How two deadbeats helped name Franklin Township
By Richard Gaw
Paul Lagasse, a member of the Franklin Township Historical Commission, helped research Ben Franklin's relationship to the township that shares his name.
Paul Lagassé and Nan Latimer, members of the Franklin Township Historical Commission, helped lead an effort to research Benjamin Franklin’s real relationship to the Chester County township that shares his name. In the 1760s and 1770s, Franklin owned approximately 200 acres of land on both sides of Route 896 in what is now Kemblesville. Lagassé has shared the interesting story about how Franklin came to own land in the township during a public presentation at the Franklin Township Building and at other events in the area.
Initially, Lagassé, explained, the research was not focused on Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, but rather on a specific part of local history.
“We began this as an attempt to put together a talk about the taverns in Franklin Township,”Lagassé explained. “Our research draws upon a lot of sources—records of the Chester County Historical Society, the Chester County Archives, and Franklin Township papers.”
Franklin Township’s origins can be traced back to 1852. At that time, Kemblesville and Chesterville had grown to become villages of a decent size—Kemblesville had a tavern, a church, a blacksmith shop, a general store, several nearby mills, and a post office. Residents petitioned to divide New London Village into two different townships.
Lagassé explained that the county appointed a three-person commission to investigate the possibility of dividing New London Township. The commission’s recommendation was to divide the township, with the west section retaining the “New London” name. The eastern portion was to be called Franklin Township.
Why was this new township named Franklin Township?
“It was named, as we all know, in honor of Benjamin Franklin,” Lagassé explained. “But if you seek out more details, things get more complicated and become less clear. The petition for the new township and the commissioners’ report don’t say why the name of Franklin Township was chosen, though various other sources do offer hints.”
Benjamin Franklin, who was known as “The first American” was a renowned polymath—he was a politician, an inventor, a statesman, a diplomat, a scientist, an author, a printer, and even a postmaster.
Lagassé explained that tax records show that Franklin paid taxes on property, ranging from 160 acres to 200 acres, in the 1760s and 1770s, so it’s fairly certain that the national hero did, in fact, own property.
The Franklin Township Historical Commission received the property history of the Kemblesville Hotel from current owner Bill Hutchings.
“The history stated that letters at the Chester County Historical Society referred to land that Franklin had bought in New London Township from George McCleave,”Lagassé said. “McCleave once owned the property that the Kemblesville Hotel is on. He is the first known owner of the property, aside from the London Company, the land company that originally acquired the land from William Penn.”
McCleave is known to have owned two parcels of land, one a 96-acre parcel, the other a 119-acre parcel. McCleave operated a tavern on the property. He may have also owned other property in the area. There is uncertainty about which property Franklin owned.
“Did Franklin acquire McCleave’s 119-acre plot, of which the property history said little, or perhaps another piece of land once held by McCleave? The acreage figures in the property history were no help in clarifying this,”Lagassé said. “Neither matched the 160, 184, and 200 acres that Franklin was recorded as having paid tax on. Though the exact location of McCleave’s lands and Franklin’s land was unclear, we do know that at least one of the two parcels was in what was known as the London Tract.”
The London Tract was a large tract of land that was acquired by a group of stockholders who hoped to enrich themselves by leasing the land. The group of stockholders, called the London Company, owned about 60,000 acres of land in Pennsylvania and Delaware. The London Tract was huge, and locating McCleave’s and Franklin’s lands in the London Tract or elsewhere in Franklin Township would require more information.
“We did have a host of names that might provide clues,”Lagassé explained. As the Historical Commission searched the available online records and indexes to find out more about George McCleave for a possible talk on township taverns, the details discovered revealed much about McCleave and also the true story of how Ben Franklin acquired land in 18th-century New London.”
George McCleave first showed up on the tax lists in 1749, and his name continued to show up on the tax lists for most years through 1775. From 1763 to 1773, he also had tavern license applications.
“McCleave’s fortunes go up and down, but mostly down,”Lagassé explained.
In 1762, McCleave mortgages his two parcels to Philotesia and Amos Strettell to settle a debt that McCleave owed Robert Strettell, a Quaker merchant who died in 1761. Philotesia, his wife, and Amos, his son, were the executors of his estate.
A year later, in 1763, McCleave makes a second mortgage on both parcels to William Dunlap for an outstanding debt.
McCleave was sued by Thomas and Sarah Massey for a third debt in the spring of 1764. While the reasons for McCleave’s considerable debt have been lost to history, he may have been trying to pay for the land or cover the costs associated with starting up a tavern.
Lagassé explained that tavern owners at this time sometimes struggled financially.
“Whatever debt McCleave incurred in buying his land and setting up his tavern may have been compounded by running the tavern, especially since there were four licensed taverns for much of this period,” he said.
William Dunlap was married to Deborah Crocker, a niece of Ben Franklin’s wife, Deborah. Ben Franklin helped Dunlap set up his printer shop in Lancaster in 1754. Three years later, Franklin appointed Dunlap as the postmaster for Philadelphia while Franklin was in England as Pennsylvania’s agent to Parliament. McCleave was a post rider, and that’s probably how he knew Dunlap and came to borrow money from him.
Like McCleave, Dunlap sometimes had financial problems. At the time,Lagassé explained, uncollected postage was the responsibility of the post rider or postmaster. Franklin and John Foxcroft, another postmaster for British North America, sought to collect the money that Dunlap owed.
In late 1764, Dunlap wrote Franklin and Foxcroft, offering a 200-acre tract of land in Chester County to settle the debt.
The offer was deemed to be insufficient, prompting Dunlap to write an extraordinary letter, which read, in part:
“As I see nothing will satiate your unbounded, cruel, and merciless Resentment but the entire Destruction of a poor helpless Family, no Branch of whom, I will dare say, ever injur’d you in Thought, Word or Deed. I have no Favor to ask at the Hands of a Man who thursts for nothing short of my Heart’s Blood…”
Franklin and Foxcroft were unmoved by the letter. They wrote Dunlap back, pointing out that the debt was owed to the Post Office, not them, and they didn’t have the authority to accept less than the amount of debt.
“Here at last we can see, quite vividly in fact, how Franklin came to control property in New London,”Lagassé explained. “The property was offered to Franklin to cover a post office debt. But, as far as we knew, Dunlap only held a mortgage on George McCleave’s lands. Was that land the land that Dunlap transferred to Franklin, and that Franklin later paid taxes on? Or was it another parcel?”
The research revealed that James Parker, the comptroller of the colonial post office, met with Dunlap and McCleave in Philadelphia in 1764. Dunlap had acquired control of the parcels because McCleave had failed to settle his debts. Franklin’s ownership of the properties was not formally recorded, but that was not uncommon at that time.
At the time that Franklin apparently owned land in what is now the Franklin Township area, he was mostly working overseas. Correspondence to and from Ben or Deborah Franklin at the time was not complimentary to the property.
The land was described as poor, and the dwelling on it was in need of repair.
“Clearly, the land was not worth what Dunlap had valued it at, and Franklin had no interest in acquiring the land—he was forced to as a way to settle Dunlap’s debt.
McCleave continued to operate a licensed tavern for a few more years, but his financial difficulties continued. In 1770, records show that he is listed on the tax rolls as an inmate, which indicates that he is landless. He was eventually convicted and jailed for operating a tavern without a license.
Tax records show that Franklin paid taxes starting in 1766. He paid those taxes in subsequent years, but after 1771 there is no further records of Franklin paying taxes.
“Deborah Franklin’s surviving letters contain no further information about the properties. She died in late 1774, before her husband returned from England,” Lagassé explained. “The last we hear of the New London properties in the Franklin Papers is in 1776, when Franklin attempts to settle his accounts with the British Post Office, and this is the last we hear anywhere of any association between Benjamin Franklin and the lands of George McCleave. Franklin left for France shortly after, and did not leave France to return to America until 1785.”
Did Franklin himself ever visit the area during the time that he owned the property? There remains a lot of uncertainty about that. Franklin was only in America for two brief periods during the time when he may have owned land.
Franklin was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He was named Postmaster General by the Congress. He was involved in the effort to acquiring munitions, the planning for the defense of Philadelphia, and was on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Lagassé concluded the presentation by saying that it was unlikely that Franklin would have traveled all the way out to Chester County to visit the properties.
“We can’t say for sure that he didn’t visit the Kemblesville, Franklin, or New London vicinity at some point during his life, but it seems unlikely that he did so when he owned land here,” Lagassé said. “He had greater more pressing things to do.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email firstname.lastname@example.org.