The Jacob Brumbaugh Correspondence with Philadelphia Quaker, Mega-Landowner Henry Drinker (1734-1809)


The Jacob Brumbaugh-Henry Drinker Correspondence (1797-1799)

When examining most of Jacob’s long life, one must rely for the most part on official government records. There is, however, a cache of correspondence from Jacob and his eldest son Jacob, Jr. to the Quaker merchant prince Henry Drinker between the years 1797 and 1803, with some interesting connections also found in Drinker’s 1785 correspondence with others. 

Henry Drinker was one of the wealthiest and most well connected Philadelphia merchants. He was a leader in Quaker Meeting circles as clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, as a member of the Meeting for Sufferings, as a trustee of the Westtown School, and as a Quaker martyr, having notoriously been exiled for nearly eight months during the British occupation of Philadelphia which began on September 26, 1777.[1] Despite his notorious exile, Drinker continued after the occupation to be a key connector— he was on the board of the elitist American Philosophical Society, a treasurer of various Quaker committees and an elected member of the town council in 1790. He also became one of the leading land tract speculators, and even survived the bursting of that speculative bubble. 

By the time of their correspondence, both men had aged—Jacob was 71 and Henry, 63. They were two hundred miles apart, but still found ways to bicker over contract details in their correspondence. At this time, Henry found himself beset by financial troubles, but still had a firm hand on the tiller of commerce, while Jacob was optimistic, energetic, and ingratiating even if forgetful, and struggling to keep himself on top of the deal.

The correspondence was certainly not on its face personal or intimate in any way even though Drinker calls his correspondent “Friend.”[2] It was the Quaker custom, even to the point, one might suppose, of disarming a business correspondent. How so? In common parlance the word implies that there is a special relationship of trust between the parties. With someone on the other side of a purely business deal, however, one should probably never infer that trust existed without some previous, clear and positive action indicating true friendship.

Partly, too, reviewing the correspondence can give one an insight into both Quaker modalities of speech as well as the difficult task of negotiating by mail. These letters also demonstrate how big city merchants used a network of agents in the country to carry out their business. Most importantly, it gives one a window into the personality and behavior of Jacob Brumbaugh, as well as Henry Drinker. 

These letters focused on the Brumbaughs’ purchase of two land tracts from Drinker, located in Bedford County. Jacob had already paid for one, called Corunna (381 acres), but Drinker had not yet conveyed it to him because Jacob had not instructed him how precisely he wanted Drinker to do so at that time. Jacob also purchased Dorfans Barn (475 acres), on which he made a partial payment of £338 in 1797. He still owed a £988 balance at the time of Jacob’s death in April 1799. 

Jacob’s first letter in 1797 to Henry Drinker discussed his payment of £338..90..0 to Drinker’s local agent John Canan. This statement illustrated that Drinker stood to make money in this deal. He added, “my son Jacob is concerned with me in the purchase as well.” He declared that he and Jacob, Jr. “wish to have articles of agreement with you for the purchase of said land.” He claimed the land had been formerly sold or leased to John Stouder. Commenting on the lease, he wrote, “I understand [the lease] is to continue for nine years which I did not know when I purchased.” One thus sees in this statement the lack of information he and other land purchasers dealt with as they tried to make deals. Launching into a complaint about the lessee Stouder, he argued:

I hope Stouder can be restrained from destroying the timber unnecessarily and confined to clear land where there is least timber. I am told his Brother is here who is a wagon maker [who] destroys a great deal [presumably of timber to make wagons]. [3]  

Jacob then volunteered to bring the money himself to Philadelphia, if Drinker instructed Canan to return it. He added that when in Philadelphia, he would “settle the balance of the three spring tract,” as well as “the cost of the Caveat you entered for me.” Evidently, these two had conducted business before, including the transaction that occurred in 1785. He further added, “the rest of the payments for the Yellow Creek land shall be regularly remitted to you by Mr. Jas. Ferguson of the place who goes to Philadelphia four or five [times] a year.” The “three spring tract” was the tract called Corunna.[4]

Drinker replied to Brumbaugh in September to say that John Canan had not come to Philadelphia for the convening of the assembly. On November 7, Drinker wrote again, telling Jacob that he had heard from Canan, which allowed Drinker to ratify and confirm the written agreement Brumbaugh signed with Canan.. Brumbaugh, however, wrote back explaining that he had given Canan the money already, and had asked for a receipt, which Canan refused to give. Jacob intended to deposit some money on the property, then “settle the price and the rest of the payments with you, and all I wanted of him was a receipt.” Canan, however, instead gave Jacob an agreement to sign. Brumbaugh retorted, “if I coud not make the two first payments my money was to be returned” which was never, of course, a part of the written contract he had signed.[5]

Brumbaugh agreed to “confirm the bargain on the following terms”: he would pay Drinker £261..11..0 by next June, which together with the first payment, would make a total of £600. He then agreed to pay Drinker a second £600 payment in four yearly installments of £150 in November 1799, 1800, 1801, and1802.  He told Drinker that he had signed the agreement with Canan because Canan would not otherwise provide a receipt. So, having already signed an agreement for a £1327 purchase price, he countered with an offer of £1200, adding it “is double what was marked on the platt of the land and I hope you will think it enough for the land, should you agree to this proposition you may rely on punctuality in the payments.” He then wrote, “should the dispute not be settled with Fifes [another party] I shall expect Interest on the payments already made and to be made in the spring until possession is given me.”[6]

Henry Drinker then sent his next letter to Jacob on June 9, 1798, full of the measured tones of a systematic businessman: 

while I am favoured with life & health, it is my desire, & I think it ought to be thine, that the Deed for the Tract formerly sold thee in Morrisons’ Cove should be executed, which may be done as soon as thou informs how the conveyance is to be made, to whom, the Township & County &tc as requested in my last Letter & when Executed how it is to be conveyed to thee? 

He added that Fifes, the party with a claim to the property, gave up their claim and confessed judgment, so that the title to the land Jacob had bought from John Canan “is now clear of all incumbrance or debts…I therefore hope thou’ll speedily make the payments.”[7]

Two months later in August 1798, Jacob replied, “Honor’d Friend Sir, I hope to make you payment in and by sending you 100 Barrels of good Merchantable Flower [flour] well packed in [torn] Barrels and if you would rather have it sent around to Philadelphia it shall be Done at my proper Cost.” 

Jacob did not want to leave any contingencies uncovered, so he added, “if said flower is not sufficient I will make up the Deficiency in Either Apple Brandy or Rie Liquor to the same Merchant.” Again he focused on the timber destruction by the lessee, Mr. Stouder: 

“I hope you will write to Mr. Cannan to settle with said Stouder concerning the said land as he occupies it in every respect as if it were his own…What he has done is done but I will pay him for nothing but if after he gets notice what he does in good order is to be settled for but not for Clearing land for that he has nothing to do with nor is he to be settled for by any means. [Give] notice [to] said Stouder to refrain from selling and Destroying timbers in and on said premises and not Destroy and let the fruit Trees be Destroyed nor the fences or house or Barn be demolished.” 

Again Jacob threatened to unravel the deal:

if you cant comply to these my proposals …I am willing to take my money that I paid you with Simple Interest which I think is no more than Reason between Man and Man in behalf of the same as I found the land not to be what I bought [the letter is torn here]… [the] plow land to be Barny [barrens or rough land] and Pine Land [page torn]. I Conclude and remain your Wellwisher,  [8]

This letter contained strong, well–practiced, even modestly elegant, language. It is hard to determine, however, if this letter was written in Jacob’s hand. Jacob Jr. had help writing his letters, so his father may have also. This letter also  contains legal phrasings, meaning Jacob likely contacted a lawyer about the points he wished to make.  Jacob was a determined old man who tried to insert completely new terms at this juncture in the negotiations for payment of the purchase price to be delivered to Baltimore not in cash but in kind, viz., produce of Jacob’s farm such as “Merchantable Flower [sic- flour]” or “Apple Brandy or Rie.” Henry Drinker replied sternly to Jacob after three months. Again, in his measured tones, he chided Jacob: 

All thou says about 100 barrels of Merchantable Flour, Apple Brandy, and Rye liquor is nothing to the purpose…in short Friend all thy long Story about the Land bought of Canan, the quality of it with many other ridiculous circumstances are too childish and affronting to common sense, that they deserve not serious notice. After having entered into a written contract, paid part of the purchase price, & prevented a sale of the property to other purchasers, to come forward with a number of new conditions and terms is really extraordinary. 

Henry ended this firm rebuff to Jacob’s last attempt to renegotiate by calling attention to the payment dates and amounts, and warns that a resort to federal court might be his next move, closing with “thou art warned by thy Friend.”[9] This was strictly business, not the relation of friendship.[10]

One must wonder if Jacob declined in his energy and drive. Looking, however, at his multiple purchases at the age of 72 and his feisty correspondence, one sees a hustling, yet ingratiating old man determined to get a deal.  

[1] See Wendy Lucas Castro, “‘Being Separated form My Dearest Husband, in This Cruel Manner’: Elizabeth Drinker and the Seven-Month Exile of Philadelphia Quakers,” Quaker History, 100, (2011), 40-63. 

[2] This was one of the ways that Quakers set themselves apart from the world as all the peace sects also sought to do. Other ways the Quakers reminded themselves and others of their commitment to their strict religious principles were disciplines that included plain dress, plain talk, an emphasis on ethics, a numerical way of listing the date (3rd month, 2nd day, not March 2), affirmation rather than swearing, asceticism, and moderation in all things. See J. William Frost, The Quaker Family in Colonial America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973). 

[3] J.B, Jr. to H.D., 21 August 1797, Box 21, D.C., HSP

[4] Ibid. 

[5] H.D. to J.B., Jr., 7 November 1797, Box 21, D.C., HSP

[6] J.B, Jr. to H.D., 15 November 1797, Box 21, D.C., HSP.

[7] H.D. to J.B., Jr., 9 June 1798, Box 21, D.C., HSP.

[8] J.B. to H.D., 15 August 1798, Box 21, D.C, HSP

[9] The day Drinker wrote that warning letter, he himself warmed up for some tough negotiating by dictating a letter firmly rebuffing the attempts to renegotiate a bigger deal by another client, the then U.S. Senator from New York, Aaron Burr (later Thomas Jefferson’s vice president). See H.D. to Aaron Burr, 9 November 1798, Box 21, D.C., HSP.

[10] H.D. to J.B., Jr., 9 November 1798, Box 21, D.C., HSP

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s