Noble Butler

Noble Butler

I am blessed with having a large book about my maternal grandmother’s genealogy. A kinsman in Pennsylvania, Thomas Butler, worked for years researching family history and published the book Noble Butler of Pennsylvania, Ancestors and Descendants. Noble Butler was brought from Bristol, England, to Philadelphia by his Quaker parents, John and Bersheba Butler, some time between his birth in 1704 and 1711. In 1727 he married Rachel Jones, and they had five sons and one daughter who lived to adulthood.

Thomas Butler’s book holds much more than the family tree. He has included pictures, family letters, wills, inventories of estates, and newspaper articles. As I paged through the years, I was struck with how this Quaker family has been involved in one way or another in every war that ever came along in American history. Quakers are known for pacifism, right? Yet there the Butlers are, either participating in or fleeing every war.

Here in my hands, in this thick book, was raw material for historical fiction. Conflict: internal, among family members, within Meetings, with the greater community, and of course the wars themselves. I decided I would write a series of historical novels spanning the whole of American history with my Quakers as protagonists. What a grand project!

Where to begin? I pored over Thomas Butler’s book till I knew enough about Noble and Rachel’s children to deduce some personality traits. Enoch, the oldest, was the contrary one; John, the unfortunate; Will, the goody-goody (the only one who was never complained of in Meeting); Noble, the adventurer; and Ben, the faithful son who cared for his parents until their deaths and then met his own when he finally set out on a new path. Bersheba was harder to figure out, but I would characterize her as long-suffering. Most women were, then, and very little is written about them. So I tried to concentrate on her husband, John McCowen. From inventories of estates, I could guess at their occupations: most were farmers with some skill in a trade, each one different.

Most of the early records are in Monthly Minute Meetings in libraries and historical societies in the Philadelphia area. My new husband asked me where I wanted to go for our Fall Term Wild Card. He had agreed to live with me in Florida but said he might want to be guest research scholar or professor somewhere from time to time, and I said I would go with him anywhere during Fall Term. We had spent one Fall Term in Edinburgh, his choice, and now it was mine.

“I need the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania if I’m really going to write about the Butlers,” I replied. Fine, he said, he would find a teaching position at one of the many colleges and universities in the area. And so it was that we moved to Pennsylvania for a Fall Term in 1999. While he taught at Villanova and I did my research in Swarthmore, we fell in love with the area and moved there full time in the spring of 2002.

In the quiet of the Friends Historical Library, I pored over Monthly Meeting Minutes on microfiche and paged through books of old records. Finally, I began reading bound volumes of The Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia newspaper. There I found, in the classified ads of early May, 1755, something to start with:

“Forty-one Wagons are immediately wanted, to carry a load of Oats and Indian Corn from Philadelphia to General Braddock at Wills’s Creek, for which they are to be paid twelve pounds each wagon. Protections and passes will be given the Wagoners by authority of the General, to prevent their being impressed, or detained after delivery of their Loads. They are to set out together on Thursday the 29th instant. Apply to Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia. Note: several neighbors may conveniently join in fitting out a wagon, as was lately done in the Back Counties. If the Wagons cannot thus be obtained, there must be an Impress.”

General Braddock! The British general on his way from Fort Cumberland on Wills’s Creek to Fort DuQuesne (now Pittsburgh) where he was defeated by the French and Indians! The beginning of the French and Indian War in Pennsylvania!

My Quakers in 1755 wouldn’t fight, but they might have no scruples against making money by delivering supplies to the British army. After all, Noble, Sr., had been dismissed from his Meeting for charging too much interest on a loan. The fine ethical line appealed to me. Whom should I send? What were the Butler offspring doing that spring? Enoch was married, John had left as a Free Man (another story), Will, Noble, and Ben were home on the farm. I’d already pegged Noble as the adventurous one. Born in 1739, he would be sixteen years old. Sixteen-year-olds usually think they are ready to go off on their own, capable of anything required of them. Reading William Butler’s book, I deduced that Noble might have worked hard to separate himself from his father’s domination. He would be the one to make the trip.

But he would need his pa’s wagon and horses, and Pa wouldn’t trust him to make the trip alone. Enoch, newly married, would need that money. Why not send Noble and Enoch together out to Wills’s Creek? With what I had deduced about the two of them, they would not get along. It could be an interesting trip.

Next, I had to calculate the route they might have followed. The Pennsylvania Gazette didn’t mention the wagon train again until their return to Philadelphia, so the route was up to me. The Friends Library has wonderful old maps, hand-drawn, nearly as big as the table-tops in the reading room. Bending over the table, tracing the few old roads, or communications, as they were called then, I plotted the wagon train’s course and began to build my story.

And thus The Snake Fence was conceived. In subsequent postings I’ll tell you some of the adventures I had while researching and writing this book, which will be released by Quaker Bridge Media sometime after the first of the year. Please stay tuned.


Filed under The Snake Fence

4 Responses to Noble Butler

  1. David McCowen

    I hope that you have more info on John McCowen’s ancestry. I have his descendants thanks to the wonderful book, The Butler Family History.
    How can I get more info?

    • admin

      Thanks, David. I started with The Butler Family History and met with Thomas Butler a few times before he died. I don’t have any more information about John McCowen than you can find in the Butler book. I invented his character in The Snake Fence, based on the little information I had. I wish I knew how he and Bersheba came to know each other. There really was the wagon train to Wills’s Creek, and I decided Noble Jr. would want to go on that trip and that Noble Sr. would think he was too young to handle it on his own. I “heard” Pa say, “Don’t come home with an empty wagon.” I’m sure he would have said that. So then I was faced with needing to find something of value out there for Noble and Enoch to bring home. I knew John McCowen was from the Juniata valley, and he just sort of fell off the hill into the middle of my story. My own family background is through Benjamin Butler. I probably won’t write another book about the Butler family, but if I did, it would be about Noble and Susannah and John and Bersheba’s move to Georgia during the American Revolution.

  2. Denise Butler

    This is really neat! I have been trying to research my Butler family for a long time. My dad, Wesley Noble Butler, actually spoke often about how his middle name came from an uncle, Noble Sumpter Butler, who died in the civil war. his widow moved to Texas with my great grandfather and settled in a community about 100 miles south west of Ft Worth.

    I would be very interested in your book and the other Butler book.


    • admin

      Hi, Denise. I hope you will get a copy of “The Snake Fence” and let me know what you think of it. The other Butler book is out of print but can be ordered through inter-library loan. Go to to find out where the nearest copy is, or ask your local librarian to help you. It may be listed as “The Butler Family” or as “Noble Butler of Pennsylvania.” Your father isn’t in the book, but “Noble Sumpter Butler” is. He would be a grandson of the Noble in “The Snake Fence.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *