Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Rarely does his name enjoy prominence in horticultural history, but William Hamilton (1745-1813), owner of The Woodlands, a picturesque eighteenth-century countryseat on the banks of the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia, made sev­eral significant contributions that forever changed the landscape of North America. An avid plant collector he filled his English-style garden with as many new species from throughout the world as was possible. He was responsible for introducing four well-known trees to the United States: the ginkgo, Lombardy poplar, Norway maple, and tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). President Thomas Jefferson gave him the opportunity to study and propagate seeds that Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) brought back from their celebrated expedition to the Pacific Ocean (see “Firm Foundations in Philadelphia: The Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Ties to Pennsyl­vania” by Frank Muhly, Summer 2001). Hamilton also visited and corresponded with many notable horticulturists and even employed several at his magnificent estate.

The Woodlands began as a three hundred-acre parcel, pur­chased in 1735 from Stephen Jackson by William Hamilton’s grandfather, Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741), “the original Philadelphia Lawyer” and designer and builder of the State House, now Independence Hall. The tract was located just outside the Philadelphia city limits over­looking the Schuylkill River in Blockley Township. Hamilton’s son, Andrew Jr., purchased more property to nearly double the size of the tract and not long afterward built a house on the property. Upon Andrew Jr.’s demise, the house and property passed to his son, William Hamilton, who was just two years old at the time. William eventually envisioned great things for his legacy. He tore down his father’s comfortable house, intending to erect a more suitable and “pretentious mansion.” The construction of his new residence, however, was delayed for eight years while he attended the Academy of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduating in 1762, Hamilton – even though he had leveled the house – gave an elaborate party on the grounds of The Woodlands, to which he invited schoolmates, some of whom would later determine the fate of state and nation, including Judge Jasper Yeates (1745-1817), Bishop William E. White (1748-1836), Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant (1746-1793), and Judge Richard Peters (1744-1828).

The house William Hamil­ton built in 1788 still stands. Frank Cousins and Phil M. Riley in their 1920 tome, The Colonial Architecture of Philadelphia, hailed the house as “one of the noblest old ledge-stone mansions of the vicinity,” noting its location “on high ground along the bank of the Schuylkill River.” The “ledge-stone” the authors describe is distinguished by its subtle gray color, surface texture, durability, length, and narrowness.

In the style of the eighteenth-century classical revival, the house “embraces the different orders of architecture, but the Doric prevails. The north terrace is ornamented in the front by six Ionic pilasters, with a pavilion on each side. The south front has a magnificent portico, twenty-four feet in height, supported by six stately Tuscan columns.” Palla­dian windows frame the entrance portico, which have long been considered notewor­thy by architects and architec­tural historians. The design of the house, championed by English architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), features a highly unusual circular interior plan of non-rectangular spaces, secret passages, mirrored sur­faces, and classical details.

Hamilton – who unfailingly introduced himself as “William Hamilton of The Woodlands“­ was among the wealthiest Americans of his day. He loved display, admired splendor, and thoroughly enjoyed his role of bon vivant and lavish host. He engaged a large retinue of servants and, according to most accounts, lived in a style that far surpassed that of his neighbors, several of whom were also fabulously wealthy. He “lived in a manner more marked by ostentation than dignity,” wrote journalist and editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857). “His chariot and four, with postilion­-boys,” Griswold continued, “attracted wonder from some and envy from others, but not having in the character of its occupant anything remarkable to give respectability to such display, it caused no general sentiment of regard.” Hamilton furnished his house with the finest of pieces, including stylish furniture, valuable paintings, and rare books, but by all accounts his “gardens, greenhouse, and grounds were his particular pride and joy.”

After the American Revolution ended, Hamilton sailed to England, where he spent two years, from 1784 until 1786, surveying and studying the landscape as well as gathering plants for his home in America. Hamilton dispatched letters beginning in 1785 while abroad, and continuing through 1806 while away on business, to his secretary Ben­jamin H. Smith, in which he gave explicit instructions for the placement and care of plantings. “The Rose Box Bush should be removed into the Shade behind the Hot House, there to remain during the summer,” he instructed in one letter. Among his earliest mis­sives, written in 1785 in England, Hamilton laid the groundwork for his American garden. The contents of the letter, dispatched before he set sail for the United States, provide a glimpse of what he envisioned for The Woodlands.

Having observed with attention the nature, variety, and extent of the plantations of shrubs, trees, and fruits, and consequently admired them, I shall (if God gives me a safe return to my own country) endeavour to make it similar in the same useful and helpful manner. To take time by the forelock, every preparation should immediately be made by Mr. Thomson who is on the spot, and I have no doubt you will assist him to the utmost of your power. The first thing to be set about is a good nursery for trees, shrubs, flowers, fruits, &c. of every kind. I do desire therefore that seeds in large quantities may be directly sown of the white flowering locust, the sweet or aromatic birch, the chestnut oak, horse-chestnuts, chincapin, Jonah trees, Dogwoods, Halesia, Kalmia, rhododendrons, magnolia, winterberries, arrow wood, broom, Annonas, shrub St. Johns wort, &c.; of crab, quince, plum, & a quantity of thin shell’d almonds, & such others as may occur to you for beauty and use. I desire also that a large quantity be collected and put into a nursery of small plants of elm, lime, locust, sweet birch, white pine, ash-leaved maple, aspen poplar, toothache-tree (xantoxylon), magnolia, arrow wood, dwarf buttonwood, azalea, Kalmia, rhododendron, halesia, Judas tree, dogwood, broom, winterberry, clethra, mezereon, morellos, blackhearts, crabs, quince (for stock), raspberries, currants white and red, & as many as possible of Jasmine and Honeysuck­le. (Jasmine may be had in plenty at Mr. Ross’s place & Honeysuckle may be had in great quantities at Mr. Lawrence’s, near Frankfort, and of Dr. Joseph Redman.) Too many of these cannot be propagated. I would likewise have cuttings put into the ground of ye striped althea, Lombardy poplar (if alive), all the kinds of Grape that throve of thoe I sent, Chickasaw plum, winter haws, jasmine, honeysuckle of that kind of Dogwood that grows in the Border on the south side of the kitchen garden on the other side of the valley (which were propagated by cuttings from the only tree which I ever came across & grows on the point just within the creek’s Mouth at high water mark & may be easily discovered when in bloom by the corymbous flowers), of red & white currants (particularly the latter), the common raspberry; Nor should a planta­tion be neglected of the different hardy peren­nial plants such as yucca, corn-flag (gladio­la), lilies, French honeysuckle, foxglove, Lily-the-Valley (Bush Hill), paeonies, columbines, hollyhocks, polyanthus, jonquils (from Bush Hill), hyacinths, &c. I before expressed a desire to have the double oleander and double myrtle encreased as much as pos­sible by cuttings & I would have you in the spring when the azaleas are in flower take particular pains in sorting the different kinds & the orchis roots (in the valley) in such a manner as they can be transplanted accord­ing to the growth & color.

Despite Hamilton’s extensive “wish list,” no one can, with certainty, precisely describe the appearance of his gardens. No records, plans, or sketches are known to exist, and historians rely on correspondence and narratives by awed visitors. Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), opinionated landscape architect and exalted arbiter of taste, wrote that Hamil­ton’s garden “was highly celebrated for its gardening beauties.”

The refined taste and the wealth of its accomplished owner were freely lavished on its improvement and embellishment; and at a time when the introduction of rare exotics was attended with a vast deal of risk and trouble, the extensive greenhouses and orangeries of this seat contained all the rich­est treasures of the exotic flora. The extensive pleasure grounds were judiciously planted, singly and in groups, with a great variety of the finest specimens of trees.

Downing also remembered “the noble magnolias, and the rich park-like appear­ance of some of the plantations of native and foreign oaks. There can be no ques­tion that it was, for a long time,” he recounted, “the most tasteful and beauti­ful residence in America.” Marks of a colonial period gentleman included extensive libraries and cellars of fine wine as well as a collection of exotic trees and orangeries.

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, an expedition was planned up the Missouri River from St. Louis and west to the Pacific Ocean. Two previous attempts failed before Lewis and Clark made the third attempt. It was President Jefferson who suggested that seeds collected by Lewis and Clark’s expedition be sent to William Hamilton. In a letter in 1807 to Bernard M’Mahon (1775-1816), a knowl­edgeable and skilled nurseryman in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote, “Capt. Lewis has brought a considerable num­ber of seeds of plants peculiar to the countries he has visited. I recommended to him to confide principal shares of them to Mr. Hamilton of the Woodlands and yourself, as the persons most likely to take care of them, which he will accordingly do.”

Jefferson’s confidence in Hamilton, as well as Hamilton’s success in plant col­lecting and gardening, came from his acquaintance with leading botanists of his day. John Lyon (1765-1818) began working at The Woodlands at the end of the eighteenth century. He began botanical and horticultural exploration in 1799, first for Hamilton and later for himself. The genus Lyonia, a posthumous honor, commemorates “the name of the late Mr. John Lyon, an indefatigable collector of North American plants, who fell victim to a dangerous epidemic amidst those savage and romantic mountains which had so often been the theatre of his labors,” recounted botanist Thomas Nutall (1786-1859). Lyon was followed at The Woodlands by Frederick Pursh (1774-1820).

Born in Germany, Pursh emigrated to the United States in 1799 and found work three years later at The Woodlands, where he stayed for two years. When he arrived in Philadelphia, Hamilton’s estate was well on its way to becoming one of the finest gardens of exotic plants in America. Pursh’s description of the gar­dens at The Woodlands is, in itself, testi­mony to the vision of William Hamilton and the dedication of John Lyon.

I found them not only rich in plants from nil parts of the world, but particularly so in rare and new American species. Philadelphia being a central situation, and extremely well calculated for the cultivation of plants from all the other parts of North America, I found their collection particularly valuable for furnishing me with a general knowledge of the plants of that country, preparatory to more extensive travels into the interior for the discovery of new and unknown subjects. Mr. John Lyon, who had the management of these gardens, was then bound to give them up; having the offer of being appointed his successor, I embraced it, & accordingly in 1802 I entered upon the situation. During my stay in the place, which was till 1805, I secured & collected plants from all parts of North America …

In 1814, Pursh published Flora Ameri­cae Septentrionalis, a comprehensive study that named, described, and illustrated plants discovered by Lewis and Clark. This was the first flora that accounted for plants collected west of the Mississippi River. He used Hamilton’s gardens to study and prepare for his plant collecting trips.

Hamilton’s garden proved to be a boon to French botanist Andre Michaux (1746-1802) and his son Francois Andre Michaux (1770-1855), who visited The Woodlands. “His collection of exotics,” wrote Michaux, “is immense, and remarkable for fine plants from New Holland; all the trees & shrubs of the United States, at least those that will stand the winter in Philadelphia after having once removed from their native soil; in short, it would be impossible to find a more agreeable situation than the residence of Mr. W. Hamilton.” Michaux traveled extensively through the south­ern section of the country, collecting and studying plants and writing Flora Boreali­-Americana, published in 1803, which doc­umented the plants he identified in North America. Michaux had hoped to but was never able to travel as far west as the Pacific coast studying plants; the task fell to Lewis and Clark.

Because of his intense love and insatiable appetite for the exotic and interesting species of the plant world, Hamilton voraciously acquired as many plants, shrubs, and trees as possible. Many of his unusual transplants, especially the gink­go, which he sent from England in 1784, attracted much attention. After its planting at The Woodlands, the ginkgo drew horticulturalists, as well as the purely curious, from near and far. In 1919, Pro­fessor Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927), the first director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, pronounced Hamilton’s ginkgo to be the most exotic tree planted in the country up to that time. John T. Faris, author of Old Gardens In and About Philadelphia, reported that two ginkgoes still flourished at The Woodlands as late as 1932 – one measured seven feet in circumference and seventy-five feet tall. One of these specimens – recognized as the oldest in the United States – thrived into the late twentieth century, but was cut down in the mid-1980s, when a dog became sick after eating some of its seeds.

The Lombardy poplar made an impact on popular culture of the period. The Lombardy Garden, which took its name from Hamilton’s new species, was a popular venue for summer concerts in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. It was located at the northeast corner of Fif­teenth and Market Streets.

While Hamilton busied himself with The Woodlands, not far away in what is now Kennett Square, Chester County, twin brothers Joshua (1766-1851) and Samuel Peirce (1766-1838) began planting an arboretum in 1798 on the farm their grandfather George Peirce acquired from William Penn in 1700. They planted a ginkgo tree that horticultural historians believe may have been indirectly procured from Hamilton. By the mid-nineteenth century, Peirce’s Park, as it became known, boasted one of the finest collections of unusual trees in the United States. Chemical tycoon Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) purchased the property in 1906 to save it from being timbered and in doing so established Longwood Gardens.

Hamilton was known to have been exceptionally generous and distributed seeds of rare and unusual species to many important individuals, encourag­ing the spread and propagation of new species. He eagerly shared shoots of the Lombardy poplar and its “rapid spread up and down the Atlantic seaboard from Philadelphia attested to Hamilton’s generosity in making cuttings available to friends and horticultural enthusiasts,” wrote Stephen A. Sponberg in A Reunion of Trees.

Jefferson who recommended to Lewis and Clark that seeds be sent to Hamilton after their journey, had often requested both seeds and plants from him. Hamil­ton offered plants to Humphry Marshall (1722-1801), American botanist, author, and younger cousin of natu­ralist John Bartram (1699-1777). “Should anything else, in my pos­session,” Hamilton wrote to Marshall, “occur to you as a desirable addition to the variety in your garden, I beg you will inform me. You may be assured, whatever it is, if I have 2 of the kind, you will be welcome to one. Sensible as I am of your kindness and friendship to me, on all occasions, you have a right, and may freely com­mand every service in my power.”

But there was one individual with whom Hamilton did not share plants or even seeds. He was Bernard M’Mahon, whose early seed catalogues are prized by students and scholars of America’s natural history.

In a letter to Jefferson in 1809, M’Ma­hon complained, “I have from time to time given Mr. Hamilton a great variety of plants and altho’ he is in every other respect a particular friend of mine, he never offered me one in return, and I did not think it prudent to ask him, lest it should terminate that friendship, as l well know his jealousy of any person’s attempt to vie with him, in a collection of plants.”

Four years after M’Mahon lodged his complaint, William Hamilton died at the age of sixty-eight, a bachelor. Ownership of The Woodlands passed to a nephew, also named William Hamilton, who kept the property until his death in 1821. Much of the estate had been developed by his uncle shortly before his death, as Hamiltonville, known also as Hamilton and Hamilton Village, but now as West Philadelphia. Its position high above the river made it popular for summer hous­es, whose occupants resided in Philadel­phia during the winter months. The set­tlement also attracted many French emi­gres during the French Revolution. Upon Hamilton’s death in 1821, his heirs began selling off the remaining parcels of The Woodlands, including a tract of eighty acres to the Woodlands Cemetery Com­pany, in 1839.

The time was right for transforming the spectacular grounds of The Wood­lands to a public cemetery. In the early nineteenth century, the conditions of burial grounds in cities became intolerable. Philadelphia’s graveyards had grown overcrowded, disorganized, unsightly, foul smelling, and, many believed, a great health risk. Newspaper campaigns in large American cities called for the sanitization of burial grounds and, more important, the relocation of cemeteries to rural areas. This rural cemetery movement, which began in earnest in the 1830s, was part of a larger movement to better civic life.

Urban residents at the time embraced the rural cemetery as a perfect sanctuary from the city. It offered not only a combination of romantic conceptions of nature with those of death, but it also continued and extended the tra­ditional associations of the cemetery with the church. The rural cemetery, as part of nature, was itself a church, a correlation made frequently in the literature connected with the movement Builders laid out rural cemeteries to evoke a “solemn rusticity,” a domain of nature enhanced by the subtle intercession of mankind. They accomplished this by creating winding paths amid a diversity of outlooks – narrow and expansive, light and dark, wood­ed and grassy. “The Woodlands,” wrote Griswold, “now, like Laurel Hill [a well known cemetery founded in Philadelphia in 1836], converted into a resting-place for the dead, was a very charming spot. It extended down to the edge of the river, and the landscape has been frequently represented by artists. It belonged to the Hamiltons, who styled themselves, somewhat pretentiously, though not inappropriately, if I am correct in supposing that their earlier history was obscure, ‘The Hamilton family of The Woodlands and Bush Hill’ (the family’s residence in the City of Philadelphia].”

The roster of individuals buried at The Woodlands reads like a veritable “who’s who” in Pennsylvania and American his­tory. Among the prominent Philadelphi­ans interred in the picturesque cemetery are artists Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Susan MacDowell Eakins (1851-1938); John Edgar Thomson (1808-1874), third president of the Pennsylvania Railroad; Alice Fisher (1839-1888), nursing school founder and educator; architects Wilson Eyre Jr. (1858-1944), Thomas Somerville Stewart (1806-1889), and Paul Philipe Cret (1876-1945), who designed the cemetery’s main gates; artist and illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935); physiologist and neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914); Anne Hampton Brewster (1818-1892), essayist, writer, and self­-styled “social outlaw”; bankers and financiers Anthony J. Drexel (1826-1893) and Edward T. Stotesbury (1849-1938); Mary Grew (1813-1896), abolitionist and suffragist; Samuel Stockton White (1822-1879), manufacturer of “indestruc­tible” porcelain teeth, whose company grew to be the largest dental supply company in the world; Emily Bliss Souder (1814-1886), volunteer nurse at the Battle of Gettysburg and author of Leaves from the Battlefield of Gettysburg; James Barton Longacre (1794-1869), appointed chief engraver of the United States Mint in Philadelphia in 1844; and Rufus Welch (1800-1855), a pioneering circus showman and the first to import giraffes to America.

It’s also a fitting resting place for Henry A. Dreer (1818-1873), a nursery­man who launched his career in the greenhouses at The Woodlands in 1835. He opened a seed and flower store in 1838, and from 1839 until 1850 he used part of The Woodlands as a nursery. His six small greenhouses stood on Thirty­-Fifth Street for twenty-three years, beginning in 1850. By 1873, his plant business expanded to fourteen greenhouses in Riverton, New Jersey, specializing in bed­ding plants, palms, ferns, and hybrid water lilies to reach a total of nearly three hundred acres. Dreer, who also introduced color printing to the trade with a bulb catalogue for 1865, is buried in gravesite number fifty-six.

Oddly enough, however, not one member of the Hamilton family – not patriarch, not scion, not even a distant cousin – is buried at The Woodlands.


For Further Reading

Betts, Edwin Morris, ed. Thomas Jeffer­son’s Garden Book. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1944.

Bridenbaugh, Carl, and Jessica Bridenbaugh. Rebels and Gentlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Burns, Deborah Stephens, and Richard J. Webster. Pennsylvania Architecture: The Historic American Buildings Survey, With Catalog Entries, 1933-1990. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2000.

Darlington, William. Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1967.

Faris, John T. Old Gardens In and About Philadelphia. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1932.

Harshberger, John W. The Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work. Philadel­phia: T.C. Davis and Sons, 1899.

Keister, Douglas. Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity. New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Klein, William M., Jr., Gardens of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Moss, Roger W. Historic Houses of Philadelphia: A Tour of the Region’s Homes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Skaler, Robert Morris. West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street. Dove, N.H.: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Sloane, David Charles. Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Balti­more: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Sponberg, Stephen A. A Reunion of Trees. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.


The Woodlands has been entered in the National Register of Historic Places, named n National Historic Landmark, and recognized with a state historical marker erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Much like rural cemeteries of the nineteenth century, The Woodlands is open free to individuals interested in strolling its various walks and lanes. For more information, write: The Woodlands, 4000 Woodland Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19104; telephone (215) 386-2181; or visit The Woodlands website. Guided and group tours are also offered.


Kate Withiam grew up in central New York. She graduated from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, with a bachelor of science degree in plant science. She served internships at the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Pennsylvania at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. The writer lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as an assistant to a mortgage broker.