Pierre-Etienne Du Ponceau (1760-1844)

Relationship to the Speculation Lands: 
Pierre-Etienne Du Ponceau (also known as Peter Stephen Duponceau), a friend of the Coxe family and of William Tilghman, served as one of several trustees for Tench Coxe during the turbulent financial years of Coxe's land speculation. Jacob E. Cooke in Tench Coxe and the Early Republic describes Du Ponceau as one of Coxe's "closest associates, his legal adviser, one of the assignees to whom he handed over management of his property, and a constant companion," over a period of three decades. [ Cooke, p.237]

Born in France on June 3, 1760, Pierre-Etienne Du Ponceau came to America in 1777 as secretary and an aide-de-camp to Baron von Steuben. In 1778 he was made captain in the Continental Army and fought alongside von Stuben and Washington at Valley Forge. In the spring of 1778 he gave his signature to the Oaths of Allegiance taken at Valley Forge under the command of George Washington. As secretary to von Steuben he assisted in the 1779 publication in Philadelphia of Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. Following his service in the Continental Army Du Ponceau became secretary to Robert Livingston, the U.S. Secretary for Foreign Affairs where he specialized in international law and trade. He was also a philologist and spoke multiple languages. His comprehensive study of Indian languages was a foundational work in the field of Native American linguistics.*  He took up residence in Virginia and later in Philadelphia.  In 1827 he was elected President of the American Philosophical Society and served in that capacity from 1828 until he died on April 1, 1844. 

The Historical Society of Delaware, Wilmington holds the manuscript of a diary  Du Ponceau maintained in the first months after coming to America. He also published English Phonology in 1817 and Languages of the Indian Nations of North America in 1838 and Making Our National Literature Independent in 1834. Late in life he completed his autobiography in a series of letters to his family. The letters have been compiled in "The Autobiography of Peter Stephen DuPonceau," edited by James J. Whitehead, and are found in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, April, July, October, 1939; and January, April, 1940. Most of his papers and correspondence is held by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

In his "A Brief View of the Constitution of the United States", addressed to the Law Academy of Philadelphia in 1831, Du Ponceau says in his concluding remarks:

THUS we have presented to our readers a brief view of the constitution of the United States, which, on cool and mature reflection, we cannot help considering as the most perfect system of government that has ever existed among mankind. It has, as far as it has gone, solved the problem of the possibility of the existence of a republic in a widely extended country, and the means, never thought of before, has been found to effect that which was considered as next to impossible, the combination of the federal and national systems of government, so nicely and so skillfully balanced, that one does not seem to preponderate over the other. It was a bold thought of the framers of this instrument to vest the dreaded powers of the purse and the sword in the hands of the national congress, which far from producing the mischiefs that were anticipated by some, has given strength and power to the United States, and left the states of which the Union is composed, possessed of as much freedom, sovereignty and independence as is necessary for their happiness and welfare, and the preservation of their liberties.

If we consider the constitution in respect to its organization, we shall find the most perfect balance between the two apparently opposite principles of national and state sovereignty. The senate, from its equality of votes and the mode of election of its members, is the natural guardian of the sovereignty of the states, while the popular branch of the national legislature, naturally hostile to the encroachments of power, will watch over the rights and liberties of the people. Both are the offspring of the states, to which at short intervals they must return.

Nor is the distribution of powers between the federal and the state governments less worthy of admiration. At first view, it might appear, as if these powers were most unequally distributed. The supreme rights of empire, jura summi imperii, as they are called, with the purse and the sword, as the means for carrying them into execution, have a formidable aspect; and it would seem as if the national government could easily swallow up the sovereignty of the states. But the danger, if any there be, seems rather to be on the other side. The independent organization of the state governments with their legislatures, governors, militia, judiciary and ministerial officers, with uncontrolled jurisdiction within their constitutional limits; the very name of that sovereignty and independence, which they possess in a great degree, and of which they are excessively jealous; the means they have in their power of collecting and combining their force without the appearance of illegality; all these things form a strong counterpoise to the authority of the general government, which with all its ample powers, operates but little on the individual citizens, whereas the state officers are constantly in contact with them, and have greater means of securing their attachment. The national government, as we have before observed, is frequently obliged to require the aid of the state authorities to carry its laws into effect; and on the continuance of this auxiliary system, as we have already observed, depends in a great measure the preservation of the Union, as it now exists.

This Union has already experienced severe trials, but has come off victorious from them all. Nor is there any real danger to be apprehended, while the people remain virtuous, and true to themselves. What ambition and luxury and the increasing spirit of party may produce in a series of years, it is impossible to foretell. All that the patriot can do, is to wish that the period of the dissolution of this happy Union may be protracted to the end of time. 

On-Site Links:

0135 - Deed of Release for land in Patent 1023 on the Main Broad River, granted by the State of North Carolina to Tench Coxe as the assignee of Beard et al, November 2, 1796. The document is referenced as an "Abstract of a Deed," delivered May 15, 1828. 

0192 - True and Perfect Copy of the Proceedings of the Superior Courts in Rutherford and Lincoln Counties, signed by John Michael, Clerk of the Court, dated April 12, 1841. The case began in April 1828 in Rutherford County and was transferred to Lincoln County in 1832 as in the judge's opinion a fair and impartial trial could not be held in Rutherford County due to the number of interested parties. The case was not concluded until 1835, in part due to the number of continuances. The case began as a Breach of Contract against Richard Roe brought by John Doe over use of land for a contract period of ten years, beginning January 1, 1828. The land in question was located on the waters of the Broad River and Buffalo Creek, 1. John Doe was physically removed from his farm and the land and sued for $1,200 for "mental anguish". 2. It evolved into a case of who actually owned the land - Richard Roe or Bronson et al. 3. Affidavits filed by Arthur Bronson, Joshua Forman, Agent, and Samuel L. Gidney stated that Bronson, Hoyt, et al owned the land. 4. Two surveys of the land are included in the Court records. 5. A jury trial was held with twelve jurors seated. 6. The jury awarded $6.00 to the defendant and ordered Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (One of two trustees of Tench Coxe's land holdings) to pay court costs of $83.50. (It is unclear if Du Ponceau or his agent was in fact Richard Roe.) Also see Item 77/294 in this Section. 

0776 - Chronology of events of Patents 1050 and 1045: 1. August 12, 1819, Augustus Sacket conveyed a Deed of Mortgage to the Trustees of Tench Coxe. 2. August 17, 1819, the Trustees conveyed lands to Augustus Sacket. 3. March 15, 1822, Abraham Kintzing released his Trusteeship to Peter S. Du Ponceau. 4. February 12, 1825, Peter S. Du Ponceau assigned the Mortgage of Augustus Sacket to Thompson, Hoyt, Bronson et al. 5. 1826, Thompson et al file suit against Augustus Sacket. 6. October 20, 1826, Report and sales are given to James Stevens. 7. May 1827, ___ assigns to James Stevens. 8. May 6, 1827, Stevens assigns his rights to Hoyt, Murray, and Arthur Bronson. 9. March 24, 1828, James Murray assigns his rights to Isaac Bronson. 10. March 6, 1830, Arthur Bronson assigns his rights to Isaac Bronson and Gould Hoyt. 


A Dissertation on the Nature and Extent of the Jurisdiction of the Courts of the United States (1824).

A Brief View of the Constitution of the United States, Address (1831).

Smith, Murphy D., "Peter Stephen DuPonceau and his Study of Languages," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 127 (1983): 143-179.

American Philosophical Soc. (Archives & Misc. Mss. Coll.)., Philadelphia, PA, ca.1801 to 1844. (Historical and Literary Committee Letterbooks). 1815 to 1826. Vols. 1-3. Historical and philological researches and publications. of the Committee. Miscellaneous correspondence and mss., primarily concerning the research and functioning of the APS. Correspondence (B/D92p). 1786 to 1842. Correspondents include Samuel Coates, Citoyen Pinchon, William. Tilghman, Edward S. Burd, Dr. Demme, Mr. Popham. Philology and misc. topics. Letters to Albert Gallatin (Film 541). 1 Feb. 1801 to 28 July 1843. 43 Ls. + 1 L. to Mrs. O'Sullivan. Law, property; philology. Also, correspondence with Thomas Jefferson regarding Indian languages and other topics (1791-1840). Letters on law, business, Indian languages, APS, etc., to and from Edward S. Burd, Samuel Coates, Albert Gallatin, and William Tilghman.

Indian vocabularies, 1820-44. 1 vol. (253 pp.). Copies of 82 vocabularies representing 73 languages with notes and additions made by Du Ponceau and Albert Gallatin. Vocabularies for South American languages are copied from rare printed sources, while North American vocabularies are from both printed and manuscript sources. The first 23 pages of the volume are the Continuance Docket of the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, 1783-86. Cases noted are those involving Stephen Dutilh, Samuel Garrigues, John Girard, John Holker, Charles J. de Longchamps, and Claude P. Raguet.

Notebooks on Philology. 9 vols. (ca. 654 pp.). Principally on American Indian languages, with some notes on the languages of the Tartars, Arabs, Greeks, Polynesians, and others.

Sea terms in different languages, n.d. 1 vol. (56 pp.).

Letters to Albert Gallatin, 1801-1843. New York Historical Society.

Letters to John Heckewelder, 1816-1822. State Historical Society of Wisconsin. 

DuPonceau, Peter Stephen. "Autobiography of Peter Stephen DuPonceau." Edited by J. L. Whitehead. Pennsylvania Magazine  
        of History and Biography, 63 (1939), pp. 189-227, 311-343.

Heckewelder and Duponceau Correspondence, in Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society, 3 vols.