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History's Headlines: Bethlehem's Burnside Plantation was once home of a prominent Moravian

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Sep 06 2013 05:20:45 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 09 2013 05:58:05 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Burnside Plantation

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Historic Bethlehem’s Burnside Plantation is dedicated to history, but it is also a lot of fun.

Founded in 1986, the 5.7 acre park-like site on Schoenersville Road is known for its farm buildings, 18th and 19th century farmhouse and a summer kitchen.  Perhaps its most popular event is the Blueberry Festival. Held in July, it draws crowds to taste blueberry beer and wine, play simple colonial-era games and just enjoy what is hopefully a day in the sun.

Though it is not necessary to know who the plantation’s namesake owner was to enjoy Burnside Plantation, it does add to the appreciation of the property and its rich history. And thanks to careful record keeping by 18th century Moravians, it is possible to know a lot more about James Burnside than we know of many figures from his time.

James Burnside was born in Athboy, sometimes spelled Arthboy, in county Meath, Ireland on June 4th 1708. There is no mention of his parents or if he had any siblings.

The region had been one of the first parts of Ireland occupied by the English in the Middle Ages. A part of the Pale, a walled settlement designed to separate the English from the Irish, it was a farming region then and remains largely devoted to agriculture to this day.

Its history was apparently a troubled one like that of much of Ireland, particularly in the 1600s when the armies of Oliver Cromwell (then England’s dictatorial ruler and a militant Protestant), battled it out with those of militant Catholic Owen Roe O’Neill. When Burnside grew up there, Athboy was largely the property of Thomas Bligh, the local member of the Irish Parliament, which was an English dominated legislature. In 1725, when James Burnside was 17, Bligh’s son John was deemed Earl of Darnley, a title the family held through the 18th and 19th centuries.   

Burnside was apparently of Scots-Irish descent- that is, people of Scottish background whose ancestors settled in Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland. His Moravian record states that he was raised as a member of the Church of England and received a liberal education.

Burnside was an accountant by background, which may have been what attracted the founders of the colony of Georgia to hire him in 1734 to manage the colony’s public store. Those first two years in Georgia had been good for Burnside. He married and built a plantation on his own island.

Although the word “plantation” conjures an image in the modern mind of a Gone With The Wind-esque, elegant, pillared manor house, Burnside’s Georgia property was probably a simple farm structure, similar to the one he owned in Pennsylvania. But starting in 1736, everything seemed to go against him. His house burned to the ground. Then he moved to Savannah and his second house burned to the ground.

By 1740, reduced in circumstances, Burnside was running the colony orphan-house, which was sixteen miles outside the city. Here he met a Moravian who taught him about the faith, and, before long, he joined the church. In 1743, on his wife’s death, Burnside and his daughter Rebecka decided to go to Pennsylvania to join the faithful in Bethlehem.

After living there for a year, Burnside traveled to Charleston, South Carolina ,seeking a job as a Notary Public. Shortly after he arrived, while walking through the woods he heard a voice that he believed was Christ telling him to leave and return to Bethlehem.

In 1745 Burnside sailed north to New York. Here he married and after a time was allowed by the Moravians to return to Bethlehem. Tragically his daughter died the following year. He then requested to travel to New England and New Jersey to share the Moravian faith, “preaching the gospel with success,” noted the Bethlehem Diary.

When he returned from his journey, Burnside was apparently ready to settle down. A number of years ago when the concept of the Burnside Plantation was first being suggested, some wondered if he had ever actually lived on the property. The official church record, written six weeks after Burnside’s death, seems quite exact. After his service as a missionary, it notes, “he bought a plantation near Bethlehem, where he has lived ever since.”

For the remainder of his life Burnside was not idle. He served two terms representing Northampton County in the colonial assembly. He was also what might be called Bethlehem’s official greeter and guide. Being bilingual in English and German made Burnside particularly suited to this role.

It was on July 5, 1755, when General Edward Braddock’s army was four days away from its confrontation with the French and Indians at far-off Fort Duquesne- a stifling hot day in a drought-ridden season- that Burnside returned from a trip to Philadelphia.

Hearing a friend was severely ill, he went to his home and offered to attend to him. Unfortunately Burnside, too, acquired the same illness. Over the next several weeks Burnside knew his end was coming. On Thursday August 9, 1755 between 3am and 4 am, with a prayer on his lips, James Burnside died. He would surely be pleased to know that he is still remembered at his old homestead.