Someone Else’s Ancestor

In my very first blog post, Peace from the Pieces, I mentioned the project I have been working on—ghostwriting a book about someone else’s ancestor—and how that work fueled my curiosity about my own family legacy. Last month, the book William Lewis, Esquire: Enlightened Statesman, Profound Lawyer, and Useful Citizen was officially published. At the end of June, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania hosted a lovely event to celebrate the memory of Esther Ann McFarland (the author and woman I worked for) and publication of the book. I have to admit that since the party, I have taken a bit of a mental vacation…I’ve done little writing (fictional or otherwise), no genealogical research…no “production” of anything new. Perhaps that is how it should be. Perhaps I am still letting go a bit before I can refocus on what’s left before me.


Rudy Garcia (former Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association) with George McFarland (on right, Esther Ann’s son) holding a copy of the book (photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania)


In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few photos and words from the event. It meant a great deal to be able to share my experiences with the attendees—my relationship with Esther Ann and the process of becoming a ghostwriter and later co-author of the book.  I was grateful to have my mother, husband, and several close friends in attendance, as well as many of the people who helped along the way. A nice crowd of people came out to honor Esther Ann. She had many friends and those in attendance represented a number of important local organizations: The Historical Society of the US District Court (Eastern PA), Historic Strawberry Mansion, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, The American Swedish Historical Museum, Daughters of the American Revolution (among others), and of course The Historical Society of Pennsylvania who hosted the entire event.


Me (in the middle), with my mom Sandi on the left and Sandi Hewlett (the genealogist extraordinaire who provided research on the Lewis family and tracked down William’s final resting place just as we were going to print!)


Those of you interested in history, specifically Philadelphia history, and especially the history of law, will enjoy reading the book. William Lewis, like many American Patriots, was a man who wore many hats. A leader of the Philadelphia bar before the American Revolution, he would continue to build his legal reputation by defending those accused of treason, and during the Early National period he would become the leading authority on trade and maritime law. He would serve as a leading counselor to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society throughout his life, after helping to draft the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania. Lewis was an avid Federalist and politically active at both the state and federal levels. President George Washington appointed Lewis the first United States Attorney for the District of Pennsylvania and later the second judge of the District Court of Pennsylvania. He was one of the first attorneys admitted as counselor to the bar of the United States Supreme Court and was called upon to provide advice and counsel to a number of high-profile individuals including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.


Lee Arnold in HSP’s beautiful reading room where attendees could see first-hand some of the important documents used in writing the book on the life of William Lewis, including rarely seen early maps and William Rawle’s journals.


I enjoyed getting to know Lewis through the eyes of his great-great-great-granddaughter and through the eyes of his friends and students who often wrote about him in their journals and letters. In time, I found that, like those before me, I also found William Lewis to be quite an interesting man.

Here are the words I shared with those who attended the book party at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania on the twenty-six of June 2012:

Here I am asking the question…What Would William Lewis Do? (Photo courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania)


“What Would William Lewis Do?

That was the question I found myself asking as I read a newspaper article about the case of Carol Anne Bond v. United States, a Pennsylvania case that reached the United States Supreme Court in early 2011. Not your typical Supreme Court fare…the case involved a love triangle, chemical weapons, postal inspectors, an international treaty, and the 10th Amendment.  The 10th Amendment you may remember makes explicit the idea that the federal government is limited only to the powers granted in the constitution.  Add in the concepts of separation of powers, federalism, and an individual’s right to liberty and there is no doubt in my mind that William Lewis would have led the charge in defending Carol Anne Bond—despite her guilty plea—in arguing that the federal government had gone too far in using a terrorism statute, to prosecute a domestic dispute, that should have played out in a state court.

So, you may ask…how did I find myself pondering the thoughts of an 18th century attorney while reading about this modern day Supreme Court case?

I blame it all on Esther Ann McFarland.

In one of those “the universe works in mysterious ways” circular moments…I first became aware of Esther Ann more than eight years ago, while I was working here at HSP [The Historical Society of Pennsylvania]…right upstairs in the President’s office. I actually  first encountered her when I “found” her in our database…a Mrs. George C. McFarland, who like clock-work, diligently made annual contributions in support  of HSP. Multiple changeovers in staff meant that no one in the President’s office at that point had any knowledge of her…so I decided to give her a call to introduce myself and to invite her to an upcoming event for our newly formed Treasures Society. The Treasures Society, I informed her, was a special group of our most dedicated supporters…a group she was already well-qualified to join based on her long history of financial contributions. Of course, we all fell in love with Esther Ann when we met her at the party… this spry & petite lady who was so full of love and laughter. Afterward I sent Esther Ann a picture that was taken at the event… of her with then HSP board president Colin McNeil…both sporting brightly colored gold jackets and broad smiles…so off the picture went…and  I don’t think two days had passed before I received a note in reply along with yet another generous contribution. This was the start of a renewed relationship between Esther Ann & HSP. In all of us, myself, Lee Arnold [Director of the Library at HSP], and other staff members, EA found a whole new audience to enlighten about the venerable esquire William Lewis, her great-great-great-grandfather.

And somehow, we all became sucked into the project… Lee’s staff was processing the papers of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, so he was on the lookout for any mention of William Lewis…through the years Lee would continue to send EA tidbits he’d come across, anything he thought might be of interest to her.

Even after I left my position at HSP, as we maintained our friendship… I kept track of her progress on what became known as “the book.” “How’s the book?” I’d ask as if it were a person… During this time period she decided if she was going to complete this project…turning all of her years of research into an actual published book… that she needed help organizing and writing. I sent a few of my writer friends her way in hopes that they could work as her ghost… it took awhile but I was happy to hear that she had finally hired someone to help.

Another year or so went by…and during one of our phone conversations she shared her frustration that the book wasn’t progressing as she’d hoped…and she was on her second “helper.” During this same conversation, I had mentioned that I was thinking about picking up some additional work to help make ends meet…Esther Ann then decided we were the answer to each other’s needs…and indeed…that was true… so in the spring of 2010 I started working for her…  At the time, a little over two years ago, Esther Ann estimated it would be a six month project…and that sounded reasonable to me…

And having followed the project for a number of years, I thought I’d had an understanding of what I signed on for… and then I was introduced to more than forty years of research…overflowing filing cabinets and boxes…and all the stories Esther Ann wanted to include in her book.

Here are just a few of the topics she had in mind:

The Swedish settlement in Pennsylvania…and a little known land exchange between the Swanson brothers and William Penn, it turns out the Indians didn’t own the land on which Penn wanted to build his city of Brotherly Love…the Swansons did…

Then there was the extensive title research she’d done on the land the Swanson’s had been given (which is now part of Fairmount Park), as it relates to Historic Strawberry Mansion

The Welsh Quakers (Lewis’s ancestors), and their plan for a Welsh Barony in Philadelphia and their relationship to William Penn

There’s the story of Lewis’s summer home…Summerville which in time lost its name and is now referred to as Historic Strawberry Mansion… and the big question… how did that happen…and it’s not how you think…

And of course there was much to say about William Lewis himself…  his service to our Founding Fathers and the new nation… his involvement in the Abolition movement and in drafting the Act of the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania…

That  was just the beginning…of what Esther Ann had in mind when she pictured her book in her mind’s eye… so I started to dig into her research and ponder how all of this might come together into one cohesive manuscript.

I’d like to point out some tidbits of research…

There was her March 1966 correspondence with the secretary of the Chester County Historical Society (I point it out because I was not yet two years old at the time she was having this conversation…a typed letter sent via the post office.)

Her 1989 correspondence with John McIlhenny of the Fairmount Park Commission is very interesting… where she indicated her great disappointment in an interpretation plan for Strawberry Mansion that had been presented that did not take into account the eleven items of research she had previously submitted to the Commission. She indicated that she was taking no chances with the mail this time, she would hand deliver the information to Mr. McIlhenny directly to his office. I am happy to report that when I personally visited the archives of the Park Commission in 2011, I found all of Esther Ann’s primary research included in their Strawberry Mansion files. (In other words, they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.)

So, we were not just writing a book…Esther Ann was not going to rest until she could ensure—by whatever means available—that the legacy of her great-great-great-grandfather would not just live on… but would be interpreted correctly and not be forgotten a second time. William Lewis’s contributions to our nation are certainly important…and the fact that a case such as Carol Anne Bond v. United States could be heard in the United States Supreme Court in 2011 is certainly a testament to the work of William Lewis in setting the earliest legal precedents.

And while Esther Ann is no longer with us in the physical world, those of us who knew her, have no doubt that she is here with us in spirit, thrilled that her dream has become a reality… I am really grateful to have played a part.”


The book on sale in the lobby of HSP during the party


For those of you interested in reading the book, it is available on and also directly from the publisher at . If you live in Philadelphia, there are copies on sale at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (corner of 13th and Locust).

5 thoughts on “Someone Else’s Ancestor

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  1. It’s an incredibly fascinating book. I have loved making my way through it and getting to know this special man!


  2. Hi! I came across your blog a few weeks ago while I was doing some research on my family (the Zortman’s) history. Great posts in the past as well as this one! Will you be going to the Z-Fair in a few weeks?


    1. No Z-fair this year unfortunately. Would love to hear about your experience should you attend. Would also love to hear about how your branch became Zortman with an “O”… my family tends to pronounce the name that way, but kept the “a”. Keep in touch & glad you’ve enjoyed the posts. Thanks!


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