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History of Early American Landscape Design

Virgil Warder

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Birth Date: 1713

Death Date: After 1793

Role: Gardener

Used Keywords: Arbor, Greenhouse, Grove, Labyrinth, Parterre, Seat, Walk, Wilderness

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Virgil Warder (1713–after 1793) was an enslaved African American who served for many years as gardener at Springettsbury, the Penn family estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia.


Virgil Warder spent his early life at Grove Place, a plantation in Falls Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, owned by Joseph Warder (d. 1775).[1] He was about twenty years old when Joseph Warder sold him to Thomas Penn (1702–1775), a fellow Quaker, on January 26, 1734.[2] Penn had arrived in Pennsylvania from England two years earlier in order to assume the role of Proprietor. Warder is variously described as his “house servant” and “body servant” or valet. According to the Philadelphia brewer and revolutionary leader Timothy Matlack (1736–1829), Warder also worked as a laborer under the charge of Penn’s gardener, James Alexander (d. 1778), most likely after Penn’s return to England in 1741. Although Matlack locates Warder and Alexander at Pennsbury, the Penn family’s plantation in Morrisville, contemporary sources make clear that Warder actually worked at Springettsbury, the suburban estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia, established in the 1680s by Pennsylvania’s original Proprietor William Penn.[3]

Traces of Warder’s agricultural activities survive in a bill issued to Thomas Penn on April 7, 1752, for “a scythe for Virgil’s use” and “2 whetstones for d[itt]o.”[4] Following James Alexander’s death in 1778, Warder assumed his responsibilities, taking charge of the garden and greenhouse. He became a well-known fixture of the place, conducting visitors through the gardens and greenhouse. Both Deborah Norris Logan and Elizabeth Drinker recalled the “curious aloe,” originally planted by James Alexander and subsequently cultivated by Warder. When it finally bloomed in August 1778, Warder was besieged by curious crowds from Philadelphia who came to see it (view text).[5]

Warder was named in the will of Deborah Morris (1724–1793), a daughter of the wealthy Quaker brewer and politician Anthony Morris (1682–1763) and the owner of extensive property in her own right. In her will, dated March 16, 1793, Morris directed her executors to sell “my lot of ground in Seventh Street in the said city [Philadelphia], now in the tenure of Virgil Warder a blackman.”[6] Although the extent of Warder’s relationship with Morris is unknown, her will indicates that she shared his interest in ancient Philadelphia gardens, and that she was highly sympathetic to the plight of enslaved African Americans. The ancestral Philadelphia mansion in which she lived had been erected around 1686 by her grandfather in Mulberry Court, which backed up to the lot on Seventh Street occupied by Warder. The house featured a garden that Morris went to extraordinary lengths to protect in perpetuity through the terms of her will.[7] Morris’s will also made provisions for four annuities to benefit the Society of Friends’ Free Negro School in Philadelphia. Toward the end of the document, she articulated the sense of injustice that motivated her generosity: “And before I conclude my will, I feel it necessary to mention that I hope none of my dear relatives will think my donations in favor of the free negro school too large, as it appears to me to be a debt due to the posterity of those whom our predecessors kept in bondage.”[8]

As a result of his longevity—already approximately eighty years old at the time he was mentioned in Deborah Morris’s will—and his long period of service at Springettsbury, one of Philadelphia’s oldest estates, Warder was viewed as a living historic relic by younger generations of Philadelphians. His wife, Susannah (1701–1809), the daughter of a cook at Pennsbury, was even more celebrated for her longevity than her husband. When she died at the extraordinary age of 109, her obituary appeared in numerous American and British newspapers and journals.[9] In recognition of their many years of faithful service, both Warders reportedly received an annuity from the Penn family. It is unclear whether they also received their freedom.[10]

Robyn Asleson


  • Obituary of Susanna Warder, July 7, 1809, Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser: 3[11]
“DIED, on the 30th of last month, in the hundred and ninth year of her age, Susanna Warder, formerly the wife of Virgil Warder, who was one of the house servants of William Penn [sic], proprietor of Pennsylvania.
“This aged black woman, (a daughter of one of his cooks) was born at his mansion house in Pennsbury Manor, in March 1701, being the same year in which he left the province on his return to England.
“At that time, Philadelphia, now the largest city in the United States, was a wilderness, the inhabitants of which were chiefly Indians, of the Delaware and other tribes.
“Susanna was tall and streight in her person, graceful in all her deportments, agreeable in her manners, and temperate in her speech and mode of living.
“Her memory was good, and her sight, which improved towards the close of her life, remarkably clear; but of late time she became hard of hearing.
“The Penn family, respecting her faithful services in the time of her youth, allowed an annual sum to support her comfortably, when she was not able to work, to the end of her days.”

  • Matlack, Timothy, January 11, 1817, letter to William Findley (Pickering 1826: 185)[12]
“Penn left a family of slaves behind him; one of which I have often conversed with, and he always spoke of himself as Penn’s body servant: He lived to extreme old age, and continued a gardener at Pennsbury-house [sic], near this city, comfortably provided for to the last of his days.”

“The Gardens of Springetsbury were in full beauty in my youth, and were really very agreeable after the old fashion, with Parterres, Gravelled Walks, a Labyrinth of Horn-beam and a little wilderness — And the Green house, under the Superintendence of Old Virgil the Gardener, produced a flowering Aloe which almost half the town went to see, produced a comfortable Revenue to the old man — Soon after the house was burned down by accident; and now quantities of the yellow Blossoms of Broom in spring time mark the place. . . ‘where once the garden smiled.’” back up to History

  • Watson, John Fanning, 1830, Annals of Philadelphia (1830: 534)[14]
“There were black people, whose surname was Warder. They had been house servants of William Penn [sic], and because of their great age were provided for by the Penn family, living in the kitchen part of the house at Springetsbury. Virgil was probably upwards of 100 years of age when he died. His wife died in 1782; and there is something concerning both of them to be seen published in Bradford’s Gazette of that time. The aged Timothy Matlack told me he remembered talking with Virgil often about the year 1745, and that he was then quite grey headed, but very active. When Matlack saw him there he was under charge of James Alexander, the gardener.”

  • Watson, John Fanning, 1844, Annals of Philadelphia (1844: 2:478–79)[15]
Springettsberry . . . was once cultivated in the style of a gentleman’s seat, and occupied by the Penn family. . . .
“Celebrated as it was, for its display and beauty, now almost nothing remains. . . Its former groves of tall cedars, and ranges of catalpa trees are no more. For many years the Penn family continued to have the place kept up in appearance, even after they ceased to make it a residence. James Alexander, called Penn’s gardener, occupied the premises; and old Virgil Warder, and his wife, servant—blacks, lived there to an old age, occupying the kitchen as their home, on an annuity (as it was said) from the Penn family—paid to them till their deaths, about the year 1782–83. For many years, the young people of the city—before the war of Independence, visited Springettsberry in May time, to gather flowers, and to talk with and see old gray-headed Virgil, who had always much to say about the Penns of former days. It was all enchanted ground to the young— . . .
“In the year 1777 [sic], old Virgil had quite a harvest, derived from the blooming there—a great wonder then—of the great American aloe, which had long been nursed in the green-house. It was visited by many—and all had their gifts ready for the old black man.
“The garden had evergreens, made into arbours, and nicely trimmed and clipped in formal array. There was also a seeming wilderness of shade, with gravel paths meandering through, &c.”


  1. For information on Grove Place and the Warder family, see John Woolf Jordan, ed., Colonial Families of Philadelphia, 2 vols. (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1911), 2:1405–06, view on Zotero.
  2. Bill of sale of the negro “Virgill” from Joseph Warder to Thomas Penn, January 26, 1734, in Charles M. Andrews and Frances G. Davenport, Guide to the Manuscript Materials for the History of the United States to 1783 in the British Museum, in Minor London Archives, and in the Libraries of Oxford and Cambridge (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1908), 358, view on Zotero; G. M. Justice, May 4, 1844, “Wm. Penn—Not a Slaveholder at the Time of his Death,” Living Age 8 (1846): 617, view on Zotero; Jordan 1911, 2:1405–06, view on Zotero.
  3. For errors made by Matlack and others in their accounts of Virgil Warder, see: J. R. T., “Appendix.—Referred to in a Preceding Column,” Friend 18 (1845): 155, view on Zotero; Justice 1846, 617, view on Zotero; William Watts Hart Davis, The History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania: From the Discovery of the Delaware to the Present Time (Doylestown, PA: Democrat Book and Job Office Print, 1876), 182, view on Zotero.
  4. In addition, on August 22, 1766, Penn was charged for Warden’s public whipping (“Wiping at Publick Post”) and board for three days in jail; Justice 1846, 617, view on Zotero.
  5. Elizabeth Drinker, Extracts from the Journal of Elizabeth Drinker, from 1759 to 1807 A.D., ed. Henry D. Biddle (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1889), 109, view on Zotero.
  6. Robert C. Moon, The Morris Family of Philadelphia, Descendants of Anthony Morris, 1654–1721, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Robert C. Moon, M. D., 1898), 1:287, view on Zotero.
  7. “The owner of the several messuages and lots, in this clause mentioned, shall not build nor suffer any building to be erected in the garden spot, on the south end of my said dwelling-house, nor open, nor permit, or suffer to be opened, if they can in any wise prevent it, an alley through the court, in which my said dwelling-house is situated. . . I do declare this devise and several successive estates hereby limited and created to be subject to the same conditions, as to building on the garden lot, or opening the alley as area in the last preceding devise expressed. . . Being desirous that the Court in which I now dwell, shall be kept open for the health, and convenience of the inhabitants, I direct that the garden lots herein before mentioned shall be always left open, and unbuilt on, and that the lot on which my store room lately stood, shall be left open for public use, as part of the said Court, and to enlarge the way therein.” See Moon 1898, 1:290–94, view on Zotero.
  8. Moon 1898, 1:296, view on Zotero.
  9. “Obituary, with Anecdotes, of Remarkable Persons,” Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review 79 (1809): 885, view on Zotero; “Deaths Abroad,” Monthly Magazine 28 (1809): 546, view on Zotero; “Deaths,” Scots Magazine 71 (1809): 216, view on Zotero; “Deaths Abroad,” European Magazine and London Review 56 (1809): 237, view on Zotero; Maryland Gazette, July 19, 1809, in Robert Barnes, Marriages and Deaths from the Maryland Gazette, 1727–1839 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1973), 191,view on Zotero. See also Thomas Bailey, Records of Longevity, with an Introductory Discourse on Vital Statistics (London: Darton & Co., 1857), 389, view on Zotero.
  10. George A. Martin, “Biographical Notes from the ‘Maryland Gazette,’ 1800–1810,” Maryland Historical Magazine 42 (September 1947): 177, view on Zotero; Justice 1846, 617, view on Zotero; John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time; Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants, and of the. . . Inland Part of Pennsylvania from the Days of the Founders, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Penington, 1844), 2:479, view on Zotero.
  11. Obituary of Susanna Warder, Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser [Philadelphia] (July 7, 1809), view on Zotero.
  12. Timothy Pickering, “Letters on the Origin and Progress of Attempts for the Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 8, 2nd series (1826), view on Zotero.
  13. Sharon White, Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 19, view on Zotero.
  14. John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants from the Days of the Pilgrim Fathers (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart and G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830), view on Zotero. This account by Watson contains several errors. William Penn is confused with Thomas Penn and the death dates of both Warders is incorrect.
  15. Watson 1844, view on Zotero. Watson’s account contains several erroneous dates.

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