Downings’ Town

        In 1776 the second Continental Congress authorized army personnel to build several “forage magazines” in Pennsylvania in order to store provisions for the troops. One such structure was built in Milltown, also called Downings’ Town, located west of Philadelphia at the midway point along the great road to Lancaster. This small village was settled in large part by English Quakers whose peace testimony mandated that they not support any military actions. This put them in a difficult economic position when asked to sell their goods to the continental army.  However, a chronic lack of funding made one’s willingness to sell a moot point. Private Joseph Plumb Martin, a continental soldier sent to Downings’ Town to forage in the winter of 1777, said in his diary that the process was “…nothing more nor less than to procure provisions from the inhabitants …at the point of the bayonet.”

        The Continental army also looked to Pennsylvania to supply much needed iron. Thanks to local iron deposits there were more than 70 iron furnaces and forges operating in Pennsylvania during the war. Huge swaths of native forest were leveled to get the charcoal needed to keep these furnaces running.  No forge or furnace operated in Downingtown.  Roughly 20 miles north, Warwick Furnace was an important source of cannon, shot and musket repair for Washington and his troops.

        In the background of Downings’ Town you see a furnace with the dramatic pile of slag created in the smelting process.  The chaos of the furnace stands in sharp contrast to the peaceful gathering of people on the right. Humphry and Moses Marshall are engaged in casual conversation with a female member of the Downing family and a soldier from the Continental army. Humphry occasionally made trips to Downingtown to collect materials he was sending or receiving from Philadelphia, and it was in Downingtown that Moses met William Baldwin, his eventual protégé. In 1776, however, Moses had just begun studying to be a doctor, skills he would put to the test when caring for wounded soldiers after the Battle of the Brandywine.

        The story of this painting is of the contrast between the peaceful aspirations of Quakers and the present reality of war. It also addresses the still present tension between the need for change and growth and the need to protect and preserve the environment. Humphry Marshall was observing, naming, planting and documenting the native trees and shrubs of Pennsylvania while the hungry expansion of industrialism altered the landscape forever.