Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fellow's Perspective: Dangerous Liaisons in the Pennsylvania Backcountry

In this installment of Fellow's Perspective, Prof. Ken Miller of Washington College discusses a brawl between captive British officers and local whig notables in the Pennsylvania backcountry. Prof. Miller's research, which will figure in his forthcoming book, focuses on the experience of British prisoners of war during the Revolution, particularly those confined at Lancaster. His entry highlights the value of the Library's microfilm collection for uncovering episodes of micro-history that can help to link together larger pieces of historical puzzles.


During my fall 2010 academic leave from Washington College, I undertook my second David Library of the American Revolution residential fellowship to complete the research for my book manuscript, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence. Among other matters, my study investigates the manifold tensions springing from the hosting of British and German prisoners in the diverse wartime communities of the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia interiors. Before commencing my recent fellowship at the David Library, I had attempted to unravel a violent confrontation between the captive British officers and the militant Whigs of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the leading detention site for enemy prisoners of war. Earlier research had yielded clues of an early 1782 brawl between the officers and their patriot hosts, but I had yet to discover what had sparked the conflict.

The British Headquarters Papers and the Lancaster County Church Records located at the David Library shed new light on the incident. Correspondence between Lancaster’s prisoners and their superiors in New York revealed that the melee followed news of an illicit tryst between one of the British officers and the wife of a local Whig. Abandoned by her cuckolded husband and doubly stigmatized for philandering and consorting with the enemy, the woman later baptized the illegitimate daughter of her adulterous relationship in Lancaster’s newly reopened Anglican Church. Thanks to the David Library, this wonderfully illustrative episode will now feature in my concluding chapter.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at

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