Portrait: Jacob Eichholtz, Lancaster County Historical Society
The son of Scottish immigrants William and Rachel Carr Steele, John Steele was born July 5, 1758 in Drumore Township, Lancaster County.[vi] John trained for the Presbyterian divinity under the Reverend Mr. James and Reverend Mr. Latta at Chestnut Level Select School; enlisted at 18 in the Continental Line;[vii] rose to Colonel on General Washington’s staff; and commander (at 19) of Martha Washington’s bodyguard at Morristown, New Jersey. Wounded in the arm at Brandywine, the severity of the injury cost Steele the use of the limb.[viii] The intrepid officer rejoined the general’s staff; accompanied Washington to Yorktown for the capture of Cornwallis;[ix] returned to Lancaster Co.; and married Abigail Bailey of Sadsbury Township.[x]
Steele refused to collect a pension after the war, noting the ill effect the practice might have on the young nation’s economy.[xi] The Senator became a moving force behind the organization of the Order of Cincinnati;[xii] pursued printing and publishing; produced the Dillsworth’s Spelling Book; was involved with the paper manufacturing business at Steelville (Octoraro Creek); and retired as a farmer to his Drumore Township Unicorn farm. He represented his district in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1801, and in the following year, state Senator, where he served as Speaker during the final days of the third year of his term. Consequences of defying McKean during the 1805 campaign and confronting a formidable presence of Constitutional Party members in the new Senate, Steele met defeat in a bid for re-election as Speaker.[xiii] Disappointed again in 1806, Steele lost a three-ballot bid for the U.S. Senate against Andrew Gregg.[xiv] He was appointed commissioner of the committee to assess damages in the Wyoming County-Indian conflict, and Jefferson’s Collector of the Port of Philadelphia in 1808.[xv] Senator Steele passed away in Philadelphia on February 22, 1827. In his honor, the Port of Philadelphia withdrew flags to half-staff. A Lancaster newspaper noted “In his death we are deprived a useful citizen, whose character for integrity and benevolence will be long and deservedly remembered.”[xvi]
[i] See Veto: SJ, March 26, 1805, 364-368. The comptroller general’s position was similar to today’s auditor general; the register general compiled the state budget and presented it to the General Assembly.
[ii] LJ, March 29, 1805, 392-393.
[iii] John Steele, “The Address of the Members of the General Assembly … to the democratic citizens of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania State Library, Closed Stacks, Shaw and Shoemaker, no. 9119, (April 3, 1805).
[v] “An Address from the Pennsylvania Correspondent,” Lancaster Journal, September 27, 1805.
[vi] Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Abstract of Wills, 1721-1820 (LCW) vol. II, “Will of William Steele” (Philadelphia: Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, 1896), 943; also: Alexander Harris, Biographical History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Inc., 1974), 563.
[vii] Susan C. Frazer, “General John Steele,” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society (JLCHS), vol. 25 (1953): 125-127.
[viii] Harris, 563-564.
[x] LCW, vol. I, “Will of Robert Bailey,”96.
[xi] Harris, 564.
[xiii] SJ, December 3, 1805, 4.
[xiv] Higginbotham, 131-132; also: Harris, 564.