Early African Americans in the Wissahickon Valley Region

Have you ever wondered about the history of African-Americans in the Wissahickon Valley Region? Based on what I found, it looks like there were a few of them living in the area BEFORE the 19th century. But there were more details about them during the 1800s.

What I learned from my internship, at the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office in Fort Washington (Hope Lodge) in the summer of 2019, is that the US Census data is one of the most reliable, primary sources out there. It reveals things we may not know about. Something that would NEVER be found on the Internet.

Go to this website to access historical census data: https://www.census.gov

I looked through historical census data, dating as early as 1830. I became excited when I found a record, from the 1850 census data, of a total of 10 African Americans in Gwynedd, and only 1 in Whitpain.

I know what you're thinking: Who were these people? Where did they come from? What were their lives like? Why was there only 1 free African American in Whitpain?

But before we dive into this, let's talk about the brief history of slavery in 17th and 18th century Philadelphia:

There were African slaves who were brought to Philadelphia in 1684. One in 15 families owned slaves at the time. In 1688, the first protest against slavery happened in Germantown. It was organized by Germantown founder Francis Daniel Pastorius and other Quakers. Ever since, there have been laws and policies saying that the importation slaves “shall be no more.” Read the laws in "An Act for the Better Regulating of Negroes in this Province"!

In the 1730s, Quakers withdrew from the slave trade in Philadelphia. In 1737, the Quakers went a step farther and advise their members not to buy slaves.

In 1755, buying slaves was made a dishonorable offense by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

In 1758, "Friends again prohibited their members from buying or selling slaves. Quakers with slaves to be visited and told their slave owning was inconsistent with the brotherhood of man and were to be asked to manumit** them. Quakers continued to own slaves. In 1767 about 16.6% of slave owners in the city were Quakers (they were probably less than 14% of the population. - Germans on the other hand were about 23% of the population and owned only 3.3% of the slaves.) There were only a handful of manumissions in Philadelphia over the next decade."

**manumit: To release from slavery; liberate from personal bondage or servitude; set free, as a slave; emancipate. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition)

In 1780, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed by the 5th Pennsylvania General Assembly, putting the end of slavery in Pennsylvania.

Even though, during those time periods, the decrease of slave importation and the end of the practice of slavery was successful, there was a rise of indentured white servants** from Ireland and other European countries coming into Pennsylvania.

NOTE: Indentured servitude and slavery are not similar.

Similarities: they were sold, loaned, or inherited; had little personal freedom


  • Immigrants were indentured servants as a choice

  • Slaves didn't have a choice

  • Indentured servants were considered "personal property"

  • Slaves were considered a "lifetime investment"

  • Indentured servants "had access to the courts and were entitled to own land," but were prohibited to get married; masters have the authority to sell them to another master if they want to

  • Slaves didn't have any of that

Indentured servitude was banned after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, which occurred after the Civil War.

**You can read more about indentured servants by checking out my earlier post about them who were living with their masters in Whitpain during the 18th century!!

Lower Gwynedd: Brief History

Lower Gwynedd had an interesting history with African Americans. There were records showing that there were slaves living in Gwynedd from monthly meeting minutes from 1756 to 1784:

NOTE: Below are direct quotes from meeting note from Jenkins' Historical collections relating to Gwynedd

[Answer of Monthly Meeting to 10th Query: ]: We have but very few negroes amongst us, they we believe are tolerably well used.

- April 27, 1756

A Friend among us has sold a negro slave to another since our last Quarter. Querie: is that an offence?

- July 25, 1758

[Answer to Query: ]: Some slaves are brought to meetings at times.

- January 29, 1760

Thomas Jones has purchased a slave, and he appearing in this meeting in a plyable frame of mind, expressed disposition of using him well if he should live; this meeting desires him to adhere to the Principle of doing unto others as he would be done unto, which will teach him how to use him in time to come.

- February 26, 1760.

Richard Thomas has purchased a slave, and he being in this meeting. Friends had a good opportunity to lay the inconsistency of the practice before him [etc.].

- March 30, 1761

Mordecai Moore sold a slave for a term of years, but says that he has such a regard for the unity of Friends that if it was to do again he would not do it.

- October 27, 1761

Jonathan Robeson acknowledges selling a negro woman, who was very troublesome in his family for several years. he never intends to do the like again.

- October 1770

Miles Evans agrees to manumit his negro man. A committee of the meeting is appointed to advise the negro with respect to his conduct when free.

- January 1780

[Women's branch of the Monthly Meeting answering the query, said: ]: No slaves amongst us. Those set free are under the care of the committee.

- July 27, 1784

Quakers were considered the early abolitionists during the 18th century. In this case, the Gwynedd Quakers were very "watchful" with their fellow Quakers, or Friends, having involvement with slavery. Imagine a neighbor watching your every move, and they would report you if you do something wrong. This was the Quakers back in the 18th century, reporting other Quakers of wrongdoing.

Penllyn: Brief History

Penllyn, in particular, provided several local stops on the Underground Railroad. The Foulke mansion (see early post about the Foulke family) was where the Foulke family, during the 19th century, hid runaway slaves to help them seek freedom in the North.

Penllyn had long been one of the best known villages in Lower Gwynedd, especially because of its role in the history of African American settlement. According to E. Gloria Stewart Jones, a 3rd generation descendant of early Black immigrants to Penllyn, she stated that the majority of Black families came from Westmoreland County, Virginia beginning in the mid-1800s. They were free-born Blacks. They came from well-established families in Virginia with whom they remained in close contact.

According to Jones, the reason many African Americans came to Pennsylvania was because...

"Southern attitudes, even in 'soft' Westmoreland County, were not always hospitable to Blacks if it did not suit the white man's purpose, and wages were generally low. Thus, young Black men found it necessary to establish their independence outside Virginia. They brought their skills to Pennsylvania." (Jones, 30)

Lower Gwynedd: Census Data

According to the Pennsylvania 1850 census data, there were 10 (7 male, 3 female) African Americans living in Gwynedd. Who were they exactly?

I was fortunate to find and save the Gwynedd 1850 census data on my computer. At first it was very difficult identifying if these people were white or black. But then I noticed in parentheses "(B)". What is that telling me?

I looked back in the PA 1850 census data, and it told me that there were 10 African Americans in Gwynedd. I went back to the Gwynedd 1850 census data, and remarkably found almost the exact number of African Americans living in Gwynedd. I came to my conclusion that the "(B)" represents the African Americans!

Here's the list of African American residents who lived in Gwynedd in 1850:

  • George Pipenger- 18 years old

  • Sarah Dennis- 30 years old

  • The Clemmens family

  • William- 37 years old- laborer

  • Ann- 30 years old

  • Joseph- 8 years old

  • Mary- 6 years old

  • William- 4 years old

  • Thomas- 1 months old

  • Thomas Wolf- 50 years old

Let's start with George W. Pipenger/Pepenger (1832-1922). He was simply 18 years old when the 1850 census data was recorded. He could be a runaway slave who sought freedom in the North. I decided to look up his name from numerous websites like Find a Grave, Google, etc. I was lucky enough to find his grave in Tennessee.

Looking at the list of people from the Gwynedd census data, it looks like George was part of the Jones family along with Philip Zent, who came from "at sea" as a laborer. It's unknown if George was a slave to the Jones family. He was possibly staying with them for some time until he parted during the Civil War. Philip Zent, meanwhile, was a laborer to the Jones', which is basically a servant in a way.

The question is, "How did George get to Tennessee?" The real question is, "How did he get to Gwynedd?" I was trying to find answers to these questions, but it seems that it's impossible, especially when doing research online.

I was able to gather the following information about George. Here's what I know about him:

  • He was a Private in the 6th Regiment U.S. Colored Troop, Company G during the Civil War

  • Was called up to the USCT on November 26, 1864

  • Was a substitute; mustered out with Company on September 20, 1865

  • He was possibly connected in some way with Horsham

  • Buried in Tennessee

The other Civil War USCT veteran was William Clemmens/Clemens (1813-?). There were records that he was indeed from Montgomery County, PA. His name was mentioned not only from the Gwynedd census data, but also from the Upper Dublin census data. According to the 1871 map, he lived in Horsham, right above Upper Dublin.

Montgomery County 1871, Pennsylvania, Page 011 - Horsham Township, Marble Hall, Barren Hill, Prospectville, Horshamville; G.M. Hopkins & Company, Publisher

William was a Private in the 3rd Regiment U.S. Colored Troop, Company K. He was called up to the USCT on December 7, 1864. During his time he was a substitute, but was discharged.

William was the only African American to have a family prior to the 1850 census data. According to the census data, William was a laborer. Many of the early Black settlers in the Penllyn area were laborers on the large farms in the area.

NOTE: The farms were often used as summer retreats for wealthy Philadelphia families but also functioned as working farms. Crops were grown and many of them were taken to Philadelphia by the train via the station in Penllyn.

Sarah Dennis lived with the Scarlet family. Mary Scarlet may have been the dominant member of the family since she was born in 1774. It is not known the relationship between Sarah and the Scarlet family.

Last on the list of Blacks in 1850 is Thomas Wolf. He was 50 years old at this time, and was living with two physicians: John L. Foulke (1822-1870) and Winthrop Sargent (1822-1896). Both of them were surgeons during the 19th century, and both were professors at Penn, so I would think they met there.

Three others who were associated with the Foulke and Sargent household were John Gordon, Catherine Quinn, and Ellen Pratt. They were probably servants. Two of them were from Ireland.

Winthrop Sargent was possibly the head of the household. He was living in Gwynedd for a short time. He was living with his wife and 1 year old child. I think he had John L. Foulke live with him as a guest as well as Thomas Wolf. Remember, Thomas Wolf was one of the 10 African Americans living in Gwynedd. He could be a servant, but there's no evidence to prove it.


It is said that in 1763, there were 3 slaves. The last known slaves were owned by James Morris of Dawesfield. They were freed prior to 1799.

What surprised me is that there was only 1 freed African American living in Whitpain, found on the PA 1850 census data. His name was William Jones (1837-).

How I found his name was just like how I found the 9 freed African Americans in Gwynedd: whoever was black was labeled with the letter "(B)". Like the Gwynedd data, the "(B)" indicates that they were African Americans.

William Jones was living with a clergyman, Jacob Medart, from St John Lutheran Church in Centre Square and his family. Reverend Jacob Medart had succeeded Rev. George Heilig after he resigned in 1843. However, Rev. Jacob Medart was unable to preach in German, and he resigned in 1855.

Back to William Jones. He was 13 years old while living the Jacob Medart and his family. It is unclear what William Jones’ status was and he had no recorded family. At least he found a family to live with at the time. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of information about him.


Ambler was incorporated in 1888, but there were people who were living in the area prior to its establishment as early as when William Penn stepped into what is today Pennsylvania.

The first official record of an African American in the area that became Ambler is in the early 19th century at Plumly's Mill, which was located at the intersection of Butler Avenue and Morris Road.

"By the side of the race of the Plumly Mill, there was a hut occupied by a negro named Black Bill. In this hut a fugitive slave had secreted himself. When it became known, the officer of the law arrested him and took him before the Squire for commitment to jail or safe keeping, until his master should come for him and prove his property. It became noised about and quite a number of people collected there, among them some abolitionists. While the magistrate was preparing the commitment, the slave, who was lying on the bank outside of the house, was urged by the abolitionists to run for his life and pointed out the direction for him to take. He at once put off with all the effort he could make toward the Wissahickon Creek, which was covered on its side with forests, adding to his safety and freedom."

- from a story told by Thomas Bitting, a resident of the Borough in 1888 and later its Postmaster

Fast forward to the early 20th century when there were a total of 266 African Americans living in Ambler. According to census records, they represented 10% of Ambler's population.

As I remembered from history class, there was the Great Migration that took place in the early 20th century when many Blacks moved north to get away from discrimination and racial segregation. Another reason why they fled from the South was because of better opportunities in the North. For Ambler's case, it was possible that the 266 African Americans living in Ambler were from the South.

Around that time the Keasbey and Mattison Company was established and expanding, and African Americans sought work year round there. The African Americans who were working at K & M were mainly from West Virginia and employed "to work in the less desirable 'wet' section of the asbestos plant." Their families settled largely in south and west Ambler.


Blacks have been finding a home in the Whitpain, Ambler, and Lower Gwynedd areas since the early days of settlement - sometimes as run-aways, but more and more often in search of a place to raise a family and find a paying job.

An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780 did end the practice of slavery in Pennsylvania and importation of slaves to the state, but that didn't allow the enslaved to be completely free. The slave owners were allowed to keep their slaves unless they failed to register them annually. The good impact for African Americans was this:

"Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 and those following it transformed African American life in the United States. Many individuals who were newly emancipated had the chance to create a new identity for themselves and migrate to other parts of the North to pursue opportunities. Some free African Americans looked for their loved ones and aided them in their liberation from slavery. Others flocked to urban centers like Philadelphia to join free black churches and various civic associations. Ultimately, the gradual abolition acts in the northern states, starting with Pennsylvania, facilitated the emergence of a free African American population."

Pennsylvania is one of the states where freed African Americans were allowed to seek opportunities. Take the Clemmens family in Gwynedd: They were the first known black family living in the area! What's even more interesting is that there were 2 known blacks who served in the USCT in the Civl War, and that includes William Clemmens.

As for the others in Gwynedd, too often it's unknown exactly who they were. They could either be slaves living with their masters, or they were runaways seeking refuge from abolitionists. What do you think? Who were these African Americans?

Penllyn was an interesting town. It played a role in Gwynedd's Underground Railroad involvement with abolitionists, and the establishment of Ambler. It was natural for blacks to come to Penllyn to seek opportunities to start a new life. They would do ANYTHING to build their new lives. They would work for wealthy families, often working in difficult conditions, but often helping each other to secure a home for themselves and their families.

Speaking of wealthy, I made my conclusion that Whitpain Township was a wealthy area with their farms! It would make sense that African Americans would go to Whitpain to work for wealthy farmers. It could be that they were laborers, but there's no evidence to prove it.

Ambler was considered the "baby" of the Wissahickon Valley Region. Ambler came into the picture after the Civil War and Reconstruction, and it immediately became a thriving town, thanks to the Keasbey & Mattison Company.


"Ambler Open Space Plan". Ambler Borough Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. 2006. https://www.montcopa.org/DocumentCenter/View/2078/Ambler-Open-Space-Plan?bidId=, 2.

"Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County Pennsylvania." Historical Society of Montgomery County Pennsylvania 24, no. 2 &3 (1994): 25, 31.

DeBow, J.D.B. The Seventh Census of the United States: 1850. An Appendix, Embracing Notes Upon the Tables of Each of the States, Etc. (Washington: Robert Armstrong, 1853): 176.

"Doctors and Surgeons of Massachusetts Prior to 1878." Genealogy Trails History Group. Accessed August 22, 2020. http://genealogytrails.com/mass/doctors.html.

"Gradual Abolition Act of 1780." George Washington's Mount Vernon. Accessed September 3, 2020. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/gradual-abolition-act-of-1780/.

"Gwynedd Meeting Historical Notes on Slavery." Gwynedd Meeting. Accessed August 22, 2020. http://www.gwyneddmeeting.org/history/slaves.html.

Historical sketches: a collection of papers prepared for the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. (Norristown: Historical Society of Montgomery County, 1915): 63.

Hough, Mary P. H. "Early history of Ambler 1682-1888." A Celebration of Women Writers. Accessed September 3, 2020. https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/hough/ambler/ambler.html.

Hopkins, G.M. Montgomery County 1871, Pennsylvania, Page 011 - Horsham Township, Marble Hall, Barren Hill, Prospectville, Horshamville, 1871.

Hunsicker, Clifton Swenk. Montgomery County, Pennsylvania: A History, Volume 1. (New York; Chicago: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1923): 352.

Jenkins, Howard Malcolm. Historical collections relating to Gwynedd, a township of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, settled, 1696, by immigrants from Wales, with some data referring to the adjoining township, of Montgomery, also settled by Welsh. (Philadelphia: Howard Malcolm Jenkins, 1897): 394-395.

Jones, E. Gloria Stewart. Penllyn Village: Lest We Forget: A History and Personal Memories of a Black Settlement in Lower Gwynedd Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. (USA: E. Gloria Stewart Jones, 2008): 29-32.

Tardi, Clara. "Indentured Servitude." Investopedia. Last modified November 13, 2019. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/indentured-servitude.asp.

Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910, Volume III, Population, 1910, Reports by States, with Statistics for Counties, Cities, and Other Civil Divisions: Nebraska-Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, and Porto Rico. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913): 594.

Walters, Susan. "History: Local: CHAPTER LXXX : Whitpain Township: Bean's 1884 History of Montgomery Co, PA." USGenWeb Archives. Accessed August 22, 2020. http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/montgomery/history/local/mchb0071.txt. #pahistory #africanamericans #USCT #civilwar #slavery #residents #foulkefamily #quakers #abolition #philadelphia #philly #germantown #lowergwynedd #whitpain #ambler #farmers #laborers #upperdublin #horsham #penllyn #keasbeyandmattison #westmorelandva #westvirginia #gradualabolitionact1780 #slaves #undergroundrailroad #runaway #greatmigration #blackpast

63 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All