I’m Kelly and I’m a summer intern here at Pennsbury Manor. Over the course of my three months here I’ve become a blacksmith’s apprentice, brushed a two thousand pound bull and spent a large portion of my days dressed as a 17th century Quaker women. While some may consider these experiences wild, the craziest part of my internship was my summer research project.
It started off as a normal day; I had spent several hours doing research for my project on the blacksmiths here at Pennsbury. I sat down for lunch and made small talk with one of the other volunteers who preceded to tell me the most outrageous story I had ever heard. Apparently back in 1686, John Smith one of the blacksmith’s indenture at Pennsbury Manor, wanted to leave his indenture two months early, however James Harrison, the steward of Pennsbury would not let him go. Their disagreement escalated into a brawl that ended with Smith wounding Harrison and fleeing Pennsbury. Smith was gone for several days, but returned in the middle of the night with a cannon. He planted that cannon on Bile Island in the middle of the Delaware River and aimed it right at the Manor House, all to seek revenge on James Harrison.
I had been researching for a few days at this point and this was the first I had heard of any cannon, so naturally I had to find the primary source documentation. I thought it would be easy enough to find, it’s not every day that a disgruntled employee threatens his boss with a cannon. If this happened, surely there is some primary source documentation to prove it. What I thought would only take thirty minutes would end up taking several weeks, consuming all my free time at Pennsbury. I started my search at the first logical place, the bound copies of the William Penn papers that are kept in the Museum Library. I looked under every search term I could think of: Harrison, Smith, Cannon, but to my surprise nothing yielded results. I realized Smith’s actions must have resulted in some sort of discipline, so I checked all Quaker Meeting minutes from that date, and once again I found nothing! Having consulted every source I could think of, I was now convinced that I was the victim of some practical joke.
I was venting my frustration to another intern and telling him I wasn’t convinced that this letter was even real. To my surprise, he led me to my next clue. He told me that a reference to that letter could be found in the footnote on an obscure page of a larger guide book. I checked the footnotes and found that there was a letter that referenced cannon, and that this letter was dated September 17, 1686. The reason why I had not found it in the William Penn papers was because his archive was too vast to be contained in four bound volumes; the full archives were available on microfilm. I dusted off the microfilm reader, and after about twenty minutes of trying to figure out how it worked, I began combing through decades worth of letters. Much to my dismay there was no letter dated September 17, 1686. The following week I had some down time in between tours, and decided to try my luck with the microfiche again. All of the slides seemed to blend together, when suddenly something caught my eye. The transcribed copy of the letter I had just finished reading was dated 7 (September) 1686. THE QUAKERS HAD A DIFFERENT CALANDER! If September was considered the 7th month, that means that the 9th month was November. I quickly scrolled over to the records from November of 1686 and I saw the word I had spent about a month looking for: Cannon.
After reading through the letter a few times, I’d concluded that the original story I had been told was a bit exaggerated. There was no physical altercation, James Harrison went to Burlington for a few days and John Smith took his absence as an opportunity to go AWOL. He did come back a few days later with a cannon, but he did not put in on Bile Island, he put it off to the side of the Manor House. Hearing of the cannon, James Harrison returned to Pennsbury and found that John Smith had been staying with a friend, William Bile, the man from whom Bile Island is named. Smith confessed and was sentenced to jail, he completed the final two months of his indenture after his jail time was up.
I consider this search the craziest thing I’ve done during my internship at Pennsbury. I knew when I applied for the internship that I wasn’t signing up for a typical intern job like getting coffee and filing papers. I at least knew to expect the unexpected. When it came to this letter, I had no expectations. I had no idea where my next clue would lead me. I had no idea if this letter was even real until I actually found it. Though frustrating at times, my little cannon adventure was a great introduction to the world of historical research. Every other time I’ve taken on a research project, my primary sources have come from a database. The difficulty was in crafting the information from that document into a broader argument. This time around the difficulty was physically locating my source among the hundreds of documents we have here at Pennsbury Manor. Whether I was searching for the cannon letter, or even telling people about what I consider the most interesting part of internship, this summer has showed me that the wildest tales are found in the most unlikely places.
Kelly White, Intern Summer 2015