Did you ever hold a camera film to the light? All things are turned about; the right side becomes the left, and the first object in view appears to be the last, at the extreme end of the picture. So it seems when we take a mental review of the past,—the point of contact is reversed and we can balance accurately the lights and shadows that appear.
To the mind of Robert Fulton, about to make a venture which called for courage,—a voyage to an unknown land,—the chief aim of his life was the care of his mother, whom he must leave behind. The longer he thought, the more was he convinced that better than a sum of money, which might be lost or stolen, would be the gift of a farm-home where she could settle down to enjoy an old age of security and peace.
We can well imagine that he cast about in his mind properly to determine the best location for this purchase. It appears that a relative, the Rev. Joseph Smith, had been called to the pastorate of the Presbyterian Church in the town of Hopewell, Washington County, Pennsylvania. In order that his mother might have the care and protection of this relative, Robert Fulton decided to buy the new home in Hopewell. He selected a farm of more than eighty acres on Cross Creek, a fertile spot near running water, not unlike the farm which had been his mother’s earlier home and his own birthplace.
The long journey through the wilderness which lay between the two settlements had to be made by coach or wagon. It was like a fresh start in life to Mrs. Fulton and her family, three growing daughters and the young lad, Abraham, now about sixteen years of age. The “big brother,” Robert, was looked upon with great admiration; his success in Philadelphia, his friendship with the famous Franklin and other prominent men of the country, and his tangible gift of the new home—all proofs of his industry—must have filled the mother’s heart with gratitude and pardonable pride, as she looked, with mingled joy and anxiety, at her tall son battling with ill health yet resolved to conquer that and every other obstacle to success. He must indeed have been a son and brother to be proud of!
The new home was in Hopewell Township, one mile northeast of the present little village of Buffalo near Pittsburgh. It was sold to “Robert Fulton, miniature painter of Philadelphia,” for about $400.00—not a large amount for a home, to be sure, but it was quite a sum in those days. We know the land had been cleared, cultivated, and planted, a great help toward its establishment as a productive farm. Upon it was a two-story peaked-roof dwelling having a central hallway and a kitchen extension. Chimneys at both ends provided generous hearths for winter comfort and a tall spreading tree in front gave grateful shade through summer heat. In an old colored print of the scene several cows are shown in the pasture near the creek and an adjacent log cabin was probably used as a cattle barn.
It has been stated that Robert Fulton gave the farm to his mother on his twenty-first birthday, a generous way to prove that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Most of us are looking for gifts on similar happy occasions; it is another and a better way to celebrate them by a gift to the mother who gave us birth. The deed is dated May 6th, and Robert’s birthday did not occur until November 14th, but the actual taking possession of the home may have been deferred until the latter date.
During the month of September of the same year, Robert Fulton also purchased for seventy-five dollars four lots in the town of Washington, Pennsylvania, which, through the enterprise of its pioneer settler, John Hoge, had just been surveyed and mapped into streets. Washington seemed a promising field for investment and Mr. Hoge a man of integrity and good judgment. Fulton had great confidence in him, and while in England sent letters and remittances of money for his mother in Mr. Hoge’s care.
It appears that Fulton bought these four lots with the thought that they would provide home sites for his sisters and brother when they married. He later conveyed them to the three sisters, and in a letter to his mother, directed that the fourth lot be sold to pay the remainder of his indebtedness to Mr. Pollack for the purchase of the farm.
In 1786 Isabella Fulton married Peyton Cooke. In February of that year he obtained a deed for “a lot of ground and hewed logs for a home.” At the end of the document appear these words, “By Peyton Cooke’s direction, this deed is made for Robert Fulton.” Probably Fulton had advanced money for the transaction.
Some time later, Elizabeth Fulton, or Peggy as she was called in her brother’s letters, became the wife of a Mr. Scott, who probably died in a few years, for his wife and children made their home on the farm with her mother, and its ownership was secured to her by Robert Fulton’s will in 1815.
In 1790 Mary Fulton, or “Polly,” married David Morris, a nephew of Benjamin West. Mr. Morris was a man of local prominence and his intelligence seems to have rendered him the most companionable of Robert Fulton’s brothers-in-law.
Abraham Smith Fulton, the only brother, is said to have opened a school in the town of Washington. During his later life he was employed by his brother in running an early steamboat on the Ohio River. Some time after this, in overseeing the building of a log house, on a bluff not far from Pittsburgh, he was instantly killed by the collapse of the structure.
This, in brief, is the story of the sisters and brother of Robert Fulton. Through eighteen years’ absence in Europe his love for them remained true; and when he made his will, in 1814, he left to each a legacy, and relinquished all right to money which he had at different times lent them.
Mr. Morris built the home for his wife, Polly Fulton, upon the lot adjoining Mr. Hoge’s home, given her by her brother. A letter, written by Robert Fulton to his mother, from London, June 14th, 1790, alludes to the happy event. It shows so clearly his unchanging love and generosity that I quote it in full:
I have rec’d yours of January 29th, 1790, and am happy to hear of the good health of the family which is the first consideration and nearest my heart. May Heaven continue to Shed that blessing on you and I shall be happy.
I can easy conceive your garden to be the best in Washington; Gardening ever was your delight, besides you have a taste for that kind of cultivation which perhaps the people of your Western Country are Strangers to.
Be assured my Ideas often hover around the little spot. I think I see it improved by your Industrious hand whilst the flowers of Spring lend their aid to beautify the scene; but chief of all I think I see you on a Sunday evening contemplatively walking on the grounds and with Silent pleasure viewing the labours of the week. And thus each evening Reflect with pleasure on the past day. So shall time pass on and pleasure Crown the evening of life. Here I could enter into a Chain of those Ideas which Crowd upon a heart sensible of the feelings of a fond mother and the affection due from a child, but I must be silent and only answer your letter.
It has given me much pleasure that you do not wish me to hurry home till I complete my study. Indeed it is of so much importance my gaining all possible knowledge that should I now return I might have it to repent of ever after. And our hearing so frequently from each other is some reason why we should be more easy in the subject.
You tell me Polly is going to be Mar(r)yed. May she be happy, but I will write to her on the subject.…
As for the pictures for Polly, she should have them with pleasure but I do not paint anything so Small and the carryage of any of my paintings would be very expensive but whenever I conveniently can I will send you my own picture.
I am just getting ready to go to France for 3 months and am afraid I shall not have time to write to Abraham but give my best love to him and all friends and believe me to be with Continued affection,
Your loving son,
So Polly wanted some of her brother’s pictures to hang in her new home; and the home itself was built upon one of the four lots purchased by her generous brother.
But let us turn in thought to the young Robert Fulton bidding farewell to his mother and family, in that autumn of 1786. It is probable that he sailed from New York, for in a later letter he mentions friends in that city and also in Baltimore, where he had stopped on his way to Virginia.
He was not empty-handed; he carried forty guineas in his purse and one letter of introduction which was worth more than money, for it was from the great Benjamin Franklin to the American artist, Benjamin West, then at the height of his fame in London and soon to become president of the Royal Academy.
The vessel spread its white sails and turned forth upon the ocean for the long voyage to England; and one brave passenger, the Pennsylvania boy, Robert Fulton, set his face forward with eager hope toward a new world.
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