On a muggy day in mid-July 1861, while the Union and Confederate armies were preparing to confront each other at the battle of Bull Run, a funeral procession wended its way down the streets of Allentown to what was then Union Cemetery, later Union West End Cemetery. At that time, the then eight-year-old burial ground still bore some resemblance to the community cow pasture it had been for many years. But now it was to be graced by an elegant tomb/monument, decorated with all the Victorian Romantic embellishments that the era most admired in funerary art with a boundary around it. For this was to be the last resting place of Henry King (1790-1861) an attorney, politician, and arguably the most prominent man in Allentown and among the most prominent men in Pennsylvania.
King’s home, in the then fashionable Italianate villa style, was located on the north side of Hamilton Street next to the Lehigh County Courthouse. He lived there with his wife, Mary L. King. They had one child, Henry Lord King, who died in infancy. At King’s passing it became the home of John Dodson Stiles (1822-1896) also an attorney, Lehigh County District Attorney, and lawmaker who represented Lehigh County in Congress and was a delegate to three Democratic conventions: 1856, 1864 and 1868. The Colonial Theater was erected there in the 1920s and an office building occupies the site today. The home was a community showplace that attracted figures of importance in state and national politics. Democratic candidates for the White House such as James Buchanan in 1856 found a consultation with Henry King was not to be overlooked.
When the 25-year-old King rode into Allentown in 1815, perhaps with law books in his saddlebags, he already had a lot of family history behind him. His parents were Daniel King and Hannah Lord. The elder King fought in the American Revolution and was a participant in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Kings were descended from John King who emigrated from Edwardstone (birthplace of John Winthrop, a founder of Massachusetts) in Suffolk County, England. In 1715 King settled on a property in Massachusetts that for a generation or more was known as Kingstown. It was renamed Palmer in 1775 after a prominent judge.
Allentown in 1812
Why Henry King left Massachusetts is unknown. His mother died in 1814 in Palmer. His father died in 1815 in Wilkes Barre where Henry was living at the time. Presumably his father’s death may have been the reason that Henry King relocated to Allentown.
According to the 1810 census Allentown had a population of 710. But in 1812 it became the county seat of the new Lehigh County. That meant a courthouse and that meant lawyers. King was apparently the first lawyer in the new county. Educated in the classics, King had “read law” in New London, Connecticut and moved on to Wilkes Barre where he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.
When it came to growth King had apparently made a wise choice in Allentown. In his article in the 1978 issue of the Lehigh County’s Historical Society’s Proceedings the late historian and archivist Mahlon Hellerich notes that Allentown’s population had more than doubled from 1810 to 1830 to 1,117, an increase of 117%. Most were Pennsylvania German crafts people from tanners to skilled artisans like clockmakers. “Among the professionals,” Hellerich writes, “there were nine lawyers, 3 doctors, one druggist, one minister and 5 teachers.” And this was before the arrival of the anthracite coal powered iron industry industrialization of the 1850s and 60s. By 1860 the federal census showed Allentown with a population of 8,025.
Even the collapse of the Northampton Bank in 1842 and fire of 1848 that destroyed its business section could not slow Allentown’s growth. King headed a fundraising campaign to rebuild after the fire damage. He may have aided with legal advice many of those suing John Rice, the president of the Northampton Bank for his fraudulent speculation with the bank’s funds that wiped them out.
Lehigh County Courthouse in 1835
About King’s early practice little is known. Almost certainly he must have attracted the attention of the Allen family, including James Greenleaf and his wife Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf. With their substantial landholdings they might have called on him. By the time King arrived on the local scene Greenleaf was deeply involved in a tangle of failed Washington, D.C. land speculations. His ties to Robert Morris’s failed North American Land Company in the 1790s landed him in Philadelphia’s debtors prison, aka the Prune Street lockup, for a time. Lawsuits by British investor and East India merchant Thomas Law (Law Street in Allentown is named for him) that grew out of those Washington speculations preoccupied Greenleaf. It grew so hot between the pair that Law would always refer to a home that Greenleaf had overlooking the Potomac called Greenleaf Point by its original name “Turkey Buzzard’s Point.” As late as the 1840s some sources claim when a young English author named Charles Dickens came to Washington on a tour of America, he heard tales of Greenleaf’s interminable lawsuits that inspired the never-ending lawsuit that was the basis of his novel “Bleak House.” Greenleaf was living largely apart from his wife in Washington at the time of Dickens’ visit.
King was not the only lawyer in Allentown for long. Among those he became friendly with were John S. Gibbons and Samuel Bridges. All three young men were Democrats and backers of the Andrew Jackson faction of the party. With the death of President James Monroe and the end of the so-called “Era of Good Feelings,” the Democratic Party split into several factions. When the election of 1824 was thrown into the House of Representatives Jackson backers claimed that a “corrupt bargain” between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, making Adams president and Clay Secretary of State, kept the “Hero of New Orleans” from the White House. Jackson won in 1828.
It was young men like King, Gibbons and Bridges who saw their own political future with the populist forces backing Jackson. King threw his hat in the ring first and from 1826 to 1830 he served in the state senate and represented Lehigh County in Congress from 1831 to 1835. He rejected attempts to be renominated. Almost certainly King was among the delegation that welcomed Democrat President Martin Van Buren to Allentown in 1839, the only U.S. president to spend the night there while in office.
King family grave
Throughout these years King remained in close touch with his younger brother, Thomas Butler King. Born in 1800, Thomas King attended Westfield State University, founded by education pioneer Horace Mann as the first public co-educational college in America without barrier to race, gender, or economic class. Later Thomas King came to Allentown where he “read law” under his older brother’s tutelage for several years and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. In 1823 Thomas King and his older brother Stephen Clay King (1786-1860) decided to move to Ware County, Georgia. Stephen married Mary Fort, the daughter of a wealthy Georgia cotton planter. A planter himself he died in San Antonio, Texas in 1860 while visiting his son H.C. King, owner of a cattle ranch, and was buried there.
Throughout his time in Georgia, Thomas King frequently exchanged letters with his brother Henry, some about family affairs, others about politics. A collection of Thomas King’s letters is in the archives of the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina.
On December 2, 1824, King married Anna Matilda Page, daughter of Major William Page, owner of Retreat Plantation on the southwest tip of St. Simons Island. Estimated as worth $125,000 the couple inherited Retreat at her father’s death in 1827. They made it their permanent home where they raised 10 children. King was briefly successful as a planter and acquired several other plantations. But the collapse of the cotton market in the Panic of 1837 forced him to sell all but Retreat Plantation.
It may seem strange to think of a New England Yankee moving to the slaveholding deep South. But not everyone in the North was an abolitionist or even opposed to slavery. That is clear in Thomas Butler King’s case. He owned 355 enslaved people on Retreat Plantation and was far from the largest enslaver on St Simons Island. At roughly the same time as his brother Henry, Thomas King ran for public office. Unlike Henry he was a Whig not a Democrat. Abraham Lincoln was a member of that party in his early years and served one term as a Whig in Congress. It tended to attract those whose interest was in economic development and included both southerners and northerners as its supporters.
In truth Thomas King was never happy as a planter or for that matter as a lawyer. For most of his life he left running Retreat Plantation and raising their children to his wife. She wrote extensively to him about them, the role they played in her life and the task she had running the plantation with her oldest son, Thomas Butler King Jr., known in the family as “Butler” who seemed to be suited to it. Working beside him was an overseer named Dunham. On July 20,1840 Thomas King wrote to his brother Henry from Washington, “I am nominated it is true and it is also true that I shall have no great objection to remaining in political life…my duty to my country is paramount.”
Henry King residence on Hamilton Street in Allentown
Anna King’s letters, used extensively in an article by Professor Stephen Berry in a 1997 issue of the Georgia Historical Quarterly, show that life at Retreat Plantation was no Hollywood “Gone With The Wind” magnolia-scented, white-pillared fantasy. Although she was by her own admission something of a “belle,” as a young woman Anna King’s life as an absentee plantation owner’s wife was apparently one of work and struggle. Although the family were not destitute, what upset her the most was that she had “no one to share her concerns with.” At one point she wrote to her husband, “I am the greatest slave on this plantation.” We have no surviving comment from any of 355 enslaved Black people on Retreat Plantation on that. She does mention concern for one of the enslaved Black men she sent down to the dock that had gotten soaking wet in the rain because the mailboat never came. Still, it cannot have been easy for a woman alone to care for her children and tend to the enslaved “property” on which Retreat Plantation depended for its existence.
The most promising family member was the second son, Henry Lord Page King. He had no interest in running or living on a plantation. At age 17 he wrote to his father, “I hope or rather think that I will one of these days or years be a great man whether a Washington or a Napoleon or Bishop or Tom Paine.” A photo taken of him at the time shows a round faced young man with long hair. Known as “Lordy” in the family, he attended Harvard College and spent his summers far from Retreat Plantation in Allentown with his Uncle Henry, for whom he was probably named, “reading law”. His mother received so few letters from him when he was at college or in Allentown that when he wrote to her on an unfamiliar, black bordered stationary, her first reaction was that he had died.
Lordy King later moved to New York to practice law. But at 29 he was frustrated at his failure to achieve success in his profession. “I am ashamed I have accomplished so little,” he wrote. In 1861 finding “this city full of Black Republicans” he returned to the south. Joining the Confederate Army as an officer, “Lordy” King was present at the firing on Fort Sumter. He wrote to his sister Georgia that he dreamed of marching into Pennsylvania to show Yankees how it felt to be invaded. But he never got the chance to march up Hamilton Street in Confederate gray. Lordy King was killed at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. His enslaved Black body servant Neptune went out after the battle and under cover of darkness, retrieved his body. A photo in Berry’s article shows Neptune, in a formal frock coat after the war, addressing surviving male members of the King family including his brother John Floyd King about the details of Lordy’s death and his finding of the body.
In the meantime, Thomas King pursued his “paramount” interest in politics. In 1832 he had represented Glynn County, Georgia in the Georgia Senate serving again in 1834, 1835, and 1837 and one term in 1838 in Congress. He later told his son John Floyd that to succeed in politics you had to be either independently wealthy or a bachelor or both. Having an interest in the infant U.S. Navy, King hoped to be named Secretary of the Navy by Whig President Zachary Taylor. He was disappointed after Taylor’s unexpected death to be named instead tax collector for the Port of San Francisco by his successor Millard Fillmore. King Street in San Francisco’s wharf area was later named for Thomas King.
Leaving his wife behind at Retreat Plantation, King spent the next ten years in the west. Here he made two unsuccessful bids to run for the U.S. Senate from California and became an active lobbyist for the Southern Pacific Railroad. King had always had an interest in developing and promoting internal improvements like railroads. “The South was early in the field,” writes railroad historian George Edgar Turner, ”but there the primary purpose of building was to provide transportation for cotton from the back-country fields to port cities.” Connecting to other regions of the country found little interest.
”Strong element of municipal politics opposed the step,” writes Turner. “Hotels did a thriving business with travelers who arrived on one railroad and were obliged to stay over while waiting for a departing train on another line. Draymen reaped a harvest hauling freight from one depot to another; the farther apart the stations could be the better the carters liked it. Warehouseman found big profits in the continued separation of the various lines. Restaurants swelled their business by feeding waiting passengers and liquor dealers fought any change which might shorten the time travelers had to wait between trains…The opposition never realized how effectively they were contributing to the ultimate death of the Confederacy.”
King encouraged the concept of a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama and from 1849 and 1855 one was built but not by him. At his wife’s death in 1859 King returned to Georgia. He threw his support to the state’s Confederate government hoping to be selected to its legislature as a senator. Instead, he was sent to London as the state’s official representative to the courts of Europe. Apparently unsuccessful in his efforts he returned to Georgia in 1862. He died on May 10, 1864 and was buried in a Episcopal churchyard on St. Simons Island.
His youngest son John Floyd King served with a Confederate artillery unit and was later a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Louisiana. He died in 1915 and is buried in the Confederate section of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.