Portrait of Governor George Wolf

How I came to own a piece of Pennsylvania History with a family connection.

Relaxing on Saturday morning of President's Day weekend, I was browsing Ebay.com under the search "Pennsylvania painting" and sipping my morning coffee. Much to my surprise, after looking at pages of results, I stumbled across a listing titled "1820 American oil painting portrait of Governor George Wolf Pennsylvania historical." I couldn't believe it, I had to check it out!


George Wolf was the 7th Governor of Pennsylvania and a relative on my Father's side. My family was always proud of their connection to Governor George Wolf and passed down the family history of our relationship with the Wolf family. A relative of mine, Clara A. Beck, wrote the book "Kith and Kin of George Wolf Governor of Pennsylvania, 1829-1835." My Aunt Jeannette Miller gave me a copy of the first edition of the Wolf, Wolfe, Wolff Families of Pennsylvania by Raymond Alvin Wolff. I also had the opportunity to meet the author of that Wolf history at a Wolf Family Reunion, held at the Wolf Academy Historic Site and Governor Wolf Historical Society in Bath, PA. My Aunt Elise Roth recalled attending earlier Wolf reunions.

Governor George Wolf was born 12 August 1777 in East Allen Township, Northampton County, Pennsylvania. He was the son of George Wolf and Maria Margaretta. Wolf spent his early years on the family farm and later attended the Academy in Bath which his father helped establish. He later served as principal of the Academy and studied law with John Ross Esq. of Easton, who would become a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

George Wolf was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1798 at the age of 21. On June 5, 1798 he married Mary L. Erb, daughter of Lawrence Erb, a friend and neighbor of the Wolf family. In 1799, George Wolf supported Thomas McKean for Governor and in 1800 he supported Thomas Jefferson for President. Wolf received an appointment to serve as Postmaster in Easton and later served as Clerk of Orphans Court from 1804 to 1809. In 1814 he won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. After an unsuccessful run in 1815, George Wolf was elected as a Jeffersonian Republican to the Unites States House of Representatives in 1824. He then was reelected in 1826 and 1828.


(Right: Etching of Governor Wolf from the book: Kith and Kin of George Wolf, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1829-1835; note the resemblance of the etching to the portrait below).


During his second term as Congressman, Wolf chaired the Committee on Revolutionary Claims. In 1828, Wolf associated with the Jacksonian Democrats and a year later received the party's nomination for Governor. He defeated Anti-Masonic candidate, Joseph Ritner, for Governor in 1829. Wolf defeated Joseph Ritner again, winning a second term as Governor in 1832.


Governor Wolf was associated with the "Amalgamation" faction of the Democratic Party. He believed in a strong federal union and eventually fell out of favor with the Jacksonian Democrats over his support for the Second Bank of the United States against the attacks of President Andrew Jackson. In 1835 a rival faction of Democrats nominated Henry A. P. Muhlenberg (nephew of Frederick Muhlenberg, first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) for Governor, splitting the Democratic vote. The party political battle was referred to as "the Wolves versus the Mules." This allowed Anti-Masonic candidate Joseph Ritner to win election as the 8th Governor of Pennsylvania, finally defeating Wolf in his bid for a third term. Ritner went on to only serve one term and was defeated by the Democrats in the next election united behind David Rittenhouse Porter.


During his tenure as Governor, George Wolf prioritized the state's finances and reigning in the debt of prior administrations. Wolf is most widely known as the "Father of Public Education" for prioritizing the Free School Act of 1834 which established the public school system in Pennsylvania. Following his Governorship, Wolf was appointed by President Jackson as the first Comptroller of the Treasury of the United States. Afterwards he was appointed by President Martin Van Buren as Collector of Customs for the District of Philadelphia. Wolf also served as a Trustee of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Governor George Wolf died on 11 March 1840 in Philadelphia. He is buried in the East Harrisburg Cemetery.


Back to the listing - it seemed like a great opportunity! Should I get it? Is it real? As the seller wrote in the description, "This is an original oil painting, early 19th century. Unsigned portrait of George Wolf, the 7th Governor of Pennsylvania. 1777-1840." The seller also claimed that they purchased the painting from a descendant of the Governor.

I took advantage of the "submit and offer" button and, with the assistance of a trusted friend who advised me on negotiations, the seller and I agreed on a price. I picked up the painting in Basking Ridge, New Jersey the next day.


The seller shared that the painting was purchased in Virginia from Bailey Ward, who claimed to be a descendant of Governor Wolf. To help verify the provenance, I consulted the Wolf, Wolfe, Wolff Families of Pennsylvania to confirm the relationship of Bailey Ward and indeed he was a direct descendant of Governor Wolf. The history also mentioned that "Hanging in the Harrisburg State Capitol Building is a portrait of George Wolf, painted during his Governorship. This portrait is a copy of the original which in 1967 was in the possession of 3181 Marie Wolf (Greves) Ward." Marie Wolf (Greves) Ward was the Grandmother of the descendant who sold the portrait to the seller on Ebay.com.


The Historian of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee was able to confirm that the portrait of Governor Wolf at the State Capitol is indeed a reproduction, commissioned for the Governor's private office and completed prior to 1906. According to the Historian, that artist is unknown. The reproduction is also the only portrait of Governor Wolf that they have in their collection. At this time, it cannot be verified if our portrait was referenced in the reproduction of the portrait in the Governor's private office at the Capitol. Perhaps there is some truth to the family history, that our portrait is the original and may have been painted during his Governorship or, at least, during his lifetime.


In any case, it is great to have Governor Wolf back in the family and at our home near Harrisburg!


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