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History of Early American Landscape Design

Virgil Warder

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Virgil Warder (1713-after 1793) 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 spent his early life at The Grove, a plantation in Falls Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, owned by Joseph Warder (d. 1775). He was about twenty years old when Warder sold him to Thomas Penn (1702-1775), a fellow Quaker, on January 26, 1734.[1] Warder is variously described as Penn's "house servant" and a "body servant," but according to the Philadelphia brewer and revolutionary leader Timothy Matlack (1736-1829), Warder worked as a laborer under the charge of Penn's gardener, James Alexander. Although Matlack locates Warder and Alexander at Pennsbury, the Penn family's country plantation, contemporaneous sources make clear that Warder actually worked at Springettsbury, Penn's suburban estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia.[2] Traces of Warder's activities survive in bills issued to Thomas Penn: on April 7, 1752 for “a scythe for Virgil’s use" and “2 whetstones for d[itt]o."[3]

Following James Alexander's death in 1778, Warder assumed his responsibilities, taking charge of the garden and greenhouse. and receiving an annuity from the Penn family for maintaining the property.[4] 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 Philadelphia Quaker brewer and politician Anthony Morris (1682-1763), who owned 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, now in the tenure of Virgil Warder a blackman."[6] Although the relationship between Warder and Morris is unclear, her will indicates that they shared an interest in gardens, and that Morris was highly sympathetic to the plight of enslaved African Americans. Morris's mansion house in Mulberry Court, which backed up to the lot on Seventh Street occupied by Warder, featured a garden that Morris prized greatly and went to extraordinary lengths to preserve and protect in perpetuity through the terms of her will.[7] Morris's will also established four annuities to benefit the Society of Friends' Free Negro School in Philadelphia. A closing statement toward the end of her will articulates 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 (aged about eighty at the time he was mentioned in Deborah Morris's will) and his long period of service at Pennsylvania's Proprietor's seventeenth-century estate, Warder was viewed living historical relic by younger generations of Philadelphians. His wife, Susannah (1701-1809), who was born at Pennsbury, the daughter of a cook, was even longer lived than her husband. When she died at the extraordinary age of 109, her obituary appeared in numerous American and European newspapers and journals.[9]

--Robyn Asleson


  • Obituary of Susanna Warder, July 7, 1809, Poulson's American Daily Advertiser[10]
"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)[11]
"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. For errors made by Matlack and others in their accounts of Virgil Warder, see: J.R.T., "Appendix.--Referred to in a Preceding Column," The 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, [1].
  3. In addition, on August 22, 1766 Penn was charged for Warden's public whipping and three days in jail. Justice, 1846, 617,view on Zotero.
  4. 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.
  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. (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. Robert C. Moon, The Morris Family of Philadelphia, Descendants of Anthony Morris, 1654-1721, 2 vols. (Robert C. Moon, M. D., 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," The Scots Magazine, 71 (1809): 216, view on Zotero; "Deaths Abroad," The European Magazine and London Review, 56 (1809), 237, view on Zotero; Maryland Gazette, July 19, 1809, in Barnes, Robert, 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. Poulson's American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pa.), July 7, 1809, 3, http://boards.ancestry.pl/surnames.warder/62/mb.ashx accessed 9/21/2015.
  11. 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.
  12. Sharon White, Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 19 view on Zotero
  13. 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.
  14. 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.

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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=14037 (accessed December 11, 2023).

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