Old City gets all the press when it comes to colonial history, but Germantown has a list of sites that would be the envy of any other town. In 1681, Charles II of England granted a charter to William Penn for what would become the Pennsylvania colony. Philadelphia began in 1682. In 1683, Penn sold the 5,700 acres that became Germantown to a group of Dutch/German Quakers, Mennonites, Dunkards, and other religious groups that had been persecuted in Europe.
Remnants of this religious past can be seen along Germantown Avenue, including the first American meeting house of the Church of the Brethren:
The 1770 Mennonite church, located on the site of the first Mennonite burial ground (1704), the first Mennonite Meetinghouse (1708), and the first Mennonite baptisms and communion in America (1708):
Other sites include one of America’s first English language schools (c. 1775), attached to the 1682 Upper Burying Ground cemetery, which contains early 18th century graves, along with the remains of 58 American soldiers that died in the Battle of Germantown:
The 1777 Battle of Germantown was marked by confusion on both sides, but ended in defeat for Washington – and a lost dog. During the confusion, British General Howe’s dog got lost and ended up with the American troops. Washington found the dog, had him fed and groomed, and returned to Howe with this note written by his aide, Alexander Hamilton: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return [to] him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.” Several houses in the area (Clivedon and the Johnson House), still have bullet holes on the facades.
One of the earliest industries established in Germantown was the first paper mill to be built in British North America. Begun in 1690 by the Rittenhouse family, today the site includes 6 (c. 1720-1845) of the original 45 buildings. They occasionally offer historic tours, paper making workshops, and open hearth cooking classes in the bakehouse. School field trips are available.
Germantown also became home to the large summer estates of several prominent Philadelphia families, many of which are still standing and are now museums. Although the large estates are long gone, the original families lived in these houses well into the 20th century, turning them directly from family homes into museums. Because of this, most have furnishings directly tied to the house, and all have excellent documentation of family history and the history of the home.
Grumblethorp: Grumblethorp: The Bloodstained Floor!
Deshler-Morris House (c. 1752): The “Summer Whitehouse,” used by Washington and his cabinet during 1793 and 1794, during the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia. It is the oldest surviving presidential residence.
Johnson House: Built between 1765-1768, the house is best known for its connection with the anti-slavery movement and was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1850’s.
The Germantown Historic Society often has exhibits relating to the area’s history (but, I’d recommend contacting them prior to a visit. They were reinstalling exhibits on a day we tried to visit, which was not reflected on the website).
Germantown was absorbed into Philadelphia in 1854. Today these colonial gems are found along a stretch of Germantown Avenue that covers the economic spectrum from low income to middle class to trendy.