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La Salle Local History: Belfield

Introduction

Historically speaking, the "Belfield estate" refers to the land and buildings once owned by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). According National Register of Historic Places documentation, that land was once 104.5 acres. The main house, which still stands today, was built sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century, and built upon by Peale when he purchased the farm land and its buildings in 1810. In 1826, William Logan Fisher purchased Peale's house and twelve acres of his property. Decendants of Fisher owned the house for five generations, and would come to build two other homes on the property. Portions of the estate were sold to La Salle University in the 1960s, and the remaining property in 1984. Today the "Belfield" house is often referred to as the "Charles Willson Peale House," or simply, "Peale House." The building is used as administrative space, housing the office of the President of the University, but much of it's historic character has been preserved. The "Belfield" property was registered as a historic landmark in 1965.  

For an excellent overview of the history of the Belfield property, read The Remarkable Wisters at Belfield, by Dr. James A. Butler, in La Salle's Digital Commons.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is home to the Belfield Papers, which comprises over 100 boxes of material ranging from 1697 to 1977. Some of this material is related to individuals who lived at the "Wakefield" property. 

La Salle's Connelly Library maintains three archival collections related to particular individuals that lived at Belfield estate properties:

The Ethel Langhorne Wister Chichester Papers, 1887-1955

The John Caspar Wister Papers, 1900-1982

The Starr Family Papers, 1889-1992

Additional material supporting research on the Belfield estate can be found in the Owen Wister and Family Collection.

Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), American painter best remembered for his portraits of the leading figures of the American Revolution and as the founder of the first major museum in the United States. “Charles Willson Peale retired to ‘Belfield,’ a farm in Germantown, Pennsylvania, leaving the museum under the management of his son Rubens. At his farm he experimented with agricultural techniques and machinery, but his major achievement at Belfield was his garden, which attracted visitors from far distances” (via American National Biography online.) 

Read essays about Peale’s garden at Belfield and Peale's correspondence with Thomas Jefferson in La Salle's Digital Commons.

Bibliography

“Utilizing the polygraph, a writing machine consisting of two pens that wrote simultaneously and that he helped to develop, Charles Willson Peale made copies of most of his correspondence. As a result, a large corpus of letterbooks, documents, and diaries and an autobiography survive. The major part of the collection is at the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, with a somewhat smaller portion at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Together with other miscellaneous collections, these have been reproduced in microfiche in Collected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, ed. Lillian B. Miller (1980); selections have been published in Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, ed. Miller et al. (7 vols., 1983-)” (via American National Biography online.)

Works in La Salle's Connelly Library

The Connelly Library's Department of Special Collections, and the La Salle University Art Museum house extensive reference material on Charles Willson Peale. Special Collections preserves a microfiche copy of the Collected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, which is available for research use. 

Find more resources via WorldCat

The Six Wister Brothers

Sarah Logan Fisher and William Wister had six sons who were raised at the Belfield estate: 

William Rotch Wister (1827-1911)

John Wister (1829-1900)

Langhorne Wister (1834-1891)

Jones Wister (1839-1917)

Francis Wister (1841-1905)

Rodman Wister (1844-1913)

The lives of the brothers is well documented in Jones Wister's Reminiscences, published Philadelphia in 1920.

Sarah Logan Fisher Wister

Sarah Logan Fisher Wister (1806-1891), daughter of William Logan Fisher of "Wakefield," received the Belfield property from her father upon her marriage to William Wister (1804-1881), of Vernon, in 1826. The family lived at Belfield during the Civil War, and although they were Quakers, all six of Sarah and William's sons served in the War. 

Discover more about the family in the Library's online exhibit, Philadelphia in the Civil War.

Read an essay on Sarah Logan Fisher Wister in La Salle University's Digital Commons. 

Sarah Logan Wister Starr

Sarah Logan Wister Starr (1873-1956) inherited the Belfield estate in 1922. Her father, John Wister (1829-1900), operated the Duncannon Iron Company, and maintained Vernon as a summer house. She married James Starr in 1901. The Starr Family Papers, in the Connelly Library, detail the operation of the Belfield property in the 1950s. Additional archival material related to the Starrs is held in the Belfield Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 

Works in La Salle's Connelly Library

Read an essay on Sarah Logan Wister Starr in La Salle's Digital Commons. 

Ethel Langhorne Wister Chichester

Ethel Langhorne Wister Chichester (1881-1977), daughter of Jones Wister (1839-1917) lived at the Belfield estate after the death of her mother, Caroline de Tousard Stocker. Her papers in the Connelly Library include a number of photographs from family trips, personal correspondence, and a variety of clippings related to the Wister family.