A Quaker Struggles With the War


May 26, 2015
by Kim Burdick Also by this Author


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A Quaker miller named Daniel Byrnes (1730-1797) began appearing in New Castle County, Delaware land records in 1760, buying and selling land bordering the south side of Wilmington’s Brandywine River.[1] That year, Byrnes and William Moore built a mill with an overshot wheel “across the Brandywine near French Street” and fellow Quaker, William Marshall built the dam for their long mill race.

European droughts had increased demands for American wheat, bread, and flour.[2] With an eye for business opportunities, Byrnes continued buying and selling property and looked for opportunities for expansion. By 1772 enough Quakers had moved into the Stanton-Christiana area that an indulged meeting for Friends was established there under the guidance of Wilmington Friends Meeting.[3] On January 16, 1773, Daniel bought four and a half acres for a mill and mill seat. Superbly situated for business, Daniel’s White Clay Creek Mill had a landing where sloops and schooners passing up and down the rivers could load and unload grain and flour. [4]

Daniel’s nephew reminisced:

As the milling business was good, Uncle Daniel got soon to be well off in the world and living on the post road at White Clay Creek Mill he had many visitors to call and see him with his wife. He had in his mill, works for drawing wire which he carried on until the peace. He also had a machine for spinning twine or strong flax thread. It was turned by the water power of the mill. I have no doubt but that he [was the] first in America to pack a barrel of flour by water in his mill and he had a corn kiln for drying corn put up.[5]

In October 1773, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting cautioned the Friends to “keep quiet and still both in respect to conversation and conduct on such public occasions.” In January, 1775, the Meeting for Sufferings met long hours, day after day, resolving that Monthly Meetings must discipline Friends who participated in the Continental Association or any other group fostered by the Continental Congress. If members disregarded the admonitions, they were to be disowned. When this was read in Friends meetings across the colonies, the epistle “aroused great displeasure on the part of the friends of freedom and liberty.”[6] Through disownment, Friends expressed their concern over the reputation of their religion and its testimonies.

When John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress proclaimed a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer to be held on July 20, 1775, Daniel Byrnes composed an anti-slavery tract. His broadside blatantly pointed out the hypocrisy of referring to liberty and slavery.[7]

By 1776, in direct opposition to the tenets of their faith, the children of Daniel’s friends and colleagues were going off to war. As Clerk of Wilmington Friends Meeting it was Daniel’s job to reason with the offenders, dropping them from the rolls when necessary.

Spring came and crops were planted. Soldiers trooped down Daniel’s road with Hessian prisoners in tow, and a few local men, their militia terms expired, returned home with the news of the battle at Princeton. British warships, the Liverpool and the Roebuck patrolled the Delaware River. The Wilmington Monthly Meeting held in August 1777 announced that area meetings were to keep a record of the sufferings of Friends.[8]

On August 25, more than two hundred British ships arrived at Head of Elk. British and Hessian troops slaughtered cattle and took whatever they needed. In Wilmington, the American forces, headquartered on Quaker Hill, caused nearly as much havoc and disruption. Nathaniel Greene’s American troops settled in not far from Daniel Byrnes’s house and Pennsylvania militiamen idled nearby at Christiana Bridge.

On August 31, George Washington ordered the militia to drive off all cattle and horses, leaving the country as bare as possible. For Daniel, the next part of Washington’s orders must have been a sickening blow. It was harvest time, and many customers had left their grain at the White Clay mill to be ground, but Washington wanted the mills disassembled.[9]

The American encampments were within walking distance from Daniel’s mills and both armies were closing in on the remaining area residents. Following the dictates of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Byrnes remained steadfastly at home.[10]

On September 3, as the sounds of the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge echoed across the fields, the White Clay Creek Quakers received a frightening message. “The Gentlemen of the Board of War” of The Continental Congress had imprisoned twenty well-respected Philadelphia Friends without a hearing. Congress assuming these Quaker leaders were Tories and traitors, feared Philadelphians would continue to follow their lead. It was no longer safe to be a Quaker.[11]

The British celebrated their victory at Cooch’s Bridge by plundering Christiana. The Americans sent General Maxwell’s men to form a screen at White Clay Creek. From September 5 through the 8th tensions were high and another battle was anticipated. On the morning of the 6th, Daniel was informed by Washington’s staff that a Council of War would be held at his house that evening.[12]

With the news of Philadelphia’s Quaker prisoners fresh in his mind, Daniel Byrnes’s faith must have been sorely tested. His expulsion of Quaker youths who had wanted to join the militia must have haunted his dreams.

Daniel’s nephew later reported: “What a situation his and father’s family were in. At this juncture the battle was expected to commence every hour. The officers requested father to remove the family for they said the house would be shot down or torn to pieces with the cannon balls.”[13]

Years later, Daniel Byrnes wrote to George Washington about the events of September 7, 1777:

…was I with my Famely Situated betwen the two Contending Armies and on the 7th Day of the week Clement Biddle an officer as I Supose in thy Army Came to my House and informed me that General Woshington had Sent him to let me know that the wheat & Flour in my Mills must be Removed and told me that thou Said the English Army wod be quite likly to Come that way and wod Distroy what I had but that thou wod take it and I Should be paid for it. I Did then belive thou intended it as a favour to me as I was not Looked on as an Enemy to my Countery and therefore I Could Do no other thing but Submitt to thy orders.[14]

On September 11, the Americans lost the Battle of the Brandywine. On September 12, the British marched down Concord Pike, occupying Wilmington for more than a month. By November, the British had left, but Delaware and Maryland troops were posted there until spring. Wilmington Friends’ records state that “A division of the American Army wintered here and Friends were much oppressed having both officers and soldiers placed in their homes.”[15] A member of Wilmington Friends Meeting had disobeyed the Meeting’s orders and fled to Lancaster. Now, he was imprisoned in the Lancaster County Jail for refusing to swear allegiance to the State of Pennsylvania.[16] As Clerk of the Wilmington Friends Meeting Daniel Byrnes traveled back and forth to Lancaster attempting to gain his release. As a stranger in an already jumpy place, Byrnes knew he could easily be accused of being a spy.[17]

That summer, on July 1, 1778, a test oath of all white males in Delaware went into effect. Tension was high. Quakers and Tories became scape-goats and their property was often seized. Wilmington Friends’ Book of Sufferings shows increased activity.

1780. From Daniel Byrnes by virtue of execution from James Black by James Carr Constable at the suit of William McClay capt.., demand not known, one case of drawers.

1780. From Daniel Byrnes by Thomas Wallace collector for war tax demand not known, 3 barrels of flour.

1781. From Daniel Byrnes by a number of armed men 31 bushels of shorts and by McGhee Constable by execution from James Blake [sic Black] and Evan Reece for demand of 45/4 the remainder of a supply tax after the price of shorts was deducted and 23/1 demand for bounty tax three barrels of superfine flour and by Robert Wallace collector for war tax one barrel of superfine flour.[18]

It is hard not to suspect Sheriff James Black of trying to put Daniel Byrnes out of business. Black owned a mill further upstream and was the son-in-law of Samuel Patterson, also a miller, and a local militia leader. The Pacifist Byrnes was probably their biggest local competitor. Although the war was unofficially over, un-neighborly depredations continued.

An old man in 1793, Byrnes wrote another old man, George Washington:

…I belive no man Can think it Right that one man Should Suffer So much by the publick the Army had my property to Live upon and I think the States aught in Justice to pay me a Reasonable price for it I have not Run hastily as many others have but have waited with patience untill I Supose the United States are able to Do me Justice without feeling it. I am now in an advanced Age … and if I Could have Justice Don me in this matter I belive it wod Set me above the World once more but Considering my poverty and thy Exalted Station I assure thee it is not pleasent to me to Trouble thee with this affair but beliving thou art a man of Sencable feeling for those that Suffer and that thy influence wod be of Singuler Service to obtain Justice for me and I Desire nothing but Justice and if thou will be So kind as to Do Something for me in this affair in the way thou may think best it will be by me Greatfully acknowledged. If thou Should want any farther information Clement Biddle Can give thee Some. [19]

Daniel Byrnes story shows us a different side of the Revolutionary War. Although persecuted, he stubbornly remained a Pacifist. On April 23, 1798, Cornwall Monthly Meeting recorded that Daniel Byrnes was dead.[20]


[1]Carol J. Garrett, New Castle County Delaware Land Records 1770-1777 (Kearney, Ne: Morris Publishing, 2004), 180.

[2] Brooke Hunter, Rage for Grain: Flour Milling in the Mid-Atlantic 1750-1815, PhD diss., University of Delaware, 2001.

[3] Wilmington Friends Meeting, Miscellaneous papers: Misc. Reports of the Committees. 1732-1835. Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.

[4] John M. Coleman, Thomas McKean: Forgotten Leader of the Revolution (Rockway: N.J., American Faculty Press, 1975), 29.

[5]Daniel Byrnes. A Brief account. Of the Descendants of Daniel Byrne or Byrnes, who immigrated to America. Historical Society of Delaware. See Byrnes Family, papers, 1764-1854, 3 volumes and 3 folders

[6]Arthur J. Mekeel, Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution (Washington DC: University Press of America., 1979), 220-221.

[7] Daniel Byrnes. A short address to the English colonies in North-America. June, 1775. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/rbpe:@field(DOCID%2B@lit(rbpe01302400))

[8] “Minutes of the Committee Appointed by Wilmington Monthly Meeting in the 8th Month 1777 to Collect and Keep a Record of All Sufferings for the Testimony of Truth and to Advise in Cases of Difficulty,” MS, Swarthmore Friends Historical Collection, Wilmington Friends Meeting.

[9]George Washington, 1732-1799. The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources: Volume 9.

[10]Daniel Byrnes. A Brief account. Of the Descendants of Daniel Byrne or Byrnes, who immigrated to America. HSD. See Byrnes Family, papers, 1764-1854, 3 volumes and 3 folders.

[11] Henry Drinker Correspondence, 1777-1778. Haverford College, PA. Ms. Coll. 854 ca. 74 items (1 box).

[12]Robert Kirkwood and Joseph Brown Turner, The Journal and Order Book of Captain Robert Kirkwood of the Delaware Regiment of the Continental Line (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970), 162.

[13] Daniel Byrnes. A Brief account. Of the Descendants of Daniel Byrne or Byrnes, who immigrated to America. HSD. See Byrnes Family, papers, 1764-1854, 3 volumes and 3 folders.

[14]Daniel Byrnes. Letter to George Washington January 17, 1793. Christine S. Patrick and John C. Pinheiro, Eds. The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series volume 12 January-May 1793. University Press of Virginia, 2005 14-18.

[15] Mittimus: Dated August 22, 1777: Jehu Hollingsworth Who by his own confession hath not taken an oath of allegiance to any of the United States of America and the oath of allegiance to this state being tendered to him, he refuseth to take and subscribe to the same. These are therefore in the name of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania do command and request you to receive the said Jehu Hollingsworth and him safely keep in the common gaol of the county aforesaid until he shall take the said oath or affirmation of allegiance agreeable to an Act of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of passed the 18th day of June 1777.

[16] Quakers were allowed “to affirm” allegiance but not to “Swear” allegiance. See also http://www.quakerjane.com/spirit.friends/spirituality-glossary.html#sense

[17] Ibid. See also: Kim Burdick, A Prisoner of Conscience (Quaker Hill Quill vol 2, no 3, summer 2013), 5.

[18]Wilmington Friends Meeting. Book of Sufferings. Swarthmore College.

[19]Daniel Byrnes. Letter to George Washington January 17, 1793. New Windsor, NY. Christine S. Patrick and John C. Pinheiro, Eds. The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series volume 12 January-May 1793. University Press of Virginia2005 pg 14-18.

[20]Susanna Morikawa to Kim Burdick, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore, PA.


  • I enjoyed your article, Kim. It makes the Quaker movement very personal as seen through the eyes of Daniel Byrnes, during the Revolutionary War.

    I have always a mixed feeling for the Quakers of that time. On one hand, in looking back they were always on the side of righteousness – whether in their abolitionist or pacifist philosophies.
    But on the other hand, by not publicly siding with the United States, it seemed as though they inadvertently endorsed Great Britain’s push to crush the rebellion.

    I can imagine how frustrating it was during those times however, even more so. When on the floor of Congress, John Adams used the “religion card” in criticizing Dickinson and his anti-war stance.

    Thank you for a great article.

  • Thank you for your most interesting article regarding Quakers in the American Revolution. Remaining steadfastly pacifist in between two bitter foes was obviously fraught with tremendous personal risk as exemplified by the life experiences of Daniel Byrnes.
    I am a descendant of 18th C. Quakers on Long Island who faced tremendous difficulty in maintaining a truly neutral posture in the face of competing forces for their loyalty. They were evidently harassed by both Patriots and Loyalists to agree to Oaths of Allegiance and subject to various other persuasive methods in order to appear loyal to one side or the other.
    What a really tough time for people who just wanted to get on with their lives and be left alone. While some did actively choose sides – and paid for it – others did so benignly in the hopes of staying out of the way.
    Thanks again for covering a part of Revolutionary War history that is often overlooked.
    John Pearson

  • Thanks, Both!

    One of the things I love best about living at the Hale Byrnes House is how real the fears and worries and decisions were. It has given more textured and vibrant sense of the war. I often wonder what Daniel Byrnes’s father thought about it. He was an Irish Catholic. DAniel’s mother was a Scots-Irish Quaker. They left Ireland not only because of ythe “troubles” over there, but also because both sides of the family disapproved of their “mixed” marriage. I expect Daniel was a sterner Quaker just because of his family stories, and was patriotic as he could be, given the tenets of Quakerism

  • Excellent article. I was raised in the Quaker village of Yardley, PA. During the War of Independence, when at least 20% of the American population were Loyalists/Tories, General Washington could neither comprehend nor appreciate that Quaker pacifism derived from their religious beliefs/testimonies, rather than their political leanings (which were Whiggish). He resented the Quakers’ refusal to help with the “common defense.” Long after the war, and following his inauguration in 1789, President Washington mellowed a bit, writing that, “Your principles and conduct are well known to me; and it is doing the people called Quakers no more than justice to say, that (except their declining to share with others the burden of the common defense) there is no denomination among us, who are more exemplary and useful citizens.” But in another letter the following year, amidst the very gradual abolition of slavery in the states north of Maryland, Washington was clearly peeved by Quaker abolitionism when he wrote, “The [anti-slavery] memorial of the Quakers (and a very mal-apropos one it was) has at length been put to sleep, and will scarcely awake before the year 1808 [when Congresses’ 20 year extension of the slave trade would end].

  • Daniel Byrnes actually grew up in Gywnned FRiends Meeting, and I used to work at William Jeanes Library in Lafayette Hill. I like your comments… a lot!

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