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The History of Bensalem - Part IV: The Purvis Brothers

Local brothers aided over 9,000 escaped slaves

Unfortunately, Bensalem Township does not have as colorful a history during the Civil War as it did during the Revolutionary War. A local search at the Historical Society produced little more than a small list of Bensalem residents who fought in the war.

However, to say that the Bensalem of yesteryear wasn't involved in civil rights would be inaccurate. In the years preceding the Civil War, two local brothers risked everything to bring equal rights to those who were denied fair treatment.

Under the cover of darkness, these two landowners worked diligently in secretly transporting slaves to freedom. They were so secretive, in fact, that the Bensalem Historical Society didn't know anything about the Purvis brothers and their Underground Railroad until just a few years ago.

The Purvis brothers were Joseph and Robert, both black. Robert was most famous, perhaps, for founding the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia and Joseph was well-known in the area for owning a vast amount of land. Before they moved to the Bensalem area, the Purvis' were well-known in South Carolina, where they grew up as sons of a cotton broker.

In 1831, Robert purchased property in Bensalem and named the land The Grove. Four years later, Joseph moved into the area after acquiring 205 acres of land that was subsequently named the Eddington farm. After purchasing more land in the surrounding area, Robert moved out into neighboring Philadelphia county whereas Joseph stayed behind in Bensalem. But Robert certainly wasn't done with the township.

Records show that Robert continuously used his brother's estate in Bensalem as a transfer station for slaves on the Underground Railroad. “Robert was definitely more involved with it than his brother Joseph,” said Sally Vansant of the Historical Society. “Joseph just kind of went along with it, but it was definitely Robert pulling the strings.”

And it makes sense, too. Robert was highly involved in abolishing slavery and had a documented history with Lucretia Mott, a Quaker antislavery and women's rights advocate. With the help of his brother, Robert Purvis transferred slaves from Bristol and the Delaware river to northern Bucks County.

Joseph died in 1857 and Robert in 1898. It was estimated that Purvis helped nearly 9,000 slaves escape to freedom from his and his brother's estates.

The land that was J. Purvis' estate is now the Wellington Estates housing development, near the post office on Byberry Road. For more information about the Purvises, consult the Historical Society of Bensalem Township's Bensalem III: The Journey Continues, which can be found at the Bensalem Library.

The fifth installment of “The History of Bensalem” is expected to cover the years following the Civil War.

Wendy Saddler August 22, 2011 at 04:14 PM
Wonderful and brave men. Its a shame that this town has seemingly forgotten the valuable lessons of the Civil War/ Civil Rights era, especially within the Bensalem Police. "Those who forget the past, are condemned ot repeat it."
Nancy A Bell February 13, 2013 at 03:35 AM
Wow! How awesome to learn the history of these incredibly brave men. I am so excited to learn about this history of Bensalem. More people need to learn about these important people in the history of this town.

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