How timothy grass came to York County–who was Timothy?

I started out writing about a little tidbit tacked to an article about the York Imperial apple in the August 13, 1920 York Gazette and Daily. The subject was timothy grass–you know–the plant that is mown, along with clover, for hay, and how timothy came to York County, along with he origin of the name.

The newspaper article says:

“The early settlers of the American colonies cultivated the native grasses for use in feeding their stock. This custom had been continued in York County from the year 1733 down to 1790. John Kirk, a prosperous farmer, of Manchester Township, brought to this county in 1790 two varieties of grass never before grown here. He advertised in the York newspapers that he had for sale seed for the cultivation of ‘Timothy grass and Clover.’ He urged farmers to try the new grasses and in a few years the cultivation of timothy and clover in York County became very popular.”


The article continues:

“Timothy Hanson, an educated Quaker, owned two farms near the town of Dover, then and now the capital of the state of Delaware. Hanson had crossed the Atlantic and brought with him in 1788 about one bushel of a new variety of grass seed. He sowed the seed on his farm, and at haymaking, some of his friends and neighbors from near home and many miles away came to see Friend Timothy’s fields upon which was growing the new grass. The Quakers being in the habit of calling their members by their first name became very much interested in Timothy Hanson’s new farm product.

By 1790 a considerable quantity of Timothy’s grass was grown in Delaware and in the counties of Chester and Lancaster, in Pennsylvania. When John Kirk attended the yearly meeting of Friends in Philadelphia in 1789, he brought home several bushels of timothy seed. The farmers of that day and years that followed called the new grass timothy seed, using the first name of Timothy Hanson.”

Then there is this account from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture web site:

Timothy by Garry D. Lacefield, Jimmy C. Henning, Timothy D. Phillips, and Monroe Rasnake, Department of Agronomy.

Timothy (Phleum pratense) is native to the continents of Europe and Asia. The first appearance of timothy in North America has been traced to early settlements in New England. Early agriculturists referred to it as Herd grass after John Herd, who found it around 1711 growing wild along the Piscataqua River near Portsmouth, N.H. Later, Timothy Hanson played a major role in promoting the use of this grass in Maryland around 1720 and in North Carolina and Virginia. The first known use of the name timothy for this grass can be traced to Benjamin Franklin in a correspondence dated July 16, 1747. He planted this grass on a 300-acre farm near Burlington, Vt., and later wrote about the relative superior winter hardiness of timothy compared to red clover.”

Both accounts, as well as others, credit Hanson for spreading the use of timothy, so it probably is named for him, even though it was cultivated earlier. Perhaps John Kirk also obtained some seed at a Quaker meeting and brought it back to York County. I have read that such plant exchange was not uncommon.

There is usually some kernel of truth in conflicting stories, but going back to an original document, if possible, or at least some near-contemporary verification is best. Otherwise, the same stories keep being repeated until they are accepted as facts.

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