Northampton County Militia
"America at 225" by Frank Whelan of The Morning Call published 3 July 2001
On July 8, 1776, the sound of bells rang an urgent summons over Allentown and Easton. With war and rebellion sweeping the British Colonies, more than a touch of fear mingled with excitement as farmers left their fields and shoemakers abandoned their benches. In Allentown, they came to the yard in front of Zion's Reformed Church, in Easton to the county courthouse in Centre Square. What they heard when they got there, in German and in English, was the Declaration of Independence, a document marking a new era in American and world history. Allentown and Easton had the honor of hearing Thomas Jefferson's immortal words on the same day they were first read publicly in Philadelphia.
But a time of revolution is one of turmoil and strife. As it did across the country, the Revolutionary era in the Lehigh Valley brought out the best and the worst in people. The most recent overview of the Lehigh Valley during that time is Francis S. Fox's book, "Sweet Land of Liberty: The Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania." Fox is a textbook publisher who lives in Boston. His mother's maiden name was Kleckner. She often spoke of her roots in the Lehigh Valley, and her stories got Fox interested in Northampton County's past. Published last year by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Fox's book tells the story of ordinary people caught up in the birth of a nation.
Two hundred and twenty five years ago, Northampton County was huge –– 5,000 square miles that included Lehigh County and stretched from Bucks County to New York state. Northampton County's population was roughly 15,000, 5 percent of Pennsylvania's inhabitants, and 80 percent was of German ancestry; Scotch-Irish, English, Huguenots, Dutch and Welsh made up most of the rest. Half of the population was 21 or younger, and Easton, with 400 inhabitants, was the largest town.
No major Revolutionary War battles were fought in the Lehigh Valley, but at the outbreak of unrest, support for the Revolution locally was strong. On June 21, 1774, at the first mass meeting ever held at Easton's county courthouse, radicals demanded action. They joined the call for a Continental Congress to demand that Britain respond to their grievances. "Later, at the request of Congress, the people of Northampton elected a committee of observation and inspection to help enforce an American boycott of British goods," Fox writes. The battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 sent a shock wave through the Lehigh Valley. More than 2,300 men joined the local township militias. When Congress offered a bonus to troops willing to go to Boston to support Gen. George Washington's army, a company of Northampton County men marched off.
In May 1776, 900 local militiamen assembled at the farm of Lorenz Guth near Allentown and pledged to support the replacement of Pennsylvania's Colonial government with an independent state government. Fox calls this the start of the American Revolution in Northampton County. Local historian and former Lehigh County archivist Mahlon Hellerich calls it Northampton County's own declaration of independence. He notes the courage of those local militia for taking a stand at that early point in the Revolution. "They took an enormous risk," Hellerich has said. "What they were suggesting was treason that could have resulted in their being hanged." One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was George Taylor of Easton. An ironmaker at the Durham Iron Works who helped supply Washington's army, Taylor risked his all for the cause. He died broke in Easton on Feb. 23, 1781, never knowing the outcome of the war.
In 1777, just before the British occupied Philadelphia, Congress ordered the city's bells, including the one in the State House now called the Liberty Bell, removed and taken out of the city. This was done to prevent the British from melting the bells down for bullets. According to a longstanding oral tradition, first written down in the 1820s and supported by the National Park Service, the bell was taken by local farmers Frederick Leaser and John Jacob Mickley to Allentown and hidden in Zion Church's basement. If caught, they could have been shot by the British or Tories, residents who supported Britain.
Far from the Lehigh Valley, Northampton County men from East Allen Township were captured on Nov. 16, 1776, when the British Army seized Fort Washington along the Hudson River. After fighting from sunrise to sunset, the East Allen men were out of ammunition and surrounded by 10,000 British and Hessian troops. They used their guns as clubs until they collapsed from exhaustion. They were put into an enclosure for three days and four nights and given nothing to eat or drink. Their commander, Gen. Robert Brown, a prominent Northampton County citizen of Scotch-Irish background, used his own money to buy food for his men and saved many lives.
Not everyone supported the Revolutionary cause, and it's easy to forget today that no one at the time knew who was going to win. The choices: Risk hanging by the British as a traitor or be denounced for refusal to join the local militia. Tories were early targets. James Allen, son of Allentown founder William Allen, was the major local figure who at first supported the patriot cause but could not support independence. Allen had hoped to find safety at Trout Hall, his Allentown summer home, but even there he and his family were targets. In 1778, they were allowed to go to British-occupied Philadelphia, where Allen died of tuberculosis at age 37.
Perhaps those who suffered most during the Revolution were the pacifist sects such as the Moravians and Mennonites. The Moravians did not want to give up their relationship with the British, which gave them access as missionaries to American Indians. The Moravians tried to remain neutral, but as the owners of the largest buildings north of Philadelphia, they accepted it when, after the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, the Continental Army took over their buildings for hospitals. But whatever the Moravians tried, they could not please some in the Lehigh Valley. In 1777, the Legislature passed the Militia Act and the Test Act. The first required all men ages 18-53 to join the militia or pay heavy fines; the second ordered men to swear allegiance to the state or lose their rights as citizens. "Waving the Militia Act and the Test Act, or more often self-serving interpretations of them, extremists in Northampton whipsawed Moravians and Mennonites who refused to bear arms or swear allegiance because of their religious beliefs," writes Fox.
But the Militia Act affected more than the Moravians. By 1781, local militiamen had grown understandably weary of war. They had families to support, and as the war went on, the burden became too great. Many refused to pay the fines imposed. "They won't suffer no sheriff, constable, or any other fit person to serve any executions on them," said the Northampton County sheriff. By 1784, the year after the Treaty of Paris ended the war, "most Northampton inhabitants wished to put the war behind them and get on with their lives," Fox writes. The county's delegates in the state Legislature took a role in repealing the Test Act and gutting the fines in the Militia Act. Gradually, the memory of the Revolution's turmoil faded. What remained were the words of the Declaration of Independence, read at Fourth of July celebrations to inspire each new generation with the legacy of the Revolution.