When Lehigh County officials began to look around for historical figures to honor in this bicentennial year, one name came to the head of the list right away- Declaration of Independence signer George Taylor.
Not only had Taylor played an important role in the founding of the nation, but the presence of his stately Georgian-style home in what is now Catasauqua is one of the few dwellings actually lived in by a signer of the Declaration of Independence that has stood the test of time. The home is now a National Historical Landmark and museum run by the borough.
A new monument planned for the site will include a plaque recognizing Taylor’s accomplishments and will be dedicated in September. At some future date it may include a bust of Taylor, paid for by funds raised by the community.
Among those working on the project are local residents Jessica Kroope, Martha Capewell Fox and Tom Jones. They have done extensive research- including at the Library of Congress- into what is known of Taylor’s early background and have found little to no documentary evidence for much of it.
“Everyone says he was from Ireland but there is no evidence of that,” says Kroope. “All the sources claim he was an indentured servant but we can find no documentary evidence of it. Was it all just rumor that people have repeated over the years and been accepted as fact? Or are there documents out there that are lost or that we cannot find that would have confirmed it? We just don’t know.”
As any genealogist knows the challenges that Kroope and her friends have faced is not unusual. Documents from the 18th century are not neatly organized. And the turmoil that followed the American Revolution led to many of them being scattered or destroyed.
It is known that Taylor was a native of the British Isles, which is comprised of England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. If he did come to America as an indentured servant in the 1730s as most sources claim, it was a condition he shared with many of those who immigrated to the British colonies in the 18th century. In order to get passage to America an immigrant would have to agree to work for a period of time for a master. That time period would normally last from 3 to 7 years.
Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his classic account of the colonial period, “America at 1750: A Social Portrait,” called it white servitude. “Nearly everywhere indentured servants were used and almost everywhere outside of New England they were vital to the economy,” he writes. Some were convicts, but the vast majority was the working poor of the British Isles who had no future in Europe and hoped for something better in America.
According to traditional accounts, George Taylor worked first as an iron furnace laborer for Samuel Savage. It was a sweaty and unpleasant job. But as the story was later told, Taylor had apparently learned to read and write and do simple arithmetic somewhere along the way and his master decided he could be more useful in the office.
By 1742, when Savage died, Taylor was running the books for both Savage’s Warwick Iron Furnace and Coventry Forge. Taylor’s next step was to marry Savage’s widow. He ran both places until 1752 when Savage’s son took them over. In 1755 Taylor leased with some partners the Durham Iron Furnace in Upper Bucks County.
By the 1760s Taylor was, if not a rich man, certainly on his way. In keeping with his status he purchased from Allentown founder William Allen, who was acting as agent for London speculator John Patterson, a 331 acre property called the Manor of Chawton, now in Catasauqua.
Here in 1767-68 he built a handsome Georgian-style home overlooking the Lehigh River that had few rivals in Northampton County. He lived here until 1776. Its most significant next owner was David Deshler, a patriot leader of the Pennsylvania German community who played a leading role in the 1780s and 90s in state and local government.
With the start of the 1770s Taylor had good reason to be proud of his rise in America and his success and had assumed a role just a little below the lordly Allen family. But as the growth of tension between England and her colonies grew Taylor found himself, although a member of the colonial assembly, drawn to what patriots came to call “the glorious cause.” He became a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia and by 1776 he had a contract to make cannon shot for the rebels.
At the same time Taylor was also assuming a larger political role. When five Pennsylvania delegates to the Second Continental Congress decided they could not support a total break with England they were forced to resign. The State Assembly appointed Taylor to be one of their replacements. On August 2, 1776 Taylor, along with most of the other delegates to the Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence.
It would be pleasant to record a happy future for George Taylor. But in the chaos that swept Pennsylvania in the later part of the revolution his iron furnace became the target of some who used his former business partnership with Joseph Galloway, a Tory, to accuse this singer of the Declaration of Independence as not being sufficiently patriotic.
Some historians believe that the seizing of Durham Furnace by the state authority for forfeited Tory property had little to do with Taylor’s patriotism but was an excuse for some members of the legislature to seize the property for themselves.
On February 23, 1781 George Taylor, age 65, died in Easton at the small Parsons-Taylor house.
The following October the British surrendered at Yorktown and the cause for which George Taylor and other signers had pledged, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “our lives, our fortunes and our scared honor,” was victorious.