This Month in Delaware…

Tharp portraits
Governor William & Mary Ann Johnson Tharp (DHS collection, gift of Elizabeth Harrington, George Staples Harrington, Mary Harrington Watkins, Jane H. Scott, & Mrs. Willis F. Harrington, Jr. )

Kent County farmer and Delaware governor, William Tharp, was born near Farmington in Kent County on November 27, 1803, the eldest child of James and Eunice Fleming Tharp. Around 1828, William Tharp married Mary Ann Johnson and began his political career in 1838 with two sessions in the State Senate. Tharp ran for governor twice; unsuccessfully in 1844 and then successfully in 1847. He took office during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and it was during his administration that construction on the present Fort Delaware began. In 1851, after serving his term, Tharp retired to his home in Milford, Delaware, where he returned to farming and also served as Treasurer of the Delaware Railroad. He died on January 9, 1865 and is buried at Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery in Milford.

Tharp entailment
Entailment document on the back of Governor Tharp’s portrait

The Tharps themselves may have passed quietly into history, but they have left a somewhat unusual legacy that is preserved in our collections. In 2008, the Society received a pair of portraits of Governor Tharp and his wife Mary Ann Johnson Tharp. These portraits, painted by an unknown artist between about 1845-50, had obvious historical value because of their subjects, but became even more interesting when we saw what was on the back of one of them. Mounted onto the back of Governor Tharp’s portrait, we discovered a hand-written entailment document that added a whole new dimension of interest to the story of the portraits.

This entailment provides a written record of Mrs. Tharp’s wishes with regard to the disposition of the portraits after her death (she outlived her husband by two years). It also tells us how the portraits actually passed through the family. It was Mrs. Tharp’s express wish that they should pass first to her children, beginning with the oldest, and then on to the oldest living descendant in subsequent generations. These wishes seem to have been respected, for we also learned from the entailment that the portraits did in fact pass to her oldest daughter, Ruth J. Carlisle, and then to her younger daughters, Mary Tumlin and Williamina Hall, before descending to the oldest grandchild, Mary Elizabeth Harrington, and then on through the Harrington line of the family before being donated to the Society. Such detailed information was a bonus and also reminds us that the stories behind objects are often every bit as interesting as the objects themselves!


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