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American Patriot – Robert Magaw

Robert Magaw Memorial Plaque at the site of Fort Washington
Robert Magaw Memorial Plaque at the site of Fort Washington

theserpentSometimes I am perplexed as to why, in Britain, we are so reluctant to celebrate patriotism. Of course we have Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and many statues, plus the images of a few historical heroes do adorn our bank notes but patriots seem to be the preserve of America. There the people openly commemorate patriots that are judged to have made a selfless contribution to their country’s development. It is hard to imagine the struggles involved in colonising a continent and this story is about such American Patriots, our ancestors – The Magaws. The exploits of the main character, Colonel Robert Magaw, are inspiring because of what he did and the reason he did it. America is a country of self-determination and self-belief largely due to patriots such as Magaw who fought for independence.

From 1717 up to the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, the Scots-Irish or Ulster Irish immigrated to America in waves, brought about by severe hardships in Ireland. Most were originally Lowland Scots, Presbyterians, a breed generally described as robust, adventurous, and rebellious. They had previously been encouraged to migrate to Northern Ireland in the 17th century as part of England’s attempts to strengthen control over Ireland. America offered new opportunities and, as with most groups, they headed to where their kinsmen had established small communities – Cumberland County, a fertile valley in Pennsylvania. Surprisingly, they shared this destination with many German immigrants who, like the Scots-Irish, were also highly educated and industrious farmers. These earliest settlers arrived in Philadelphia and occupied the lands east of the north-south Appalachian Mountain Range. The British Government Movement prohibited movement further west of this barrier because, besides protecting the treaties with the Indian tribes and the lucrative fur trade, it reduced the need for the Crown to maintain a large military presence in their colonies.

Shippensburg, a settlement named after Edward Shippen who was a one time Mayor of Philadelphia, was the oldest community in the great farming land of Cumberland Valley. It is just west of the Susquehanna River, and in July 1730, 12 Scots-Irish families came to the site of the present day town and built cabin homes along Burd’s Run. It was one of the western outposts of its time, the frontier, a colonial settlement and the land of the Shawanee Indians beneath the local Allegheny Mountains.

Of Shippensburg in 1730, The Hon. John McCurdy wrote at the time, ‘the following persons came to that locality and built their habitations: Alexander Steen, John McCall, Richard Morrow, Gavin Morrow, John Culbertson, Hugh Rippey, John Rippey, John Strain, Alexander Askey, John McAllister, David Magaw and John Johnston. They were soon followed by Benjamin Blythe, John Campbell and Robert Caskey. From this settlement ultimately sprang a village older than any other in the Cumberland Valley. It was a distributing point for settlers, and hence important, as will be shown by the following letter written therefrom:’

(Dated May 21, 1733) Dear John: I wish you would see John Harris, at the ferry, and get him to write to the Governor, to see if he can’t get some guns for us; there’s a good wheen of ingns about here, and I fear they intend to give us a good deal of troubbel, and may do us a grate dale of harm. We was three days on our journey coming from Harrisses ferry here. We could not make much speed on account of the childer; they could not get on as fast as Jane and me. I think we will like this part of the country when we get our cabbin built. I put it on a level peese of groun, near the road or path in the woods at the fut of a hill. There is a fine stream of watter that comes from a spring a half a mile south of where our cabbin is bilt. I would have put it near the watter, but the land is lo and wet. John McCall, Alick Steen and John Rippey bilt theirs near the stream. Hugh Rippey’s daughter Mary (was) berried yesterday; this will be sad news to Andrew Simpson, when it reaches Maguire’s bridge. He is to come over in the fall when they were to be married. Mary was a verry purty gerl; she died of a faver and they berried her up on rising groun, north of the road or path where we made choice of a peese of groun for a graveyard. She was the furst berried there. Poor Hugh had none left now but his wife, Sam and little Isabel. There is plenty of timmer south of us. We have 18 cabbins bilt here now, and looks (like) a town, but we have no name for it. I’ll send this with John Simpson when he goes back to Paxtan. Come up Soon; our cabbin will be ready to go into a week and you can go in till you get wan bilt; we have planted some corn and potatoes. Dan McGee, John Sloan, and Robert Moore was here and left last week. Remember us to Mary and the childer; we are all well. Tell Billy Parker to come up soon and bring Nancy with him. I know he will like the country. I forgot to tell you that Sally Brown was bit by a snaik, but she is out of danger. Come up soon.

Yr. Aft. Brother, James Magaw.

This letter, included as written, paints such a picture of frontier survival. The pioneers cleared the forest to build log cabins, ‘chinking’ and ‘daubing’ the gaps between carefully selected tree trunks with grass, sticks and mud, finding solid ground on which to build. These followed the designs of the earliest models built by Swedish settlers. They were ever mindful of having a good water source, forever in fear of attack by the native Americans, ‘the ingns’, illness and getting bitten by snakes! Around the log cabins, meadows were cultivated as vegetable gardens, growing crops to sustain the family and their valuable domestic animals over the winter. These Scots-Irish, and their German neighbours, carved out their farms from a wilderness, fought off those Indians and came in ever-increasing numbers. They were the first to establish schools for their communities and were to become leaders in the movement to gain freedom and independence from England. They fought in the Revolution and served in the conventions that led to the foundation of America’s Constitution.

You are now introduced to the earliest mention of our Magaw immigrants and whilst I have yet to establish the relationship between David, John and James, family followed family. It is against this background that David Magaw’s brother William Magaw with his wife Elizabeth, three sons Samuel, Robert and William Jnr., and daughter Sarah, came to Shippensburg from Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland sometime around 1752. They were an educated and wealthy family and by this time Shippensburg would have been a thriving centre and gateway to the interior. The Magaws would have sailed up the Delaware River to one of the staging ports near Philadelphia before travelling the 150 miles west to Shippensburg. As early as 1730 Philadelphia was a very sophisticated city, no log cabins here, with its elaborate red brick-built buildings, based on London’s fashionable Georgian architecture. The grids and plan for today’s city were already established.

Surgeon of The Pennsylvania Regiments
Surgeon of The Pennsylvania Regiments

All three Magaw sons were to excel in their education and vocations. Samuel Magaw (1735-1812) was ordained as an Anglican clergyman and was a Professor and Vice Provost of The University of Pennsylvania who became Rector of Philadelphia’s St. Paul’s Church and was a founder of the Academy of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Robert Magaw (1738-1790) was a lawyer and distinguished Colonel of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War – Commander of Fort Washington, and he was a member of the Philadelphia Convention in 1774 and of the Legislature in 1781. Finally, William Magaw (1744-1829) was a medical doctor, equally distinguished as a volunteer of Cumberland County, a Surgeon of The Pennsylvania Regiments of the Continental Army for the duration of the American Revolutionary War against the British (1775-1783).

As a direct descendent of Colonel Robert Magaw his story of courage and patriotism is well preserved in my family. He attended the Academy of Philadelphia and received his degree as a lawyer, becoming the first attorney admitted to practice in the Bedford County Courts. He made his home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1774, Robert was importantly a member of the Committee of Safety in Philadelphia, a body designed to discuss the problems, protect the community and control the local militias. Later that year he was a member of the Pennsylvania Provincial Convention – this body, together with similar groups in the other 12 founder States of The Union, would ultimately forge The Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 – the most important date in the history of The United States of America.

The American War of Independence was a revolution by the settlers against the authority of The British Government and Crown – King George III. ‘We have carved an existence out of the wilderness here in The New World and we do not want to be dictated to by distant rulers’, would have best described the mood of immigrants from everywhere in today’s Europe. The British Government sent more troops to quell the uprising, little realising that a bloody war and struggle would ensue. In 1775, Robert Magaw as commissioned as a Major in Thompson’s Battalion [1] of Riflemen. Ulster born Colonel William Thompson formed the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion, the first major unit of what is now the U.S. Army. He gave outstanding service on many battlefields, and the famous Pennsylvania Line were almost entirely men from the North of Ireland. In fact, almost half the regulars of the American Army were Scots-Irish immigrants and they dressed more like frontiersman or rangers. They were renowned for their marksmanship, accuracy at distance, selecting a target rather than blindly firing at a mass of men, and they used the slower loading long rifle rather than the musket. The first shots were fired near Boston with the Battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, both causing considerable loss to the English Armies. In January 1776, Magaw was promoted to the rank of Colonel in Command of the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment. Later in March, when General Howe abandoned Boston with his English Army and travelled north to Halifax, Magaw was with General George Washington as the American Army left for New York and he engaged in strengthening the fortifications of Fort Washington.

On July 4, 1776, these new Americans claimed their independence from Britain and Democracy was born. By signing the Declaration of Independence, the British citizens amongst immigrants risked being tried and hanged for treason. It therefore celebrates the most important date in America’s fight for national self-determination and the concept of being America “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. Americans pledge allegiance to their flag and to the Republic for which it stands – “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” – a great statement.

In the campaign that followed General Howe eventually returned south with ten thousand men to confront the Americans at Fort Washington, which was located at Harlem Heights the northern end and highest point of Manhattan Island. General Nathaniel Greene appointed Robert Magaw Colonel Commandant and our Patriot was personally charged by General George Washington with the duty to defend this position, enabling The American Army to make a strategic withdrawal to Fort Lee on the opposite side of the Hudson River from Fort Washington.

On 16th November 1776, Robert Magaw had three thousand ill-equipped Americans, largely clad in civilian attire, divided into three detachments posted in a ring around the fort. It was the Alamo of the American Revolution and they faced an army of about 9,000 men, including British Redcoats under the British General William Howe and Hessian troops dressed in Prussian blue; these were German mercenaries commanded by Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. This vastly superior force made their assault attacking all three American detachments simultaneously. Magaw is quoted as saying ‘Actuated by the most glorious cause that mankind ever fought in’ and his thoughts must have reflected on the Declaration of Independence that he himself had been a party to formulating a few months earlier. Can you imagine the pride and honour to defend the principles of the American Flag with its stripes and thirteen stars [2] flying above the Fort? Heavily outnumbered Magaw’s men were forced to retreat from their open earthwork defenses into the fort after three hours of close fighting. After defending the fort all day they were overrun by superior numbers, and Magaw realizing the hopelessness of his position was forced to surrender.

The Freeman’s Journal of 10 December 1776 said, of the surrender of Fort Washington by Colonel Robert Magaw, “The commanding officer of the fort is a gentleman of great courage, and would have defended it as long as a single soldier remained to support it, had it been capable of defence. The highest honours are due to his gallant officers and the brave soldiers who were under his command.”

Despite the overwhelming odds, the British and Hessian losses were 67 killed, 335 wounded and 6 missing. The Americans faired even worse: 54 killed, 100 wounded and 2,858 captured with the great loss of valuable supplies of stores, weapons and ammunition. Captured regular soldiers suffered cruel beatings and the badly wounded were given little assistance. They were marched to lower Manhattan and transferred to the notoriously inhumane prison ships stationed in New York harbour. The 100 officers, including Magaw, faired better and were sent to the provost jail in New York City to await exchange with officers of similar rank. Sometime later Magaw was paroled on his own recognisance, agreeing not to leave the city until he was exchanged. He spent much of this time in Gravesend.

Whilst on parole in Gravesend Magaw met and courted Marritje Van Brunt (1762-1803) of Kings County, New York. She was the daughter of Rutgert Van Brunt, listed as a Colonel in The New York Militia in 1776, and her mother was Altie Cortelyou. Magaw and Marritje married in April 1779, and would later have two children, Elizabeth and Van Brunt.

Robert Magaw was held in prisoner status until 25 October 1780, a total of 1420 days, and he was finally exchanged, together with General THOMPSON, for a Hessian major general and allowed to return home. Together, with his young wife Marritje, they returned to Carlisle to live and he continued his law practice. He is mentioned many times as attorney and witness for the wills made by his neighbours of the Cumberland Valley. He served two years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1781-1782) and was for many years a trustee of Dickinson College, which was founded in 1773 and became the first college to be chartered in the newly-recognized United States. He remained listed as a Colonel in The Philadelphia Line of Riflemen in 1787 but he was never recalled to active duty after his ordeal. He was awarded 500 acres of land [3] at Carlisle, Pennsylvania on 16 July 1789 as a reward for his service to the new Nation and his brother William Magaw, Surgeon to The Pennsylvania Regiments, was also awarded 300 acres for his services.

Robert Magaw died aged 52, 7 Jan 1790, and was buried at The City Cemetery in Carlisle. After his death, Marritje returned to live with her father in Gravesend, New York, taking her children Elizabeth and son Van Brunt Magaw, the latter taking both family names as his mother Marritje was the last in the Van Brunt line. Marritje died later in 1803 and was buried with her husband. She was cited as being Col. Cmdt N.Y. Lady Patriot P.A.

The Society of American Wars Commandery of The State of New York later commemorated Robert Magaw, our Patriot, on 30 April 1930. The Society erected the memorial (illustrated) on the field of battle where his services were rendered to the cause of liberty – Fort Washington.

The medal awarded to Colonial Dames of America
The medal awarded to Colonial Dames of America

It was many generations later, in 1890, that an international woman’s society was founded for those with direct ancestors who had held positions of leadership in the Thirteen Colonies, The Society was called The Colonial Dames of America.  Its aim is to actively promote national heritage through historic preservation, patriotic service and educational projects. My Grandmother,  Matilda Rapeljie Smith, a third great granddaughter of this Lady Patriot Marritje Van Brunt, cited her ancestor in her claim for honorable membership.

In every family history there are patriots; they are always distinguished by virtue of the human qualities they exhibit and that we admire and aspire to emulate. In Magaw’s case, it was duty, honour and that willingness to put himself on the line, The Philadelphia Line in his case, because he believed in a worthy cause. These are noble human qualities. I think that is why I enjoy the story of Colonel Robert Magaw: He was a Scots-Irish immigrant and he chose to be an American, but he was not an American until he made himself one.

The 5 Magaw sisters, Alice, Sarah, Clara, Mabel & Edna - Circa 1896
The 5 Magaw sisters, Alice, Sarah, Clara, Mabel & Edna – Circa 1896

The family names of Magaw and Van Brunt would both die out eventually through a lack of male heirs. Robert Magaw and his wife Marritje Van Brunt’s Gt.Gt.Grandchildren were the five girls pictured. It is a charming portrait of Alice, Sarah, Clara, Mabel and Edna, dated about 1896. But it is not surprising that the name of Magaw, and indeed Van Brunt, are both perpetuated, finding there way into the given names of his descendants in this lineage. My beautiful niece Sally Magaw Hughes is the proud and current holder of that honour.


[1] Family Search Centre, Salt Lake City – Magaw Service records Microfilm 971614 / 97168 and other references M804 – 178932 and M805 – 356373

[2] The thirteen stars represented the 13 colonies and founder States of the Union

[3] From records at The Family Search Centre, Salt Lake City – Land Awards Volume 1 BLW# 1412 – 500