John Steele was born on June 5th, 1758, in Drumore, Pennsylvania, the son of Scottish immigrants William and Rachel Steele. He initially trained to be a Presbyterian minister, being taught at Chestnut Level School. He left the school when he was 17 years old to enlist as a private in the Continental Army. His brother Archibald arranged for him to receive a commission to the rank of Captain.[1]

He was eventually assigned to the 1st Pennsylvania regiment, then under the command of Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and took part in the Battle of Brandywine.[2] Steele was seriously wounded at Brandywine: hit in the left shoulder by a musket ball that fractured his shoulder which could not be extracted for some time. He was initially thought to be dead, but several of his soldiers carried him off the field for treatment.[3] His father then learned of his son’s condition and arranged for him to be moved to his home so he could care for him. Steele lost mobility of this arm due to the injury.[4]

By June 1780, however, he had recovered to some degree, and was able to rejoin the Patriot cause.[5] He had been promoted to Colonel during this time, was appointed to Washington’s staff, and was placed in command of Martha Washington’s bodyguards at Morristown, New Jersey. According to Steele, four members of the Continental Congress volunteered, appearing with muskets and ammunition. However, the value of their contributions was mixed, at best. Steele stated “I would suffer to lose my ears and never command a congressman again. The rations they have consumed considerably overbalances all their services done as volunteers, for they have dined with us nearly every day and drank as much wine as they would earn in six months.”[6]

Steele was an Officer of the Field at Yorktown, Virginia, when British Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis surrendered, ending military action of the American Revolution and assuring independence.[7]Subsequently, he was transferred to the Army of the South under Gen. Nathanael Greene. While in Greene’s army he again had a close brush with death, this time with a fever, from which he never fully recovered.[8]After the war, he opened a paper mill along Octoraro Creek, near the town of Steelville, in Lancaster County, which was later named in his honor. During this time, he refused to receive benefits from the pension entitled to him, fearing the effect soldier’s pensions would have on the young nation’s economy.[9] He then retired to his farm in Drumore. It was during this time that Steele had an indentured servant named Cambridge, apparently the child of a slave. Pennsylvania had passed a law for the gradual emancipation of the children of slaves born after 1780. Cambridge who was ‘about 21’ in 1802, so he was not a slave. Nevertheless, under the Pennsylvania law he was, indeed, bound to Steele until he was 28. In 1802 Cambridge escaped, and Steele paid for a newspaper ad offering $30 for his capture and return.[10] However, by 1809 Steele was advocating for the national abolition of slavery. He signed a petition sent to the U.S. Congress advocating the same.[11]

In 1801, Steele began his legislative career. In that year he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican. The next year, he was elected to the State Senate, and briefly served as the speaker during 1805.[12] Also in 1805, he was sued for libel by Governor Thomas McKean. McKean had tried to get some justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court impeached, which Steele, among others opposed. Interestingly, he and McKean were both Democratic-Republicans. Once McKean had won the nomination to run for a third term, he sued Steele.[13] Steele lost his 1806 campaign for the U.S. Senate, losing in a three-way race. His poor showing, receiving only 12.5% of the vote, may have been the result of his intra-party conflict with McKean. Still, after this defeat he was appointed Commissioner of the Committee to assess damages in the Wyoming County Indian Conflict. In this capacity, he was sent to survey properties that had been damaged, for compensation for the owners.[14] In 1808, Thomas Jefferson appointed him as the Collector of the Port of Philadelphia, which means he collected import taxes on foreign goods coming into the Philadelphia port.[15] In 1809, he received the commission of Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania Militia, and was placed in command of the first brigade of the first division.[16] Steele remained Collector until shortly before his death on 22 February 1827, at the age of 68. Only two weeks later, his wife of 43 years, Abigail Steele, died. Steele was buried in his church, Old Pine Street Presbyterian, where he had been a member and Trustee. Steele and Abigail’s gravesites are marked by their monument, honoring another Patriot of Old Pine.


[1], “General John Steele,”  As of 9/25/2020

[2]Brandywine as of 9/25/20

[3] Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal, Tuesday, April 10th, 1827

[4], “General John Steele,”     As of 9/25/2020

[5] “General John Steele,” As of 9/25/2020

[6] “General John Steele,”

[7], “General John Steele”,     As of 9/25/2020

[8] Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal, Tuesday, April 10th, 1827

[9] PA State Legislature  as of 9/25/20 

[10]Aurora General Advertiser, June 19th, 1802

[11] The Second Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry, As of 10/2/2020

[12] PA State Legislature as of 9/25/20 

[13] History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 By J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott. As of 10/2/2020

[14] Wyoming County Historical Society, “1802 Luzerne County Federalist, 15 Nov. 1802” as of 10/2/2020.

[15]  PA State Legislature as of 9/25/20 

[16] The Second Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry, As of 10/2/2020