There are many aspects to a surveying career. A healthy interest in history may not be a prerequisite, but for those who do have a strong interest in history, the profession offers many rewards. If you are a collector, the intersection of history and collecting can take you down many exciting new roads.

John Failla, PLS, recently contacted POB with a story that combines these two elements. About 20 years ago, he purchased an “indenture” document written on a sheepskin. He noticed some notable names and decided to do some digging. What follows is the account of his “journey.” – Editor


Next month, the United States celebrates its 243rd “birthday.” But, 94 years before the birth of the nation, another notable birth took place, one that is immortalized in the property records of Philadelphia, Pa.

John Key (1682-1767) holds the distinction of being Philadelphia’s first-born son, though he wouldn’t live to see the role his city would play in the formation of a new nation.

John Key was born in December 1682 and was the first-born Philadelphian of English parentage. He was the son of Robert Key (wife’s name unknown) who immigrated to America and settled on the banks of the Delaware River in a cave near the northwest corner of Vine and Water Streets. The area of their cave was known as “Penny-Pot Landing.” The name Penny-Pot was derived from what the local tavern, near the cave, charged for a quart of beer, or a penny a pot.

These were humble beginnings indeed, but William Penn ceremoniously granted Philadelphia’s first-born son a lot in the newly laid-out town of Philadelphia.”

The town was originally laid out by William Penn’s appointed Surveyor General, Thomas Holme, who was, like Penn himself, a Quaker. Holme’s original layout for the town was entitled: A Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pensilvania in America, Divided Into Countyes, Townships and Lotts. It was to contain about 12,000 acres, running two miles east to west and between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.

The first-born’s grant was described and written as:

“William Penn, Proprietary and Chief of Pennsylvania, sends greetings, &c that a certain lot of ground between Fourth street and Fifth street, bounded on the north by Sassafras street, &c- in breadth 49 ½ feet and in length 306 feet; first granted by warrant from myself bearing the date the 26th day of mo. 3 1683 unto John Key, then an infant, being the first born in the said city of Philadelphia.”

The actual sheepskin deed is described as having a flat four-inch circular, wide seal of brown wax appended by a green ribbon.

On May 24, 1715, at the age of 32, Key sold the lot to Clement Plumstead.

This lot has had much notoriety from that early year of 1683 up until today. The lot is currently part of the grounds that make up the United States Mint. The Mint is situated between Fourth and Fifth Streets on Race Street, which was originally named Sasafras Street.

Many early Philadelphians who owned this lot are mentioned within a 1750 sheepskin Indenture I acquired about 20 years ago, and most were quite prominent at the time, or at least interesting. Mentioning just a few:

  • John and Alice Guest: In 1684 William Penn authorized the establishment of seven ordinaries (taverns). One such tavern was Alice Guest’s “Crooked Billet Tavern” on Front Street just South of Chestnut Street. It is written that Ben Franklin visited there often and normally had his first hot meal of the day at the Guest’s tavern.
  • Samuel Preston Moore: Early Philadelphia physician.
  • Richard Hill: Four-term Philadelphia Mayor (1709-17) along with being a Justice on the Supreme Court (he was also a Quaker).
  • James Logan: Philadelphia Mayor (1722-23).
  • Clement Plumstead: Who served four non-consecutive terms as Philadelphia Mayor (1723-24, 1736-37, 1741-42, and 1750-51).
  • George Heap: Probably just as important as anyone on this Indenture, especially for surveyors. Heap was a surveyor as well as the Philadelphia coroner who teamed up with Nicholas Scull (Pennsylvania Surveyor General) and were commissioned by Thomas Penn to draw a perspective rendering (from the east) showing the Philadelphia harbor or waterfront. This map is still known as The Scull & Heap Harbor Scene. Heap was also Pennsylvania’s assistant Surveyor General. George Heap’s calligraphy was second to none. Many of the sheepskin documents he penned are simply a masterpiece of fine art.

Heap completed his commissioned rendering of the Philadelphia Harbor in September 1752 and set out for England to have it engraved. While en route, during the first few days of his voyage, on about December 1, 1752, Heap died on Reedy Island, an island about five miles southwest from Salem, New Jersey on the Delaware River. His Harbor scene rendering today remains one of Pennsylvania’s treasures. It appears the dates of his harbor scene assignment and setting his hand to my sheepskin have George Heap working on both at about the same time. What luck!

I want to take a moment and extend my thanks to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and especially their Chief Operating Officer, Lee Arnold. The Society and Lee Arnold have been an invaluable tool for many of my research projects within the State of Pennsylvania and sometimes outside that jurisdiction. I thank them for their help and their patience.