Manuscripts Division William L. Clements Library University of Michigan
Finding aid for Isaac Bonsall Journals, 1803-1823
Finding aid created by Philip Heslip, December 2009
Title: Isaac Bonsall journals Creator: Bonsall, Isaac Edward, 1765-1831 Inclusive dates: 1803-1823 Extent: 4 volumes Abstract:
The Isaac Bonsall journals is a four volume collection documenting three missionary journeys of Bonsall in 1803, 1806, and 1823. The journals describe the Society of Friends missionary outreach to the Indians of western and northern New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and document the vast network of Quaker communities that he encountered throughout this region.
Language: The material is in English Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave. The University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190 Phone: 734-764-2347 Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu
Access and Use
The collection is open for research.
Copyright status is unknown
Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.
Isaac Bonsall Journals, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan
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.
Collection Scope and Content Note
The Isaac Bonsall journals consist of 4 volumes (234 pages total) documenting three missionary journeys of Bonsall in 1803, 1806, and 1823. Volume 1 is 41 pages covering from September 9-October 18, 1803; Volume 2 is 45 pages covering from September 17-30, 1803; Volume 3 is 93 pages with a list of the trip's expenses on the back page, covering September 2, 1806-January 19, 1807; and Volume 4 is 55 pages with a list of the trip's expenses on the back page, covering July 12-November 17, 1823.
The journals describe both the Society of Friends missionary outreach to the Indians of western and northern New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and the vast network of Quaker communities that Bonsall encountered throughout this region. Each journal contains detailed information on the terrain covered, daily miles traveled or the day's activities, the number of houses and housing stock in each town or settlement visited, the quality of the soil or productivity of local crops, Friends Meetings attended (always noting the size of the gathering, the quality of the participants, and occasionally the matters discussed), and the names of the Quakers, Indians, and lodging owners that his traveling group encountered. In addition to providing insight into early 19th Century Quaker-Indian relations, Bonsall's accounts provide a snapshot of the development of many burgeoning centers in what was then the western regions of America and Lower Canada over these years.
The first and second journals cover the dates September 9-October 18, 1803, and September 17-30, 1803, respectively and describe the same missionary journey from Pennsylvania, through western New York, up to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and the trip back to Pennsylvania. For this trek, Bonsall traveled on horseback with two other men: Isaac Coats and James Wilson; all three were agents of the Philadelphia Society of Friends under the appointment of the Yearly Meeting Committee of Indian Affairs. Their charge was to visit the Seneca Indians and the Quaker missionaries living with them, to report on the progress of the missionary work, and to convene with the Seneca chiefs to inquire about establishing additional Quaker settlements close to the reservation at Geneshunguhta.
The group arrived at the first settlement of Indian cabins on September 17 (vol. 1, p.6). Soon after, they stayed at the Quaker's settlement located near Geneshunguhta on the Allegheny River, just north of the Indian Chief Cornplanter's property. The Indians there were eager to meet the visitors and to show appreciation for the Quakers' efforts (vol. 1, p.10). The following pages include transcriptions of the speeches given by the Quakers, Cornplanter, and other Indians on the current Indian-Quaker situation and suggestions for improvement. The Quakers were interested in expanding their missionary presence by buying 692 acres of property that adjoined the reservation from the Holland Land Company and sending additional Friends to settle the area. The Indians seemed generally satisfied with the current situation and valued the Quaker's generosity and good advice that led them to stop drinking "spirituous liquors" (vol. 1, p. 29). However, they requested an additional plow, yoke of oxen, and various farming tools as additional aid. They also requested that the Quakers take a few of their boys back to Philadelphia to train them in modern agricultural practices. Throughout the recounting of the speeches and description of the meetings, Bonsall included notes on eating and smoking, and detailed various improvements made to the town, including house construction, decorations such as glass windows and curtains, and clothing (vol. 1, p.24).
The group left for the next reservation on September 27 and visited some Delaware Indians on the 29th (vol.1, p.29). Over the next five days (September 31-October 4th) they traveled on to Lake Erie and Niagara Falls, which "fed the eyes greedily" (vol.1, p.31). On this leg of the journey they stayed with Chief "Young King" Sachem and Red Sachet of the Six Nations and crossed into Canada where they found a small garrison of British soldiers. Bonsall described the falls: "rising to see the great and stupendous Works of Nature for the Sight of which some have crossed the mighty Ocean...it being awfully grand and sublime beyond what art could effect the Pencil delineate or Tongue or Pen describe" (vol.1, p.34). On October 4, they started the return journey, on which they attended various Friends Meetings (vol.1, p.35) and met Jacob, an Indian Blacksmith, who seemed to have taken to the industrious Quaker lifestyle. "Jacob wears his Trowsers yet and we hope will keep to them and is a sober industrious fellow -- he informed us that none of their People used Wiskey that the Chief would not allow of it" (vol. 1, p.36). They traveled through York (the capital of western Canada), by Canandaigua, where they saw some large and elegant houses, and followed the Susquehanna, staying with generous Friends along the way.
These two journals share much of the same language and content and are likely either based on a common set of notes taken during the journey, or, possibly one is an earlier draft of the other. Language in the journals, as well as the relative scarcity of corrections in both volumes, suggest that they were written after the journey. Though similar, each text contains large passages of unique content. The entry for September 29, 1803, in volume two, for example, contains an extended passage in which Chief Flying Arrow asked the Quakers if they kept slaves. It also mentions that the Chief's daughter is "a modest good looking Woman" (vol.2, p.40). These two notes are missing from volume one. Likewise, the first volume contains passages not found in the second. Of note is a thorough description of the Seneca Indian's dress and housing stock (vol. 1, p.24-25). A close reading of both versions is necessary in order to construct the most complete account of the journey.
The third journal covers Bonsall's journey from September 2, 1806-January 19, 1807, when he and fellow Quakers Holliday Jackson, John Philips, and Nicholas Waln, Jr., traveled to the Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Tonawanda Seneca, revisiting many of the settlements and reservations of the 1803 trip.
The group started off from Bonsall's home in Uwchlan, Pennsylvania, and by September 9th had arrived at the first Indian Settlement at a town called "Cold Springs," close to Geneshunguhta. They found the community greatly improved (vol. 3, p.3). Bonsall is particularly impressed with the roads built by the Indians which were "remarkably well executed and would be well worth the attention of the frontier white inhabitants" (vol. 3, p.3). The group met with Cornplanter on September 14 and entries from the next 5 days include transcriptions of a series of Quaker and Indian speeches, which describe the changes to the community and note the current dynamic of Quaker-Indian relations (vol. 3, p.4-37). Of interest is a discussion between Chiefs and the Friends about how the money raised to benefit the Indians by the Quakers had been spent on various tools, construction, and missionary projects (vol. 3, p.20-25). On September 16th, Bonsall complained of the lack of a reliable interpreter (vol. 3, p.26). In general, however, Bonsall was pleased with the reservation's increasing industry and economy. He noted that he felt his work had not been in vain, and described visiting different tribes and leaders. This journal also contains a transcription of a "Letter from the Committee" to the Seneca Nation; the letter encouraged a continuing commitment to sobriety, a basic statement of Quaker philosophy, and appealed to them to love and know the Christian God (vol. 3, p. 31-33).
The group next traveled to the town of Erie, New York, which Bonsall described at length (vol. 3, p.41). They continued their travels and on October 4th reached the eastern edge of Ohio, where they joined a large 60-family meeting (vol. 3, p.46). As they traveled deeper into Ohio, Bonsall continued to note trees and soil quality, town sizes, and meetings attended. On October 19th, he met the family of his deceased wife Mary Milhouse, which was a happy occasion for all involved. The next major episode concerned the new Ohio constitution, which mandated militia participation for its citizens, a conflict with the Quaker tenet of non-violence. The group received instructions on how to lobby the State Congress at one of their "four Monthly Meeting[s]" in Concord, Ohio, on October 20th (vol. 3, p.52-54). By December 4th, they arrived at Cincinnati to meet with Governor Edward Tiffin and various prominent congressmen (vol. 3, p.78-81). These meetings went well and the politicians were sympathetic to the issue; they seemed eager to defend the Quaker's religious liberties.
The group started the return journey on December 8th, and on the 21st, again stayed with Bonsall's brother Edward Bonsall in Short Creek, Ohio. There they attended a "Meeting which was very large and an opportunity wherein the peculiar regard of heaven was signally manifest by the the [sic] breaking of bread and distributing to the multitude" (vol. 3, p. 84). On January 19, 1807, the group returned to Philadelphia, having traveled 1950 miles. Expenses for the journey are tallied on the back of the journal.
The fourth journal covers the period from July 12-November 17, 1823 and documents the journey made by Isaac Bonsall and his wife Ann Bonsall through Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Indiana. Bonsall described meetings with Quaker groups and visits with Indians on their reservations. As in his previous journals, Bonsall described towns, trees, and soil quality, but, for this journey, he also regularly noted the quality of the roads and turnpikes and frequently complained about traveling conditions. The couple traveled by carriage, which needed a number of repairs along the way.
Early in their trip, Bonsall described the coal mines of western Pennsylvania and the series of dams along the Lehigh River used to transport the coal from the mines to Philadelphia. Bonsall marveled at the extent of the coal operations and reflected that "It is supposed the Coal cannot be exhausted" (vol. 4, p.4). On July 22nd, the Bonsalls reached Friendsville where they attended a small, solemn meeting (vol. 4, p.7). July 23, they arrived at the flourishing town of Ithaca, New York, and the next day traveled on to Waterloo, New York. Here he briefly described the keel boats and steam boats that navigated the Finger Lakes (vol. 4, p.8). By July 26, they had reached the Erie Canal, "called by some of the Dutch Clinton's big ditch" (vol. 4, p.9). In the next few pages, he described more locks, bridges, and canal structures in the area. On the 30th, they traveled to, and described, Rochester, New York, which was just then blossoming as a town, though it had only a small Quaker population (vol. 4, p. 12). The Bonsalls also toured the Rochester Cotton Manufactory which was "worked by water[;] most of the work was done by Children and young Women[,] the weaving entirely by the latter and about 3000 yds were wove per Week" (vol. 4, p.14). A few pages later, Bonsall noted population and business information from a recent "census of the Village of Rochester taken in the 7th Mo" (vol. 4, p.17). He was particularly impressed because "in 1812 no Village was here" (vol. 4, p.18).
By August 2nd, the Bonsalls arrived at Lockport, New York, and he is surprised by how much the town has grown and developed in the past two years, largely because of construction of the Erie Canal. He listed the number of new inhabitants and even detailed new professions (physicians, lawyers, mechanics) that the village boasted (vol. 4, p.15). Over the next several pages, Bonsall discussed recent construction efforts of the Erie Canal, including the use of dynamite to blast through solid lime stone. On the 4th, they set out for Niagara Falls and passed through Lewistown and Queenstown, and entered into Canada. This was Bonsall's third time viewing the cascades, but the first for his wife (vol. 4, p.19). The following day they followed the Chippewa River and finally reached a Delaware Indian Reservation by the 8th (vol. 4, p.23). Bonsall, however, was not impressed with their progress. Tensions between the missionaries and Indians were immediately apparent: "one of the Indians very freely stated to us that the reason so little was done might be ascribed to the attempt to place a Missionary among them and the adherence of a number of their People to their Missionary system which had produced great divisions among them" (vol. 4, p.24). Though many children were learning how to read, spell, and sing, some families still "lived much in the state formerly practiced by them prior to any attempts at Civilization" (vol. 4, p. 25). Other families, nevertheless, were obviously more industrious and kept apple orchards or a yoke of oxen and "knew very well that our council to them was good" (vol. 4, p.26). A few Indians reported that they were indeed following the Friends example and abstaining from drink and working hard.
On August 9th the Bonsalls returned to travel and reached brother Edward Bonsall's house near Salem, Ohio, on the 12th. They stayed in this area for the next ten days during which time they toured the area, noted how it had changed since 1814 (the last time Bonsall was in the area), and attended various Friends meetings (vol. 4, p. 27-33). Though they traveled further west to Canton, Ohio, attending Quaker meetings and lodging with fellow Friends, by the 28th they were again staying with Edward Bonsall.
From September 7 through 12, the Bonsalls kept busy attending the Friends Committee's Yearly Meeting at Mount Pleasant, Ohio, after which "a number of Friends concluded it was the best yearly Meeting they had ever had" (vol. 4, p.32). They left Mount Pleasant on the 13th and, by the 24th, had arrived in Waynesville, Ohio, for a monthly meeting of Miami. While in the area, they explored what is now known as Fort Miami, an "ancient fort of fortification the banks of which were raised a considerable height and had every appearance of having been effected at a very remote period by the labour of Man with Tools not found in America upon its discovery by the Europeans...[it is] considered the works of Man acquainted with the civil arts at a former distant period of the world" (vol. 4, p.41).
On the 26th, they arrived in Cincinnati where Bonsall's son Joseph lived. Their next stop was Richmond, Indiana, where they attended a large public meeting and stayed until October 10th, after which they headed back to Columbus, Ohio, the first leg of their return journey (vol. 4, p.46). By November 14th, they were almost to Philadelphia (vol. 4, p.53). The entire trip, Bonsall estimated, was 1874 miles "performed in 5 days over 4 months" (vol. 4, p.54). The final page contains a list of expenses for the trip.
Alleghany River Valley (Pa. and N.Y.)--History.
Cattaraugus County (N.Y.)
Church and state--Ohio.
Cornplanter, Seneca chief, 1732?-1836.
Erie Canal Region (N.Y.)--Description and travel.
Holland Land Company.
Indians of North America--Missions.
Indians of North America--Alcohol use.
Jackson, Halliday, 1771-1835 .
New York (State)--Description and travel.
Niagara Falls (N.Y. and Ont.)--Description and travel.
Niagara Falls Region (N.Y. and Ont.)--Description and travel.
Niagara Frontier (N.Y.)
Ohio--Description and travel.
Pennsylvania--Description and travel.
Philadelphia (Pa.)--Family and personal papers.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.
Red Jacket (Seneca chief), ca. 1756-1830.
Society of Friends--Missions.
Voyages and Travels.
Waln, Nicholas, Jr.
Container / Location
Bonsall journals [series]
September 9-October 18, 1803
September 17-September 30, 1803
September 2, 1806-January 19, 1807
September 2, 1806
October 1, 1806
November 1, 1806
December 1, 1806
January 1, 1807
July 12-November 17, 1823
July 12, 1823
August 1, 1823
September 1, 1823
October 1, 1823
November 1, 1823
Additional Descriptive Data
Places visited: (for a full itinerary with page numbers see the control file)
The William Allinson Journal, 1802-1814, mentions Bonsall and other prominent Philadelphia Quakers, and contains an account of Allinson's interactions with New York and Pennsylvanian Indians. While they did not coincide, Bonsall's and Allinson's journeys arose out of the same Committee of Indian Affairs of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
The Ogden Family papers include material concerning David Aaron Ogden and Thomas Ludlow Ogden, both counsel to the Holland Land Company which was integral to the economic and land development of Western New York in the 19th century. The company sold land close to the Indian Reservation to the Society of Friends, which they used for missionary work.
The John Parrish Journals document Quaker missionary John Parrish’s travels throughout Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Ohio from 1773 to 1793, during treaty negotiations between the U.S. government and the Six Nations Iroquois.
Related Collections at Other Repositories:
The Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College holds a collection of Halliday Jackson manuscripts which include material related to Indian affairs and missionary work. Jackson was present on Bonsall's 1806 journey.
Haverford Magill Library Special Collection holds two Bonsall diaries related to his time as superintendant of the Friends Asylum. These are in their Quaker Bibliographic Materials collection.
Rutgers Special Collections/University Archives holds manuscripts related to Isaac Bonsall in the Joseph Gibbons papers, 1792-1838, including a journal written by Gibbons and Bonsall.
Elkinton, J. "The Quaker Mission Among the Indians of New York State." In Frank H. Severance (Eds.), Peace Episodes on the Niagara. Buffalo, New York: Buffalo Historical Society Publications, 1914.
Nelson, L. L. The sixty years' war for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001.
Snyderman, G. S. "Halliday Jackson's Journal of a Visit Paid to the Indians of New York (1806)." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Vol. 101, No. 6, 1957.