On Monday October 5, 1767, the ship Sally docked at Philadelphia, carrying among its passengers Jacob Durang, formerly a French soldier in the Régiment Suisse de Waldner. Jacob had been assigned to the medical corps, where, according to his son’s Memoir, “he made some proficiency in the skill and knowledge of surgeory.” With his young wife, Joeann Catharine Arter, Jacob Durang chose emigration from the war-torn Alsace to a New World promising freedoms and opportunities unavailable in the Europe they left. Barely three months after landing at Philadelphia, Jacob and Catherine Durang became parents, as their son John later noted in his Memoir: “They proceeded on to Lancaster where Mrs. Durang met with her sister married and settlet, which enticed Mr. Durang and wife to settle for a time till circumstance should prevail, as the delicate situation of Mrs. Durang made it necessary; where thro’ the divine favour of God, I was born in Lancaster, state of Pennsylvania, January 6th 1768.”
In memory of this occasion, a plaque, a historical marker, and a puppet museum have been dedicated to John Durang at the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre in downtown Lancaster. There, puppet master Robert Brock and dancer/historian Lynn Brooks performed John Durang, Man of the American Stage, a puppet and mixed-media show that they wrote together, on June 13-27, 2004. The Fulton Opera House in Lancaster also holds a plaque honoring John Durang.
Jacob Durang soon moved his small family to the recently founded town of York, across the Susquehanna River. According to the British Lieutenant Anbury, traveling through Pennsylvania as prisoner of the Continental Army about ten years after the Durangs arrived, “York…. is sometimes reckoned the second inland town in America [after Lancaster]; it is not nearly so large as Lancaster, but much pleasanter, being situated on the Codorus Creek, a pretty stream which falls into the Susquehanna.” Jacob Durang’s skill as a barber-surgeon was a “novelty” to York’s settlers, John Durang wrote, and his “customary address and politeness, accompany’d with the French and German language,” suited his newly chosen community. German was spoken throughout York.
In addition to barbering, Jacob Durang also kept farm animals and a shop where he sold “necessaries” – probably cloth, tea, soap, and such – which he provisioned through visits to Philadelphia, ninety miles away. Jacob saved enough to purchase land at the corner of Beaver and Philadelphia Streets in November 1774; a second lot, on High (Market) Street, was deeded to the Durangs in April 1777.
The Durangs, as Catholics, were served by missionaries who periodically visited York. But the German Reformed and Lutheran churches ran local schools educating boys and girls of any denomination. John Durang wrote, “I was put to the German school, it being the most universal, as all the country in Pennsylvania was settle by Germans.” Teaching was imparted in a mixture of English and German, perhaps influencing the distinctive Pennsylvania German dialect of the region. Between this largely German-language environment and his German-French home, English would become John Durang’s third and later tongue. The schools also taught music, contributing to the boy’s preparation for the theatre, where he later played several instruments and sang.
As John recalled, life in York was “dull,” aside from its June and November fairs, when there were “all kinds of diversions going on during the whole day, the taverns crowded: in every room a fiddle, and dancing, bottles of wine on the table; showfolks with their signs out, hand organs and trumpits to invite the people to see poppet shows, wire dancing, slight of hand.”
During their years in York, the Durang family welcomed daughter Catharine, also destined to be a theatre performer, James, Barbara, Rebecca Elizabeth, Mary, and Jacob Jr.
In July 1776, the First Continental Congress, sitting at Philadelphia, adopted and signed the Declaration of Independence. York’s patriots rose to join the uprising. Jacob Durang, an experienced soldier, enlisted in the First Battalion, York County Militia in December 1775.
John Durang wrote with pride of his father’s service “with his brethren in arms againsd tyrannic power in the glorious cause of liberty and religion, in defence and security of a home for their wives and children.”
Already eager to don a costume, John—just eight years old—recalled: “My father was encamped at Lancaster. A regiment from Virginia lay in York. I prevail’d on my mother to make me a hunting shirt and trousers, green with yellow fringe.
By March of 1776, British and Hessian soldiers were retained at York, well inland to shield them from British raids. Captured officers were boarded at the Durang home, where they formed what John called “an excellent band of music, and occasionally play’d at my father’s to my great delight, and serenaded the citizens.”
When the British captured Philadelphia, they inaugurated a brilliant season of theatricals and public festivities, including the famous — to some, infamous — Meschianza. Upper-class Philadelphians flocked to these events, causing some hard feelings later when the American patriots again took the city.
During the period that the British had held Philadelphia, the Continental Congress moved to York, which then served as capital of the United States. During congressional sessions in the winter of 1777-78, theatrical performances were held in rooms above York’s courthouse. By May 1778, the French had announced their alliance with the Americans, and in June the British exited Philadelphia, carrying away troops and officers, much of the Tory community, and the glittering social and cultural life the army had created there. This departure made room for the fledgling nation to begin establishing its own identity.
Once the British had evacuated the city, Jacob Durang “purchas’d property in Phlad’a, a house in the center of the city. He sold his property in York and moved the family on to Philad’a,” John wrote. The earliest directories for Philadelphia, (1785) list Jacob Durang, “hairdresser,” at 677 Second Street. Clues in Durang’s Memoir and other documents suggest that the Durangs moved to Philadelphia between the summers of 1778 and 1779, when John was ten or eleven, although it may have been a bit later. Durang recalls that his father encountered in Philadelphia former comrades from the French army, which would place Jacob in the city in late summer 1781.
Another clue to dating the Durangs’ return to Philadelphia arises from John’s reminiscences of the French minister to the United States, Conrad Alexandre-Gérard de Rayneval, who was in Philadelphia by July 1778. John’s memoir describes “Sieur Gerard’s” mansion on Sixth and Chestnut Streets “where occasionally he gave splendid fireworks,” that ignited the young Durang’s enthusiasm. The American troops in Philadelphia continued their theatrical habits, established at Valley Forge the previous spring, where, grateful to have survived the winter, they entertained themselves by producing plays. American officers organized performances at the Southwark Theatre beginning in September 1778, probably including performers from among Philadelphia’s elite and capable citizenry.