Ancestry.com has stated that 60% of Americans can claim an ancestor who lived through the American Revolution and 40% can trace their lineage to someone who fought in the Revolutionary War. A pretty amazing statistic and one that makes me smile. We are a nation of immigrants, but once we come to the United States, we marry and have children with other American’s and often the joining results in at least one jagged line going back to the 1700’s. That is what happened with my German, British and Mexican 2X great-grandparents when they married their more established American sweethearts.
It was during my research of my older Keith, McNair and McMasters family lines in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that I made the remarkable discovery that George Washington stayed at my ancestor’s William Keith’s house and used it his Headquarters from December 14-24, 1776. Washington made the famous crossing of the Delaware on December 25th and won the Battle of Trenton on December 26th. How had this fact been lost to my family’s stories? How had we not known? I became obsessed with understanding what had brought George Washington to this place at this time and how my family got caught up in the struggle for independence.
The late summer and fall of 1776 was critical time in in our nation’s early history. George Washington and his generals had suffered a series of defeats starting on August 27th when they lost the the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn.) They retreating up through Manahattan Island finally crossing the Hudson to New Jersey on November after loosing the Battle of White Plains, New York. By December 8th, the British had run the Continental Army out of New York, through New Jersey and finally to eastern part of Pennsylvania. The British had taken possession of Long Island, New York City, Fort Washington, Fort Lee and parts of New Jersey. George Washington retreated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania and started to make plans for a comeback. It was important that he have a successful battle, not just for the nations spirit, but because he was about to loose his enlistments as of January 1st. He needed something to inspire new recruits and to keep the ones he had fighting for our independence. It was during the retreat that Thomas Paine wrote his famous lines, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their county; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman”
And what of Bucks County? What did the General find here? I would love to say the community was supportive and came out in droves to help him with the battle preparation. That is far from the reality of his reception. This county was primarily a community of Quakers and Loyalists with only a small percentage of Germans and Scots-Irish. Most of people were not aligned with Revolutionary thinking. However, the Keiths, McNairs and McMasters were all Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had come from Northern Ireland in the early 1700s and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They were not fond of the British, in fact, I imagine they were pretty happy to get as far away from the established government as they could. When they left Londonderry, Ireland, their marriages had been nullified if they hadn’t taken place in the Church of England, their rents had been raised exorbitantly and the local government was systematically stripping them of personal rights. They traveled to America with other Scots-Irish to have religious and economic freedom. I try to imagine what they thought of the events playing out in Philadelphia when the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th 1776. How did they receive it? It must have been scary to take the side of the Revolution when most of your neighbors see you as a traitor. But they took the risk and offered the the General their home.
I am been awed by our nation’s history and think it some type of miracle of timing that brought such brilliant thinkers together with a bold idea of independence. Even more miraculous that they carried it off. In December 1776, the battle could have taken a different turn had not General Washington dusted off his bruised ego, encouraged the small remaining forces, many without shoes or warm coats to cross the river in a snow storm and make a courageous 9 mile walk to Trenton. Many historians believe that this battle was a watershed moment for the Revolution. I am humbled that I am tied to William Keith and his family who played a small part in that.
This article is dedicated to my mother Dee Cork Kemp Sybrandt who passed away on July 28th of this year. She was very proud to find out about our connection to George Washington and the American Revolution.