ALBANY — In November 1778, wealthy Pennsylvania businessman John Roberts III and a fellow Quaker were convicted of treason against the American cause and hanged from a gallows in Philadelphia, despite calls for a pardon from prominent citizens, including three signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Nearly 230 years after Roberts was executed during the Revolutionary War, documents up for auction include business transactions that show he provided livestock and other goods to the Continental Army before his then-controversial conviction and execution. The old records written in his hand include a ledger he kept of his dealings with the patriots, shedding light on the dealings of a pacifist merchant caught between warring armies.
“This book definitely shows he was interacting with the Continental Army, and they were definitely taking valuable things from him,” said Devon Eastland, director of books and manuscripts at Skinner, the Boston auction house where the Roberts documents are up for sale in an online auction that began Wednesday.
The online auction runs through June 7. The sale estimate for the Roberts lot is $6,000-$8,000.
Roberts owned a mill and hundreds of acres of farmland in Lower Merion, outside Philadelphia. In September 1777, the British marched into the city. Roberts moved there weeks later and stayed into 1778, when the redcoats left that June.
He and Abraham Carlisle were arrested in August 1778 and charged with treason against the patriots. His accusers testified during his trial that he fled the countryside because he was a loyalist who wanted to help the redcoats. Both men were executed on Nov. 4, 1778.
As a Quaker, Roberts was a pacifist who wished to remain neutral during the war. But his mill and farmland were located in an area where both the American and British armies were constantly foraging for food and livestock, and Roberts was likely caught between both forces, said David W. Maxey, a Philadelphia lawyer and author of a 2011 book on Roberts’ trial.
“It was a tough place to be scrambling around in order to protect yourself,” said Maxey, who lives about a mile from Roberts’ former home. “A lot of people got victimized by both armies.”
Starting in June 1777, Roberts kept a ledger of the property that was “taken” from him by the Continental Army, often listing the officers or units that received the goods. None of his entries note any money being exchanged, Eastland said.
“Did he do it under duress? Was it like a raid? They’re taking valuable stuff and he’s very, very detailed about what they’re taking,” she said.
Also unknown is why the ledger wasn’t used in his trial defense to show he had provided support to the American army, Eastland said.
The Robert documents are owned by Rodger Bell, owner of an antiques store in Schenectady, New York. He said he bought them earlier this year from a man who said the items had been in his family for years.
Maxey said without seeing the documents firsthand, he’s reluctant to comment on whether they bear on the question of whether Roberts was a traitor. But they do provide a glimpse into the life of a man who was caught up in “a sad moment in Quaker history,” he said.
“I hope it winds up with somebody who has an appreciation of the position that Roberts and his family found themselves during the Revolution,” Maxey said.