Fellow blogger Scott Mingus has done extensive research on the Mifflin family of Hellam Township. He has written, both in his Cannonball blog and in his recently published book, The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa., about the significant role Jonathan Mifflin, his wife Susannah Wright Mifflin and their son, Samuel W. Mifflin played in the Underground Railroad.
Mingus has also recently visited and blogged about Hybla, the Mifflin’s imposing stone home, over two centuries old and the site of their Underground Railroad activity, as the house might be presently threatened by development. He will be speaking about the Miffins, for the “hero” part of his presentation at “An Evening to Unravel York County History 2.0.” Join Scott Mingus, Jim McClure, Stephen H. Smith and me as the York Daily Record’s award-winning team of history writers recalls some of our unsung heroes, and some local villians, at a free public program at 7 p.m. on Wednesday December 7 at Wyndridge Farm, 885 Pleasant Ave., Dallastown. (Last year’s event was so popular that parking became a problem, but I understand there is now additional parking space.)
Jonathan Mifflin was an important figure in the Revolutionary War, holding the rank of Colonel and serving as Assistant Quartermaster General of the Army. He participated in several important battles and is said to have been close to General Washington and to General Lafayette. That is the period of his life I recapped in my recent York Sunday News column, transcribed below.
(Hybla can be seen from Route 30, just past the Wrightsville exit. It sits to the right on a rise just past the industrial buildings. See Google street view below.)
History of Hybla and the Mifflins and Wrights runs long and deep
“But these old landmarks must be left to the future. …The events that were associated with them, in one sense of the word, appear as though they had occurred yesterday. But we are assured that the future will do them justice. In that hope we abide.” So ends one of a series of articles written a century ago by local historian Dr. Israel Betz. This installment of “Some Historic Houses of York County” cited the grand eighteenth century homes built in the Wrightsville area by the Wright family, including Hybla, the mansion from which Revolutionary War patriot, Colonel Jonathan Mifflin (1753-1840), his wife Susannah Wright Mifflin (1764-1821) and their son Samuel W. Mifflin (1805-1885), carried out their Underground Railroad activities.
Hybla has been in the news lately. This sturdy stone house, which has stood for over two centuries, might be in danger of being obliterated. Historian Scott Mingus has written several blog posts on the essential roles the Mifflins played in the Underground Railroad. But what else do we know about the distinguished inhabitants of Hybla?
The Wrights might be fairly familiar. John Wright, Sr., the great-grandfather of Susannah Wright Mifflin, established the ferry in 1730. As soon as settlement was approved, the Wrights initially purchased many hundreds of acres in eastern Hellam Township. Differing accounts credit the erection of Hybla to Susannah’s grandfather, John, Jr. or to her father James, both prosperous citizens.
Susannah Wright brought Jonathan to Hybla soon after their marriage in 1800. Jonathan Mifflin’s 63-page Revolutionary War pension file gives us a look at this patriot, a successful trader and merchant and an officer in the Revolutionary War. He reveals the depths of his patriotism in his pension application, when he states: “When the encroachments of the Mother Country began to arouse a spirit of resistance, I was a merchant in Philadelphia. Those who were destined to become soldiers and oppose our enemies (myself included), having had no opportunities, were ignorant of military exercise and maneuvers. An opportunity offering, I therefore procured the services of a British Sergeant, a deserter. This man I used to take into my compting [accounting] house garret, where I spent days and hours, in learning from him a knowledge of military exercise, which, when I had acquired, I in 1775 entered the service of my country as adjutant of a regiment of Militia.” He goes on to relate that he taught the military exercises to not only the militia men, but also some high-ranking officers, and that he had brought along the British sergeant as a bugleman [to call the military orders]. Always a believer in proper training, his nephew later wrote that: “The old gentlemen [Jonathan] mentioned that in those early times the army was poorly regulated, and that such irregularities…occurred, viz. an officer commanding and at the same time fighting in the ranks—Indeed, he says things were not brought into good order until Baron Steuben joined the army.” [At Valley Forge in 1778, while Congress was meeting in York.]
Mifflin goes on to say that in 1776, he entered the regular Army, and as a Colonel, he was Deputy Quartermaster General under General Thomas Mifflin. General Mifflin was a distant relative who later was Governor of Pennsylvania. Jonathan states he escaped in the next to last boat in the July 1776 retreat from Long Island. He continued with General Washington through the Jerseys and saw action at Croton River, White Plains and Brandywine. One account, which I have not substantiated, credits Mifflin with getting help for French ally Marquis de Lafayette when Lafayette was wounded at Brandywine. In a letter to Congressman Charles A. Barnitz, a friend of the Mifflins, a nephew relates Jonathan Mifflin’s account of having a shot pass under him and his horse, between the front and back legs, with harm to neither, at White Plains.
After the war, Mifflin went back to Philadelphia, again engaging in the East India Trade. He made at least one voyage himself to the Orient. A letter, written by Jonathan in 1788 to his brother, from the Straits of Sunda [Indonesia], describes rough, cold weather encountered rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and the not very tasty onboard meals. During this period he was also cashier of the Bank of Pennsylvania. Several sources, including his pension papers, mention that his trading business suffered losses because of French spoliation. This refers to vessels lost when captured during the Quasi-War between the United States and France (1797-1801). The Mifflins were said to have lost at least three ships this way. That might have spurred Jonathan’s move to Columbia, where other Mifflins also lived.
Mifflin’s first two marriages, the first to Mary Harrison, a relative of Secretary to Congress Charles Thomson, and the second to Frances Mifflin, daughter of General Thomas Mifflin were relatively brief. Both young wives died shortly after giving birth. Neither of those children survived, but Jonathan and Frances’s older son, Thomas, born in 1796, lived with the rest of the family at Hybla after Jonathan and Susannah Wright married in 1800. Jonathan Mifflin also owned extensive land in northern Pennsylvania, in Crawford County, and son Thomas moved to Meadville about 30 years before he died there in 1853.
Jonathan and Susannah’s son, Samuel W., stayed on at Hybla after his father’s death for some years. He later moved to Wayne, Pa, pursuing his career as a civil engineer. He is said to have built railroad bridges throughout the northeast, including for the York and Wrightsville railroad, close to home. He is also credited as an early supporter of the Free Soil Party, one of the forerunners of the Republican Party, along with his brother-in-law, one of several men named William Wright. Samuel W. is buried at Mount Bethel cemetery in Columbia, along with many of the other Mifflins.
As another historian of a hundred years ago, George R. Prowell, describes Hybla: “The Wrights and the Mifflins were among the earliest settlers east and west of the river. Some of the early Wright houses at Wrightsville are standing in an excellent state of preservation. William Wright’s sister Susannah married Jonathan Mifflin and lived in one of these noted houses. It occupies a commanding position overlooking the river… .”
Besides being an impressive and attractive structure, indicative of what our forebears could and did construct, it seems that there are more than enough historical connections to warrant continued preservation of Hybla.
(Hybla was almost certainly named for a mountain and ancient town in Sicily, known for flowers and bees. Shakespeare refers to the site in Julius Caesar.)