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North Carolina, Salisbury, John Steele House
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Image by hdes.copeland
Martin, age 10, and Mary at the John Steele house, c.1799, in Salisbury, NC. Photo taken October, 1988.

John Steele was a US Congressman representing North Carolina in the First US Congress convened after ratification of the new constitution…the same one we have now. John Steele was the son of Elizabeth Maxwell Gillespie Steele whose contributions to General Greene prior to the fateful Battle of Guilford Courthouse are still celebrated. His father, William, was a Quaker whose family had immigrated to North Carolina from Pennsylvania in the early 1700′s. They very likely immigrated to Pennsylvania from Ireland in the late 1600′s or very early 1700′s.

After serving in Congress, John Steele was later appointed to the position of Comptroller of the US Mint under the administrations of Presidents Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Incidentally, during his tenure as Comptroller, the third Director of the US Mint under Washington was Henry William de Saussure of South Carolina. Direct descendants of both men would later marry.

John Steele’s wife, Polly, managed the family plantations from this house in Salisbury while John lived in the nation’s capital, first at Philadelphia and later in the District of Columbia which only later came to be known as the city of Washington. John Steele’s days were interesting and filled with opportunities to observe the leaders of the new nation. His letters to his wife are filled with his accounts and experiences while living in the capital and working among the leaders of every state represented in the new union.

His letters also contain detailed instructions on how his wife, Polly, still living in Salisbury, should oversee the family estate, the construction and later renovations of this house, the introduction of new crops such as upland cotton and the education of their three daughters. Of course, she had no time to respond, in spite of his pleas that she communicate with him. Hell, she had no time left to write anything that wasn’t directly related to keeping the place in Salisbury going!

Mary Nesfield Steele, Polly as she was known, was well educated and could keep track of journals, account ledgers, temporary laborers, slaves and commodity brokers. Polly managed to successfully run the family holdings while John continued to serve in the national government. She later sent their daughters to him so they could complete their formal education in the finishing schools of Philadelphia and, later, Washington.

Though John Steele died in 1815, Polly lived for many years as a widow who was quite able to manage her own affairs. She had a lot of practice. Polly, the widow, oversaw the marriage of her three daughters and then assisted in the raising and later marriages of her many grandchildren.

Though she was a child at the time of the American revolution growing up on her father’s plantations near Wilmington, she would live long enough to read the excited letters of her grandchildren describing the arrival of the first train at the city of Columbia in the late 1830′s. That train had departed only hours earlier from Charleston to initiate regular passenger service between the two cities…it was then the longest railroad line in the world.

As seen from the exterior, this is a modest house typical of the inland communities of North Carolina during the last quarter of the 18th century. Elegant, though simple, architectural details are found on the interior which reflect the builder’s attempt to replicate the latest European styles and tastes readily found in the larger American cities on the coast.

The land holdings surrounding this home, originally on the outskirts of Salisbury, comfortably sustained a family involved in public service, but the income it produced would not make anyone overly wealthy. In spite of the almost frontier agrarian character of North Carolina’s upcountry, it was still a place that was aware of and had a taste for specific styles coming out of Europe and appearing in the American coastal trading centers. It just took a little longer for these to get into the American interior. Once the new fashions arrived, the scale was modified to match their life style. As a result, the small size and simplicity of this house is functional for the location, but it would hardly be considered a masterpiece of Robert Adam or his contemporaries. Instead it’s just a North Carolina takeoff of Robert Adam’s influences on the Federal style then found in cities like Wilmington, Charleston and Philadelphia. Just as the United States was reinventing itself as a new classical republic, Robert Adam was reinventing the architectural designs of republican Greece and Rome. For the new American republic it was a convenient marriage of style and politics.

Like their counterparts in the British Isles who traveled to Dublin, Edinburgh and London for business and politics, the tastes of the new American gentry were shaped by what they saw in Philadelphia, by what their children learned from a formal education received in the capital of the new nation and by what they learned or observed from the well educated and well traveled people they met in Philadelphia, as well as Wilmington and Charleston. Even Salisbury would become a distribution point for the styles of the day, being a major inland port and market center located at the highest navigable point, or fall line, of the rivers of the vast coastal plains. From Salisbury commodities were sent overland to what was still the American frontier. Salisbury remained important until Charlotte replaced it as a major trading, distribution and banking center for the entire region soon after the American civil war ended in 1865.

The Steele family descendents include the Henderson family of North Carolina and the Lynch family of South Carolina, among others. This house was where Polly lived until she died. In this house her second daughter, Elizabeth Steele, married Robert Macnamara, a Catholic. Their daughter, Polly’s grand daughter, Elizabeth Steele Macnamara, married Dr. John Lynch of Cheraw, also a Catholic. A proud Presbyterian, Polly reportedly refused to attend the marriage of her daughter, but it is believed she did attend the latter one. Ironically, Robert Macnamara proved to be a loyal and attentive son-in-law in spite of Polly’s anti-popish sentiments. Sometime after Polly Steele’s death, her heirs sold the property as all of her grandchildren had become established in other cities.

The Steele family plantation lands located in and around Salisbury were subdivided as the 18th and 19th century town expanded to include 20th century suburbs. Residential subdivisions were laid out in tracts that were once experimental fields where Polly tested some of North Carolina’s first successful plantings of upland cotton. By the time of the Great Depression, after 1930, and after much of the local employment was found in the textile mills and the furniture factories of the region, this and other surviving 18th century buildings in Salisbury had been converted to apartments.

By the 1960′s and 1970′s, the old house was in danger of being demolished, burned or lost to the elements. The state of North Carolina also began about the same time to identify its threatened historic and cultural assets. The state also made an effort to find potential buyers and match appropriate properties with those best in a position to save these endangered landmarks.

In the 1980′s a private individual purchased and restored this house for what it was originally intended…a private residence. It has an added purpose of serving as an historic landmark for the community reflecting Salisbury’s direct ties to those who founded the country and shaped its social and economic future.

John Steele’s house is still a home. It also survives as a reminder of the political influence and importance that so many vibrant communities in the backcountry held as the American people were stitching themselves and thirteen former colonial provinces into a single nation more than 200 years ago. The distribution of commodities on a vast scale in Salisbury isn’t just ancient history. The international grocery chain, Food Lion, began there more than 50 years ago. Eventually becoming part of a multi-national corporation based in Europe, Food Lion still maintains its North American headquarters in Salisbury.

About the two people in the photo: Martin is Mary’s grandson. Mary is the great granddaughter of Elizabeth Steele Macnamara and Dr. John Lynch.

Photo and text posted: 9 June 2008.
Revised: 2 February 2011.
Copyrights reserved: hdescopeland.

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