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Finding Elizabeth's Husband: A Cross-Atlantic Tale

By Wendy Stanley
May 28, 2020

A month ago, a researcher in Scotland wrote to Graeme Park. Elizabeth’s husband, Henry Hugh Fergusson, had been FOUND! This was fascinating for those of us who have wondered what happened to Elizabeth’s husband 241 years after he left Elizabeth to languish at Graeme Park in the middle of the American Revolution. Graeme Park shared the exciting news on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GraemeParkHorsham

Finds like this are the stuff of history nerds’ dreams!

After all, an academic historian, Anne M. Ousterhout, had spent years writing a serious biography of Elizabeth Graeme and couldn’t find any mention of the rest of Henry Fergusson’s life, or his remains, anywhere. Her 1997 book, The Most Learned Woman in America: A Life of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson said that all trace of Fergusson ended after 1801. The paper trail went cold on the historians looking for him. 

Until now. So where was he? [Story continues by clicking Read More after the image below.]

Henry Fergusson's gravestone, circa 1997. Archival photo provided courtesy of Ken Nairns.
The Auld Kirk of Ayr, Scotland

 

He was in Scotland.

Scottish researcher Ken Nairns is a history enthusiast who also leads historical walking tours of his town of Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. Ken is also very interested in America’s founding fathers. He knew of course that Philadelphia had been the seat of the new American government. The two Continental Congresses questioning British rule took place in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. In the 18th century Philadelphia was a writhing seat of rebellion and patriotism, bringing many of the founding fathers to town to fight the Crown.  

When Ken saw that Fergusson’s gravestone read, “Here is interred Hugh Fergusson Esq. Formerly of Graeme Park in Philadelphia and a Justice of the Peace for that County” Ken’s spidey sense was tweaked. He felt compelled to email Graeme Park and share the discovery of Henry’s grave. What a find for us here in Pennsylvania! Thanks, Ken!

It turns out that Henry died on November 20, 1819, some eighteen years after Elizabeth. He had a military career in the UK for many years, including as barracks master in Ayr. His father was Reverend Robert Fergusson of Castlehill, Scotland. The Fergussons were a family of status in and around Ayr, and Fergusson was buried in a prominent spot in the graveyard of the Auld Kirk of Ayr, a church that dates from the time of Oliver Cromwell. It was built between 1654 and 1656 and can seat 900 people. Prior to Cromwell, there was a medieval church on the site.

Interior of The Auld Kirk of Ayr; Photo Credit: https://www.auldkirk.org
Henry was buried in the churchyard outside. 

Turns out Henry had a brother and four sisters (Janet, Elizabeth, Mary and Henrietta - I only knew about his brother), which was interesting to me, but not as mind blowing as the news that Henry had SONS. I can't help but pause here. Poor Elizabeth. She went to her grave still loving him, and hoped they would be reunited in the afterlife. I don’t think she realized how crowded it would be. It also appears to confirm that Elizabeth could not herself have children, just like her sister Ann, who died childless after eighteen years of marriage. Henry and Elizabeth had lived at Graeme Park as man and wife for about two and half years from 1773-1775.

All those years at the end of her life (almost twenty of them) that Betsy was in Pennsylvania worrying about her husband and asking people of his whereabouts, Henry was in Scotland fathering two boys. It appears that there is no mention of Fergusson’s illegitimate daughter that he fathered in Philadelphia with the maid of the Stedman family. Ousterhout identified in her scholarship that there was strong evidence that the child had existed. Margaret Abercrombie Stedman's adult son (a reverend) swore he heard Fergusson imploring the servant outside her chamber door to let him in. 

Henry's sandstone gravestone has eroded significantly over time. Some of the words cannot be read. My understanding is that the picture Ken Nairns sent Graeme Park dates from 1997 when the text was more clear. We cannot see (today) a mention of a wife. Did Henry remarry without releasing himself legally from Elizabeth Graeme? It’s unclear. He may not have remarried. Or his sons may have had different mothers. More research needs to be done on this.

One thing puzzles me. In my research Fergusson was repeatedly called Henry Hugh Fergusson (by the Hatborough Library when he was a member, by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, on www.founders.gov, and in the Encyclopedia Britannica, etc.) and yet in Scotland he appears to be Captain Hugh Fergusson. I hope to see his baptismal record.

I had the pleasure of having a video chat with Ken this past weekend. We had a great time talking for two hours. Here's a snap of us gabbing while 3,280 miles apart (yay for modern technology).

Video chat with Ken Nairns May 23, 2020

Ken kindly sent me these photos of Henry's (he'll always be Henry to me) grave: 

Plum spot in the church graveyard on the wall

Aerial shot, Ayr, Scotland 

 

After our conversation, I went looking for more information on Henry. He's well buried in time, that's for sure. But I did find two items. 

Here's the first: 

This listing came from an obscure 1830 book entitled Brief Historical Reminiscences and Directory for Ayr, Newton, Wallacetown etc. by A. Burgess, Guild Brother of the Town. The entry confirms that Fergusson went to Pennsylvania and that "his estates were confiscated" (Graeme Park) and that he returned to Scotland and died there. There is no mention of Elizabeth Graeme, his wife, or that Henry's estates were actually only his through a two year stint at Graeme Park with Elizabeth (who really owned the land and her family's mansion house) before he disappeared into the American Revolution with the British army. Captain Hugh appears to be well liked and well known in Scotland. 

The other notation I found was an entry in a book in the National Library of Scotland that lists him as a Captain. 

I'm so glad we now know what happened to Henry and look forward to learning more. But I'll always be sad for my girl, who experienced such sadness. When Henry left Long Island with his unit to return to Britain, the outcome of the Revolution had not yet been decided. The day he sailed in 1779, Graeme Park was on the list of confiscated estates of traitors and Elizabeth was scrambling to survive. He left his wife alone in the middle of a bloody war without financial resources or physical security. (In his defense, she could have gone with him, at least later. But he had given her no reason to trust - or respect? - him.)

If Britain had won the Revolution, would Henry have come back? Would he have returned to Graeme Park, to Elizabeth? 

We'll never know.