Portrait of Frederick Muhlenberg, ca. 1838

Portrait of Frederick Muhlenberg, ca. 1838

Frederick Muhlenberg


Frederick Muhlenberg was one of the most influential Germans in colonial Pennsylvania and later the early United States. The second son of Lutheran patriarch Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and Anna Maria Weiser, Frederick was educated in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, but returned from Europe to become a Lutheran minister. However, he left the ministry to pursue a dual career in politics and business. During the 1780s he operated a general store adjacent to his house in Trappe. Following the death of his father-in-law – David Schaeffer Sr., a sugar refiner – Frederick went into the sugar refining business. Frederick amassed significant wealth, political influence, and social prominence. From 1790 to 1797, he was also president of the German Society of Pennsylvania. His untimely death in 1801, at the age of only fifty-one, was a severe loss to the Pennsylvania German community.


Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg (born January 1, 1750, in Trappe, PA; died June 4, 1801 in Lancaster, PA) was one of the most influential Germans in colonial Pennsylvania and later the early United States. The second son of Lutheran patriarch Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and Anna Maria Weiser, Frederick was educated in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, from 1763 to 1770. Upon his return from Europe, he became a Lutheran minister but in 1779 left the ministry to pursue a dual career in politics and business. He joined the Continental Congress and from 1780 to 1783 was Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In 1787, Frederick presided at the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. Elected as a representative to the first four U.S. Congresses, Frederick served as first and third Speaker of the U.S. House. While Speaker, he became the first signer of the Bill of Rights. His controversial, tie-breaking vote in 1796 to fund the Jay Treaty ended his career in national politics. Although best known as a politician, Frederick was also a dedicated entrepreneur. During the 1780s he operated a general store adjacent to his house in Trappe. Following the death of his father-in-law – David Schaeffer Sr., a sugar refiner, of Philadelphia in 1787 – Frederick went into the sugar refining business and formed a partnership with Jacob Lawerswyler. The enterprise initially thrived, but was terminated in 1799 due to intense competition and the devastating loss of a ship, the Golden Hind, of which Frederick was part-owner. Despite these financial setbacks, Frederick amassed significant wealth, political influence, and social prominence. From 1790 to 1797, he was also president of the German Society of Pennsylvania. His untimely death in 1801, at the age of only fifty-one, was a severe loss to the Pennsylvania German community.

Family and Ethnic Background

Born on January 1, 1750, Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg was reared in the small village of Trappe, located about twenty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia in the Perkiomen Valley region of present-day Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Originally known as Providence, Trappe was settled in 1717 by German immigrant Jacob Schrack Sr., who established a tavern that was known popularly as “the Trap.”[1] Frederick’s father, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), emigrated from Halle in 1742 to serve as pastor for three German Lutheran congregations located in Trappe, New Hanover, and Philadelphia. Frederick’s mother, Anna Maria Weiser (1727–1802), was the daughter of Conrad Weiser – one of colonial Pennsylvania’s chief negotiators with regional Native American tribes and a prominent justice of the peace in Berks County.[2] Henry Muhlenberg described the Trappe area as a wilderness when he arrived, noting that “the people here in the country have only one room in their houses, which is occupied by the whole family.” His first sermon was preached in a barn “since the poor people there have no church as yet.”[3]

Slowly the town began to grow. By 1745, a stone church with capacity for five hundred people was completed and named Augustus after August Hermann Francke, the Lutheran pietist founder of the Francke Foundations in Halle and an important mentor to Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. Henry Muhlenberg settled in Trappe after his marriage in 1745, building a two-story stone house with money provided by his father-in-law.[4] Most local residents, by contrast, lived in small log dwellings due to the expense of masonry construction. The inhabitants of the surrounding area were predominantly German Lutheran and Reformed, with smaller numbers of Mennonites, Dunkards, Schwenkfelders, Welsh and English Quakers, and Scots-Irish Presbyterians living within a fifteen-mile radius. Details such as the iron weathervanes bearing large decorative tulips that topped the roof of Augustus Lutheran Church, or the tombstones inscribed in German that were in the cemetery, would have communicated Trappe’s primary ethnic composition to passersby. A date stone above the church entrance bore the names of its founders and stated that the building was dedicated to the Augsburg Confession, although its Latin text may have been unclear to all but an educated minority.

Few records survive to detail Frederick’s childhood and adolescence. His father was frequently away from home for extended periods owing to his pastoral duties. Henry was absent when Frederick was born, much to the distress of his wife and family. Henry’s journal entry upon his return notes that “in her anguish my wife wept over the fact that her husband was so seldom at home and that he was away just at this time. She felt that the wife of a workman or farmer was better off than she,” he continued, “for they could at least be home most of the time.” Fortunately for Mary, her father Conrad Weiser happened to stop by the house while she was in labor, and according to family tradition helped to deliver Frederick, who was named in part after his grandfather.[5] Frederick was the third of eleven children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg (Peter; 1746–1807), the eldest, was also initially a Lutheran minister but left the church to take up a military commission in 1776 and ultimately became a major general and, later, a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator. Gotthilf Henry Ernst Muhlenberg (Henry Jr.; 1753–1815) studied with Frederick in Halle from 1763 to 1770; he was ordained a Lutheran minister and from 1780 until his death in 1815 was pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Henry Jr. was also a renowned botanist known as the American Linnaeus and the author of many botanical studies and co-author of the first German-English dictionary printed in America (Lancaster: 1812). Frederick’s four sisters were: Eve Elisabeth (1748–1808), wife of Lutheran minister and German émigré Christopher Emanuel Schulze; Margaretta Henrietta (1751–1831), wife of Lutheran minister and German émigré John Christopher Kunze; Maria Catharine (1755–1812), wife of Irish émigré Francis Swaine; and Maria Salome (1766–1827), wife of Matthias Richards.[6]

Frederick and his family lived in Trappe until 1761, when they moved to Philadelphia. Soon Henry Muhlenberg worried that the “impudent and emancipated youth” of the city would corrupt his children, especially Peter, and feared this would cause “a great scandal and offense.” Two years later, the three brothers were sent to study at the Francke Foundations in Halle, where they received instruction in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French as well as theology, general and ecclesiastical history, biblical criticism, and logic. Peter was unhappy in Halle and was soon apprenticed to a merchant-apothecary in the Baltic Sea port of Lübeck, but ran away in 1766 and returned to America. Frederick and Henry Jr. continued their studies in Halle for six years, returning to Philadelphia on September 26, 1770. On October 7, the brothers preached their first sermon at Zion Lutheran Church to an audience of several thousand and on October 25 they were examined and ordained to the ministry.[7] Frederick, who began a journal on the same day, wrote on the first page: “This day is and always will be to me the most important day of my life, because on it I was ordained as a co-laborer in the United Evangelical Lutheran Congregations here.” He was sent to serve in the Tulpehocken region, some seventy miles from Philadelphia, where his congregations included Warwick, White Oak, and Heidelberg or Schaefferstown. Henry Jr. served briefly in New Jersey before returning to Philadelphia to assist his father, while Peter accepted a call in 1772 to a Lutheran church in Woodstock, Virginia.[8] When a Maryland congregation petitioned to have Frederick become their pastor in 1772, Henry flatly refused and said that “my son Friedrich was already living eighty miles away from me and that, if he should be twice as far away, I could expect little or no assistance from him in my weary old age.”[9]

On October 15, 1771, Frederick married Catharine Schaeffer (1750–1835) of Philadelphia. Her father, David, was a prominent sugar refiner and longtime elder at St. Michael’s and Zion Lutheran Church. The newlyweds lived in Schaefferstown (located in present-day Lebanon County, Pennsylvania) until 1773, when Frederick accepted a call to Christ Lutheran Church in New York City. Fearing the outbreak of war as talk of revolution increased, they returned to Pennsylvania in early 1776. Without a regular call or salary, Frederick struggled to support his growing family and in November of 1778 considered leaving the ministry to become a merchant. News of this prompted his brother-in-law and fellow minister, John Christopher Kunze, to write to his father saying that “I hope that you will not give your consent thereto. To lay one’s hand to the plow and then leave it has eternal consequences; to become a merchant is to deal only with temporal things. It is said that he cannot make ends meet. I still think, however, that this only means that he cannot get rich.” A different opportunity presented itself in 1779 when Frederick was offered a seat in the Continental Congress. According to his father, Frederick’s name was proposed “because he understands both English and German.” He was elected on March 4 and moved his family to Philadelphia to take up the office. The following year, Frederick was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly and served as its speaker through 1783. Although his political duties required him to be in Philadelphia much of the time, Frederick decided to settle in Trappe. On October 17, 1781, he contracted to buy a large stone house on a tract of fifty acres that bordered on his parents’ property for £870 Pennsylvania currency.[10] Half of the capital was supplied by Christopher Wegman, a Philadelphia merchant; Frederick repaid him in 1785. Little else is known about Wegman other than that he was a close friend of the Muhlenberg family. Much work was done to ready the house for the arrival of Frederick and his family. Apparently Frederick had also finally decided to go into business. On April 10, 1782, his father noted in his journal that “The carpenters are supposed to be working on the store and can find no place to get their meals.” Eight days later, Frederick, his family, and a “store assistant” arrived along with a freight wagon. Soon after their arrival, Frederick wrote to his brother Henry Jr. describing the virtues of his new-found life “faraway from the turmoil of the city, and of the unquiet political life. Here no clients or petitioners plague me… but rather I can work in the garden, in the field, and in the store leisurely wait on [customers].”[11] Thus began Frederick’s new career, which he had started and continued to pursue in an entrepreneurial fashion.

Business Development

“TO LET, a large convenient store with two rooms and a kitchen, situated in the village called the Trap, on the Reading road, Montgomery County, 26 miles from Philadelphia. It is an excellent stand for business” extolled the advertisement in the Aurora General Advertiser on May 4, 1799. Two years later, the entire property was offered for rent, including “seventy acres of land in high cultivation” together with a “genteel convenient Dwelling-house, Store-house, a large Stone Barn, Carriage-house, Waggon-house, Milk-house, and Smoke-house…It is suitable either for a gentleman’s seat, or a person who might wish to engage in trade.”[12] Built in 1782 by Frederick Muhlenberg, the store referred to in these documents was one of many that dotted the Pennsylvania backcountry in the eighteenth century. Like most rural stores, it was demolished after falling out of use. An extraordinary amount of information survives, however, enabling the store and Muhlenberg’s entrepreneurial activities to be reconstructed as a vital part of the historical record, despite a lack of account books, ledgers, or other materials pertaining directly to the business. A careful reading of the evidence – architectural, archaeological, documentary, and the landscape itself – enables the rediscovery of a vibrant world in which trade networks linked rural consumers and shopkeepers to urban merchants and goods imported from around the Atlantic rim.[13]

Far from being a quiet, rural village, Trappe was a noisy, bustling place as wagons to and from Philadelphia rumbled through on a daily basis; it was possible for a loaded wagon to make the twenty-five mile journey in a single day, helping to save on transportation costs to and from the city. Trappe’s location was ideal for a store, as it was situated about halfway between Philadelphia and Reading along the main thoroughfare that connected those two points (known variously as the Great Road or Reading Road). Philadelphia at this time was the busiest port and wealthiest city in America; until 1799 it was Pennsylvania’s capital and from 1790 to 1800 it was also the national capital. Reading was a major market town and the seat of Berks County. By 1767, it was home to ten shopkeepers and four waggoners who hauled goods back and forth to Philadelphia.[14] In Reading, travelers connected with the “Great Road” that stretched west to Carlisle, where it intersected with the “Great Wagon Road” leading into the Shenandoah Valley. Trappe was thus in a privileged position with ready access to both city goods and backcountry customers. By the 1770s Trappe was home to three taverns – a reflection of its being a convenient stopping point for overnight travelers. Increasing settlement in the backcountry brought more and more traffic along the road through Trappe, although travel remained slow, cumbersome, and at times dangerous. To reach Trappe from Philadelphia, one had to cross either the Schuylkill River or its tributary, the Perkiomen Creek, at a ford about a mile southeast of town. A bridge was not erected there until 1799. This crossing often flooded during inclement weather and could be impassable for several days at a time. For instance, on March 1, 1780, Henry Muhlenberg noted that due to rain and melting snow, a wagon “is still on the other side of the Perkiomen and cannot be brought over because the river is too high and is becoming higher.” Not until March 3 did the wagon finally get safely across.[15] Other hazards, such as breaking a wagon wheel or a horse going lame, also resulted in travel delays and interruptions to the supply chain.

Although many backcountry stores were impermanent and mobile, often run out of taverns or private houses, Frederick Muhlenberg opted to construct a purpose-built store onto the east side of an existing house, built in 1763 by John Schrack (1712–1772).[16] A German immigrant, Schrack came to America in 1717 with his parents who were the first settlers in Trappe. After his father’s death in 1742, Schrack took over the family tavern. He inherited substantial land when his mother died in 1756, some of which he sold in the early 1760s prior to commissioning the construction of a large stone house. Prominently located at the eastern end of the village, the house has a narrow, three-bay fenestration. The original plan consisted of a side-passage stair hall flanked by two rooms, heated with back-to-back corner fireplaces, and a kitchen addition to the rear. This arrangement was typical of urban dwellings, especially those of merchants and craftsmen, in which the front room on the first floor served as an office or shop rather than a parlor, which was then located on the second floor. The store addition built by Muhlenberg was attached to the east side of the house, causing a window in the southeast corner to be converted into a door to provide interior access between the two structures. Underneath the store was a cellar, which had access to the cellar under the main house through a doorway in the east foundation wall. The door could be secured with a bar from within the house, thus allowing Muhlenberg to maintain control over goods stored in his cellar. One of these items was likely butter, which rural merchants frequently took in trade and then re-sold in Philadelphia. In 1799, for example, merchant Samuel Rex of Schaefferstown had forty-seven kegs of butter stockpiled in his cellar waiting for re-sale in the city.[17]

As the most prominent structures located at the eastern end of Trappe and the first that one encountered when arriving in town from Philadelphia, Frederick Muhlenberg’s house and store would have been readily noticeable to passersby. The 1798 Federal Direct Tax assessment for Providence Township describes the store as a one-story stone building measuring twenty by thirty feet, but these dimensions appear to be inaccurate.[18] Archaeology has determined the store’s footprint to have been twenty feet deep by forty feet long – with no evidence of an original terminus at thirty feet. With eight hundred square feet of space, the store was larger than many of the houses recorded in the tax list. Its building material – stone – was also a more expensive choice than log or frame and would have further distinguished the store within the hierarchy of local architecture as well as conveyed a sense of permanence and stability. The store itself also played a major role in delineating the commercial space from the domestic landscape of the Muhlenberg property. Its footprint created a barrier that both visually and physically blocked access to the kitchen yard area beyond. Within the triangular space formed by the house and store was the root cellar, well, bake oven, smokehouse, milkhouse, and kitchen garden. The long rear wall of the store also provided a convenient dumping ground for household refuse, shielded from the gaze of customers yet conveniently near the kitchen door.

Little is known at this point about the interior of Frederick Muhlenberg’s store beyond the 1799 advertisement in which it was offered for rent and described as containing “two rooms and a kitchen.” Most stores in the eighteenth century were organized in one of two plans and divided into two rooms: a store room for selling goods and a counting room for bookkeeping and storage. One plan put the gable end of the building perpendicular to the street, with the store room at the front and counting room in back. The other plan placed the long side of the building in alignment with the street, with the store and counting rooms located side by side. Often each room had an exterior door to permit independent access. In order to attract business, a store needed to communicate its function clearly with potential customers. Large windows fitted with shelves for the display of goods typically flanked the main entry, and hanging or freestanding signs provided further visual cues as to the store’s contents. These patterns helped signal the building’s function as a store, which was particularly important for travelers who would have lacked local knowledge about the location of stores. Internally, the store room was typically divided by a long counter that created two distinct zones, placing customer and merchant on opposite sides. By creating a physical barrier between customers and goods, counters helped protect breakable or valuable wares while forcing triangular conversations between customers, merchants, and objects as they were examined prior to purchase to inspect their qualities and price. Counters also provided a convenient space for shopkeepers to display wares, weigh out goods, cut fabric, make change, and assemble packages. In purpose-built stores, the windows were often limited to the front wall only to allow long stretches of shelving on the other walls for the display of merchandise. During the summer, a lack of ventilation caused by the limited windows made them uncomfortably hot and stuffy. On the other hand, stores often lacked a source of heat, leaving them cold in the winter. Merchants had to simultaneously display their goods in such a way as to attract customers but secure them from theft, vandalism, and damage. They also had to contend with rodents, insects, and moisture. By the late eighteenth century, however, most storekeepers had shifted the emphasis from protection to display, creating a “consumption arena” by placing fragile goods such as ceramic and glassware on shelves rather than leaving them stored in crates or boxes. Shelving on the walls could be used to display fabric, while small compartments and boxes helped organize smaller accoutrements such as thimbles, needles, and buttons. Various baskets, crates, and barrels contained dry goods and foodstuffs including flour.[19]

Security was a major concern for any storekeeper, but was especially important to Frederick Muhlenberg as he was frequently away from home due to his political office. When congress was in session, he was absent for weeks or even months at a time. His wife probably helped in the store on occasion, especially given her mercantile family background, but most of her time was devoted to raising their seven children and supervising the household. Frederick employed a clerk, usually a single young man with whom he made an annual contract, to help run the store during his absence. This arrangement not only relieved Frederick from the burden of operating the store on a day-to-day basis, but also provided an extra set of hands when needed to assist with farm activities such as mowing.[20] Furthermore, a clerk provided an additional layer of security as he typically slept in the store. This was not foolproof, however. On November 17, 1783, Frederick reported to his father that his store had been “broken into by force and plundered of its most costly goods and money” during the night. The robbers were believed to be “three strange men, dressed like gentlemen” who had visited the day before seeking to purchase cheese.[21] Another measure of security was provided by the interior doorway created by enlarging a former window to lead directly from the front room of the main house into the store. This modification enabled ready access to the store from within the main house, without having to exit the house and enter the store separately from the exterior. Access through this interior door would have primarily been intended for private use rather than for customers, who would have entered the store directly from the street. Not only did the door provide Frederick with convenient access to the store in order to wait on customers, it also enabled him to supervise activities within the store for both the security of his goods as well as his investment in the clerk’s labor. Such access had its drawbacks, however, as it reduced the privacy of the front room of the house.

Backcountry stores were vital links in a chain that connected consumers to commodities. The successful operation of a permanent store at a fixed location depended on both customers and merchandise. These stores provided a local outlet for farmers and millers to sell their crops and products such as butter, pork, and flour. This was especially true in the zone of intensive agriculture that surrounded a major city like Philadelphia, where high-value crops or goods could readily be transported to market.[22] A store like that operated by Frederick Muhlenberg had a “local exterior and a transatlantic interior,” giving area residents access to news and goods imported from far-flung corners of the Atlantic world.[23] By the 1760s, newspapers such as the Pennsylvania Gazette or Christoph Sauer’s German-language Pensylvanische Berichte increasingly contained advertisements announcing the arrival of new imports from Europe.[24] Among the goods Muhlenberg sold were household items such as candles, soap, combs, brushes, iron pots, mustard pots; clothing and sewing notions including woolen gloves, mitts, handkerchiefs, trousers, thimbles, pincushions, silk thread, ribbons, lace, and fabric including cambric, satin, sammet (velvet), chintz, linen, and osnaburg (an inexpensive, durable linen); foodstuffs including flour, sugar, salt, tea, coffee, and molasses. He also sold alcoholic beverages, including rum and wine; tobacco; ink and writing paper; tinctures and medicines; and even a small clock.[25] These goods were typical of those sold by backcountry merchants at this time. Similar merchandise was available in Bethlehem at the “Strangers’ Store,” founded in 1752 for non-Moravians to purchase sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, spices, and textiles as well as products of Moravian craftsmen including leather goods, wool, oil, iron and metalwork.[26] Archaeological evidence shows that Muhlenberg also sold brass hardware, creamware, and white salt-glazed stoneware imported from England, enamel-decorated glassware from Continental Europe, and porcelain from China.

Merchants were dependent upon obtaining the right goods at a fair price. Keeping a store well-stocked with quality goods was critical in order to retain customers, and a variety of goods were needed to appeal to people of divergent economic means. Thus Muhlenberg stocked both basic textiles such as osnaburg, as well as more expensive fabrics like velvet. Merchants fretted over delays caused by bad weather, impassable roads, and botched orders. Muhlenberg hired a variety of people, including local farmers and day laborers whom he both knew and trusted, to transport his goods to and from Philadelphia. He also relied on networks of kinship, ethnicity, and religion to obtain quality goods at reasonable prices. His wife’s family, the Schaeffers, were merchants and sugar refiners in Philadelphia with direct access to large quantities of Caribbean sugar. Frederick also had connections with the Francke Foundations in Halle, which he used to import medicines and books from its pharmacy and printing press.[27] His privileged access to the Halle network as a member of the Muhlenberg family not only helped attract customers but also reinforced his role as an educated gentleman. In addition, Muhlenberg’s ability to speak both German and English enabled him to serve the community as a cultural broker, functioning as both an interpreter and a local arbiter of taste. As a justice of the peace, register of wills, and recorder of deeds, Frederick would have regularly advised German-speakers on various legal proceedings. He and other bilingual storekeepers such as Samuel Rex of Schaefferstown helped their German-speaking customers negotiate the Anglophone world of commerce. They also instructed English merchants as to what goods appealed to German consumers.[28]

Frederick Muhlenberg’s decision to quit the ministry and take up political office and storekeeping met with strong disapproval from his father. In 1785, Henry wrote Frederick a stern letter advising him to turn away from both, warning that “it requires no great art to become a merchant, but it does to remain one.” He continued:

Anyone who wishes to support himself and his family in these times by keeping a store or a shop, either in the country or in a town, must have the eyes of a falcon, the alertness of a rooster, the fluency of a Jew, the patience of a mule, capital to invest, etc. The profits are not remarkable, they undersell one another, it costs a great deal to keep a clerk, some of the goods will become old and lose their value, and the storekeeper may be robbed or defrauded if debtors run away or declare bankruptcy.[29]

Despite such admonitions, Frederick persevered in business. His political office likely helped his entrepreneurial ventures. In 1784, he was made the first recorder of deeds, register of wills, and president judge of the newly-formed Montgomery County. He was also justice of the peace for four surrounding townships. Because no courthouse had yet been constructed, activities such as sheriff sales, court sessions, and other official business were frequently transacted at Frederick’s house. These matters would have brought numerous potential customers to his store, while his rising status increasingly positioned him as the most prominent local tastemaker.

As his political career took off, Frederick was elected president of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1787 and in 1789 became the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. When the U.S. capital moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790, he sold the Trappe property to his sister, Mary, and her husband Francis Swaine and moved to Philadelphia. The Swaines continued to operate the store but when Francis became involved in county politics, requiring them to move to the county seat of Norristown, they put first the store and then the entire property up for rent. In 1803 they sold the property to Charles Albrecht, a German immigrant and musical instrument maker. Albrecht owned the property for five years and may have adapted the store for use as a workshop. The property passed through several hands over the next several decades but the store continued to operate into the late 1820s or early 1830s, when it was rented and occupied by Valentine “Felty” Fitzgerald, who sold “watermelons and truck” or garden produce.[30] A dramatic remodeling of the house in the 1870s included the demolition of the store, construction of a wrap-around porch, and the application of stucco to the exterior masonry – concealing all physical evidence of Muhlenberg’s store for nearly 150 years. Following the property’s acquisition by a non-profit organization known as The Speaker’s House, information about the store and its location was gradually uncovered through intensive archival research, architectural investigations, and archaeological field work.


Although best known as the first Speaker of the U.S. House and a son of Lutheran patriarch Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Frederick Muhlenberg was also an important German-American entrepreneur. The general store he established and operated in Trappe during the 1780s provided a vital link between backcountry residents, urban seaports, and Atlantic world trade networks. Through Frederick’s business partner, Christopher Wegman, and his wife’s family, the Schaeffers of Philadelphia, he gained access to a broader web of German-American merchants and entrepreneurs. These relationships provided him with both the necessary capital and practical knowledge to establish and run a successful business. His familiarity with both German- and English-speaking customs also enabled him to serve the Trappe community as a cultural go-between. Over the counter of his shop, Frederick Muhlenberg not only dispensed dry goods but also interacted with local consumers to exchange ideas and viewpoints about the fledgling new nation in which he would soon play a leading role. Following his election in 1789 as the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Philadelphische Correspondenz proudly proclaimed, “The blood of the grandchildren of our grandchildren will proudly well up in their hearts when they will read in the histories of America that the first Speaker… was a German, born of German parents in Pennsylvania.”[31]


[1] Schrack’s tavern was formally named the Sign of the Three Crowns. By the 1740s, the town was usually referred to as either “the Trap” or “Trap.” During the nineteenth century the spelling changed to Trapp and finally Trappe.

[2] On Weiser, see Paul A. W. Wallace, Conrad Weiser: Friend of Colonist and Mohawk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945).

[3] Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein, trans. and eds., The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, 3 vols. (1942; reprint, Camden, Maine: Picton Press, 1980); 1:70-71.

[4] On the Muhlenbergs, see Hermann Wellenreuther, Thomas Muller-Bahlke, and A. Gregg Roeber, eds., The Transatlantic World of Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg in the Eighteenth Century (Halle, Germany: Franckeschen Stiftungen, 2013); Lisa Minardi, Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania (Collegeville, Pa.: Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, 2011); and Paul A.W. Wallace, The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Pres, 1950). On Trappe, see Lisa Minardi, “Of massive stones and durable materials: Architecture and Community in Eighteenth-Century Trappe, Pennsylvania” (MA thesis, University of Delaware, 2006).

[5] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 1:234, 261.

[6] On the Muhlenberg genealogy, see Frederick S. Weiser, ed., Weiser Families in America, 2 vols. (New Oxford, Pa.: John Conrad Weiser Family Association, 1997).

[7] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 1:623; 2:318, 3:340. On Peter’s experience in Germany, see William Germann, “The Crisis in the Early Life of General Peter Muhlenberg,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 37 (1913): 298–329.

[8] Glatfelter, Pastors and People, 93–98. Frederick’s journal is in the collection of Muhlenberg College; for a translation, see Theodore E. Schmauk, ed. and J.W. Early, trans., “Diary of F.A. Muhlenberg,” The Lutheran Church Review 24 (1905); the quote is on p. 128.

[9] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 2:514.

[10] In 1781, £870 in Pennsylvania Pounds Sterling would be worth approximately $49,000 in 2014$. Currency conversions based on John J. McCusker, “How Much Is that in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States,” reprinted from Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 101 no. 2 (October 1991): 297-373, here 333; and Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.com (accessed November 2015).

[11] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 3:199, 216, 452, 479-80. Letter from Frederick Muhlenberg to Henry Muhlenberg Jr., May 15, 1782, American Philosophical Society, Nicolls collection, microfilm.

[12] Norristown Herald and Weekly Advertiser, 19 June 1801, Historical Society of Montgomery County, Norristown, Pa.

[13] Portions of this section are based on Lisa Minardi, “An Excellent Stand for Business: Frederick Muhlenberg’s General Store,” The Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County 36, no. 4 (2013): 2-18.

[14] Richard K. MacMaster, Scotch-Irish Merchants in Colonial America (Belfast, UK: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2009), 129.

[15] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 3:301.

[16] It is also possible that Frederick modified an existing store, as two of the property’s owners after John Schrack’s death in 1772 but before Frederick’s purchase in 1781 were Philadelphia merchants, but it is unclear whether they actually built a store or simply ran it out of the house. The latter is more likely as their tenure there was very brief.

[17] Diane E. Wenger, A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790–1807 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), 113.

[18] 1798 Federal Direct Tax Assessment for Providence Township, Historical Society of Montgomery County, Norristown, Pa.

[19] Ann Smart Martin, Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 148-154.

[20] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 3:710.

[21] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 3:570.

[22] This theory was developed by Johann Heinrich von Thünen in his book The Isolated State in 1826; see William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 48-51.

[23] Bernard L. Herman, Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780–1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2005), 39.

[24] T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 54-55.

[25] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 3:568-9, 593, 632, 688, 699.

[26] Katherine Carté Engel, Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 114-115.

[27] Renate Wilson, Pious Traders in Medicine: A German Pharmaceutical Network in Eighteenth-Century North America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 155.

[28] Wenger, Country Storekeeper, 79-80.

[29] Tappert and Doberstein, Journals, 3:650.

[30] Quoted in Henry A. Hunsicker, “Sketches of Local History,” The Independent (18 October 1906). Reprinted in History Sketches of Trappe and Collegeville, 1812–1912, ed. William T. Parsons (Collegeville, Pa.: Chestnut Books, 1990), 70.

[31] Cited in Margaret C. S. Christman, The First Federal Congress, 1789–1791 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Portrait Gallery and the United States Congress, 1989), 219.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Frederick Muhlenberg
  • Coverage 1750-1801
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 18, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 12, 2021