Remembering the earliest names in Roxborough’s history
It’s good news that a Roxborough Historic District is being planned. William Penn sold the land here 337 years ago, and people, buildings and events have been ebbing and flowing here ever since.
King Charles gave Penn his sylvania in 1681 to settle an old debt. Penn began peddling real estate right away. There were buyers immediately for land in what would become Roxborough.
The name goes back at least to Johannes Kelpius, who led a religious group from Germany to a home in the Wissahickon wilderness. He used the name “Rocks-burrow” in a letter dated May 26, 1706.
The original English owners of the area, who bought land from William Penn in 1681, are mostly forgotten now. But a few left names behind that are familiar today.
Penn’s planners divided the northwest Philadelphia land along the Schuylkill, east to about where Wissahickon Avenue now runs, into 11 tracts.
Robert Turner was an Irish Quaker friend of Penn’s. The day after Penn got the deed to Pennsylvania on March 4, 1681, he wrote to Turner about it. Turner bought the southernmost 500-acre Roxborough tract at the mouth of the Wissahickon.
Turner also bought 6,000 acres in other parts of Pennsylvania. And he invested in the Free Society of Traders, formed in spring of 1682, the organization that bought Society Hill in the city and Frankford in the suburbs.
Turner’s wife died in May 1683. In July, he came here to his land with his young daughter, Martha, and 17 servants. He was 48.
He named his Roxborough land Shomack Park, probably the name of trees on the property and the origin of the name Sumac Street. He served as Pennsylvania treasurer and a judge before he died in 1700.
In 1686, Turner rented the land at the mouth of the Wissahickon to Joshua Tittermary and Richard Townsend, who built the first mill on the creek.
Richard Vicaris, a Quaker merchant from Bristol, England, bought a tract but never came here. Somehow, his name did, on a street. William Rittenhouse, America’s first papermaker, and Peter Righter lived on what was originally Vicaris land.
Francis Fincher, a glove maker from Worcester, England, bought a tract in 1684. His widow later sold 200 acres to Thomas Hill. In 1697, Hill and Mrs. Fincher sold it all to Wigard Levering, whose name and descendants spread all over the neighborhood.
Wigard and his brother, Gerhard, had come to Germantown and bought land there in 1685. Wigard died in 1745, aged close to 100, and was buried on his farm, which later became the churchyard of Roxborough Baptist Church, organized in 1789, and the adjacent Leverington Cemetery.
The Levering name was later attached to a street, a school, a theater and a hotel, and for a time, the area was called Leverington. William Levering, born in 1705, built the first school in 1748. It was rebuilt several times through the years. He also built a hotel in 1793.
Charles Hartford, a soap maker from Bristol, England, bought another tract from Penn. It was later sold to Thomas Wilson.
After the Revolution, that land was acquired by Thomas Livezy, who had a mill across the Wissahickon since 1747. His house is still there, and his name is on the Mt. Airy lane that leads to it
Not much is left of those earliest days, but the spirit of the first purchasers from William Penn surely hangs over Roxborough.