In the minds of many, this sort of thing didn’t happen in Pennsylvania. But it really did: At a sprawling farm in a Philadelphia suburb a few years before the Revolutionary War, in this so-called free state, a Black man named Jack desperately sought freedom.
The enslaved man was identified in tax records of the Peter Wentz Farmstead in Worcester simply as “negro.” Other archives show he tried twice in three years to escape, in 1766 and Christmas 1769. This is known the same way that his first name came to be identified — from the text of 18th-century newspaper ads seeking his capture or return.
“FORTY SHILLINGS Reward” was the Nov. 6, 1766, advertisement headline in the Pennsylvania Gazette. “RUN away from the Subscriber, living in Worcester township, Philadelphia county, on Thursday, the 16th of October last, a Negroe man, named Jack, about 26 years old, about 5 feet 4 or 5 inches high, a thick set fellow ... “
Odds are you have never heard of Jack or this now-90-acre farm in Worcester Township near the must-visit ice cream shop just down the road that is a destination for Montgomery County locals, Merrymead Farm.
I had only first heard about this place in a news release a few days ago from its owner, Montgomery County. Revolutionary War buffs appear to be among the small few who know the Wentz Farmstead because its preservation through the years hinged on bragging rights that George Washington stayed there as a general for two brief overnight visits in 1777.
The news release shared a welcome development that will bring long-overdue depth to that two-dimensional story line peddled for centuries about this place and its complicated past.
The National Park Service has designated the Wentz Farmstead a National Underground Railroad Site. It earned this not for having offered safe harbor to those seeking freedom from captivity in the South, as so many others on the list did. It secured this for having embraced slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and for the fact that an enslaved man there attempted to escape.
“It’s a new idea to focus the stories around the freedom seekers,” said Diane Miller, national program manager who has overseen the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom since its inception in 1998. The Wentz site is unique nationally, she said, because “it might be the first escape site that we have listed in a Northern state. This really demonstrates that slavery was in every colony.”
For centuries, historians promoted a cartoonish reductionism of American history in framing the significance of sites like this one around the centrality of a man in power while relegating everyone else into the roles of invisible postscripts.
We must thank the public historians who toiled in recent years at this Montgomery County-owned site for recognizing the discipline was shifting away from this myopic approach and making room for Jack’s story. Now, the farmstead is not just where Washington as VIP crashed at a wealthy landowner’s estate 15 miles west of Germantown and 10 miles from Valley Forge National Historical Park. Now you will also know about the Black man who was kept there, as property of another man, against his will.
The fact that Washington’s visit garnered so much attention is troublesome in other ways, too.
Washington paid two overnight visits to the Wentz in October 1777, before and after the Battle of Germantown. But when he became president later that century, Washington himself had enslaved people at his presidential home in Philadelphia along what today is Independence Mall. (The unearthing and discovery of those slave quarters were extensively documented in 2007 in The Inquirer and today constitute a solemn exhibit in the shadow of the Liberty Bell.)
“For the longest time,” Wentz museum educator Virginia Kopacki told me, “it was about the week or so that George Washington stayed with the Wentz Family. That was a big reason why we were preserved.”
And yet, Kopacki added, that celebrity drive-by (my words) “was such a small period of time in the long history of the house.”
Jack tried to escape in 1766 and again in 1769. Kopacki said it is not clear if he made it out for good. Their records are not comprehensive. But the fact that there were, in the Wentz archives for a number of years, documents on hand about at least one enslaved man there prompted staff to reconsider the long-standing story line behind the site.
Starting a few years ago, Kopacki and others at the Wentz compiled the 18th-century archives about Jack. They used the descriptions in the newspaper ads to commission replicas of the exact clothing Jack would have been wearing at the time. They mounted an exhibit and a conference about Jack.
Kopacki then turned her attention to the Park Service. In early 2019, she submitted an Underground Railroad application with supporting materials.
The Wentz site won the designation later that year, but county officials made the news public only a few days ago. That is, in part, because the Wentz site had only recently made its way onto the Park Service’s official national Underground Railroad online directory.
Kopacki and the farm’s historic site supervisor, historian Margaret Bleecker Blades, said they hope the designation generates more interest in visits to the site, which could then further amplify awareness of the story itself.
All of this would only help deepen our appreciation of the ravages of slavery in our nation’s history.
It’s not hard to believe that some people who have visited the Wentz to see the exhibit of Jack’s re-created clothes have refused to accept that he was enslaved. Site historians say this is sometimes the case.
Until, however, those people see the archived newspaper ads with their own eyes.
“It’s hard to argue with tax records,” Bleecker Blades said.
The great power of history is when it can educate and persuade — with facts.