By Matt Hasson
The Battle of Brandywine took place on Sept. 11, 1777. Like that fateful day in 2001 and its aftermath, this Revolutionary War episode produced many heroes. One heroine shines above the rest: Mary “Polly” Frazer. She is a glowing figure in the long history of Thornbury Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, seven miles from the Brandywine site and about 20 miles from downtown Philadelphia.
Two days after the Battle of Brandywine, Polly Frazer boldly faced more than 250 British soldiers who surrounded her home. Her husband Persifor, an officer in George Washington’s Continental Army, was away spying on the British. He was captured and imprisoned in Philadelphia.
“Polly Frazer was one of the best patriots the Revolution had,” said Joan Dehm, president of the Thornbury Township Historical Society. “She did things the average person would never dream of doing. She showed patriotism on every front. She’s a great role model for women and everyone in general.”
Polly Taylor, who came from a prosperous Quaker family, married Persifor Frazer in 1766. The young couple managed her family’s farm and iron forge. The mill’s success led the British to ban other iron works in the Colonies.
In August 1777, the British Army under Gen. Howe began a long march from Elkton, Maryland to Philadelphia. To make themselves lighter and battle-ready, Washington’s troops left wagonloads of baggage at the Frazer house for safekeeping.
On Sept. 11, the British surrounded the Americans’ camp. The Americans fought bravely but had to retreat toward Chester. Persifor was ordered to scout the British Army. On his way to that assignment, he stopped home to rest. A group of American riflemen warned the Frazers that local Tories–those who remained loyal to the British–had told the British about the ammunition and officers’ baggage stored at the Frazer home. Persifor downplayed the danger but he and his wife did hide some of the baggage and had it moved to neighbors’ homes.
Persifor left home on Sept. 13 and stayed at an inn with other men who were ordered to watch the British. A few days later, a regiment of British Cavalry captured Persifor and imprisoned him.
On Sept. 13, just a few hours after Persifor had left home, Polly Frazer was knitting in front of her house when she heard wagons approaching. She soon found out that it was the British. Everyone–the Frazers’ four young children, Persifor’s aunt, a friend, three servants and an injured American soldier–hid in the woods. Frazer stayed to face the British.
Several British wagons, along with 200 foot soldiers and 50 horsemen, surrounded the Frazer home. A Captain DeWest of the British Guards Regiment was the commander. His troops were eager for plunder–and ammunition. Another officer, not DeWest, burst into the house and confronted Frazer, asking, “Where are the damned Rebels?!”
Frazer replied that there were no “rebels.” The officer raged at her with foul, abusive language. At the same time, several more soldiers entered the house and started to ransack it. They stole salt, a rare luxury at that time. They also found some liquor and got violently drunk.
Just as one of the drunken soldiers was about to hit Frazer, DeWest entered the house and had his officers chase the men out. DeWest told Frazer that the British would reward American officers who joined the British Army. Frazer laughed the offer aside: “You do not know Colonel Frazer, or you would not suggest such a thing, nor would he listen to me were I to propose it!” She added that if Persifor choose to side with the British, she would “never consent to have anything more to do with him!”
After that heated exchange, several of the British soldiers went on a rampage, stealing officers’ dress uniforms, dress swords and various household items. The men also pillaged the barn, stealing some bushels of wheat and several horses.
DeWest told Frazer that he had orders to take Persifor prisoner and burn the house and barn. “But,” he said, “I give them (Persifor, the house and barn) to you.” She coldly replied, “I cannot thank you, sir, for what is my own, and if you had such orders you would not dare to disobey them.” The British left the Frazer house laden with the stolen goods.
Frazer, the children, servants and guests spent a long, hungry night after the ordeal, but a legend had been born. In fact, she showed even more heroism when she negotiated for better conditions in the Germantown prison that held her husband. During the winter of 1777-1778, she took desperately needed food, clothing and blankets to the Americans camped at Valley Forge. The Americans took a turn toward victory in the spring of 1778 and, soon, a free nation was born.
Persifor Frazer and several other captives escaped from prison on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1778. He led a full, rewarding life until he died in 1792.
Polly Frazer told her granddaughter Elizabeth Smith the story of her encounter with the British in 1822. She died in 1830 at age 85. She was inducted into the Delaware County Women’s Hall of Fame in 1997.
Using Elizabeth Smith’s accounts and other sources, Dehm, Historical Commission Chairman John Miller and other local historians have kept the Polly Frazer’s memory very much alive. A Thornbury Township Historical Society video, “Historic Thornbury Township,” includes a dramatic reenactment of Polly Frazer’s standoff with the British. She is portrayed as a brave, steadfast woman who controlled her own destiny and, in a small way, that of the newborn United States.
“I think it (Mrs. Frazer’s faceoff with the British) is the most historic Revolutionary War event that we had in the township,” said Miller. “It’s got to be one of the best-documented events in the county, an encounter between a civilian and British soldiers.”
The ruins of the Frazer home, which stand in township-owned Bonner Park, were stabilized in 2000. A chimney and another wall are all that remain. The ruins are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The house was built in 1739 and expanded in stages during the next century. It was abandoned after a fire gutted it in 1926.
(The Polly Frazer story quoted in this article is from “Mary Frazer: Heroine of the American Revolution” by Edward Owen Parry, published in the Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine.)