Isaac Edward Bonsall (1765-1831) was a prominent Philadelphia Quaker who devoted his life to missionary work with the Indians of Western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and to caring for the mentally ill. Bonsall was born on October 31, 1765, to Edward Bonsall, an early realtor in Philadelphia, and Hannah Gleave, daughter of Isaac Gleave.
The first of Bonsall's three wives was Mercy Milhouse (1768-1805). They married in 1786 and had eight children: Hannah, William, Anna, Edward, Joseph, Thomas, Sydney, and Charles. After Mercy's death, Bonsall married Mary Newbold in 1807; they had two children, Martha and Samuel, before she died in 1815. Bonsall's third wife was Ann Paul, whom he married on June 15, 1816, and with whom he founded and ran the Friends Hospital for the mentally ill between 1817 and 1823. Ann Paul Bonsall died in 1830, a year before Isaac Bonsall's death.
Bonsall was a Quaker minister and served as a representative to meetings around the eastern seaboard. He was active with the Committee of Indian Affairs of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. This committee, which oversaw the Quaker's relations with Indians, was established in 1795 with the goal of helping Indian communities become more prosperous and stable through assimilation to Quaker ideals of clean living, private property, industriousness, and peace. Their goal was to teach the Indians modern agricultural methods, supply them with tools for farming, apprentice groups of young men in farming, metal work, reading, and writing, and young women in soap-making, weaving, and sewing, and instill in the communities the values of strict abstinence from alcohol and stable marital relations. The Quaker missions, however, did not try strongly to convert the Indians to Quakerism or Christianity. Small groups of Quakers would set up farms and mills on or near the Indian reservations and provide guidance on how to use plows and other modern farm tools, while at the same time demonstrating by example industrious living.
Bonsall took part in multiple missionary trips in 1803, 1806, and 1823, all documented in this collection's journals. Though he did not live in Indian communities, as many of his fellow Quakers did, he traveled through various Indian communities in Western New York, Western Pennsylvania, and Ohio, held councils with the heads of the communities, relayed messages from the Philadelphia committee, and made reports on the condition of the settlements.
In addition to his missionary work, Bonsall was chosen by the Philadelphia Quaker community to establish and run an asylum for the mentally ill in Philadelphia. The project was begun in 1812 but the Friends Asylum was not operational until 1817, when Isaac Bonsall and his wife Ann were appointed the first superintendent and matron of the facility. The hospital was notable for combining humane treatment of patients, such as minimal use of restraints and the use of current medical practices, including observation of patients and therapeutic treatments. The Bonsalls worked in this capacity until 1823. They later returned to hospital work in 1827-1828 in the Philadelphia Friends Hospital.
Isaac Bonsall died in Richmond, Indiana, on October 3, 1831, on his second visit to the Indiana Yearly Meeting.