Facts and Events
Biographies of William Henry, Inventor of the "Henry Rifle"
- William Henry (May 19, 1729 – December 15, 1786) was an American gunsmith from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a delegate for Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress in 1784, 1785, and 1786.
- Prior to his service in the Continental Congress, Henry was a gunsmith and provided rifles to the British during the French and Indian War and later the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Over a thirty-year period, Henry's gun factory in Lancaster not only supplied arms to Pennsylvanian and, later, Revolutionary troops (during the Revolution, his workmen were exempted from military service to ensure the continued production of necessary arms): Henry himself, serving as armorer, accompanied troops on Edward Braddock's disastrous expedition in the summer of 1755 to retake Fort Duquesne and again on John Forbes's successful mission in 1758.
- Henry later served in many positions of public responsibility, including Assistant Commissary General to the Continental Army for the district of Lancaster and, in 1779, Commissary of Hides for Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. In these positions, Henry managed vast sums of money and acquired and transferred enormous amounts of material. In 1780 Henry informed Joseph Reed that he had "laid out…between Sixty & Seventy Thousand Pound" just to "purchase Leather and Paying Workmens Wages at the Shoe-Factory[s]" he had established "at Philadelphia, Allentown and Lancaster." His correspondence is filled with letters from Army leaders, including George Washington, begging for arms and other materials. Henry was also the Treasurer of Lancaster Country for many years, a position filled by his wife, Ann Wood Henry, from Henry's death in 1786 until her own in 1799.
- Henry was also an intellectual. He helped found Lancaster’s Juliana Library-Company in 1759, which during the Revolution and after was housed in his residence, and he held membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, whose first Transactions (1771) printed Henry's account of his invention of a "Description of a Self-Moving or Sentinel Register" to regulate the flue of a furnace. Henry also invented a screw auger, manufactured and sold exclusively at his Lancaster store, and some credit him with inventing the steamboat: the twelve-year-old Robert Fulton, a Lancaster neighbor, visited Henry in 1777, who had been experimenting since 1763 on boats with steam engines on the Conestoga River (Fulton's own experiments began only in 1786 in England). Henry was also the earliest patron of Benjamin West, who lodged in Henry's home in Lancaster in 1756 and painted portraits of William and Ann Henry, probably shortly after their marriage. More significantly, Henry encouraged West to paint "The Death of Socrates" (1756), perhaps the first history painting produced in the colonies; West always credited Henry with having initiated the painter's interest in history painting, the genre for which the painter became so famous.
- Henry's sons carried on his gun business, in Lancaster, in Philadelphia, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and then in Boulton, PA. One of his sons, John Joseph Henry, served as a sixteen year old rifleman on Benedict Arnold's march on Quebec in the fall and winter of 1775 (he was captured and imprisoned for much of 1776), and later served as president judge of the second District in Pennsylvania from 1795-1811.
From "Colonial & Revolutionary Families", Vol. III.,John Woolf Jordan, LL.D., p. 1663:
- William Henry, the eldest of their eight children, was born in Chester County, May 19, 1729. Shortly after the death of his father he removed to Lancaster, where he engaged in the manufacture of fire-arms, and furnished supplies to the Indian traders. As armourer of the troops of General Braddock and Forbes, he accomplished the expeditions against Fort Duquesne. He took an active part in the public affairs of his county and the State, and throughout the Revolution ardently espoused the cause of the colonists, and filled many offices of honor and trust. He was commissioned justice of the peace, in 1758, 1770, and 1777, and associate justice of the common pleas, quarter sessions and orphans' court, November 18, 1780. In 1776 he was elected a member of the Assembly, and from October 17 to December 4, 1777, served in the Council of Safety of Pennsylvania, and as county treasurer from 1777 to his death. His appointment as armourer of the State is dated September 4, 1778, and he was selected one of the commissioners to limit prices of merchandise, in the convention called by meeting at Hartford, Connecticut, October 29, 1779, to assemble at Philadelphia, January 5, 1780. He was also appointed dedimus potestatem in 1778, and 1781. As assistant commissary general in 1778 he was of great service to the army in the field. He served two terms in the Old Congress, 1784-1785. In 1767 he was elected a member of hte American Philosophical Society, was one of the first members of the Society for Promoting Agriculture, and a founder of the Juliana Library of Lancaster. As an ingenious inventor he enjoyed a high reputation, particularly in the application of steam for motive power, and in 1771 he invented the screw-auger.
- William Henry, in January of 1756, married Ann, daughter of Abraham and Ursula (Taylor) Wood, who was born January 24, 1734. Ann Wood was a great-granddaughter of John and Barbara Bevan, of Treverigg, Glamorganshire, Wales, who with their children in 1683 came to Pennsylvania, where he took up a large tract of land in the Welsh Tract, in what was then Philadelphia county. He was elected as a member of the Assembly for the years 1687, 1695, 1699 and 1700, and commissioned a justice of the peace in 1685 and 1689. After making several visits to his native country he finally resumed his residence there and died at the ripe age of eighty years. His daughter Jane married, December 1, 1678, George Wood, of Darby, Chester county, who was commissioned a justice in 1724 and 1726, and served in the Assembly 1704, 1710, 1712 and 1717. Their son Abraham, born March 2, 1702, and died 1753, was the father of Mrs. Henry. William Henry died at Lancaster, December 15, 1786, and Ann his wife, March 8, 1799. They had issue thirteen children, of whom William Henry (2d) was the eldest."