Oletheho was the name given by native Americans of the Lenni Lenape tribe to the land situated between the northern bank of the Schuylkill River and Perkiomen Creek. It would represent the westernmost extent of the lands purchased by William Penn from the tribe in 1684 for the purpose of ensuring peace so that Europeans, and in particular Quakers, could permanently settle in southeastern Pennsylvania. It is on Oletheho land that the Neeber Lee house would be built 100 years later.
William Penn was granted this land and other lands in what was to become Pennsylvania by King Charles II of England in 1681 in order to pay off debts owed to Penn’s father. Within six months of receiving this grant, Penn would parcel out 300,000 acres of this land grant to over 250 prospective settlers, mostly wealthy Quakers, in order to increase his own wealth and to encourage a Quaker migration. One of the areas Penn retained for himself in the new colony was a 60,000 acre parcel located on the northeastern bank of the Schuykill River, extending above and below Perkiomen Creek, thereby incorporating Olethelo and the future home of the Neebor Lee. Penn named this parcel the “Manor of Gilberts” in honor of his mother’s family.
Penn claimed this land for himself by warrant in 1683. However, by 1687 he too had sold much of this land reducing the size of the Manor to 10,000 acres. In 1706, William Penn would sell off another 1000 acres of the Manor, a parcel that included most of Oletheho, to his good friend Abraham Bickley. The Manor name would be retained on the remaining 9,000 acres for another 23 years, when it was abandoned with the organization of Providence Township.
Abraham Bickley, the new owner of the property containing much of the Oletheho land, was born in Tamworth, England on June 10, 1670. He emigrated to America in 1692. Abraham, like William Penn, was a Quaker. He was also a wealthy merchant and prominent citizen of early colonial Philadelphia. He served as a councilman and as an alderman in that colonial city and was responsible for selling to the city its first fire-engine, which he had purchased and imported from England. There is no record of Bickley ever settling on the 1,000 acre parcel that he purchased from William Penn. Rather, it appears that he purchased the land for speculation purposes. However, Bickley did not hold onto this land long. In 1710 he sold it to his brother-in-law Joseph Richardson.
Joseph Richardson, who was born in England in 1667, was also a Quaker, as well as the only son of Samuel Richardson, who was the first alderman of Philadelphia, a Provincial Councilor of Pennsylvania and the second wealthiest man in the colony. Much of this wealth was passed to his son Joseph when he died in 1719.
Joseph Richardson moved his family to Oletheho from Philadephia soon after he purchased the land. The first documentation of Joseph actually living in Oletheho appears in 1714. In that year, it is stated in the minutes of Haverford Monthly Meeting that,
” friends inhabiting about Perquoming and this side of Schuylkill in ye Valley being desirous a meeting might be allowed every other mo. to be and begin att Lewis Walker’s house the first in 2nd Mo. next and thence every other month at Joseph Richardson’s house until ye 9th mo. next.”
Joseph Richardson’s home pre-dated the construction of the Neebor Lee house by more than 70 years and its location remains uncertain, although the historical records indicate that it was located in or around Phoenixville, which is west of the Neebor Lee house by several miles. The records also indicated that life on the frontier west of Philadelphia was good to Joseph and other early settlers in the area. They had ample land, remained at peace with the local native American tribes and were only about a one day horse ride from Philadelphia. Nonetheless, there was a desire on their part to remain better connected to Philadelphia, where the markets for their goods and many of their family members resided.
In December 1722, Joseph Richardson signed a petition with his neighbors as “Inhabitants of Oletheho and the neighboring parts” and submitted it to Court of Quarter Sessions in Philadelphia requesting a road to be extended to their lands from Philadelphia. They set forth that,
“…there were already many families settled in the aforesaid Oletheho upon Scoolkill side and probably severall more to settle in and about the same place”,
“…there is no certaine Road laid out from thance towards the city of Philadelphia”.
The petition requested,
“…a Kings Road or Cart way through the various Hills and ups and downs of the aforementioned place to wit, from the Indian town ffoord to the next established Kings Road that will suite best the inhabitants of Oletheho to the said city of Philadelphia”.
The petition was granted by the court to construct a road from Philadelphia to Norristown and then through the locations of the future hamlets of Audubon, Oaks and Phoenixville, thereby opening a passageway to the interior for future settlers and as well as an improved connection to Philadelphia. The road was to be surveyed by Hendrick Pannebacker, an immigrant from Holland, with Joseph Richardson and another settler from Oletheho serving as overseers. All did not go well, however, as a roadblock was put up by Isaac Norris, owner of 10,000 acres of land in the vicinity of present day Norristown. Isaac Norris objected to a road passing through his property, which he had subdivided into smaller parcels for sale to future settlers. In November 1725 Joseph Richardson and Henrick Pannebacker met with Isaac Norris and attempted to find a solution to his objection. Together, they reviewed and traced the planned route of the road. In addition, they discussed a number of alternate routes, none of which were acceptable to all parties. It appears that the primary objection from Isaac Norris was that the planned route did not parallel his properties’ lot lines but rather bisected lots on angles.
In traversing the property to find a suitable route, Isaac Norris became irritated when he discovered that Pannebacker had already marked, girdled and cleared some trees from his property along the surveyor’s preferred route. Norris wrote,
“these are ye courses taken from Pannebecker but they are wrong either in course or distances or both for they will not come right by protraction.”
Two years later, in 1727, with the route of the road still in dispute, Isaac Norris filed a petition with the court asking it to reconsider the need for the road or, if the need was justified, to find an alternate alignment that would not cause the road to pass through his property. He argued that he,
“is informed a Road was lately granted and said or pretended to be laid out leading from Plymouth Township to Perqueoming Creek wch runs aslant more than four miles through his land commonly called the Manor of Wm Stadt obliquely cutting the lines of the severall lotts laid out many years before in the ad Mannor very injuriously”;
and that he,
“had not ye least notice or knowledge either of the petition grant or laying out the sd Road”
The court rejected Isaac Norris’ petition and allowed the road to be constructed. This road became known as the “Great Road” and sometimes “Joseph Richardson’s Road”. It is now a busy thoroughfare that is called Egypt Road, so named for the rich bottom soils in the Perkiomen Valley that were said to be as rich as those of the Nile. Ironically, the road likely increased the value of Isaac Norris’ land and encouraged growth that would result ultimately in the establishment of Norristown, a large town with a current population of 34,000 that was named in honor of Isaac Norris. “Joseph Richardson’s Road” would become Norristown’s Main Street.
“Joseph Richard’s Road” would terminate in Oletheho and in doing so would come within a quarter mile of the Neebor Lee’s future building site. Today, my wife and I travel along Egypt Road every day, either to go shopping to to go to work.
With the road connecting Philadelphia to Otethelo completed, and with his inheritance in hand, Joseph Richardson became a wealthy plantation owner. He owned ten African slaves, identified as Angola, Jack, Jack’s wife, Cudgo, Edinborough, Solomon, Phillis, old Phillis, Betty, and Parthenia, as well as indentured servants. In a 1733 article published by Benjamin Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the extent of Joseph Richardson’s wealth is suggested in a notice about a runaway indentured servant. This article stated:
“Run away the 6th. of this instant May from Joseph Richardson of Perkiomy in the township of Providence in the County of Philadelphia, a servant named William Brown alias William Darrell, aged 21 years, he is of a middle stature, hollowed eyed, large nose, down look, and very round shouldered, his Hair lately cut off. He had on when he went away a new Felt hat, a close bodye Coat and a Great Coat of lightest colour and brass buttons, a pair of Pumps with Peaked Toes; he took with him a large black gelding branded with W.B. Paces well, shod all around, and took a man’s Saddle and Bridle, likewise as Small Trunk, having in it some women’s Apparel viz. Some Handkerchiefs, Caps and a Black Padesway Hood and Six Shillings in Money. Whoever takes up said Servant and Horse and brings them to Joseph Richardson aforesaid or George Emlen of Philadelphia or Secures them so they may be had again shall have eight pounds as a Reward and reasonable Charges paid by me.
Joseph Richardson remained in Oletheho until his death on December 6, 1745. With his death came the demise of Oletheho, for the name no longer appeared in the historical records after Richardson’s death, having been replaced by the European place names introduced by the settlers.
Reference: All of the quotations come from a story published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1911), pp. 41-50 by Samuel W. Pennypacker, decedent of Hendrick Pannepacker and Governor of Pennsylvania from 1903 to 1907. The story was entitled, Joseph Richardson’s Road. A bit of Color from the Forgotten Past.