Slavery history: The Chew family of Philadelphia

Frisby's Prime Choice, a Chew family plantation in Cecil County, Maryland

The Chew family and slavery came to British North America at about the same time, and their intertwined story spans four centuries. It can be divided into three chapters: the first concerns the direct ownership of enslaved human beings, and lasted until the practice of ownership became illegal in America; the second relates to commercial and industrial profit from slavery during the nineteenth century; the third focuses on its enduring financial legacy, which likely continues to this day.

Ownership: John Chew (1587-1652) arrived in Jamestown in 1622, and by the time of his death owned vast quantities of Virginia land and four imported Africans. His son Samuel Chew (1630-1677), one of the most important men in the Province of Maryland, had as many as one hundred and forty enslaved people available to till his lands.  His great grandson and namesake Samuel Chew (1737-1809)–the half brother of Benjamin, who built Cliveden–owned six plantations in Cecil County and Kent County, Maryland. In fact every male descendant in the Philadelphia family line down to Henry Banning Chew (1800-1866)—a total of seven generations—owned enslaved Africans or their descendents, and we know of 450 victimes that were owned by one or more of the people in this ancestral chain. Many of the enslaved can now be identified by name, location, and year of birth. For those who toiled on Benjamin Chew’s Whitehall Plantation, in Kent County, Delaware (1742-1803), we also have detailed information about their lives, families, and resistance to authority, as documented in the paper “Violent resistance on a Delaware Plantation, 1792-1800” (due to be published this June in Delaware History). Another paper, about enslaved servant Charity Castle and her struggle for freedom after overstaying Pennsylvania’s six month rule, was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in January, 2008.

How the Chews came to their initial wealth is not clear, and it appears that Benjamin Chew’s plantation profits were not especially impressive. However, he did have very substantial amounts of money invested in agricultural loans throughout Kent County, Delaware, and loans to close neighbor (and slave holder) James Raymond netted half as much in annual interest as the average annual profit from Whitehall. This aspect of the Chew finances—asking how many people were borrowing money, and how many of them were also using enslaved labor to operate their farms–is currently being explored.

Commerce: Direct ownership of enslaved people was fading in the family by the 1830s, as was the Chew family’s interest in agriculture. At this time a series of economic contractions, combined with overinvestment in Pennsylvania lands and a nasty family dispute severely depleted both the family and its purse.

Young lawyer Samuel Chew (1832-1887), son of Henry Banning Chew (see above), had come to live with his aunt at Cliveden and obtained a job working with David Sands Brown (1800-1877), one of Philadelphia’s leading industrialists and philanthropists—a man who has been largely lost to history until recently. Sam married Brown’s daughter Mary just before the guns fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, and in doing so acquired keys to the Brown townhouse on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and the country home in Radnor.

This much we have known for more than thirty years. It was only discovered recently that Brown, through David S. Brown & Co., was probably the largest manufacturer of cotton textile goods in the very active 19th -century Philadelphia market. For example, in 1857 David S. Brown & Co. used 1.5 million pounds of cotton to manufacture over 6 million yards of cloth. The raw material that was the foundation of his business empire was largely produced by slave labor in the American South.

After the marriage Sam joined several of the interlocking boards of David Sands Brown & Co., as did other Chew family members. Brown died in 1877, leaving Sam and Mary an estate of $1.3 million at a time when the combined companies were selling more than $2 million worth of goods a year. So Brown refreshed the family fortune as well. The family played a role in the company until it was sold in the early 1880s.

Financial legacy: Earnings from the company and its sale were carefully managed to assure the continuance and transmission of wealth to future generations. During their mature years Sam and Mary made several large gifts to their children. Sam died in 1881, and in her elder years Mary joined her sister Martha in establishing a trust fund that paid dividends to her children and grandchildren from 1919 until 1960, when the trust was broken up for management by its individual members. David Sands Brown’s money provided a living for at least three generations of Chew family members. In all likelihood this money plays a role in Cliveden’s endowment as well.

Sources:

John Chew (1587-1668): Will of John Chew, 1587-1652, Library of Virginia, York County Deeds, Orders, Wills Etc. I: 1633-1694 Reel 1, pp.132-135.

Samuel Chew (1630-1676): E.B. Furgurson III, “Founding family’s home found,” www.hometownannapolis.com, 2007.

Henry Banning Chew (1800-1866): Henry Banning Chew cash book, Box 267, Series 7, Chew Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP).

Samuel Chew (1737-1809):”List of Negroes of S.C. Estate appraised as per Inventory,” Series 3, Box 60, Folder 10, Chew Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP).

Samuel Chew (1832-1887): Nancy Richards, Cliveden: the Chew mansion in Germantown (manuscript, 1993).

David Sands Brown (1800-1877): Edwin T. Freedley, Philadelphia and its manufactures: a handbook (Philadelphia: Edward Young, 1859), p. 251; Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), Chew Family Papers, Series 14, Boxes 599-600; Series 24, Box 779, folders 1-8 and Box 780, folders 1-2.

 

About Phillip Seitz

Phillip Seitz is the 2011 recipient of the American Association of Museums' Brooking Prize for Creativity. He is an historian and curator (and home brewer, bread baker, and sometime certified beer judge). He lives in Philadelphia and has been listening to BB King since he was old enough to play a record.
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