Stories Behind the Portraits: A Descendant of David Rittenhouse

In the Mystery of A Descendant of David Rittenhouse, to discover the names of both the sitter and the artist who painted the portrait,Fine Art Investigations researched the David Rittenhouse family history. What a history it turned out to be. Family history led to identification of the artist. What a character he turned out to be.

A Descendant of David Rittenhouse, ca. 1845


David Rittenhouse

David Rittenhouse was born in Philadelphia in a neighborhood known as Rittenhousetown. His family was one of paper manufacturers that stretched back generations in the Netherlands. There, the name was spelled Rittinghuysen, which translates to Knights’ Houses.((William Barton, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse (Parker, 1813), 80-82; David Kolb Cassel, A Genea-biographical History of the Rittenhouse Family: And All Its Branches in America, with Sketches of Their Descendants, from the Earliest Available Records to the Present Time, Including the Birth of Wilhelm in 1644(Rittenhouse Memorial Association, 1893), 26))

The first of Rittenhouse’s ancestors to come to America was Willem Rittinghuysen (1644-1708) who immigrated to Pennsylvania by 1688. That year, in Germantown, outside Philadelphia, he founded the colonies’ first paper mill. He was Pennsylvania’s first Mennonite preacher, and in 1701, its first Mennonite bishop. He and his wife, Geertruid Kersten Pieters (1642-1708), had three children, Nicholas (1666-1734), Elizabeth (1670-1728), and Gerard (1674-1742).((Cassel, 137-138.))

Son Nicholas was also a Mennonite preacher. In 1689, he married Wilhemina Dewees (1673-1737). Ten of their children lived to maturity. One of their younger sons, Matthias (1702-1779), worked at the paper mills until shortly after his father’s death in 1794. When the mill passed into the hands of an older brother, Matthias and his Quaker wife, Elizabeth Williams (1702-1792), moved to Norriton in Montgomery County to farm. They, too, had ten children, including David Rittenhouse, born April 1, 1732. Matthias, a Rittenhouse biographer wrote, was:

a very respectable man; he possessed a good understanding, united to a most benevolent heart and great simplicity of manners….[he was] inclined to the religious principles of the Society called Friends, although he had been bred a Baptist (as the Mennonites were then sometimes called, and sometimes Anabaptists)…Yet, with truly estimable qualities, both of the head and heart, old Mr. Rittenhouse did not, probably, duly appreciate the early specimens of that talent which appeared so conspicuous in his son David. Hence he was for some time opposed to the young man’s earnest desire to renounce agricultural employments for the purpose of devoting himself altogether to philosophical pursuits, in connection with some mechanical profession as might best comport with useful objects of natural philosophy, and be most likely, at the same time, to afford him the means of a comfortable subsistence. At length, however, the father yielded his own inclinations in order to gratify what was manifestly the irresistible impulse of his son’s genius. He supplied him with money to purchase, in Philadelphia, such tools as were more immediately necessary for commencing the clock-making business.((Cassel, 94.))

Biographers of David Rittenhouse relate contradictory, sometimes hyperbolic, anecdotes about his precocious achievements. All agree that by his teenage years, he had mastered the mathematical theories in Isaac Newton’s Principia. Initially he earned his living as a clockmaker. He experimented with wood and metals to develop a more accurate pendulum. He built surveying instruments, barometers, chronometers, hygrometers and thermometers.((Cassel, 162.)) At times, he worked as a surveyor.

Throughout his career, he served on commissions engaged in boundary surveys. These included surveys of portions of the boundaries of Pennsylvania with Maryland, New York, and what became the Northwest Territory as well as portions of New York’s boundaries with New Jersey and Massachusetts. In 1784 he assisted in surveying a ninety-mile westward extension of the Mason-Dixon line, and in late 1772 or early 1773 he set the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, a point from which a line was run north in 1785 to establish the Pennsylvania-Virginia boundary. Experienced in common or terrestrial surveying, he also undertook topographical surveys of canals and rivers.((Martin Ritt, “David Rittenhouse, American National Biography On-Line,

But, Rittenhouse’s passion was astronomy. He built the first astronomical telescope in America. He discovered the gas clouds surrounding the planet Venus.((Charlie Samuels, Inventors and Inventions in Colonial America, (The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002), 13)) In 1769, from the observatory Rittenhouse built on his front lawn in Norriton, he, Benjamin Franklin and a crowd from Philadelphia, observed the transit of Venus. Rittenhouse meticulously recorded other planetary transits, comets, meteors, solar and lunar eclipses, Jupiter’s satellites.

Thomas Jefferson’s favorite invention by Rittenhouse was the orrery, a scale model of the solar system. Rittenhouse’s uncle, the Reverend Thomas Barton (1728-1780), an Anglican minister, paid his expenses for the first of two. Barton had married Matthias Rittenhouse’s sister Esther (1731-1774). The University of Pennsylvania remembers Barton’s gift as the state’s first research grant.((M.J. Babb, “The Relation of David Rittenhouse and His Orrery to the University, Penn History, University of Pennsylvania Library, One orrery is owned by the University of Pennsylvania; the other, by Princeton University.

Rittenhouse Orrery, University of Pennsylvania

During the Revolutionary War, Rittenhouse turned his genius to weaponry. He selected sites for weapons manufacture and supervised production. In Philadelphia, he arranged for the lead weights in clocks to be replaced with iron so the lead could be used for bullets. He was a member of the state constitutional convention.

The British occupied Philadelphia from September 1777 until June 1778. In a letter to Rittenhouse, Thomas Jefferson expressed concern for the Orrery. Had it been damaged? Its room at the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) had been locked. Only the provost had the key. No one entered without his permission or without his presence. The Orrery survived the war intact.((Barton, 274))

In 1779, Rittenhouse was appointed state treasurer, a position he held until 1787. In April 1792, when President George Washington selected him to be the first director of the United States Mint, Rittenhouse tried to decline the post. Alexander Hamilton and his friend Jefferson prevailed upon him to accept. He finally took the oath of office in July and served until 1795.((Barton, 385))

David Rittenhouse married twice. His first wife was Eleanor Coulston (1735-1771), whom he married in 1766. They had two daughters: Elizabeth (1767 – 1799) and Esther (1769 –1799). Eleanor gave birth to her husband’s namesake in February 1771, but mother and son died shortly after. He remarried in December 1772. Hannah Jacobs (1739-1799) became stepmother to the two girls. When David Rittenhouse died on June 26, 1796, his only descendants were Elizabeth and Esther.

Esther Rittenhouse

Esther Rittenhouse married Dr. Nicholas Baker Waters, (1764 – 1794) in 1790. Waters was “a physician of respectable talents and amiable disposition.” He lived only four years, dying of pulmonary disease in August, 1794. Esther was left a 25-year-old widow with a 3-year-old son, David Rittenhouse Waters (1791 – 1813). Esther lived five more years. Her son became an attorney, but David R. Waters died unmarried in 1813 at the age of 22.((Ibid, 450. David Rittenhouse Waters was remembered: “Although he had just entered on the threshold of the world, this excellent young man exhibited many proofs of extraordinary attainments in literature and science, as well as of a superior genius. He appeared to have inherited from his maternal grandfather, congenial talents. In his life, his amiable disposition endeared him to all who had an opportunity of knowing his virtues; in his death, not only have his relatives and friends experienced an afflicting bereavement, but his country has sustained the loss of a citizen of great promise.” (258-259)))

Since Esther Rittenhouse Water’s genealogical line ended with the death of her son, any descendants of David Rittenhouse would be children of her sister Elizabeth, and her husband, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant. (1746-1793).

Elizabeth Rittenhouse
Charles Willson Peale, Elizabeth Rittenhouse (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, 1789
Private Collection

Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant (1746- 1793) was the son of Jonathan Sergeant (1709-1777), treasurer of Princeton (1750-1777), and Abigail Dickinson (1711-1799). Abigail was a daughter of Jonathan Dickinson (1688-1747), the first president of Princeton University. Sergeant was an American patriot who actively fought the Stamp Act. He helped draft the New Jersey constitution and was a member of the Continental Congress. When the British raided New Jersey, they burned his home. Sergeant moved to Pennsylvania where he became the state’s Attorney-General from 1777-1780. When he married Elizabeth Rittenhouse on December 20, 1788, he was a widower with eight children and 21 years older than she. Elizabeth gave him three more children before he died five years later in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Elizabeth lived only six years more. She died at 32. Their three children, and the only second generation descendants of David Rittenhouse, were:

  1. Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant (1789 – 1870)
  2. David Rittenhouse Sergeant (1791 – 1872)
  3. Frances Rittenhouse Sergeant (1793 – 1847)

David Sergeant never married. Frances married attorney John Cole Lowber (1789 – 1834). Of their four children, one daughter died in infancy, another died at 14. Two sons lived to adulthood. William (1824-1888), became a Navy surgeon. He married but had no surviving children. His brother, Henry (1827-1899), never married. The Rittenhouse genealogical line depended on one person: Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant.

Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant

Esther Sergeant, or Hetty as she was known, married William Paul Crillon Barton, MD (1786-1856) on July 14, 1814. His grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Barton (1728-1780), was the same man who funded David Rittenhouse’s first two orrerys. Barton had married her great-great-aunt, Esther Rittenhouse (1731-1774). Unlike his patriotic nephew, David Rittenhouse, Thomas Barton was a Loyalist. The Barton family spent the Revolutionary War in England. One son, Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), attended medical school there. Their youngest son, William (1754-1817), studied heraldry.


William Barton

When William returned to America in 1779, he became an attorney in Philadelphia. In 1781, he published Observations on the Nature and Use of Paper Credit, followed in 1786 by The True Interests of the United States and particularly of Pennsylvania considered with Respect to the Advantages Resulting from a State Paper Money. Both the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) awarded him honorary master’s degrees. In 1813, William Barton wrote his cousin’s biography, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse. But, the accomplishment for which he is most remembered is designing the Great Seal of the Republic.

In 1814, Barton published A Treatise Concerning a Plan for the Internal Organization and Government of Marine Hospitals in the United States: Together with a Scheme for Amending and Systematizing the Medical Department of the Navy. Within its 242 pages, he detailed a plan for navy hospitals at every major port from architectural design, furnishings, heating and ventilation, to staff positions, descriptions and salaries. Frustrated with the meagerness of his own salary, he joined with other United States Navy physicians to request officially that their pay be at least commensurate with US Army physicians, and preferably with doctors in the British Navy.((Ibid, 13))

William Paul Crillon Barton

William Barton married Elizabeth Rhea. Their son William Paul Crillon Barton (1786-1856) was influenced by his uncle Benjamin, a physician and botanist who advised the Lewis and Clark Expedition.((“Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815),” Penn Biographies, Penn University Archives and Records Center, The younger man studied medicine and botany. In 1809, he entered U.S. Navy service as surgeon aboard the new nation’s first warship, the frigate USS United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur. As the ship sailed the waters of the Caribbean searching for privateers, Barton studied the tropical diseases that afflicted the sailors. His experiments with lime juice and lemonade convinced him that, like the British, the American Navy needed to include citrus in their provisions. The Navy formally accepted his recommendation in 1812.((John T. Greenwood, F. Clifton Berry, Medics at War: Military Medicine from Colonial Times to the 21st Century (Naval Institute Press, 2005), 11-14))

In 1830, he published Hints for Medical Officers Cruising in the West Indies. As well as refining medical advice for the climate, he emphasized the importance of morale on health. He encouraged music aboard ship and moderate use of tobacco and spirits.

Not long after the book appeared, artist William James Hubard (1807-1862) painted Barton’s portrait. About the painting, the Philadelphia Museum of Art wrote:

Barton is shown here on one of his rambles through the outskirts of Philadelphia in search of new botanical specimens. Samuel Gross, his student at Jefferson Medical College and later the subject of Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece The Gross Clinic, fondly remembered these excursions. Gross reminisced that Barton “experienced as great delight in the discovery of a new plant as Audubon did at the sight of an undescribed bird.((“Portrait of Mr. William P. C. Barton, Professor of Botany, Physician, and Botanist, William James Hubard, American (born England), 1807 – 1862,” Philadelphia Museum of Art,|1))

On August 31, 1842, Congress passed a Navy appropriations bill that incorporated efficiency plans proposed by Dr. William P. C. Barton in his 1814 book. President John Tyler appointed him the first chief of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.((US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, “The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED)—A Brief History,“ Navy Medicine,

William and Hetty Sergeant Barton had 14 children. Seven daughters lived to adulthood.

  1. Elizabeth (1815-1895) (Mrs. Samuel Abbott)
  2. Julia (1817-1884) (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Miller)
  3. Adeline (1818-1876) (Mrs. Thomas Howard Paschl)
  4. Emma (1822-1882) (Mrs. Frederick Carroll Brewster)
  5. Mary (1823-1856) (unmarried)
  6. Lavinia (1827-1895) (unmarried)
  7. Selina (1830-after 1871) (unmarried)

One of those daughters must be the subject of the portrait. Since the sitter did not wear a wedding ring when she posed for the painting in the mid-1840s, she was single. The two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Julia, both married in 1840. Neither is the likely subject of Portrait of a Young Lady. Adeline married in 1858, but was 27 in 1845 and probably was too old to be the subject. Emma was 23; Mary, 22; Lavinia, 18; and Selina, 15. None of the historical societies or archives in the Philadelphia area hold any files or images on any of the women.((Historical Society of Philadelphia, Library Company of Philadelphia, Germantown Historical Society)) Evidence below suggests the sitter was Emma Barton, but there is no documentation. For now, the identity of the subject is Miss Barton. 

To learn the name of the artist, return to Mystery of the David Rittenhouse Descendant.