A Diamond in the Rough

by James J. Reis

As a collector of Robert Morris documents, as they relate to the North American Land Company, I had the opportunity to purchase hundreds of old land documents hoping to get one that might relate to Morris and his holdings.  The boxes of old documents contained a number of gems but one stood out as a diamond.

While reviewing one of those documents over and over I noticed a land deed from 1804 for a property on Seventh Street at High Street in Philadelphia, I saw that one of the parties mentioned was Jacob Graff, Junior.  It turned out that the document was a conveyance of a ground rent for a building owned by a bricklayer named Jacob Graff.  I knew the name Graff sounded familiar and upon further research, realized I had the deed for the ground where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the property is now part of the National Park Service, located at 7th and Market Streets in Philadelphia.  The house was reconstructed in 1975 and may be considered hallowed ground by many history lovers.  The Declaration of Independence, which was to change the world, was drafted between June 10 and June 28, 1776.  Jefferson lived in the Graff house, as the aging Jefferson clarified when he lived at Monticello.  (At the time of writing that instrument I was lodged in the house of Mr. Graaf (Graff), a new brick house, three stories high of which I rented the second floor.  In that parlor I wrote habitually and in it this paper particularly.)

Apparently Abigail Physick conveyed the property to Graff in 1775 but retained the ground rent.  (In many older North Eastern cities the right to build was sold but the ground was considered valuable and was not sold but rented to the house builder through a ground rent and held in perpetuity.)  Graff paid Abigail Physick a yearly ground rent of 85 and 1/3 Spanish pieces of eight.

My deed represents the conveyance of the ground rent from the Physick’s to another member of the Physick family.  One of the Physick’s who signed this indenture was Philip Syng Physick, the founder of modern surgery.

Note:  In 1777 Jacob Graff, Junior, sold the house to Jacob Hiltzheimer and in 1801 Hiltzheimer died and his daughter Mary H. Rodgers inherited the building.  In December of 1801 Mary H. Rodgers and her husband sold the building to Simon and Hyman Gratz, who owned the property until 1826 when they went bankrupt.  They repurchased the building in 1835.  The Gratzs were well known Philadelphia merchants.