Those organizations included the Society of Colonial Wars, founded originally in New York City in 1892, and followed closely by the creation of the General Society of Colonial Wars in 1893 to serve as the national umbrella organization for a growing number of state chapters.
As the General Society celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2017, let’s take a journey back in time to investigate the history of the Society and then return to its activities today.
An Age of Innocence?
To understand the perspective of those who founded the Society, we can look to the novels of Edith Wharton. She was born in New York City in 1862, approximately when the Society’s founders would have been born. She came from a prominent New York family with connections to that state’s great founding patroon dynasties. Her novels and short stories are set mostly in the last quarter of the 19th century and capture the lives and concerns of the particular group of New Yorkers from which came the founders of the Society.
The population of New York City doubled between 1850 and 1880 as the City was transformed from one of a number of prosperous East Coast port towns into the Empire City. As Hermione Lee notes in her celebrated biography, Edith Wharton (Knopf, 2007), the period after the cataclysm of the Civil War was characterized by “… massive increases in post-war industrial production, the gathering waves of immigration, the phenomenal rise in incomes at the top (and the savage decline at the bottom), the titanic power of the bankers and financiers, [and] the huge building programs in the cities.” Parts of that description are startlingly familiar given what is happening today.
Edith Wharton is famed for her keen observations of the mores of a particular extended group of prominent families, mostly in New York, at that particular time. Edith Wharton’s “… treatment of a shifting society,” Ms. Lee continues, “is partly fueled by nostalgia. Like many of her generation … Wharton was an astounded observer of the disappearance of the social organization which in her youth had looked so permanent.” Wharton’s novels are full of commentary on that changing world. In The Age of Innocence, for example, she noted that “… the country was in possession of the bosses and the emigrant, and decent people had to fall back on sport or culture.”
One reaction to those changes in the decades after the Civil War was the emergence of a national historical consciousness in the United States. A milestone in that development was the Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia over six months in 1876 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Exposition was phenomenally popular; approximately 10 million people visited, including many from abroad. That total number was more than a quarter of the population of the United States at that time. Visitors experienced at the Exposition some of the earliest examples of the Colonial Revival movement in such exhibits as the New England Farmer’s Home, which featured a recreated open-hearth kitchen, circa 1776. Such rosy references to an idealized Colonial past offered solace to a
war-torn nation that was experiencing tremendous change.
A Colonial Revival
That revival of interest in our Colonial past included the establishment of a number of heritage societies. The earliest of such organizations had been formed much earlier. The Society of the Cincinnati was founded in 1783 by those who had served as officers in the Continental Army under George Washington. After an early period of enthusiasm, that organization had struggled through much of the 19th century, but experienced a revival later in the century.
Towards the end of that century a number of other organizations were founded, including (but certainly not limited to) the Holland Society of New York (1885), the Daughters of the American Revolution (1890), the Colonial Dames of America (1890), the National Society of Colonial Dames (1891), the Sons of the Revolution (1883), and the Sons of the American Revolution (1889). (NB: It is interesting to note that the Social Register first appeared in 1886.) These organizations are all still active today.
There were also hereditary societies honoring those who had served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War. But a group of gentlemen in New York City recognized the need for a society dedicated to those who had served in the extended period of wars and other conflicts prior to the Revolution.
Three friends, Samuel Victor Constant, Edward Trenchard and Colonel Thomas Waln-Morgan Draper, met in New York in the summer of 1892 to address this need. As discussions continued over the summer, the group expanded to include others from New Jersey, Connecticut and Virginia. On August 18, 1892, these gentlemen, known as “the Incorporators,” founded the new Society of Colonial Wars. According to the volume published to commemorate the organization’s centennial, the members of that Society would be “male descendants of those in military, naval and civil positions of high trust and responsibility whose acts and counsel assisted in the establishment, defense and growth of the American Colonies.”
The Society of Colonial Wars:
Marching into the Future, Honoring the Past
George H. McNeely 4th
As our nation (and much of the world) is roiled by debate on the current high tide of immigration and other signs of social change, perhaps it is an appropriate moment to look back to a time in the late 19th century when our country was encountering a similar situation. The last decade of that century saw the founding of a number of hereditary organizations that looked back nostalgically to the founding of the United States of America.
Above: Members of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry at the gala dinner celebrating the General Assembly of the Society of Colonial Wars in May 2016.
Top: The great seal of the Society of Colonial Wars.
Above: Samuel Victor Constant (1857-1909), one of three founders of the Society of Colonial Wars.
Above: Members of the Council of the General Society of Colonial Wars during the General Assembly in Philadelphia in 1896. They are photographed outside Congress Hall, adjacent to Independence Hall, where the Pennsylvania Society had its offices at that time.
Above: Tylor Field II, Honorary Governor General, and Lewis L. Neilson, Jr., Deputy Governor General from Pennsylvania.
Above: Warriors attending the 2015th General Assembly in Bermuda, including Howard B. Hodgson Jr., Governor of the Massachusetts Society, Joseph Scherberger Jr., and Charles A. Poekel Jr.
Above: David M. Trebing, Governor General, Charles W. Neuhauser, Treasurer General, Tylor Field II, Honorary Governor General, Katherine Field (Mrs. Tylor Field II), and Thomas W. Thaler.
Above: Young members and guests at the New York Society’s annual summer party.
Just months later, the first General Court was held at Delmonico’s restaurant near Madison Square, which was then the geographic center of fashionable New York. The date chosen was December 19, 1892, the anniversary of the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip’s War in 1675. One hundred and five members attended. The event was well covered in the press. The New York Times reported: “There has been the greatest hubbub in town all the week in regard to the new Society of Colonial Wars … To belong to this will hereafter be the standard of upper swelldom in town ….”
As word spread, gentlemen in other states were interested in forming similar organizations. The first was created in Pennsylvania in early 1893, and others quickly followed in Maryland and Massachusetts. The Incorporators welcomed such efforts and quickly understood the need to create a national society that would be made up of all state societies. Thus the General Society of Colonial Wars was founded in May 1893. Over the years since, the General Society has grown to include 32 chapters, including one for the British Isles.
Determining the Beginning of the Colonial Period
When the founders of the Society of Colonial Wars were deciding on the start date for their definition of the Colonial period, they had a number of options.
While various explorers over the centuries landed somewhere in the Americas, the earliest generally accepted arrival in what is now the United States was the conquistador Juan Ponce de León’s landing in 1513 in what is now Florida. In 1525, the Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes is believed to have sailed into what is now New York Harbor. Arriving by land from New Spain (now Mexico) was the famous Coronado Expedition of 1540-42, in which a group led by the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Lujan traveled as far north as what is now Salina, Kansas. None of these expeditions resulted in permanent settlements.
The first lasting European settlement in what is now the United States, after a number of earlier failed attempts, was the Spanish founding of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. That area remained mostly under Spanish control until 1819, when it was ceded to the United States and became the Florida Territory. The French tried and failed repeatedly to found permanent colonies in what is now Canada during the 16th century. They were finally successful at Port-Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1605, and Quebec City in 1608.
The first permanent English settlement in what is now the United States was in 1607 with the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. That followed the famed but sadly ill-fated colony at nearby Roanoke in 1585, the reasons for the destruction of which continue to be debated.
The Incorporators of the Society of Colonial Wars decided to use the founding of Jamestown as the beginning of the Colonial period. This reflected the British cultural heritage of the founders. It also reflected their shared Protestant background, although, interestingly, there were several unsuccessful French Huguenot settlements in what is now Florida and South Carolina in the 17th Century. Thus, their definition of the Colonial period was from May 13, 1607, through the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, the eve of the Revolution.
Understanding the Period of Colonial Wars
The military history of that period is extensive and complicated. We are all familiar with later key events such as the midnight ride of Paul Revere, Washington crossing the Delaware, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the hard winter at Valley Forge. From the Colonial period, we know about the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and perhaps King Philip’s War (1675-1678), although we may wonder who exactly was that King Philip? But historians have noted that, if one includes the activities of the English, the French, and each country’s evolving roster of Native American allies, there was some sort of conflict—large or small—every year throughout the Colonial period, the causes of which were varied.
Some were distant offshoots of the dynastic struggles between the great European powers (Sweden, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England) as each was extending its political and economic reach into the Americas. Those dynastic and territorial power struggles also had a religious component as the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation was raging in Europe. Thus, many of the wars were fought to protect particular colonies from incursions by forces representing other European powers, which often included their shifting Native American allies.
Some were confrontations between the colonists and Native Americans as the former sought economic opportunities. In the early years of our colonies, before the successful development of agricultural exports, the initial Spanish hope for gold was abandoned in favor of fur and, to a lesser extent, other raw commodities such as timber. The Native American tribes controlled access to supplies of fur in particular. Thus, skirmishes and confrontations occurred as a result of the ever-changing trading and political relationships between people in the various colonies and the Native American tribes.
In addition, as immigration continued to the colonies and the settlers needed more and more land, there was constant pressure on the Native American peoples.
Although other European countries played their parts, particularly the Dutch, as the Colonial period progressed, those living in our original colonies were largely British citizens and mostly thought of themselves as British. Nevertheless, relationships between the various colonies themselves were also at times strained for political and/or economic reasons, resulting in military actions. These strains were sometimes exacerbated by their religious differences. But gradually towards the latter part of the Colonial period, as the relationship between the colonies and the mother country became more strained, those military activities shifted towards efforts aimed at protecting what the residents of those original colonies thought to be their rights against the actions of the British government far away in London.
Thus, making sense of the innumerable Colonial wars becomes a bit like playing three-dimensional chess, with each conflict caused by a myriad of interconnected factors and leading to a range of consequences. These make studying the period complicated but also particularly rewarding. This period of our history (1607 – 1775) saw our evolution from many scattered and disparate settlements into a people who were sufficiently coherent to be able to fight off one of the greatest military powers of that time and who then formed a nation that went on to become the country we know today.
The Society, once founded, pursued various ways of commemorating that early period. The General Society and the many state chapters have long taken on the responsibility of supporting the placement and maintenance of markers or tablets at key sites related to the Colonial period. In 2011, the National Society privately published a handsome volume entitled Honoring Our Colonial History: Tablets, Monuments and Memorials Placed by the Society of Colonial Wars 1892-2010. It contains information about and illustrations of some 165 of these markers.
The first—and one of the most ambitious—monuments erected was that placed in 1895 by the General Society at the ruins of the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to mark the 150th anniversary of the capture of that fort from the French by combined British and Colonial forces. Reflecting the complexity of that early period, the fort was returned to the French in 1748 with the signing of the Treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle, but was captured again by the British in 1758 and remained in British hands thereafter. The monument was sadly damaged in 1960, but survives in reduced form to this day.
While some markers are modest bronze plaques, others are far grander, including the heroic bronze statue of Cecilius Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore, which was placed by the Maryland Society in 1908 on the western steps of the Baltimore Court House. The Pennsylvania Society placed two tablets on Philadelphia City Hall in 1909 to commemorate the extensive Swedish settlements along the west bank of the Delaware River. Another bronze plaque was placed by the Pennsylvania Society in 1903 to commemorate the Philadelphia Associators, an infantry regiment formed by Benjamin Franklin in 1747 during King George’s War. Interestingly, long after the settling of Pennsylvania, that regiment was the first ever formed in non-violent Quaker Philadelphia. The plaque was originally hung in Independence Hall but is today located in the First City Troop Armory.
The Society Today
Today, the General Society and its 32 constituent societies are busy and productive. The most active state societies have a number of events each year, including lectures on Colonial history and opportunities to hear from authors of respected books on the period. Social events are frequent and well attended.
Each year the General Society works with one state society to host a national meeting, which is open to all members. This brings together “warriors” from across the country to learn about the various state activities, to visit places of historic interest, and for celebratory dinners. In May 2016, that meeting was held in Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Society organized events at the Philadelphia Club, Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing, the First City Troop Armory, the Union League Club’s new golf course, and Andalusia, the ancestral estate of the Biddle family. Side visits offered attendees the opportunity to tour parts of sprawling Independence National Historical Park, including Benjamin Franklin’s house and Independence Hall (a center of Pennsylvania government for decades before the Revolution); the Colonial history documents and manuscripts at the noted Rosenbach Foundation; and the Barnes Foundation (for variety).
The various state societies host beloved events that draw their local members and visitors from other states. The Florida Society organizes a popular dinner dance each year in February. The Michigan Society hosts a delightful summer retreat at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, including evening drinks on what is claimed to be the longest porch in the world. The New York Society holds their festive Christmas dinner dance in the Colony Club’s ballroom, festooned with seasonal greens and twinkling lights. Many view it as one of the highlights of the holiday season. Certain state societies have recently been particularly successful at encouraging younger men to join, resulting in new types of events, ideas and energy.
Both the General Society and the state societies also fund a wide variety of projects across the country of importance to understanding and remembering events of the Colonial period. Recent grants have helped fund genealogical research and archives at a number of historical societies, period houses and churches, the restoration and preservation of historic markers and monuments, and scholarships to students studying the
An Honored History – A Vibrant Future
As the General Society of Colonial Wars celebrates its 125th anniversary, its warriors remain dedicated to commemorating the civil and military events of that formative period in our history and keeping alive the ideals of individual and community freedom that we know as the American way of life. But, as in Edith Wharton’s time, we are currently encountering a range of issues that are challenging our understanding of ourselves and how our democracy functions. Those who fought in those varied Colonial wars had many different perspectives and motivations, but were able to come together and reach beyond their individual views to forge common bonds and understanding that made them stronger. As we are grappling with our current challenges, the Society of Colonial Wars offers one way to celebrate our past and share in discussions about the present. We welcome future warriors to join this effort.”
The General Society of Colonial Wars makes its headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, and can be reached at www.gscw.org.