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History of Early American Landscape Design

Virgil Warder

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Virgil Warder (1713-1782/83) was an African American slave who served for many years as gardener at Springettsbury, the Penn family estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia.


Virgil Warder was about twenty years old and living at The Grove, a plantation in Falls Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when he was sold to Thomas Penn (1702-1775), a fellow Quaker, by Joseph Warder (d. 1775) on January 26, 1734.[1] Warder initially worked as a laborer at Springettsbury, Penn's suburban estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia, under the supervision of the gardener, James Alexander. Warder succeeded Penn's gardener, James Alexander, who died in 1778, taking charge of the garden and greenhouse and receiving an annuity from the Penn family for maintaining the property.[2] 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).[3]

--Robyn Asleson


  • Obituary of Susanna Warder, July 7, 1809, Poulson's American Daily Advertiser[4]
"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."

  • Timothy Matlack, January 11, 1817, letter to William Findley (Pickering 1826: 185)[5]
"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 [sic] 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'.”

"There were black people, whose surname was Warder. They had been house servants of William Penn [sic; Thomas], 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."

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."



Will of Deborah Norris, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


  1. 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, D.C.: 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,” ‘’The Living Age’’ 8 (1846), 617, view on Zotero; John Woolf Jordan, ed., Colonial Families of Philadelphia, 2 vols. (New York and Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1911), Vol. 2, 1405-06, view on Zotero.
  2. Robert C. Moon, The Morris Family of Philadelphia, Descendants of Anthony Morris, 1654-1721, 2 vols. (Robert C. Moon, M. D., 1898), 1: 287, view on Zotero; George A. Martin, "Biographical Notes from the 'Maryland Gazette,' 1800-1810," Maryland Historical Magazine, 42 (September 1947), 177, view on Zotero; G. M. Justice, "Wm. Penn--Not a Slaveholder at the Time of His Death," The Living Age (March 28, 1846): 617, view on Zotero; Watson, 1844, 2: 479, view on Zotero.
  3. 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.
  4. Poulson's American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pa.), July 7, 1809, 3, http://boards.ancestry.pl/surnames.warder/62/mb.ashx accessed 9/21/2015.
  5. 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.
  6. Sharon White, Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 19 view on Zotero
  7. 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 and New York: E. L. Carey & A. Hart and G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830), view on Zotero.
  8. 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),view on Zotero.

Retrieved from "https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Virgil_Warder&oldid=14030"

History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Virgil Warder," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Virgil_Warder&oldid=14030 (accessed February 6, 2023).

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