Francis Lewis Biography
Francis Lewis was a native of Landaff, in South Wales, where he was born in the year 1713. His father was a clergyman, belonging to the established church. His mother was the daughter of Dr. Pettingal, who was also a clergyman of the Episcopal establishment, and had his residence in North Wales. At the early age of four or five years, being left an orphan, the care of him devolved upon a maternal maiden aunt, who took singular pains to have him instructed in the native language of his country. He was afterwards sent to Scotland, where, in the family of a relation, he acquired a knowledge of the Gaelic. From this, he was transferred to the school of Westminster, where he completed his education; and enjoyed the reputation of being a good classical scholar.
Mercantile pursuits being his object, be entered the counting room of a London merchant; where, in a few years, he acquired a competent knowledge of the profession. On attaining to the age of twenty-one years, he collected the property which had been left him by his father, and having converted it into merchandise, he sailed for New-York, where he arrived in the spring of 1735.
Leaving a part of his goods to be sold in New-York, by Mr. Edward Annesly, with whom he had formed a commercial connection, he transported the remainder to Philadelphia, whence, after a residence of two years, he returned to the former city, and there became extensively engaged in navigation and foreign trade. About this time he connected himself by marriage with the sister of his partner, by whom be had several children.
Mr. Lewis acquired the character of an active and enterprising merchant. In the course of his commercial transactions, he traversed a considerable part of the continent of Europe. He visited several of the seaports of Russia, the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and twice suffered shipwreck of the Irish coast.
During the French or Canadian war, Mr. Lewis was, for a time, agent for supplying the British troops. In this capacity, he was present at the time, when, in August, 1756, the fort of Oswego was surrendered to the distinguished French general, de Montcalm. The fort was, at that time, commanded by the British Colonel Mersey. On the tenth of August, Montcalm approached it with more than five thousand Europeans, Canadians, and Indians. On the twelfth, at midnight, he opened the trenches, with thirty-two pieces of cannon, besides several brass mortars and howitzers. The garrison having, fired away all their shells and ammunition, Colonel Mersey ordered the cannon to be spiked, and crossed the river to Little Oswego Fort, without the loss of a single man. Of the deserted fort, the enemy took immediate possession, and from it began a fire, which was kept up without intermission. The next day, Colonel Mersey was killed while standing by the side of Mr. Lewis.
The garrison, being thus deprived of their commander, their fort destitute of a cover, and no prospect of aid presenting itself, demanded a capitulation, and surrendered as prisoners of war. The garrison consisted at this time of the regiments of Shirley and Pepperell, and amounted to one thousand and four hundred men. The conditions required, and acceded to, were, that they should be exempted from plunder, conducted to Montreal, and treated with humanity. The services rendered by Mr. Lewis, during the war, were held in such consideration by the British government, that at the close of it he received a grant of five thousand acres of land.
The conditions, upon which the garrison at Fort Oswego surrendered to Montcalm, were shamefully violated by that commander. They were assured of kind treatment; but no sooner had the surrender been made, than Montcalm allowed the chief warrior of the Indians, who assisted in taking the fort, to select about thirty of the prisoners, and do with them as he pleased. Of this number Mr. Lewis was one. Placed thus at the disposal of savage power, a speedy and cruel death was to be expected. The tradition is, however that he soon discovered that he was able to converse with the Indians, by reason of the similarity of the ancient language of Wales, which he understood, to the Indian dialect. The ability of Mr. Lewis, thus readily to communicate with the chief, so pleased the latter, that he treated him kindly; and on arriving at Montreal, he requested the French governor to allow him to return to his family, without ransom. The request, however, was not granted, and Mr. Lewis was sent as a prisoner to France, from which country, being some time after exchanged, he returned to America.
This tradition as to the cause of the liberation of Mr. Lewis, is incorrect; no such affinity existed between the Cymreag, or ancient language of Wales, and the language of any of the Indian tribes found in North America. The cause might have been, and probably was, some unusual occurrence, or adventure; but of its precise nature we are not informed.
Although Mr. Lewis was not born in America, his attachment to the country was coeval with his settlement in it. He early espoused the patriotic cause, against the encroachments of the British government, and was among the first to unite with an association, which existed in several parts of the country, called the "sons of liberty," the object of which was to concert measures against the exercise of an undue power on the part of the mother country.
The independent and patriotic character which Mr. Lewis was known to possess, the uniform integrity of his life, the distinguished intellectual powers with which be was endued, all pointed him out as a proper person to assist in taking charge of the interest of the colony in the continental congress. Accordingly, in April, 1775, he was unanimously elected delegate to that body. In this honorable station he was continued by the provincial congress of New-York, through the following year, 1776; and was among the number who declared the colonies forever absolved from their allegiance to the British crown, and from that time entitled to the rank, and privileges of free and independent states.
In several subsequent years, he was appointed to represent the state in the national legislature. During his congressional career, Mr. Lewis was distinguished for a becoming zeal in the cause of liberty, tempered by the influence of a correct judgment and a cautious prudence. He was employed in several secret services in the purchase of provisions and clothing for the army and in the importation of military stores, particularly arms and ammunition. In transactions of this kind, his commercial experience gave him great facilities. He was also employed on various committees, in which capacity, he rendered many valuable services to his country.
In 1775, Mr. Lewis removed his family and effects to a country seat which he owned on Long Island. This proved to be an unfortunate step. In the autumn of the following year, his house was plundered by a party of British light horse. His extensive library and valuable papers of every description were wantonly destroyed. Nor were they contented with this ruin of his property. They thirsted for revenge upon a man, who had dared to affix his signature to a document, which proclaimed the independence of America. Unfortunately Mrs. Lewis fell into their power, and was retained a prisoner for several months. During her captivity, she was closely confined, without even the comfort of a bed to lie upon, or a change of clothes.
In November, 1776, the attention of congress was called to her distressed condition, and shortly after a resolution was passed that a lady, who had been taken prisoner by the Americans, should be permitted to return to her husband, and that Mrs. Lewis be required in exchange. But the exchange could not at that time be effected. Through the influence of Washington, however, Mrs. Lewis was at length released; but her sufferings during her confinement had so much impaired her constitution, that in the course of a year or two, she sunk into the grave.
Of the subsequent life of Mr. Lewis, we have little to record. His latter days were spent in comparative poverty, his independent fortune having in a great measure been sacrificed on the altar of patriotism, during his country's struggle for independence. The life of this excellent man, and distinguished patriot, was extended to his ninetieth year. His death occurred on the 30th day of December, 1803.
SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich