Kneass family papers
Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Kneass (pronounced "niece") is a German name. The Kneass family descended from Johan C. Kneass who was born in Germany in 1725; he died in Delaware County, Pennsylvania in 1801. Samuel Honeymann Kneass (1806-1858) and his brother Strickland Kneass (1821-1884) were Johan’s great-grandsons. Samuel Honeyman Kneass was a Pennsylvania engineer involved with the railroads; his brother Strickland Kneass was the chief engineer and surveyor of the city of Philadelphia (1855-1872). Samuel Honeyman Kneass’s son, William Harris Kneass (1839-1882), was a civil engineer who married Amelia Prall Stryker Kneass (1839-1878) in July 1863. Amelia Kneass, also known as Pettie, died in Vevey, Switzerland. The couple had three sons, but only Samuel Stryker Kneass (1865-1928), a Philadelphia physician educated at the University of Pennsylvania, lived to adulthood but never married. His brothers were Charles L. Kneass (1869-1869) and Davis Stryker Kneass (1871-1872).
Samuel Honeyman Kneass was born in Philadelphia where he raised his children, including his son William Harris. When William Harris Kneass married Amelia Prall Stryker from Lambertville, New Jersey, he married the four-times great-granddaughter of Jan Gerritse Stryker, an emigrant born in 1615 in the Netherlands. This man’s descendants settled in the New York, New Jersey region.
In 1868, William made a poor financial investment with his wife’s bond funds. The relationship was strained, but the couple lived together until their estrangement about 1874. While rare, according to "The Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society," between 1867-1871, there were 53,574 divorces. According to “The Thinking Housewife” by Jesse Powell, the divorce rate in 1870 was 3.3%. By 1900, Powell indicates the rate rose to 8.1%. The courts were viewing children differently by the end of the 19th century. Early in the century, children were valued as laborers, and fathers had common law rights over their children. By the latter part of the century with more emphasis on nurture and education, judges were torn between the common law rights of fathers and the best interest of the child – thus giving mothers more power in divorce cases. Despite the rise in divorce rates after the Civil War, there is no indication that William Harris Kneass and Amelia Stryker Kneass ever took formal legal action.
In early October 1876, Amelia Kneass and her son, Samuel S. Kneass moved to Europe. On 10 April 1878, Amelia S. Kneass died in Vevey, Switzerland. Somehow, Samuel returned to Philadelphia to resume his education. There is no record of William Harris Kneass after 1876, but he died in Boerne, Texas in 1882.
The Kneass family papers span much of the 1800s and are housed in three boxes. The first part of the collection includes Samuel H. Kneass’s business correspondence on his work on the Delaware-Schuylkill Canal, 1835-1839, and his appointment as principal city surveyor, 1849-1853; miscellaneous correspondence on financial matters resulting from his career as an engineer, 1836-1857; annual reports to the North Western Railroad and the Delaware-Schuylkill Canal Company, 1839-1856; essays, speeches, his will, and various legal documents; as well as a miscellany of printed specifications, an architectural drawing, and stock shares, 1837-1860.
The second section of the collection consists of the private correspondence of William Harris Kneass and his immediate family including letters from William to his son Samuel after Amelia separated from him, telling Samuel to remember his father fondly, 1871-1876; letters from William to Amelia before they were married, 1862-1863, and after they were estranged, 1874-1876. There are also other family papers including several letters, 1876-1877 from Samuel to his mother while he was in school in Europe, and some of his school compositions; letters from Strickland Kneass to his niece-by-marriage Amelia, 1868-1876, revealing efforts to reconcile Amelia and William; bill from Strickland for a sewer survey, 1870, while he was chief engineer and surveyor for Philadelphia. Several volumes complete the collection: essays by William, 1856-1857, Amelia’s book of poetry and her domestic accounts, 1873-1878, miscellaneous bills and receipts, stock shares, and advertisements.
The letters written by William Harris Kneass to his son Samuel Stryker are numerous and lengthy. The bulk of these were written during the couple’s estrangement, 1874-1876. At first, the angst of a father deprived of daily life with his child is painful to read; but it soon becomes clear that he was pressuring his 10-year old son to communicate with his mother and to validate his father’s worth through frequent responses. In March 1876, William writes “Good-bye – If you ever feel like writing to me, do so. At present, I appear to be entirely ignored as one of your correspondents.”
One letter from William to Samuel is noteworthy for its description of the upcoming Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia. On 29 April 1876, William anticipated the joy he hoped to share with his son on a future visit: “The immensity of the building, the great labayth [sic] of packages, the moving busy crowd, the Japanese, the Chinese, Spaniards, Turks, Germans, Dutch, Egyptians, Yankees, nearly every nation on the Earth, all and every one appearing to be filled with the vim and push of our own good countrymen, filled one’s mind with wonder and almost awe.” Sadly, future letters tell of William accidentally seeing his son with his wife at the Centennial, and Samuel pretended not to see his father.
The letters between William Harris Kneass and his wife Amelia provide a framework for understanding their troubled relationship and eventual estrangement. While some issues are discussed in detail, other matters are alluded to, forcing one to read between the lines. A letter from William to Amelia dated 26 May 1868 addressed the financial stress put on the marriage by a poor investment and made it clear that Amelia came from a wealthier background than her husband. Initially William told Amelia he had lost $2000 of her money when in reality, without her knowledge, he used $13,000 of her bond money. This loss jeopardized the couple’s ability to purchase a home. Despite the financial stresses in their lives, they had two more children: Charles in 1869 and Davis Stryker in 1871; neither son lived beyond a year.
By the fall of 1874, the strain in their relationship was evident. William was reluctant to visit Lambertville; and in January 1875, he wrote: “The time may come, when those who gloat over dollars, who gauge their affection by the reciprocation of wealth, will learn that a true, loving heart is worth more.” By May 1875, William was unemployed and living apart from his family. He implied that he might need to resort to the Alms House and asked Amelia for money to “go West,” adding “My love is as dead as yours.” At this time, William lived with his uncle Strickland Kneass and correspondences between Strickland and Amelia shed much light on William’s troubled life due to unemployment and overuse of alcohol.
By 11 April 1875, William told Amelia he would apply for a divorce or she could. On 14 December 1875, William said he had consulted a lawyer. By May 1876, his tone was more threatening, suggesting he had legal rights to their son but did not want to force the matter and take a son from his mother. William’s last letter to his son written on 4 September 1876 indicated that Samuel spent the summer with his mother in the White Mountains. Despite a lengthy illness while in Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania, William revealed his plans: “My darling boy, I will soon be well. In October, I will be in Philadelphia, and then we will see each other, by order of the Court.” Amelia applied for a passport for herself and her son on 4 October 1876; this document was notarized by Mr. W. W. Steele. Amelia’s account book indicated she left for Europe on 6 October 1876. From his boarding school in Europe, Samuel wrote several letters to his mother; none were found to his father.
The collection does not provide any additional insight into the Stryker family. There is a collection of papers for a family named Steele together with a brief family genealogy. It seems Mr. Steele provided counsel to Amelia as well as signing her passport papers. It is unlikely the Steele family is related to either the Stryker or Kneass families.
While not part of the collection, it is worth noting that there are several developed family trees for the Kneass and Stryker lines on Ancestry.com. Additionally, an online site, Biblerecords.com, records the genealogical information found in a Bible belonging to the Kneass family purchased at a garage sale in McKinney, Texas in 2000.
Gift of Mrs. Dudley Kneass, 1979.
- Canals and railroads--19th century
- Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.)
- Delaware & Schuylkill Canal
- Pennsylvania Railroad--19th century
- Railroads--Pennsylvania--19th century
- Separation and divorce--19th century
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Susan Kearney.
- Finding Aid Date
- ; 2015.
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research.