Mais Oui! Delaware’s French Connection

As we all know, a lot of what makes history so interesting is the connections, both discovered and to-be –discovered, between things.  Sometimes a small discovery can open up a whole new set of fascinating lines of inquiry for the historically curious.  Such was the case with a recent research inquiry about a portrait of John Lewden in the Society’s collections.  Our researcher was doing family genealogy, so the request to see the painting was not particularly unusual for an organization that focuses on history, but what made this particular visit that bit more interesting was that he was coming all the way from Vourles (a small village near Lyon) in France, and was related to the Lewden family of Christiana, Delaware, through his mother.

The Lewdens were a prominent Quaker family who had been in Delaware since 1695, when John Lewden (? – 1744) acquired land at Christiana Creek.  In 1729, he also purchased an island in the Delaware River that came to be known as Lewden’s Island.  It was his grandson, also John Lewden (1739-1809), who built the house on route 7 in Christiana, Delaware, which still stands today.  A glance at our French visitor’s genealogical work quickly revealed that there were a number of John Lewdens, and looking at our own object file on the painting did not exactly clarify the sitter’s identity beyond a reasonable doubt.  So, which John Lewden was it?

The Society had received the painting as a gift from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1949.  The artist is unknown and the original provenance of the painting and how it ended up at the Pennsylvania Academy is also unknown.  In fact, exactly which Lewden family member the painting is supposed to represent was never definitely established.  It was always assumed that the painting represented John Lewden (1739-1809), the builder of the house in Christiana. This made for some interesting speculation.  Given the approximate age of the sitter and painting date of circa 1800-1820, our researcher thinks that it may be a portrait of John Lewden’s eldest son, Jeremiah (1767-1840), rather than John but at this point, without further pictorial or documentary evidence, we cannot say for sure.

Sometimes history’s mysteries can be a bit frustrating, but there is a bright side to this story in that we were able to definitely establish the identity of the sitter in another portrait in our collections.  For many years, the Society has owned a miniature portrait on ivory of an unknown woman simply identified as “Josiah Lewden’s French wife.”  The miniature was a gift from Miss Martha E. Warner and nothing else was known about it, so for me a researcher with a specific interest in the Lewden family presented a wonderful opportunity for DHS to maybe add to our own historical records. 

 

Neither of us was disappointed.  We quickly identified the woman as Marguerite Badailh Lewden, who was born in 1783 in Fronsac, near Bordeaux, in France, the daughter of Charles Martial and Jeanne Marie Lesnier Badailh.  Marguerite married Josiah Lewden (1770-1812), a sea captain from Christiana and the second son of John Lewden (1739-1809), on January 23, 1808 in Libourne, France, and they had three sons.  In fact, this is where the Lewden family of Delaware pick up their French connection. A few years into the marriage, Josiah Lewden was killed in a shipwreck and Marguerite herself later died at Libourne on May 31, 1859.  As it turns out, our researcher is Marguerite’s great-great-great grandson, and he was thrilled to be able to see a portrait of her that he had not even known existed.  Dating to between 1800 & 1810, our miniature is an early portrait of a young Marguerite and may have been done right around the time of her marriage to Josiah Lewden, when she was twenty-four years old.  Sometimes it’s amazing what pops up when you least expect it, but that’s part of the appeal of history.  Not only was it an interesting afternoon for all involved, but we can also say that DHS has made its own tiny positive contribution to international relations for Delaware!

-Jennifer


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