A Brush with Greatness: The Leslie “Cousin” Connection to George Washington

by
Larry Pearce
from inspiration and notes by
Aunt Edna Ione Gray (1920-1997)
1/25/18

Commander in Chief George Washington
(1732-1799)

This genealogy website has always been meant to be more than the names and dates of people to whom our family is related. I’ve always kept my eyes and ears peeled for any stories of interesting people with whom our family is or has been in any way connected. Wife Susan’s interesting family associations have included:

Bishop Christian “Schmidt” Miller,
Hanes “Indian John” Miller,
Bishop Michael Beegly,
Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone,
The Rambo apple family,
Cattle-coal magnate Daniel Zimmerman,
Lemon “Black Horse” Grimes, and
Hollywood Actress Katey Sagal.

As for my family, we’re directly connected to the Rev. William Jack, who was ejected from his Dublin pulpit by English King Charles II in 1661; some other Jacks and Carnahans of the French & Indian War and American Revolution; members of the royal court of King George IV through a Pearce-Austin wedding  in 1813; Major Hugh Torrance; owners of the company that produced the Pearce Blanket; the uncle that H.J. Heinz called “The Tomato King;” and the President of Geneva College. I’m sure there are more, and more researching and writing is on the way, but this story is about a distant relative, by marriage, who probably spent time with General/President George Washington before and during the American War for Independence. That should be enough to pique your curiosity, no?

For this article, I’m taking the liberty of calling the subjects “cousins,” in a generic way, even though they may be indirectly related, as in a “step,” in-law, or not related by blood at all. The word “cousin” comes from the Latin “consobrinus,” meaning ones mother’s child. One of the ironies is that, though we’re connecting to our Leslie family, the eventual associations stretch to our Norris, Carnahan, Jack, and several other families also. It’s been said that the romantic “pickins'” on the frontier were not that plentiful. Neighbor kids married other young people from church, the market, or where ever there were friendly gatherings. Transportation and social mobility were limited, and in some cases, the families had known each other from back in the Old Country.

Today’s spelling of the topic word “cousin,” by the way, comes from the Middle English which came from the French, “cosin.” If you wish to be technical, have a look at the article, “Less Familiar Kinship Terms & Definitions”. In these pages we’re considering “collateral” relationships, or those through marriage, not blood, and perhaps “fictive,” those not related at all but still thought of as part of the family. All this is to introduce you to two men: Captain Phillip Lacey (1742-1777) and (Sargent?) David Ferguson (1745-1831). Some of what follows is family oral tradition, some is conjecture, and some is fact, but it all makes for an interesting story. Even better is that we can follow these folks right into the times and places belonging to our families. 

Crude medical treatment during
the American Revolutionary War

Captain Lacey sailed from England 1 to what was then the British Colonies just before the American Revolution. On board ship he met and fell in love with a beautiful young girl, Susannah Pollard (1759-1825)2 She was about age 16 and much Lacey’s junior. Records of their marriage were lost or kept secret because of, it’s said, security concerns regarding the movement of the military. Susannah conceived and bore a son, Thomas (1777-1856), in the port of Baltimore, but Phillip became desperately ill and was admitted to the hospital in a military camp near the headquarters of General George Washington. It’s unclear whether Phillip was on the side of the British and perhaps was captured or he already had been commissioned and went over to the Colonial cause. If he were a captain, and was taken in by the Americans, we can assume that he was on our side. We don’t know if he was ill, injured, or wounded in battle. The story goes that a handsome military scout, later courier, to Washington, an Irishman named David Ferguson 3, a few years younger than Lacey, helped to care for the confined captain and look after his wife and baby. Military scouts and couriers to generals in war time always have and had to be very trusted individuals with an unblemished records. Ferguson would personally carry letters, military memos, and documents between camps and armies. He, no doubt would have had access to Washington’s closest circles. Unfortunately, within a year, Captain Lacey had died and Ferguson, who had been appointed his caretaker and apparently equally smitten by Susannah, then just 18 years of age, married her. This was  NOT part of his official Army duties, but I’m sure he couldn’t help falling in love. And in love they were. In the course of 18 years they produced 8 children, the first of which4 was born shortly after the war was over. Perhaps in the case of wartime, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” The couple then moved to Western Pennsylvania, probably to claim land that was available to war veterans.

Promise of land & new opportunities
on the Western Pennsylvania frontiera

By 1787, the young family had relocated farther south, just northeast of Pittsburgh into Plum Township, across the Allegheny River onto 280 acres acquired from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We wonder if they had initially settled too close to Indian territory. Legend has it that David was out working in his field one day, under the watchful eyes of a group of natives, when one fired off a shot that knocked the hat off the young farmer’s head. Ferguson quickly unhitched his horse from the plow and hurried off to deputize his neighbors. Together, they returned to disperse the irritable tribe. Before the 1784 Fort Stanwix treaty between the Colonies and the Six Indian Nations of, all land north of the Allegheny was off limits to white settlers, but some anxious settlers claimed land there anyway. Read more about the Indians of frontier Western Pennsylvania in an earlier article,  “Meet Native American Guyasuta.”

After the treaty, when the natives had picked up and moved farther west, most of my mother’s ancestors claimed farmland north of the river. West Deer Township, Allegheny County, became the home of our early Campbells, Grays, and Leslies. My Great-great-grandfather William Sylvester Gray (1816-1879) married Elizabeth Leslie (1818-1895) a half-century later, and received a portion of the old Leslie farm, which was subsequently worked by generations of Grays.

Leslie-Gray farm & homestead
Bairdford, West Deer Twp., PA

The second child of David and Susannah Ferguson, Rebecca, married George R. Leslie (1781-1833), another of our cousins. Their family tree now contains well over 200 descendants. David and Susannah’s fifth and sixth children were twin daughters, “Little” Susannah and Effie. They married Norris brothers, James and Adam, half-brothers to our Great-great grandfather Robert Norris (1785-1867).  David Ferguson sold 122 acres of his 400+ acre estate to son William in 1818 for $1. He had paid $60 for the land. Another Ferguson married into our Carnahan family of West Deer Township.

So, if the proximity of Phillip Lacey, David Ferguson, and Susannah Pollard to General George Washington and the historical events of the American Revolution isn’t loaded with possibilities, their West Deer ancestors provide unbelievable commonalities. Many are buried in the Bull Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery with our direct line families,  linking their surnames with ours for eternity. Here are just a few more “cousin” stories.

Life was hard on the Western
Pennsylvania frontier

Thomas Lacey, the only son of Phillip and Susannah Pollard Lacey, was, we believe,  adopted by and lived with David and Susannah Ferguson. He married Mary Leslie (b. 1785-aft. 1860), the daughter of William5 and Elizabeth Davidson Leslie of our line. The Rev. Abraham Boyd, of the Bull Creek church, who married several of our Gray and Leslie ancestors, conducted that ceremony in 1808. The Laceys purchased a large tract of land near the village of Russellton, once known as Gray’s Mill and reared six children.6 Their second child, George, married another of our step-cousins, Nancy Norris (1817-1876). She is remembered to have had bright red hair and fallen overboard during the emigration of Robert Norris from Ireland to America. Floating in the waves with her hoop skirt, she was quickly rescued from certain death by lifeboat. Thomas and Mary Leslie Lacey’s youngest son, James (b. 1824), is said to have been the first Burgess or Chief Executive of the thriving riverfront town of Tarentum. The owner-operator of a general store, he built the first brick house in that area. The bricks came from the Norris brickyard in West Deer, owned by a step brother to our Robert Norris. We’re certain the the bricks for the old Bull Creek Church, still standing, came from there too.

Old Bull Creek Church & Cemetery

Another descendant of Thomas Lacey was William Henry Harrison Lacey (b. 1841), who fought in the Civil War and engaged in the blacksmithing and carriage and wagon building business. He got his name by being born on the same day that our ninth president was inaugurated.7

I hope you found something to interest you in this short story. The best part of posting to a webpage is that, after “laying everything (that I know) out on table” for my readers to digest, I can continue to research, write, and post without having to go to the printer and pay to publish, promote, and propagate an update. But, you have to check back here from time to time for those virtual addendums. Until we hypertext again, may I ask, “With whom is your family associated?” 

Documentation:

West Deer Township: 150 years of History, 2004
http://www.westdeertownship.com/340-2/

Various name postings on Ancestry.com/boards

Bob and Mary Closson. 175 Southwestern Pennsylvania Marriages Performed by Rev. Abraham Boyd (1802-1849). Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1976

“Cemetery Inscriptions from Bull Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, West Deer Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.” 6/30/02 HTTP://FREEPAGES.GENEALOGY.ROOTSWEB.COM/~NJM1/BULL.HTM

Various postings on FindaGrave.com

“James Lacey may have been First Burgess.” Valley Daily News (Historical Supplement). 28 June 1947, p. 1

Last revised 1/30/18

Footnotes:

  1. The surname was originally DeLacey, a Gaelic French first name, however a well-known Wexford County, Ireland, family used the moniker. Other famous claims to the name include Brigadier General John Lacey (1755-1814), Lacey Park, Bucks Co., PA, and the Captain Lacey Regency Series to name a few.
  2. Daughter of George, Jr. and Elizabeth Barker Pollard of Braham, Yorkshire. She was christened at either Holborn, Middlesex, or Downham, Lancashire.
  3. Born in the Market Hill section of Maghera, Armagh, Northern Ireland, the same general location as our Norris family. He enlisted in the war as a Private, 8th Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, Continental Troops and was assigned to defend the frontier. He later joined Col. Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Company, an unattached group of scouts and sharpshooters, and fought at Saratoga, one of the deciding battles in the Revolution. Able to engage targets from long distances, these men would be called “snipers” in today’s army.
  4. Children to Susannah Pollard Lacey and David Ferguson are:
    1. Elizabeth (1783-1862)
    2. Rebecca (1787-1857)
    3. Mary Jane (bef.1790-1870)
    4. Samuel (b.1790)
    5. Susannah (1795-1858) twin
    6. Effie (1795-1867) twin
    7. William (1796-1855) and
    8. Catherine (1801-1875)
  5. William Leslie, Sr. (1759-1850), our George Leslie, Jr’s brother, was a veteran of the American Revolution and said to have been the first school teacher north and west of the Allegheny River.
  6. Children to Thomas and Mary Leslie Lacey were:
    1. Leslie (1811-1884)
    2. George (1815-1895)
    3. Elizabeth (b. 1816)
    4. Thomas, Jr. (1818-1898)
    5. Jane (b. 1820) and
    6. James (b. 1824)
  7. President Harrison was the last chief executive born under British rule. He contracted pneumonia after a lengthy outdoor inauguration speech and died a month later, earning him the dubious distinction of being the POTUS who served the shortest time in office.

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