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Historic Houses

The Creighton House
Where Dolly Payne prepared for her entrance into the great world

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

On the old King's Highway, in the quiet Quaker town of Haddonfield, is the Creighton Tavern, - better known perhaps as the American House. The building has been very little changed since its erection by Timothy Malleck in 1750. In one of its quaint, unaltered rooms the State legislature and the Council of Safety met during the Revolution, and the ancient strap hinges on the door are the very ones which looked upon those bands of ardent souls in the long ago. The parlor, or best room, hall, and chambers where " Sweet Dorothy Payne," who became the famous Dolly Madison, sported with her good Uncle Creighton and the Creighton cousins, would surely be recognized by her if she could come back there and view them to-day.

Dolly Payne as the gracious and brilliant mistress of the White House has been so often written of that her Quaker girlhood is comparatively forgotten. That she once looked at the world, like all good Quaker maids of her time, as something apart from her own simple life seems almost incredible when we gaze at her likeness by Gilbert Stuart. The elegant dame depicted there in shimmering silk and adorned with jewels is very far removed from the little Dolly of Haddonfield days, whose greatest delight was a fine lawn kerchief given to her by Uncle Creighton, and donned on the gala days she went riding with him in the chaise.

John Payne, Dolly Payne's father, was a strict member of the Society of Friends, and her youth passed in the family mansion at Scotchtown, in Hanover County, Virginia, and later in Philadelphia, knew many Quaker hardships, and self-denials. Deep in her heart the fascinating Dolly loved the vanities of life. Although her pious parents garbed her " soberly" and " without frivolity," they did not succeed in checking the sunshine of the maiden's soul. Often when her tired back ached in meeting, her eyes sought the windows where the swaying trees were beckoning and the birds calling, and a longing flooded her gay young heart to run out to the lane and off into the great unknown,-Chestnut Street, where it was never deemed proper for her to go unattended. There was the life she loved, and as a child could only obtain peeps of to dream over. Fair ladies and elegant gentlemen, golden chairs and chariots, and all the bustle of fashion. In after years she was given a generous share of it, and perhaps it was those starved childhood years that made her enjoy it with zest almost until the day of her death. One of her grandnieces in a memoir has left us a pleasing picture of her at that time. Equipped with a "white linen mask," to keep every ray of sunshine from her complexion, and a sun bonnet "sewed" on her head, she used to start off for school with her books under her arm, and some dear, wicked bauble, a bit of old-fashioned jewelry, or perhaps a ribbon, hugged to her heart under her plain dress.

The visits to Haddonfield were bright spots in Dolly Payne's early life. Hugh Creighton was not a strict Friend, and his wife Mary French was a woman of most lovable character, with a heart large enough to take in all the world's people who chanced to cross her quiet pathway. Tavern-keeping in the eighties of the eighteenth century, although an honorable and profitable occupation in Southern Jersey, was frowned upon by the generality of Friends, as their discipline did not permit them to look on it with favor. Life at her uncle's genial hearth was much broader than in her own home at Philadelphia. In the former place she obtained some of her first impressions of days untinctured by the gray shadows of the meeting-house. We can picture her to ourselves a replica of one of those quaint, simply-garbed ladies in Rosetti's famous picture of "The Ladies at the Mitre," and imagine her gazing at the chance fine madam or stray gallant as they gazed at the great Dr. Johnson.

As a girl of eighteen in the year 1786 she is described as being of slight figure, possessing a delicately oval face, a nose tilted like a flower, jet black hair, and blue eyes of wondrous sweetness. Those beautiful eyes, with their power to scintillate with playfulness or mellow with sympathy, wrought great havoc with the hearts of the Quaker lads of Haddonfield. Although many years have flown since she tripped through the quiet streets and lanes of the place, her memory is alive there. Elderly people still repeat what their fathers and grandfathers once said of her, and from the glowing tributes paid to her youthful charms it is easy to imagine that many a good Quaker lad's love was laid at her shrine before stern John Payne ever bade her accept the hand of John Todd.

In those early Haddonfield days she often took frolicsome rides with her cousins in the mail-coaches that stopped twice daily at the tavern, driving a mile or two out on the highway and walking home. Then there was the rarer pleasure of a visit to Gray's Ferry, on the green banks of the Schuylkill, a veritable garden of delight to the youth of old Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, with its flowering dells, mystical grottos, and winding walks made fairy-like by grotesque Chinese art. Commodore James P. Cooper, U. S. N., who died in the town in 1854, aged ninety-three years, was often her devoted attendant on these occasions and on berrying excursions, and in later life never tired of singing her praises. It is a well known fact that when James Madison was in power in after years a favorable recommendation from Commodore Cooper always received the most careful attention, and it was the little Dolly of Haddonfield who smiled on them for the sake of Auld Lang Syne.

Many times during the year "Aunt Creighton" drove to Trenton to visit friends on Queen Street, generally taking the young people with her. Those trips with her kind aunt delighted the merry Quakeress, with her love of fine things, inherited no doubt from her courtly ancestors the Coles and the Flemings. Wandering through Queen Street and Pinkerton Alley shops and fingering the world's goods" she was as happy as any maiden of to-day out for the first time on a shopping-expedition.

Tradition says that in later years-some months before Dolly Payne's marriage to John Todd-she visited the Creightons and, helped by her cousins, prepared a part of her simple wedding trousseau for her entrance into the great world as a wife. The wedding was solemnized in the Friends' Meeting-House on Pine Street, Philadelphia, on the seventh day of First month, 1790. Through January snow the Creightons journeyed from Haddonfield to be present at the simple marriage ceremony, and there, in the bare, cold meeting-house, they heard their cousin Dolly whisper in a tremulous voice her response to John Todd, "I, Dorothea Payne, do take thee, John Todd, to be my wedded husband, and promise, through divine assistance, to be unto thee a loving wife until separated by death."

It is hard to associate the Creighton Tavern with Mrs. John Todd, as Dolly Madison's first married life was of such short duration. In later years, as the wife of James Madison, she never returned to Haddonfield, but on many occasions sent invitations to old friends asking them to visit her. Those who accepted them found her as "Queen Dolly," but with a nature still unchanged. Her manners were as simple and as sweet as in the days of comparative poverty. Although the gray little Quakeress of Haddonfield days was gone forever, and had given place to a comely, bejewelled dame in rustling brocade, the latter still possessed the heart of the merry child who used to make glad a happy Quaker hostelry on the King's Highway of Haddonfield.

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