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Winterthur Digital Collections

About this collection

John Fanning Watson (1779-1860) was born in Batsto, New Jersey, the son of William and Lucy Fanning Watson.  The details of his education are not known, but he did obtain some business training in the Philadelphia counting house of James Vanuxem.  In 1798, he was dismissed because of his involvement with the Macpherson Blues militia company.  He spent the next two years in Mount Holly, New Jersey.  In 1800, he moved to Washington, D.C., to accept a clerkship in the War Department.  Watson entered into a business deal in 1804 and moved to New Orleans, Louisiana.  He returned to his native Philadelphia in 1806 and opened a mercantile house.  By 1810, he was listed as a bookseller and stationer.  He published American editions of English works and acted as an agent for foreign magazines.  In 1814, Watson accepted a position as cashier of the Bank of Germantown and received a notary public commission.  He remained with the bank until 1848.  He then became the secretary-treasurer of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, where he remained until 1859.


Watson was also an amateur historian and a pioneer in the use of oral histories and public opinion questionnaires.  He published, among other works, Annals of Philadelphia, Historic Tales of Olden Time Concerning the Settlement and Advancement of New York City and State, and Historic Tales of Olden Time Concerning the Early Settlement and Progress of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.  In addition, he wrote newspaper and magazine articles that focused on history.  Watson was a founder of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Society for the Commemoration of the Landing of William Penn. 


In 1812, John Fanning Watson married Phebe Barron Crowell, daughter of Thomas Crowell of Elizabethtown, New. Jersey. (The Crowells were lineal descendants of Oliver Cromwell.)  Phebe had several brothers and sisters, including Esther (Mrs. James) Bogert with whom she frequently visited in New York State.  The couple had seven children, of which three daughters, Lavinia Fanning, Selina, and Myra, and two sons, Barron Crowell and John Howell, survived to adulthood.  Lavinia married Harrison Whitman of Maine, and Selina married Charles Willing of Philadelphia.  After studying at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Barron became a physician in New England and married Julia Willis, the daughter of Hon. William Willis from Portland, Maine.  John Howell was not married at the time of his father's death in 1860 and served as the executor of his father's estate. 


The online collection consists of his 12 travel diaries written between 1804 and 1858.  He worked briefly in New Orleans in 1804-1805 and kept diaries of his travel there (going down river starting from Pittsburgh) and back again (by sea, stopping in Havana, Cuba, and Charleston, South Carolina).  He also traveled to the New Jersey shore, around Pennsylvania, to Wilmington, Delaware, New York City and state, and even to New England, where his mother was born.  He traveled on several canals in eastern Pennsylvania.  As well, there are travel diaries from his daughter Selina Watson (later Mrs. Charles Willing) and his sister-in-law Esther Crowell (Mrs. James) Bogert, and one account from his mother Lucy Fanning Watson of her youth in Walpole, NH.  Some diaries are illustrated with sketches.  In most of them, notes were made not just about the scenery, but also about people seen on the trip, the quality of hotels and transportation, and about history. 


A special thanks goes to Patricia D. Elliott who meticulously transcribed the diaries.   Illegible words are noted by parentheses. 


The finding aid for the collection is available at:

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