Joseph Blewer, patriot and slave trader

London Coffee House W.L. Breton 1830
Slave auctions took place at the London Coffee House, Front and High (Market) Streets. (Print by William L. Breton, 1830, courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia:

The graves of sea captain Joseph Blewer and his wife Sarah lie close to the front doors of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church) in Philadelphia. Capt. Blewer is justly celebrated as a patriot during the American Revolution. Less often acknowledged, however, is the fact that Blewer was a slave owner and spent several years in the slave trade.

Biographic accounts state that Joseph Blewer was born in 1734 in Pennsylvania of English parentage. He married Sarah Lindenmeyer on Sept. 26, 1759—an event that he commemorated in letters and documents by adding the numerals “1759” within the flourish of the final letter of his signature.

Sarah was born in 1737 to George and Judith (Justis) Lindenmeyer; both parents were descended from old Swedish settler families. Sarah was the eldest of four sisters—including Maria, Christiana, and Rebecca—and she and Joseph remained close friends with the sisters and their husbands throughout their lives.

The Blewers settled close to Gloria Dei in the suburb of Philadelphia called Southwark. Their first son, George, was born July 14, 1760, and baptized at Gloria Dei six days later, with Sarah’s sisters Maria Nordenlind and her husband Eric, and Christiana Melin and her husband George in attendance. Later children included Henrietta Mary (born 1762), James (1764), and Joseph Jr.

In 1761, Joseph Blewer, then 27, was employed as captain of the schooner Pitt in the West India trade. In 1762, he registered the brig Mayflower. The Pennsylvania Journal of Feb. 24, 1763, noted that Blewer’s Mayflower, coming home from Havana, was the only vessel to succeed in getting into port when all other shipping was stranded at Marcus Hook because of large blocks of ice in the Delaware.

In November of that year, Blewer registered the sloop Othello and the following month sailed her to Africa—probably to purchase slaves. Two years later, he again engaged in the slave trade as master of the ship Granby. [combine paragraphs]

An ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette (July 25, 1765) states: “Just imported in the ship Granby, Joseph Blewer, master, Seventy Gold-Coast SLAVES of various ages and both sexes to be sold on board said ship at Mr. Plumstead’s wharf, by WILLING and MORRIS. And a part of them are intended to be sent in a few days to Dock Creek, there to be sold, by Mr. Thomas Murdock for cash or country produce.”

Masters of vessels on the Africa run, like Joseph Blewer, were often given the responsibility of purchasing slaves on behalf of the companies who employed their services and were expected to negotiate with sellers to obtain the best price. For example, the captain of the Marquis of Granby (a different vessel from Blewer’s although the name was similar), which left Liverpool in 1762, was instructed: “on your arrival [in Africa] … if one or more ships be there you will observe to make an agreement with the Master or Masters so as not to advance the Price on each other.”(1)

A depiction of the British sea captain, John Kimber, torturing a young woman captive to death on board his slave ship. (Cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank, 1792. PD-U.S.)

At sea, they possessed the power of life or death over their “cargo.” Slaves who refused to eat were often tied down and whipped, or had their mouths forced open with iron devices. Women were routinely raped by ship captains and mates, as well as by crew members, while slaves who dared to revolt could be thrown overboard to the sharks.

The masters of slave ships also were given authority to sell their captives in the West Indies or other foreign ports, sometimes in auctions on board the vessels. In July 1765, the Granby arrived in Philadelphia after a stop in Barbados, suggesting that Blewer had sold some of his human cargo on that island before proceeding to sell 70 others in his homeport. “Gold Coast slaves” like the ones that Blewer brought to Philadelphia were considered by the slave masters to be “unseasoned,” unlike those who had been confined to the Barbados plantations for some years, where they were compelled to labor under conditions of terrible deprivation and brutality while they learned the language and customs of their overseers.

The big Philadelphia merchant house, Willing, Morris and Company, had been contracted to auction off the Granby’s slaves. Soon after Thomas Willing and Robert Morris had formed their partnership, in 1757, the new firm entered the slave trade with enthusiasm, sensing that large profits were to be made. Because of the war with France, a shortage of labor had arisen in Pennsylvania and other Middle Colonies, as European immigration tailed off and many white indentured servants were mustered into the King’s army. But the Southern and West Indian plantation economy could not supply the numbers of slaves that were needed. Accordingly, around three-quarters of the slaves brought for sale in the Philadelphia area during this period were shipped in directly from Africa.

According to historian Donald D. Wax, a total of approximately 1243 slaves were reportedly brought to the region between 1759 and 1765.(2) But Wax indicates that the number might be much higher since many were smuggled into the region in order to avoid Pennsylvania duties. Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain how many enslaved Africans might have been indicated by common advertising terms such as “a parcel of negroes.”

Philadelphia slave auctions typically brought in white plantation owners from as far away as southern Delaware (then a semi-autonomous part of Pennsylvania), southern New Jersey, and Maryland. As an inducement for likely buyers, Willing and Morris often offered free transportation from Wilmington, Del., to the Philadelphia slave marts. The company stated that they were willing to accept farm produce as payment—which they could re-sell (perhaps in the South) for still more profits.

In 1761, the Pennsylvania Assembly considered a bill to impose a duty of £10 for each slave brought into the province for sale. A group of Philadelphia merchants, including Willing and Morris, then sent a petition to Gov. James Hamilton asking that the bill be withdrawn:

“We the subscribers, ever desirous to extend the Trade of this Province, have seen, for some time past, the many incoveniencys the Inhabitants have suffer’d for want of Labourers and artificers, by numbers being inlisted for His Majesty’s Service, and near a total Stop to the importation of German and other white Servants, have for some time encouraged the importation of Negros, and acquainted our friends and correspondents in several parts of His Majesty’s dominions (who are no Way apprehensive of a Bill of this Nature), that an Advantage may be gained by the Introduction of Slaves, which will Likewise be a means of reducing the exorbitant price of Labour, and, in all probability, bring our Staple Commoditys to their usual prices; …”(3)

Despite the agitation by the merchants, however, the legislature approved the duty on slave imports. Towards the end of the decade, as the war came to an end and European immigration rebounded, profits dived in the slave trade. Willing and Morris switched gears and helped to organize the first non-importation agreement in 1769; the slave trade in the Philadelphia region quickly wound down to almost nothing.

Joseph Blewer’s attitude toward slavery during this period might be gauged by the fact that he himself was a slave owner. According to tax lists, in 1769 he owned one “negro,” and in 1774 he owned two “negroes.” These people probably worked as servants in the household.

In the meantime, Joseph Blewer had invested in the purchase of a sloop, the Sally, which he registered in the Port of Philadelphia in August 1766. On June 16, 1768, Blewer and the Sally left Philadelphia for Pensacola, in the panhandle of Florida. With the settlement of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British had acquired Spanish Florida, which they divided into two provinces, East and West Florida. The British hoped to encourage white settlers to West Florida while expelling the Native American population. When the Creek nation resisted, the British built a fort to protect the settlers at Pensacola, the capital of West Florida. However, just before the Sally arrived, in 1768, the British withdrew their troops, largely because of monetary costs.

The Sally remained at Pensacola until Oct. 1. Upon her return to Philadelphia a month later, Blewer reported in the Philadelphia Chronicle (Nov. 7, 1768) that the settlers in Pensacola “were in great Fear and Distress at the Removal of the Troops, as they lay surrounded by Savages, from whom they have no Defence.” He said that a “Mr. Bradley has lost 30 Head of Cattle from his Plantation, supposed to be carried off by the Indians.”

Blewer told the newspaper that while the Sally was on her homeward voyage, on the early evening of Oct. 5, he sighted a large vessel in their rear. She soon fired her guns, which Blewer took as a call of distress; he ordered the Sally to hove to and hung out a light. At 9:30 at night, the other vessel could be seen plainly from their decks and appeared to be only about half a mile away. Just then, the mate cried out that she had “overset” (tipped over). Although Blewer ordered that the Sally remain in place until two in the morning, with hopes of picking up survivors, “he never saw any Thing of her afterwards.”

Six days later, the Sally was off the coast of South Carolina, at latitude 33. Suddenly, she “met with a severe Gale of Wind, which lasted 22 Hours.” The storm split the foresail, and a wave washed one seaman, Lawrence Morgan, overboard. Blewer noticed “a great Quantity of Boards and other Lumber” floating along the coast—evidence of the extent of the damage that the gale had produced.

For the next two years, Blewer and the Sally made frequent runs between Philadelphia and Charleston, S.C. A display advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal of March 8, 1770, for example, stated: “For Charlestown, South Carolina, The Sloop Sally, Joseph Blewer, Master; Having extraordinary accommodations for passengers, will sail with all convenient speed. For freight or passage apply to said master, at the London Coffee house, or on board at Mr. Joseph Sims’s wharf, below the [Dock Creek] Drawbridge, or at his house in Southwark, who has for sale, new Rice, and Carolina soal leather.”

In November 1770, Blewer registered a new vessel, the brig Friendship, with the Port of Philadelphia. Blewer owned the Friendship in partnership with Daniel Robinson of Philadelphia and Daniel and Isaac Bourdeaux of Charleston, S.C. The Bourdeaux brothers, import merchants and financiers, also owned plantations and slaves in South Carolina’s backcountry. Immediately, the Friendship took the place of the Sally on Blewer’s voyages to Charleston. The Friendship carried items such as “Philadelphia salt-petred hams,” Irish linens, flour, cheese, and chocolate for the Bourdeaux brothers to sell. Returning to Philadelphia, it brought pine pitch and agricultural goods from the Carolina plantations, which Blewer’s partner, Daniel Robinson, sold at his store on Sims’s wharf.

The Friendship also carried goods for major wholesalers. The Pennsylvania Historical Society has in its collections, for example, a receipt from Capt. Blewer to Thomas Wharton for payment of £23/12 shillings and 6 pence for 23 casks of South Carolina rice, which Blewer delivered in June 1771.

Although Joseph Blewer had left the business of importing African slaves, he was still complicit in the trade. This can be seen in an advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette (Oct. 4, 1773) in which a white merchant, Thomas Radcliffe, offered a reward for the capture of a Black man whom Blewer had carried in the Friendship in January 1773 from Philadelphia to Charleston:

“RUN AWAY from the Subscriber, near the NEW GATE, on THURSDAY Night the 16th of SEPTEMBER last, a Stout NEGRO MAN, named PRINCE, About Five Feet Ten Inches high, of a black Complexion, and a little pitted with the Small Pox, is about Twenty-eight or Thirty Years of Age, had on when he went away, a Sail-Cloth Frock and Trowsers, and a blue Negro-Cloth Jacket; he was born in New-Jersey or Pennsylvania, and was brought Passenger by Capt. BLEWER to this Place last January; he speaks very good English, and sometimes endeavours to pass for a free Fellow; he was brought up to the Tanners Business, but of late has gone in a boat…”

By June 1773, Blewer and Robinson continued to manage their brig, the Friendship, but with a new captain, William Moor. The following month, Blewer, Robinson, and the Bourdeaux brothers registered a second vessel for the South Carolina trade. It was a newly built sloop, the Sea Nymph, which Blewer himself was to command.

Hostilities in the American Revolution broke out in April 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord. In the summer, George Washington took command of a ragtag army of farmers and fishermen, in the attempt to expel the British from Boston. Despite the war in the north, however, Blewer sailed the unarmed Sea Nymph on a voyage from Philadelphia to Jamaica. On Sept. 20, 1775, the Sea Nymph was met by the HMS Mercury and seized. The vessel, crew, and two cabin passengers were taken to Boston, where the British sold the Sea Nymph and her cargo.

George Washington, painted by Charles Peal Polk in the 1790s. (PD: U.S.)

After being released, Capt. Blewer was put in contact with George Washington, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., who asked Blewer to carry several letters back to Philadelphia. On Nov. 28, 1775, Washington gave him a letter to hand to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, which read in part, “As the small Pox is now in Boston, I have used the precaution of prohibiting such as lately came out [of the city] from coming near our Camp. [British] General Burgoyne I am informed will soon embark for England.”

Washington pointed out in his letter that he was reluctant to send messages through regular post riders since some dispatches had been intercepted the previous month when being carried through New York. For that reason, “this goes by Captain Joseph Blewer who promises to deliver it carefully unto you.”(4)

On Feb. 2, 1776, having returned to Philadelphia, Blewer and Daniel Robinson addressed a letter to a Congressional committee requesting prosecution of their case for damages against the British commander who had seized the Sea Nymph.

Describing their vessel, Blewer and Williams stated: “… in the Building & fitting her Ant, no Expence was Spared by her Owner, to have the Materials of which she was Built & Fitted out the first Quality they having Particularly intended her for a Passenger Vessel and for the Gentlest People, in a Trade between this & South Carolina fitted her with Extraordinary Accommodations & at a great Expence for the Purpose, And in which Situation she was taken the Possession off by the Mercury.” They also pointed out that the brig had carried goods that were pre-ordered by merchants in Jamaica, which remained undelivered.(5)

As the war escalated, however, Blewer stepped away from the life of a sea captain and dedicated himself to the cause of the revolution. In mid-June 1776, he was a delegate from the city of Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference, which met in Carpenters Hall. The conference ratified the May 15 pro-independence call of the First Continental Congress—a precursor to the Declaration of Independence. The conference also authorized a Pennsylvania Assembly to take place in July, the mustering of county militias, and a Committee of Safety to oversee the defense of Pennsylvania during the war.

Blewer was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, one of the four delegates from the County of Philadelphia, representing Southwark. The Assembly began its sessions on July 15, 1776, and was given the task [with the task] of drawing up and approving a constitution for the newly independent state. The document, which Blewer signed, is in many respects the most radical state constitution in American history; for example, it provided a process in which legislators could be immediately recalled from their posts, if necessary.

On July 23, 1776, Blewer was appointed to the Committee of Safety. The following year, he became a member of the Committee of Inspection for the district of Southwark. Also, because of his maritime experience, he was appointed to the Pennsylvania Navy Board—of which he became the president. The state had authorized measures to thwart any attempt by the British fleet to sail up the Delaware to attack Philadelphia, and Blewer played a key role in putting the plans into effect.

The Pennsylvania Navy’s strategy relied on the firepower of the frigate Delaware plus about 60 armed galleys. The galleys were swift flat-bottomed boats, with one or two masts and a single cannon at the stern. They could be sailed or rowed and, like a swarm of mosquitoes, were able to attack much larger vessels that lacked their speed and maneuverability.

That summer, the Navy board also commissioned the placement of a number of chevaux de frieze in the bed of the Delaware River; these were 60-feet-long sharpened pikes, tipped with iron, meant to spear the hulls of enemy ships that might attempt to pass over them. (6) Blewer played a major role in fixing the sites of the chevaux de frieze and in supervising their erection.

The strategy discussions that Blewer was involved in are demonstrated in a July 12, 1777, letter he wrote on behalf of the state Navy Board to Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Wharton (on file at the Pennsylvania Historical Society). After informing the governor that two state galleys would soon be en route to join the fleet of Continental galleys, he noted:

“Have taken an opportunity with the Commodore on the subject, and we are of the opinion that we shall run a very great risque [risk] of the Fleet down the Cape May Channel [in the lower Delaware Bay], unless we can procure an equal force with the Enimy. For it often happens that a vessel taking the first of a Southerly breeze from Sea will push up so fast as to overhaul any Vessels that may be miles up higher [i.e., upstream in the Delaware River], before they feel the Wind, by which means the Enimee’s Ships may cut off our retreat, and in the interim, while our fleet is blown up in that Channel the Enimy may send to New York to procure such Vessels as may suit their purpose and the consequence be a total loss of the Fleet.”

Blewer and several other members of the state Navy Board wanted to develop Mud Island, where fortifications (which later became known as Fort Mifflin) were located, as the site of a naval base, with provisions to house the galley fleet in its back channel. The board members were able to influence George Washington in favoring the plan. Washington visited Mud Island in early August 1777 to see about strengthening the fort, seeing it as a key line of defense to defer an attack on Philadelphia.

As it turned out, however, the British avoided Fort Mifflin and instead sailed up the Chesapeake and landed 15,000 troops in Maryland. After defeating Washington’s troops at the Brandywine and Paoli, the redcoats marched into Philadelphia on Sept. 26. One week earlier, Congress and the Pennsylvania state government had fled the city for Lancaster; Blewer and his family moved to Lancaster at the same time.

The American fleet in the river attempted a counterattack against British forces in Philadelphia. But their major source of firepower, the frigate Delaware, came under attack, ran aground, and was captured by the British. Soon afterward, Washington saw an opportunity to strike the British from the north, through Germantown. Although victory seemed within grasp, however, the Americans were forced to withdraw through the heavy fog.

The Blewers’ son George, at age 17, was captured at Germantown on Oct. 4, 1777. A few years earlier, George had been forced to leave Princeton College in disgrace after he tattled on fellow students with whom he had caroused at late-night drinking parties. But when war broke out, he earned a commission as lieutenant in the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment. After his capture, George was sent to Long Island, N.Y., where he was held prisoner.

On Sept. 8, 1778, Joseph Blewer informed the Committee of Safety that his son George “is now in New York & in a low state of Health, which induces Mrs. Blewer to solicit a Pass into that City to visit her son.”(7) After deliberation, a pass was issued to Sarah Blewer to enter British-occupied New York. George recovered his health but had to endure imprisonment for over three years; he was finally freed in an exchange of officers on Jan. 29, 1781. He was promoted to captain, fought at Yorktown, and remained in the Continental Army until the end of the war in 1783. Unfortunately, he died the following year.

Meanwhile, from 1779 to 1780, Joseph Blewer served as a member of the General Assembly, after it had returned to Philadelphia. Shamefully, when the Assembly deliberated on a bill to gradually abolish slavery, Blewer opposed it. After the bill was approved, Blewer joined the minority in drafting a statement (Feb. 29, 1780) to explain their “no” vote.

The Assembly minority argued that this was not “the proper time” to manumit slaves because of the possible effects it would have in the South, where the main activity of the war was taking place. They explained that if white men in the South were called to fight in the war, they would leave their families “at the mercy of a superior force of slaves,” who upon hearing of the passage of this Pennsylvania law, might be led “to a demand of an immediate and entire freedom, or to other disorders.”

Blewer and the rest of the minority also complained that the new law went too far in offering emancipated slaves the full rights of free citizens. It should be left to future legislative sessions, they said, to judge whether the freed slaves were “civilized” enough to warrant being granted further privileges.(8)

As the war drew into its seventh year, on Jan. 15, 1782, Blewer wrote a note affirming, “… to the best of my knowledge I never Did refuse atending Militia duty Since the Begining of the Revilusion to this time when I was able, and should I have [?] Mised attending, I Must have been Sick or in Some Presing Service of my Cuntry.” Sarah Blewer was also active in patriotic duties. In July 1780, she and her sister Rebecca Ord were listed among women in Southwark who had gathered donations for relief of the soldiers.

After the Revolution, Blewer set up a chandlery store on Market Street in partnership with Rebecca’s husband, Capt. George Ord. He also participated in many civic causes, such as gathering subscriptions for a hot-air balloon flight, scheduled for July 4,1784,(9) and helping to raise money for repairs at Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church.(10)

In 1786, the Rev. M. Hultgren mentioned Capt. Blewer in his “Items Relating to Gloria Dei Church and its Vicinity” (originally written in Swedish): “Joseph Blewer, aged 58 years, vestryman, of English extraction but married to a Swedish wife, has one son. They come quite often to the Swedish church, but attend chiefly the English church.”(11)

Within the next year, Blewer became very ill. He dictated his will in May 1787, which stated that he was “sick and weak in body but sound in mind.” All of his worldly goods were left to his wife Sarah and to his son Joseph, as soon as the boy reached the age of 21. A business letter that Blewer scrawled on Jan. 23, 1788 (in the collection of the Pennsylvania Historical Society) is very difficult to read. It begins, “I have Been Confined to my house most part to my Bed which prov[?] my wayting on your £1250 order …” After lingering in poor health for another year and a half, Joseph Blewer died on Aug. 25, 1789.

Joseph Jr. became a sea captain like his father. He married Rebecca Cummins at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on May 24, 1796, and they set up house in the rear of 250 S. Front Street. In March 1798, Joseph Jr. died. His mother, Sarah Blewer, died in 1801, bequeathing the bulk of her estate to her brother-in-law George Ord, with £20 yearly to be paid to her sister Maria Nordenlind.

  1. Gomer Williams, “History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque” (Liverpool: 1906), p. 486.
  2. Donald D. Wax, “Negro Imports Into Pennsylvania, 1720-1766,” Pennsylvania History, Vol. XXXII (1965), 282-87. See also Wax, “The Negro Slave Trade in Colonial Pennsylvania” (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1962), p. 46.
  3. Minutes of the Provincial Council, 1761, reprinted in Elizabeth Donnan, ed., “Documents illustrative of the history of the slave trade to America,” Vol. 3, (Division of Historical Research, Carnegie Institution of Washington: 1932).
  4. George Washington letter to John Hancock, Nov. 28, 1775, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., “The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 4 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington: 1931), pp. 120-123.
  5. Joseph Blewer to Wythe et al, Feb. 2, 1776, p. 1.” from “The Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789” (National Archives, Washington)
  6. A portion of a chevaux de frieze is currently on display in an exhibit on the Battle of Fort Mifflin at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.
  7. “Minutes of the Council of Safety of the Province of Pennsylvania, ” Vol. XI, (Harrisburg 1852), p. 571.
  8. Reprinted in Edward Needles, “An Historical Memoir of the Pennsylvania Society Promoting the Abolition of Slavery” (Philadelphia: 1848), pp. 24-25.
  9. The balloon launching was delayed until July 17, 1784, from the yard of Walnut Street Prison. The balloonist, a Mr. Carnes of Baltimore, fell out of the carriage when it knocked against the prison walls, but he survived. The balloon rose rapidly without him, erupted in a ball of fire, and was consumed in a few seconds.
  10. Vestry Minutes, United Churches of Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church, Aug. 25, 1785.
  11. Extract from the Rev. M. Hultgren in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. XXXI, 1907, p. 244.


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