Sylvanus Seely's Diary
by Oliver Popenoe
This is a unique historical
document that covers more than half a century.
In 1768, at age 26, Sylvanus began
keeping a diary, which he continued until shortly before his death
in 1821. As a result,
his life is well documented.
The 30 volumes were passed down in the family and eventually
lodged in the library at the Morristown National Historic Park where
Washington had headquarters during the Revolutionary War.
The diaries have been transcribed and comprise three large
volumes with some 1600 pages.
The summary that
follows abstracts genealogical and some personal information
that seemed to me interesting or significant, with my comments in
brackets and footnotes.
Each item begins with the page number and date.
I have generally corrected the spelling and grammar to make
it easier to read, without, hopefully, changing the meaning.
To orient you to what you will be reading, here is a summary
of Sylvanus Seely’s life followed by the genealogy of his children
and grandchildren.. To load more quickly, I have divided this
document into 8 pages; the footnotes are at the end of each page.
Sylvanus Seely was the son of Christopher Seely and Mary Ball, grandson of Samuel Seely and Charlotte Popino. Born in Chester, Orange County, NY, 18 December 1743, he moved--probably around age 9 or 10--to Reading, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Berks County, to which his father and his uncles Jonas and Samuel Seely removed. During the French and Indian War, the Indians, fighting with the French, made many incursions into and near Reading. Christopher was a Lieutenant of Militia and Jonas a Colonel in the militia, and an important leader in the community. Sylvanus himself, as a teenager, fought as a private in the militia over the course of two years near the end of the war. The Indian menace at that time was still great.
Jonas was the most prominent and well to do of the three brothers. He was appointed a judge of Philadelphia County in 1751 and upon the creation of Berks County in 1752 was appointed Judge there, serving until 1770. He was County Treasurer from 1752-1768 and was the personal representative of the Governor in Berks County, a Captain on the frontier of Northampton County in 1756, Commissary at Fort William in 1758, and commander of forces for the defense of the country around Reading in 1766.
Jonas was a person of considerable wealth. His residence at Sinking Spring was considered elegant and substantial and the large estate that surrounded it was quite valuable. The Seelys lived in a lavish manner with at least two slaves, Mrs. Seely was a "grand lady", and Col. Seely's chariot was the wonder of the country. His farm in Sinking Spring, some ten miles west of Reading, was the largest and best-stocked farm in the township. But public duties coupled with private concerns such as land speculation took Jonas away much of the time. He had only one son, Isaac, born in 1757, so he chose Sylvanus to manage his estate for him in the 1760s.
Jonas and his brothers were large land speculators. Jonas held vast acreage north and west of Reading. In 1752, a warrant was issued to Jonas Seely for 10,000 acres of land in northeastern Pennsylvania, Northampton County (now Wayne County), known as the Indian Orchard Tract. One tenth was required to be surveyed for the proprietors, the Penns, and the remainder was allotted to Jonas. It was surveyed in 1769 and included part of the land on which Honesdale, County Seat of Wayne County, now stands. He was required to get 30 settlers which he was unable to do, so much of the grant lapsed, but some of it was later taken up by his brother Christopher as an opportunity given to officers of the regiment that served Col. Bouquet in the French and Indian War
Jonas’ farm at Sinking Spring, which Sylvanus managed, was some 700 acres consisting of meadows and upland, much of it still forested. It included a sawmill and cider mill, eight or ten horses and a like number of cows, and fifteen or twenty sheep. In contrast, few neighboring farms had more than 100 acres. Sylvanus, a rather good-looking man with the cut of a backwoodsman—tall, spare and rugged—was rightly fitted for his role. From childhood, judging from his ways, he must have been a go-getter and a leader.
In spring, 1769, Jonas decided to sell the farm and auction off the contents. It took three auctions before he was satisfied enough had been sold. Sylvanus decided now to go up to the northern wilderness and settle on some of the land Jonas had acquired. In April he set out with several men on horses, a couple of Negroes driving a few cows and a wagon drawn by oxen heavily laden with provisions and equipment. It took a couple of weeks to reach Indian Orchard where they built a cabin. After a couple of weeks Sylvanus left the men to plant a garden and returned to Sinking Spring to get his family and more supplies. Upon returning, Sylvanus decided to settle instead on Jonas’ other tract at Blooming Grove, some 10-15 miles away. Here they built another house and during the summer were visited by Jonas, Sylvanus’ father and father-in-law, and other relatives. A year later Sylvanus had eight or ten men working at Blooming Grove, Indian Orchard and Wallenpaupack. There were frequent visitors; including people from Connecticut who passed through here on the “Wilderness Road” (probably more or less the present Route 6) on their way to the Wyoming Valley (Wilkes Barre area) where there was a substantial settlement, this being regarded by Connecticut as part of its territory.
(Below: NE Pennsylvania today. Note Seelyville, Bethany, Indian Orchard at upper left with Paupack, Blooming Grove and Lackawaxen below and to the right.)
In 1771, Sylvanus set out for Passaic (soon to be called Chatham), near Morristown, where he was being sued for some furs. C. Bonnel had a house for sale west of the river; Sylvanus liked the property and bought it on time for £370, making the down payment with money borrowed from a future neighbor, Jacob Morrell. He continued to live in Chatham for nearly 30 years. In addition to farming, he was a storekeeper and innkeeper and his advertisements for West India rum and French brandy were inserted from time to time in the New Jersey Journal. During the War his inn was located on the southwest corner of the highways now called Main Street and Fairmont Avenue, west of the Passaic River. In 1796 he sold the property to Capt. William Day.
Sylvanus first appears on the muster rolls of the militia as a captain, receiving his commission on June 14, 1776. He had tried but was unable to get a commission in the Continental Army, presenting to the New Jersey Provincial Congress on February 7, 1776, a recommendation from the Committees of Morris and Hanover townships stating that “he is an Honest Man firmly attached to the Liberties of his Country, & a Man who from his former Services for two years in the last War has approved himself a Man of Courage & Resolution, & therefore we deem him fit & worthy of Holding a Capt’s Commission in the above Service, & to assure you that we doubt not but he would raise a Company in a Short Time.”
Seely was made a militia major on May 23, 1777, and a colonel on November 13 the same year. In June 1778 the British Army under Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia and began a march through New Jersey. Militia from all parts of the state answered Washington’s call for help as his army followed the ten-mile-long line of troops and supplies. Seely marched from Elizabethtown with his militia troops to join General Dickinson on the day before the battle of Monmouth. Seely’s men were with Dickinson during a skirmish in the early hours before the main battle, but were then directed to the left to guard against a British division attempting to encircle the American left flank. The day after the battle, Seely noted in his diary that his men were busy burying the dead of both sides.
During the winter of 1779-80, Washington and his troops stayed near Morristown. In June, believing the Americans to be weak, the British attacked the community of Connecticut Farms, near Springfield. The Americans held them off and were soon joined by Col. Seely and others with their troops. Seely placed his men in the woods near the Rahway River, below the bridge. The enemy’s cannon were firing on them but aiming high. As the day was growing late and Washington was expected to arrive with the main army from Morristown, the British ordered a withdrawal after about a half hour’s fighting near the bridge. Seely’s brother Samuel, a lieutenant of the New Jersey Continentals, was slightly wounded. Seely’s militia had few casualties. After the battle the wounded were taken to Chatham where they were tended at Timothy Day’s and Seely’s taverns. About forty prisoners were also brought to Chatham. The following day General Hand with fifteen hundred continentals and a body of militia advanced on the enemy’s position near Elizabethtown Point. Seely’s militia, near the center of the American lines, took about twenty prisoners.
There were a number of other battles that year and in between Seely was at home tending to his normal affairs. In August he was ordered to take his men and march to Dobbs Ferry across the Hudson River. After arriving, many of his men raided the cornfields and gardens of farmers [this was the area between the British and American occupations that tended to get raided by both sides]. In an effort to prevent pillaging, Seely ordered his men to remain in camp after retreat was called in the evening. Soon he was directed to take his men back to Connecticut Farms to guard New Jersey while Washington moved his army and the French army south to battle Cornwallis at Yorktown. Seely wrote a number of letters to General Washington which are reproduced on the Library of Congress web site.
From 1779 until the end of the War he served as colonel of a battalion of State troops, much of the time trying to prevent intercourse between the Tories of New Jersey and the British troops in New York City and Staten Island. Besides carrying information to the British, the Loyalists were engaged in illegal trade between the two sides. A letter from Governor Livingston of New Jersey to General Heath, September 15, 1781, read in part:
“By the last returns I had of what we call our three months men, I doubt not the five hundred are by this time complete. They are under the command of Collo. Sylvanus Seely, whose headquarters are at Connecticut Farms, about four miles from Elizabeth Town, and about seven from Staten Island. From these he keeps constant outposts and pickets along the line, to prevent the incursions of the enemy, and to suppress the illicit infernal trade that is carried on with them.
During the winter of 1779-80, charges of dereliction of duty were made against Colonel Seely and he was tried by court martial and found innocent. After the trial a proclamation of Gov. Livingston stated:
“A General Court Martial of the state…having been ordered by the Governor for the trial of Col. Sylvanus Seely, on the 27th day of April last, on the following charges against him while commanding the State Regiment in Elizabeth-Town, in the latter end of the year 1779, viz.
1. That he suffered goods and merchandise to be landed from the enemy’s flag-boat within our lines, thereby permitting an illicit trade to be carried on between the inhabitants of this state and the enemy.
2. That he suffered those who came with a flag, some of whom were fugitives from this state, frequently to tarry all night on shore without any necessity, giving them an opportunity to hold conferences with the disaffected inhabitants, to gain intelligence, transact commercial affairs, and promote desertions among our troops.
3. That he partook of this illicit trade himself, having goods taken out of the flag boat and carried to his quarters.
4. That of his own authority he gave permission to persons to go to the enemy, either to stay with them or return, and also gave permits to persons of suspected characters to pass his guards, who carried provisions to the enemy.
5. That he authorized privates in the regiment to exercise command, and to rank and draw pay as officers;, contrary to the constitution of the state, the law for raising the said regiment, to the damage and expense of the state.
And the said Court having met and proceeded to the trial of the said Col. Seely…unanimously declare, ‘that the said Col. Sylvanus Seely is not guilty of any one or more of the said charges, but on the contrary, that during his command at Elizabeth-Town, he is entitled to the character of a good soldier, a vigilant officer, and a faithful citizen, and as such deserves the gratitude of his country’.”
Throughout the war, when Seely wasn’t off fighting with his troops he was going about his business, tending his garden, going to Philadelphia to buy provisions for his tavern, and so on. He was also involved in several affairs with women other than his wife, though there is no indication that these went beyond kisses and flirtations. He wrote about them in code in his diary. For several years he was involved with the wife of his physician, Dr. Steven Ball. The lovers sent notes to each other and met privately when they could, often in an apple orchard on a nearby farm. Eventually Mrs. Ball got interested in another man. In 1782, Seely went to take the waters at a fashionable spring at Schooley’s Mountain where he met and enjoyed a flirtation with a lovely blonde, Mrs. Barnet. “if I cherish the flame that Mrs. B. has kindled in my heart it cannot hurt me for I shall stay with her but a little while and when done I shall not expect to see her and therefore shall not suffer in mind and perhaps it may ease me on account of Mrs. Ball by breaking the affection I have for her and make my mind easier. O good God turn my affections on my good wife who deserves them all.” Despite his prayer, he went back to the spring a week later and enjoyed some more kisses. Later Seely was involved with Susan Kollak, wife of Shepard Kollak, publisher of The New Jersey Journal in Chatham, one of the nation’s first newspapers.
After the War, Seely bought and sold properties, some confiscated from loyalists, and also ran a business following the troops and selling them goods and victuals, in addition to his tavern. In 1785 he got conveyances from his father for lands at Lackawaxen, who had had them since 1771, and he again began making trips up to that frontier region in Pennsylvania to speculate in land. When his father died in 1792, he left his many properties to all of his children and grandchildren, and Seely spent a lot of time and energy trying to buy their lands from some of them. Although his father left a will, it was never filed for probate. The family tried to work things out privately and the father’s death was filed intestate many years later.
He finally left Chatham for good in 1800, setting up a mill about a mile west of what is now Honesdale, county seat of Wayne County. He first built a sawmill, later a grist mill. He called his place Jane’s Mills, in honor of his wife. Later it was called Seely’s Mills and is now Seelyville. He played a prominent part in the affairs of the locality and the region. A number of his relatives and also friends from Chatham settled around him.
The products of his saw mill were used locally, for example to build the courthouse and jail in Bethany, then the county seat, and were also rafted downriver to Philadelphia. This was common practice among sawmills in the region. Over the years Seely made many trips to Philadelphia to sell lumber or deal with legal matters; and he also made many trips back to Chatham where some of his children lived.
Sylvanus Seely died April 17, 1821 at 77. He was buried in Bethany and the town bell, for the first time, tolled for his death. He had recently celebrated his 52nd marriage anniversary. His wife lived another five years until July 18, 1826, when she fell down a flight of stairs and died instantly. Due to his debts, the mills came into possession of others, but later, Sylvanus’ grandson came back and took over the mills and played a significant role in Honesdale for many years
 This biography is based on the Sylvanus Seely Diary in the Morristown National Historic Park, Morristown, NJ; Theodore Thayer, An Eighteenth-Century Farmer and Pioneer: Sylvanus Seely's Early Life in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania History, Vol XXXV, No 1, January 1968; Theodore Thayer, Colonial and Revolutionary Morris County, Morristown, NJ: Morris County Heritage Commission, 1975; Donald Wallace White, A Village At War: Chatham, New Jersey and the American Revolution, Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1979; and Ambrose Ely Vanderpoel, History of Chatham, NJ, Chatham Historical Society, 1959.
 George Winterhalter Schultz, The Three Seely Brothers in Berks County, Historical Review of Berks County, April, 1940, pp 82-84.
 Harriet Seely Totten (Jonas' great-granddaughter), My Father's Family, mss in Historical Society of Pennsylvania; reprinted in Mary Henrietta Chase, Descendants of Aquila Chase and Robert Seeley, Dallas, TX 1963 (copies in major genealogical libraries), p 278.
 This description is from Thayer’s article about Sylvanus Seely’s early life in Pennsylvania, op cit.. Professor of History at Rutgers, I suspect he used considerable historical if not fictional license here.
 Vanderpoel, op cit, p 83.
 These various accounts of battles are from Thayer’s Colonial and Revolutionary Morris County, pp 202-269. There are 20 items in the Library of Congress American Memory collection re Sylvanus Seely. To see them enter his name at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/mgwquery.html
 Vanderpoel, op cit., p 83.
 Diary, p 156, 18 Jul 1782.