Meeting at Martin’s Tavern

         In 1764, 42-year-old Humphry Marshall helped build the beautifully laid Martin’s Tavern in West Bradford Township. That same year, two men happened to pass through town. With their entourage of Indian guides, woodsmen, mule drivers, camp followers and wagons loaded with the latest, most sophisticated surveying tools of the time, Englishmen Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were on their way to make history. Mason and Dixon had been hired by the feuding Penn and Calvert families to settle a border dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania/Delaware. 

         In this painting, the artist imagines Humphry Marshall taking a break from the hard labor of stonemasonry to speak with the two exotic travelers. At the center, Dixon (left), Marshall (facing the viewer) and Mason (right) confer on the top-of-the-line surveying instruments brought from England with all the intensity of typical 18th-century “curious gentlemen.”

        On the far left of the painting, a single individual watches and understands that the surveyors bring an end to his way of life. This man, filled with foreboding, is one of the dozen Iroquois “guides” (actually bodyguards) hired to protect this valuable team.

        On the far right of the painting, are free blacks Phoebe Spence and her daughter Mary. While the Spences were part of a small community of free blacks, other African Americans were still held in slavery across Pennsylvania, including Chester County. It was a tragedy of 18th-century Pennsylvania that “free” for a person of color was not the same as “free” for a white person. Blacks accused of crimes were tried in a separate court until 1778, and were denied jury trials.

        In the middle left of the painting, two female indentured servants are preparing water for distribution during the pause in work. Both women, working for the Marshall family, have several years left on their indentures.  Abigale Bennett (left) is pregnant so she faces having additional time added to her term of service. She will have to work longer for the Marshalls to make up for time lost and money spent during her “laying in.” Her child, if there is no one able to care for it, faces the prospect of being bound out as a servant or apprentice.  

        This accidental meeting of Marshall and his household with Mason and Dixon depicts a range of freedom and possibility. For some, such as Marshall, Mason, and Dixon, it is a time of discovery. For others, such as the women, it is a time of limited opportunities, as their lives were restricted by race, low economic status, and marriage.