Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Godfather of Easton, PA, and Friend of Ben Franklin

     The wife of John Smith was Elizabeth Parsons, born May 4, 1785 in Buckhannon Settlement of Virginia (now West Virginia).  Her marriage record of August 31, 1804 in Harrison County states that her father is Charles Parsons.  Her mother, Elizabeth Chestnut Parsons, had died in 1797, when Elizabeth was only 12 years old.  She and John Smith had at least nine children.

     Charles Parsons, her father, was a Revolutionary War veteran.  He was born in 1745 and joined with Captain John Harness’s Virginia Rangers on October 1, 1775.  He served as a scout.  He had established a “settlement right” of 1400 acres on Elk Creek in Harrison County in 1773 and in 1787, surveyed a road from Randolph County to the Buckhannon Settlement.  He moved his family to Jackson County about 1792, and his wife, Elizabeth Chestnut Parsons died there about 1797.  Charles died in 1823 and was buried in the Baptist Grove Cemetery, which is located right off US Route 33, about five miles east of Ripley, WV.

     Charles’ father was William Parsons.  There is much confusion about two William Parsons, who are thought to be father and son, but both worked as surveyors, and both had important accomplishments in their careers.  The son died before the father, which adds to the confusion.  There are many surveys signed by William Parsons, and there are two distinct signatures.  To the best of my knowledge at this point, here is what I know about them. 

     William Parsons, Jr. was born 1722- 1724, probably in Pennsylvania and married Martha Hughes in Pennsylvania on December 5, 1744.  He was probably trained as a surveyor by his father.  He is thought to be the William Parsons that surveyed the “Transpeninsular Line,” which established the east-west boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

     William Parsons, Sr. is thought to have been born in England (although some sources say Prussia) on May 6, 1701.  He came to America around 1725.  He was trained as a shoemaker, but was a voracious reader and taught himself mathematics to a remarkable level, which led to his second career as a surveyor.  He caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin, and was asked to join the JUNTO, a “club of mutual improvement,” which was the precursor to the American Philosophical Society.  He served as the first librarian of the JUNTO’s subscription library, the first in the colonies. 

     William Sr. was appointed Surveyor General in 1741, and in 1749 was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1749 in Lancaster County, PA.  In 1752, he was commissioned to lay out the town of Easton, PA and became known as the “Godfather of Easton,” having laid out its streets and town square, building a jail and school, digging a well and laying out a cemetery.  It is difficult for us to understand what a hard, physical job being a surveyor was.  It involved hiking through wilderness, living in the wilds, and it took its toll on William, forcing him to give up his lucrative career after less than ten years.  In 1755, after hearing of the Indian massacre at nearby Gnaden Hutten, most of the citizens of Easton fled.  William wrote to Governor Morris asking him to provide arms, ammunition, and soldiers to defend the town.  He could not afford to send any of the young men with the message, needing them for defense, so he sent his daughter, Grace.  One account says she went on horseback, making the trip in two days.  Another account says William sent her in a wagon which would return with the needed supplies, and that she would stay in Philadelphia for her safety. 

     As successful as William Sr. was in his career, he was not successful in marriage.  He married a German woman, Johanna Christiana Zeidig in 1722.  She became very active in the Moravian Church, of which William was opposed.  He told her she had to leave the church, or he would leave her.  She would not, and in 1745, he left her, taking their two youngest children with him.  He is supposed to have sent for Johanna when he knew he was dying in 1757, and she left to go to his side, but he died before she arrived.  Benjamin Franklin was in London when he heard of William’s death.  In a letter to Hugh Roberts, Franklin described William as “an odd character,” “a wise man that often acted foolishly,” as someone who “even when prosperous, was always fretting” and “had always the means of happiness without ever enjoying the thing.”

     William died December 22, 1757 at the age of 57.  He is buried in the German Reformed Cemetery in Easton.  The inscription on his marker reads “He rocked Easton in her cradle and watch of her infant footsteps with paternal solicitude.”





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