Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist
Chapter 1

Ancestry, Birth, and Boyhood of Robert Fulton

It is always interesting to try and trace the influence that heredity has
upon the development of the personality of an individual, and in Robert
Fulton's case this inquiry is singularly suggestive.
     To judge by the internal evidence afforded by the word itself, Fulton
is a place-name of Anglo-Saxon origin. To understand the use of place-names
as surnames, it should be remembered that when in the thirteenth century,
owing to the spread of population, it became necessary to distinguish
between persons of the same baptismal name, quite the commonest way was to
add with a prefix the name of the place where that person owned or held
land. As time went on the prefix was generally dropped. That the surname
Fulton is of such local origin is almost a certainty. The earliest instance
recorded is in 1272 when a certain Robert Fulton was charged with the duty
of holding an assize, and probably the Robert de Fultone, Co. Cambs., who is
mentioned in the Hundred Rolls 1273, was one and the same man. We are
inclined to look upon this county as the place of origin of the surname,
although the spot cannot now be identified, in spite of the contrary opinion
of a well-known authority who derives the Fulton family from some now
vanished Scottish border village. Very possibly he was led to this
conclusion by the existence of a ruined peel or stronghold situated in the
parish of Bedrule in Roxburghshire and known as Fulton Tower. Yet this
building is not considered to date back farther than the fourteenth century.
     Again we find a family of the name of Fulton holding lands at Muirkirk
in the parish of Beith, Co. Ayrshire, in the thirteenth century. "Aleyn fitz
Thomas de Fultone," " Nicol de Fultone," and " Henry de Foultone " " del
counte de Lanark," which then embraced Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, are
among the large number of vassals whose names appear on the Ragman Roll as
having, at a Parliament held at Berwick-on-Tweed, on August 28, 1296, done
homage to Edward I. when he invaded Scotland to substantiate his claim to
the overlordship thereof. Here again the township or estate of Fulton, if it
existed, cannot now be traced, so that it is an open question whether or not
these Fultons were any relations of the Cambridgeshire family.
     The surname has survived, and is fairly common at the present day,
especially in Ayrshire, but not to the same extent as it is in Philadelphia
and New York.
     At the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries,
the English Government inaugurated a new policy in dealing with subjugated
territories in Ireland and that was to displace the native population by the
introduction of English and Scots settlers, who were induced to immigrate by
grants of lands. Among these settlers we find several of the name of Fulton,
who joined in the plantation of Ulster. One family who trace their descent
from the Ayrshire Fultons settled between I61I and I6I4 at Lisburn, Co.
Down. Their issue are distinguishable there in the latter half of the
seventeenth century as landowners, Royalists, and Episcopalians. One member
of the family, William Fulton, migrated to Kilkenny, and died in 1638,
leaving issue apparently, as other Fultons are subsequently recorded there.
The main stem of the family settled at Braidujle, near Lisburn, which has
continued to the present day to be the family seat of the Irish Fultons. To
some incident in the career of one Richard Fulton of Braidujle, captain of
one of the companies of horse raised in support of William of Orange when,
in 1688, he was called to the throne of Great Britain, is ascribed the
family crest of a cubit arm grasping a broken javelin and the motto: "Vi et
Virtute." It may be interesting to note that the ancient armorial
achievement of the Fultons was: or, a lion rampant az., which appeared later
with a bend gobony ar. and gu. sometimes erm. and gu.l
     After a few generations Ulster, where the greatest number of these
settlers were to be found, became, owing to the industry of its people, the
most prosperous province of Ireland; while relying, of course, on
agriculture, they had gradually built up flourishing industries in flax and
wool. In 1699 however, the English Parliament, apprehensive lest Ireland
should take away the trade of England in these and other commodities, placed
heavy duties on imports from Ireland with the result that her industries
were nearly all ruined. Great distress prevailed, and numbers of the people
emigrated to the New England colonies to found new homes. Among these
emigrants was the ancestor of the subject of this biographical sketch. The
family tradition is that it was from County Kilkenny that he came, but
unfortunately there is no evidence to establish his relationship either with
the William Fulton of the city of Kilkenny, already mentioned, or in any
other way with the Lisburn family, and through them with the Ayrshire
Fultons. All that can be said is that it is a reasonable assumption.
     Robert Fulton, senior, is first heard of in 1735 in the town of
Lancaster, Pennsylvania; thenceforward records show that he occupied various
public offices and positions of trust in the town, such as Secretary of the
Union Fire Office of Lancaster. As presumptive evidence of his Scottish
origin, it may be noted that he was a rigid Presbyterian, and one of the
founders of the first church of that persuasion in Lancaster. In I759 he
married Mary Smith, daughter of Joseph Smith, also a family of Irish
extraction, of Oxford township, Penn., and brought his wife home to a
dwelling-house that he had purchased on August 23rd of that year in what is
now Penn Square, Lancaster. During their five and a half years' stay there,
three daughters Elizabeth, Isabella (Bell), and Mary (Polly) were born to
them. On February 8, 1765, Robert Fulton, senior, sold his house in Penn
Square, and the same day purchased for the sum of z965 a farm of 364 acres
on the Conowingo Creek in Little Britain township, whither in the spring of
the year he took his family. The farmhouse was built of stone, two storeys
in height, and at one end the roof sloped down to a low porch. Here it was
that on November 14, 1765, their eldest son Robert was born. The farmhouse
is still standing, although externally much altered in Igos by the present
owner, without, however, disturbing the old farm kitchen, parlour, and the
room above where the boy was born.
     In 1844, when the township of Little Britain was resurveyed, a section
containing this property was cut off and appropriately named, in honour of
this event, Fulton township.
     The vicissitudes of the Fulton family, which we have just traced, have
led quite naturally to the circulation of conflicting statements as to
Robert Fulton's birth and parentage. Henry Bell, in a letter written in
1824, said that Fulton's father came from Ayrshire. Again, in 1876, he was
claimed by a correspondent in the Glasgow Stews as a native-born Scot, his
birthplace being given as Mill of Beith in Ayrshire.l Closer examination
revealed the facts that a Robert Fulton was certainly born there on April 17
1764; that he emigrated to America; and further, that he died in Antigua in
the West Indies on November 19, 1819; it was admitted finally, however, that
he was not the Robert Fulton whose lifestory we are examining. There was
also a Rev. Robert Fulton of the Braidujle branch of the family, a navy
chaplain, who became vicar of St. John's and a landowner in Jamaica some
time in the eighteenth century. These coincidences of name and date are
sufficiently remarkable.
     Robert Fulton came upon the world's stage at a time when new ideas in
the political world were beginning to emerge, and when in the world of
industry quite a number of capital inventions were being perfected; e.g. in
1765, the very year of Fulton's birth, James Watt took out his patent for
the separate condenser which at one bound quadrupled the efficiency of the
steam-engine. The people of our North American colonies did not, however,
share in these advances; the manufactures which were struggling into being
there were harassed by legal enactments imposed by the home Government,
whose aim seems to have been to confine the colonists to agriculture and to
the production of such raw materials as would serve the needs of
manufacturers in England. Nor were these the only drawbacks, for the
colonies were the outposts of civilisation; farther west was Kentucky, then
the hunting ground of the red man, who was often roused by petty acts of
oppression on the part of the white people to make terrible retribution.
     Robert Fulton, senior, was not successful in farming, and on November
29, 1766, the year following his going to Little Britain, he and his wife
mortgaged the farm to Joseph Swift and two others, arranging for the
repayments to be spread over five years. He took his family back to the town
of Lancaster, where his second son, Abraham Smith, was born, and where the
boys passed their early years. The father was not long spared to direct the
education of his sons, for he died in 1768 when the elder was only three
years old, leaving his widow and five children scantily provided for, with
the result that she was unable to keep up the repayments. The mortgages were
foreclosed, and after one unsuccessful attempt on Feb. 5, 1772, the High
Sheriff of Lancaster sold the Fulton plantation to William West and Joseph
Swift for the sum of z805. This depreciation in value, together with the
arrears of interest, must have fallen very heavily on Mary Fulton, so that
it is not difficult to imagine the straitened circumstances of the family at
this period.
     Joseph Swift subsequently acquired William West's share in the
property, and it is an interesting fact that the house and the greater part
of the estate have remained in possession of five generations of owners of
the same name in unbroken succession till the present day.
     Mary Fulton appears to have been a woman of superior attainments, and
she taught the boy till he had attained his eighth year, when he went to the
school of one Caleb Johnson, a Quaker and a Tory, who had the somewhat
narrow-minded scholastic ideas and methods of those days. Fulton did not
distinguish himself at school he was a boy of an original turn of mind, and
such a one rarely fits in with a recognised curriculum. He displayed a taste
for painting, however, but its practice was not deemed by the severe code of
that period a serious occupation; indeed, the very materials for carrying on
the art were difficult to obtain, and Fulton was indebted to a schoolfellow
for the first which came into his possession. Possibly the example of
Benjamin West, who was born in the adjacent Chester county twenty-seven
years before Fulton, had actually lived in Lancaster for some time, and had
even now carved out a career for himself in England, was not without
     Many are the stories, mostly improbable and therefore not reproduced
here, of Fulton's experiments and attainments in various branches of
mechanics during his boyhood so greatly does subsequent success cast a
glamour over early recollections of schoolfellows and others who thus shine,
as it were, with a reflected glory.
     Fulton's boyhood coincided with stirring times in the world at large,
and particularly so in New England, where the colonists, whose discontent
had been fomented by the treatment meted out to them by a short-sighted
Government at home, at last broke out in 1775 into open rebellion, resulting
finally in the loss to Great Britain of these colonies. Lancaster was
geographically in the theatre of war, and was a place of manufacture and
depot for rifles, blankets, and clothing for the colonist troops. As many as
2000 British prisoners were under guard there at one time, among the
officers being the unfortunate Major John Andre. In 1777 Congress held
session in the Court House at Lancaster. Can it be wondered at that the boys
of the neighbourhood followed these events with the keenest interest? At
this period were sown in Fulton's mind the seeds of that strong leaning
towards the republican and dislike of the monarchical form of government
which distinguished him in after years.

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