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Charles Read: Part 1 – The Early Years

Opportunity. Colonial America was an expansive, wide frontier where an intelligent and driven man could easily make a name for himself. Everybody knows of the founding fathers, those men who’s luck, debate, trade, and war wrestled free a nation from the world’s most powerful empire. Yet, there was another cast of characters – men who’s contributions to the founding of the nation were just as important, but have been relegated to history’s B-list.

This is the story of one man who helped to shape the colonial life of South Jersey, and who founded the Pine Barrens iron industry – an industry that would end up ruining his own finances, but make those who followed thereafter rather wealthy.

Charles Read III was born in Philadelphia on February 1, 1715 in the house that his grandfather had built at the corner of Front and Market Streets. This house, located along a busy thoroughfare with windows overlooking the Delaware and facing the wharves, afforded young Charles a first-hand experience with the mercantile life of bustling early Philadelphia. His father was a merchant and public official and in these footsteps Charles followed.

Charles undoubtedly spent time working in his father’s store, which sold everything from “Flower’d Callaminco,” “Figur’d linen,” and “Red and blew strouds” to cocoa, chocolate, pine boards and cedar shingles.[i] It’s in all probability that goods from Durham Iron Works in Durham, Pennsylvania, of which Read held an interest,[ii] made their way to the store for sale, further inspiring the boy who would later found four iron furnaces of his own.

Both Reads were friends and customers of Benjamin Franklin, whose wife Debora may have been related to them.[iii] Franklin, in signing letters, would often sign himself, “your very affectionate friend and cousin,” and James Read’s son, Collinson, would refer to him as “Cousin Benny.” It’s likely that Franklin purchased paper from the Reads, and, in turn, the Reads had an open account at Franklin’s store. When Franklin organized the Philadelphia Library Company in 1731, the Reads purchased a share of the company for 40 shillings.

Sometime in 1733, at the age of eighteen, Charles sailed for London to continue his education. Settling at the estate of his maternal uncle, Sir Charles Wagner, in Surrey he became fast friends with the botanist Peter Collinson, likely influencing his interest in agriculture and gardening. Sir Charles arranged a commission for Charles as a midshipman in the Royal Navy and he received an appointment to the HMS Penzance, which would soon sail for the West Indies.

During the early colonial period, Philadelphia rivaled New York as a port city, and the elder Read, as alderman and later mayor, was positioned for contact with some of the more prominent foreign merchants who visited. While in the West Indies, Charles visited Jacob Thibou, a wealthy planter on the island of Antigua who, for a time, lived in Philadelphia and was probably a friend or associate of the Reads. Jacob, with his vast landholdings and political connections, was a captivating figure for Charles, who eventually sold his commission in the navy and married Thibou’s daughter, Alice, on April 11, 1737.[iv]

Whether the marriage was truly for love or necessity is not known. By this time, Read’s father had fallen gravely ill  and deeply in debt. While courting Alice he certainly kept the information of his father’s precarious financial situation to himself, since others viewed him as the son of a rich merchant and a rising colonial star in the Thibou household. The elder Read died on January 6, 1737, leaving an estate with a deficit of nearly £7000.[v]

Charles returned to Philadelphia with his new bride and settled back into the family home with his mother and brother James. Before his father’s death, Charles received a deed for 258 acres of land in Philadelphia on the east side of the Schuylkill River. He also endeavored to continue the mercantile business and settle the estate of his father, who had left no will.

Around this time, Charles initially became interested in the lands on the other side of the Delaware River. Philadelphia had grown considerably during his absence, and the city had become even more important as a colonial port. Burlington, the chief port of the Western Division of the colony of New Jersey, was the primary source of agricultural trade with Philadelphia. Pennsylvanian farmers competed against those from New Jersey in the markets, the latter being branded as “public nuisances” by the former.[vi] It’s possible that the changes in Philadelphia, coupled with the sale of his family’s house to Israel Pemberton,[vii] and having a wife who, on account of her Creole accent and easy-going island upbringing likely did not fit in well with the stuffy Quaker Philadelphia social circles, made Charles decide to seek opportunity elsewhere.

In 1739 he became court clerk of Burlington County, and shortly thereafter received an appointment to the office of collector of the port of Burlington at a salary of £60. Here he established his new home at 320 High Street, renting the place from John Smith, whose father, Richard, had built the house in 1720.[viii] Today the building has been preserved and is known as the Nathaniel Coleman House.[ix]

In the next installment of this series we’ll follow Charles as he cuts his teeth on building his empire in New Jersey, amasses more public offices than one can count, establishes several farms, and disastrously gets involved in the Pine Barrens Iron industry.


[i] Carl Raymond Woodward, Ploughs and Politicks: Charles Read of New Jersey and his Notes on Agriculture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1941) p. 25

[ii] Fackenthal, Dr. B. F., Jr. “The Durham Iron Works in Durham Township.” Bucks Country Historical Society Papers Read Before the Society and Other Historical Papers, Volume VII. George MacReyonalds, et al. (n.p.: Bucks County Historical Society, 1937) p. 59-94

[iii] Woodward, p. 28

[iv] Ibid., p. 32

[v] Ibid., p. 33

[vi] Ibid., p. 36

[vii] Westcott, Thompson, The Historic Mansions and Buildings of Philadelphia with Some Notice of Their Owners and Occupants. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1877) p.69

[viii] Woodward., p. 42

[ix] Nathaniel Coleman House. May 1, 2011 <http://08016.com/coleman.html>