Do you ever get stuck on a project and pick up a path heading in a different direction for little reason aside from some wild idea that you know makes little sense?
Ralph Forster was the name of a captain of a Ship HERO which brought a lot of Amish and Mennonites to America in October of 1764. He gets mentioned in many genealogies where authors or site writers describe their first ancestors to arrive in America. Almost always the words used are the same. Their “Jacob Whatsisname” arrived at Philadelphia in October of 1764 on the HERO with Ship Captain Ralph Forster out of Rotterdam via Cowes and was met at the docks by Thomas Willing.” Very little else is said about who these people were, and it was my thought that it might be fun to find out.
What a character Ralph turned out to be with a bit of googling and then digging into things that turned up. Raised in a landed family of northern England along the border of Scotland with plenty of implications for the culture that Ralph would carry, Forster was from an ancient family who had been castle keepers for the King of England for centuries. His brother, like so many ancestors, was a Sherrif of Northumberland, and the family stories about efforts to take the crown away from Protestants and return it to Bonnie Prince Charlie — a good Catholic boy, must have been legand.
There’s a lot that has been hard to determine about this character, partly because he never had any children to “carry the flame”, and when lines run out, memory is often lost. He lived at a time when few records were kept, though as a Sherrif himself, Ralph Forster got a lot of newspaper play. Toward the end of his life he “married well” into one of the most fascinating families in American history — though it’s reputation was mixed, and an amazingly little is on record about the family in the late 1700s. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Ralph made it to America well before he’d contracted to bring a boat load of Germans from Rotterdam via Cowes to Philadelphia. Born in 1734, he was probably well educated and had accomplished the apprenticeships required to be a member of the Berwick town corporation. He may have arrived as a soldier of Foot like his brother, who served England in Nova Scotia battles with the French before heading to the Caribbean to conquer Havana. In any case he was soon captain of a ship in New York harbor running newspaper ads seeking help to capture run-away ship apprentices — indentured servants who lived in slave-like bondage. Ralph was most likely involved in legal piracy in taking loot from French sloops along the coast, for his name appears on several vessels registered in the colonies or taken as prize with British authorities. One of his fateful acquisitions involved a partnership with two co-owners, a Robert Morris and Thomas Willing (familiar?) of Philadelphia. Willing was then the Mayor of Philadelphia. He and the young Robert Morris were to become the largest merchants and wealthiest men of America. Robert was known as the “Treasurer” of the American Revolution and had an incredible career, though he’s little known in American history — likely because toward the end of his life and following the Revolution he took some crazy business risks, wound up broke, and landed in debtor’s prison. This was a distressing outcome for his friend George Washington, who had lived during his presidency before Washington DC was built at a residence provided by Robert Morris.