maugridge, of Philadelphia. He journeyed down the long Schuylkill trail, found Maugridge, and actually sold him the 158 acres for £300 Pennsylvania currency, the equivalent of £150 sterling.1 What blandishments the Squire employed or whether the grantee ever saw the farm before purchasing, we do not know. Maugridge did not even take the trouble to record his deed, but he came up and began to work the land, probably with the aid of negro slave labor.
Maugridge’s background had scarcely qualified him to rehabilitate a farm, sadly run down. We know little of him beyond the fact that he was one of Franklin’s earliest Philadelphia friends and associates, had been a member of the Junto, was a joiner by trade, and is described in the AutobicAutobiography as an “excellent sensible man.” Very few of his autographs survive, the only one in the extensive collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania being his attestation as Sheriff’s Clerk of an election October 2, 1749.
Affairs did not prosper with Maugridge, indeed it was not likely that they would, for he was not fitted for a pioneer farmer’s life in the wilderness of the upper Schuylkill. Four years elapsed, and the winter of 1754 found our amateur farmer very much in debt. He rode down to Philadelphia just as Squire Boone had done before him and discussed his predicament with his old friend and advisor, the printer Ben Franklin. He arrived at a propitious moment, since Franklin, two years before, had organized his Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from loss by Fire; and the Contributionship had funds to invest. To be sure, a loan on partially unseated lands in the new county of Berks was not an attractive investment and without Franklin’s personal endorsement was not likely to be considered. However, Ben Franklin was never the man to leave an old friend in distress, and now we relegate ourselves to the minutes of the society.
Minutes of February 5, 1754:
Application being made on behalf of William Maugridge to borrow two hundred pounds as a Security for which he proposes to Mortgage his Plantation containing Acres in the County of Berks, and the Board being informed that Benjamin Franklin will engage that the interest shall be punctually paid, Agreed that John Smith may let him have it out of the first money he shall have in his hands and that Hugh Roberts is appointed to assist the treasurer in Examining the Title.
Whether Hugh Roberts ever performed the duties delegated to him and made the toilsome trip to Reading, newly erected county seat of Berks County, to examine the title, is not disclosed, but had he searched the records, he would have found that Maugridge had not yet recorded his deed and that consequently the Contributionship’s mortgage for £200, placed April 10, 1754, was not a lien.
Now nine years passed and much water went over the dam. The French and Indian War raged, Braddock was defeated, the English were finally victorious, and Ben Franklin went to London as Colonial Agent in 1757. During all this eventful period Maugridge stayed on the farm, trying to make ends meet with the £200 which Mr. Franklin’s recommendation had procure(l for him. By the autumn of 1762 he was again in financial stress. Franklin was now back in Philadelphia for the two years of interlude between his second an(l third visits to Europe. Again Maugridge rode down the valley trail to consult with his early associate. Franklin could scarcely suggest to the Contributionship the placing of an additional mortgage on the Boone plot when the first one had not been paid. Indeed, it is likely that according to his guarantee he had personally advanced installments of interest which the luckless mortgagor could not promptly pay. It is here, however, that we have evidence of his philanthropy towards a member of his beloved Junto. On December 9,1762, he gave Maugridge an additional sum of £258 16s, taking as security a second mortgage to himself.
Franklin went back to the fleshpots of Craven Street, and poor Maugridge continued with his agrarian struggles. That he was not unmindful of the benevolence of the Franklin family and occasionally sent them good cheer from Berks County, is shown by Deborah Franklin’s letter to Benjamin on November 3, 1765 “Speaking of buckwheat cakes, our good friend Mr. Maugridge has sent some of the best of the flour that I ever saw and we had them hot.” This demonstrates that if the mortgagor was not always punctual in his payment of interest, he was, at least, not insensible to the favor which had been conferred upon him.
Maugridge had one gleam of comfort in his declining years, when his daughter Sarah contracted an advantageous marriage with Edward Drury, a well-to-do innkeeper of Reading. With Sarah’s removal, however, be was compelled to work the harder, and finally in 1766 he gave up the unequal struggle and died. The news soon permeated to Deborah in Philadelphia and she wrote to her husband under date of April 26, 1767:
When I heard of Mr. Maugridge’s death it surprised and troubled me indeed. Our neighbor Thompson went up. I got him to speak to Mrs. Drury. She seemed to be a stranger to the affair, but it could not be so as I had talked with her about it. I got Mr. Thomson to write to her but I have not received one word of answer from her, but Tommy Potts says his brother, Rutter, is executor and he will speak to him.
At the time of his passing Maugridge must have been considerably in arrears on the mortgage of the Contributionship, for by minute of December 2, 1766, the Board, referring to “sundry persons backward in paying interest,” appointed a committee “to do what may be necessary in the affair of William Maugridge’s interest.”
The lawyer in charge of the Contributionship’s affairs at this period was the celebrated Thomas Wharton. Maugridge was now dead, and Squire Boone’s former farm had passed under the Maugridge will to Sarah Maugridge Drury. Both the mortgages, the one to the Contributionship and the one to Benjamin Franklin, were in arrears; something had to be done. Inasmuch as the Franklin lien was the secondary one and as Benjamin had practically guaranteed the Contribution ship loan, the most logical thing seemed to be to consult with him. But Benjamin was now in London, and one must reckon with the delay of perhaps six months before an answer could be procured. Then Wharton recalled that the Franklin business matters were being handled by Deborah Franklin under power of attorney, and addressed himself to her. From a practical standpoint it was perhaps better that the Philosopher was not personally in Philadelphia, since in the goodness of his heart he was likely to condone his own debt and perhaps pay that of the Contributionship. Deborah was made of sterner stuff and directed Wharton to proceed for collection.
Just here there enters into our narrative still another notable figure, that of the young Caledonian lawyer James Wilson, who had come over from St. Andrews and begun to practice in the frontier town of Reading. Wharton had no idea of entrusting his precious person to the rigors of a cold winter ride or his stomach to the unbelievably bad fare of the Reading taverns. On October 14, 1768, he drew a power of attorney whereby Deborah Franklin, acting for “My husband late of Philadelphia, now of London,” empowered James Wilson, attorney-at-law of Reading, to collect the Maugridge mortgage.
When James Wilson, destined to be a signer of the Declaration of Independence and to rank as one of the greatest of our earlier interpreters of the Constitution, received the claim, it probably did not look too hopeful. Besides the farm there were not even enough assets in the Maugridge estate to warrant the filing of an account, although the will bequeathed some slaves. Wilson’s first act was to record the deed from Squire Boone, which had lain unrecorded ever since the Squire rode down the trail for Virginia eighteen years before. Had Maugridge’s subsequent creditors been alert enough, they might have barred both the Contributionship and Franklin from their priority of lien. One hopeful circumstance for James Wilson’s chance for collection lay in the fact that Sarah Maugridge Drury was now a person of means. Her husband had lied, leaving her a tavern stand which must have been a prominent one, since the first meeting for the establishment of a library in Reading was held there.
Whether Sarah personally paid up the overdue interest is not disclosed, but this much is certain: she miraculously found a purchaser, one Henry Feree, who on November 21, 1768, was willing to give £900 for the farm which the Boones sold to Maugridge for £300 in 1750, although one reason for this advance may be found in the fact that Pennsylvania exchange had dropped in the interval.
So the unexpected had happened; James Wilson satisfied the mortgage, and Deborah could reassure her Benjamin over the fortunate ending of his quixotic loan. This, it would seem, would have been the time for the collection of the first or Contributionship mortgage. That the directors of the insurance company were concerned for the liquidation of the loan is shown by their minute of January 6, 1767, after lawyer Wharton had reported that Maugridge was dead. In this minute he is directed to continue for collection and yet, curiously enough, the debt was not paid nor the mortgage satisfied until 1772. Another distinguished attorney-in-fact, Edward Biddle, Speaker of the first Provincial Congress, also practicing law in Reading at the period, made final satisfaction of this protracted matter; all of the parties to this transaction seem to have been people of prominence.
Thus ends our modest saga of Daniel Boone’s farm, of joiner Maugridge’s hapless agrarian experiment thereon, and of Ben Franklin’s gallant effort to retrieve the tottering fortunes of an old friend. To those who may regard the episode as a trivial one, the compiler can only plead the importance of the personages involved. It is with the aid of sidelights such as these that real history is evolved; just as a man’s innate characteristics are more often revealed in the inventory of his effects than in his public utterances.
This article originally appeared in the July 1945 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.
Daniel Boone Homestead
400 Daniel Boone Rd.
Birdsboro PA 19508