Alexander Henderson – “Father of the American Chain Store”

Throughout history, figures have repeatedly been silenced or inevitably forgotten with the passage of time. As consumers of history, it is our job to ask these critical questions about why certain figures have been silenced and how we can highlight the stories of both groups through comprehensive research. For my historic marker project, I chose to highlight the story of a forgotten figure in Virginian history: Alexander Henderson.

Alexander Henderson Highway Marker located in Prince William County. Erected in 1976 by the Montclair Bicentennial Committee.

Alexander Henderson, who several historians consider the “Father of the American Chain Store,” was born in Glasgow, Scotland on March 2nd, 1738 (sources vary on the exact year). Alexander Henderson emigrated from Scotland and settled in modern-day Colchester, Virginia in 1756. Henderson would later move to Dumfries, Virginia. Prior to the American Revolution, Henderson was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, a Virginia assembly of elected representatives that convened from 1643 to 1776. The House of Burgesses was later replaced by the elected House of Delegates after the introduction of the Virginia Constitution of 1776. Other notable members of the House of Burgesses during this time include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. Henderson would go on to build enduring ties with several of his Virginian founding father contemporaries, with George Washington attending his wedding in 1761 and witnessing Henderson’s marriage to Sarah (or Sally) Moore, a Colchester native.

Painting by Peter F. Rothermel of Patrick Henry’s speech against the Stamp Act of 1765 in the House of Burgesses.

Alexander Henderson and his business partner John Glassford started off with their original store located in Colchester in the 1760s, where the two would sell a plethora of goods, including firearms, cloth, rum, wine, sugar, salt, tea, dyes, paper products, and furniture, and in return would purchase tobacco from the local farmers. Henderson would ship the purchased tobacco off to Europe and request the goods he would later sell in his stores based on what his Virginian customers demanded. Henderson and Glassford would run advertisements listing future sales in the local newspapers to attract potential customers. The store located in Colchester became so successful that Henderson and Glassford later went on to expand and establish other stores in Dumfries, Occoquan, and Alexandria. Much of the success of the stores can be accredited to the attention to quality Henderson had for the products, which made his stores the go-to place for locals to purchase their desired goods. Henderson and Glassford’s stores largely ran on a system of credit with their cash-poor colonial customers in exchange for tobacco. The Scotsman’s successful chain of stores led to his being known as the “Father of the American Chain Store.”

Henderson & Glassford advertisment in the Virginia Gazette for the sale of “store goods, some household furniture, a negro boy, and three horses.”

During the American Revolution, Henderson served in the Virginia militia, commanded the Dickinson Galley from December 1st, 1776, to January 1st, 1777, and was a commissary with Pennsylvania troops. In addition, Henderson worked as a captain and commissioner of military stores from September 10th, 1777, until he resigned in July of 1779. Beyond Henderson’s deep-rooted interest in mercantilism, the Scottish immigrant held several positions in local politics during his lifetime. Henderson was a magistrate for both Fairfax (1783–1784) and Prince William County (1789– 1790) in the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly. In 1785, Henderson was appointed alongside George Mason to serve as commissioners in the Mount Vernon Conference, a meeting held between two appointed commissioners from both Virginia and Maryland to discuss the navigational and commercial regulations of the two states’ shared waterways. The agreement reached between the two states was known as the Compact of 1785 and was an event that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Mount Vernon and its resulting compact helped to establish a precedent for future gatherings between states to discuss issues of mutual concern.

Shortly after the passing of Henderson’s longtime business partner and close friend John Glassford in 1783, several allegations were leveled against Henderson regarding his personal motivations interfering with his representation of Fairfax County in the Virginia General Assembly. Subsequently, Henderson issued two impassioned responses in the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser in early 1785, where he vehemently denied such claims of abusing his political position to benefit his personal business affairs as a merchant and debt collector. Despite these damaging reports, it appears that they did not have a major effect on Alexander Henderson’s reputation or legacy, seeing as he later went on to represent Prince William County in the House of Delegates and was regarded as a merchant “first of his class” after his death in 1815. After Glassford’s passing, Henderson stepped away from his role as storekeeper and mainly dedicated his business to selling lots and settling debts from previous dealings.

Excerpt from Alexander Henderson’s responses in the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser.

Apart from his role as a merchant and politician, Alexander Henderson also served as a vestryman at the Pohick Church located in Fairfax County, an Episcopal church built in 1774, where Henderson’s notable friends George Washington and George Mason also served as vestrymen and members. The last decade of Henderson’s life was spent away from public life, likely due to his increasing age. Many of the documents from this period indicate that Henderson’s sons began to take over their father’s mercantile duties and legal battles that resulted from such work. The Scotsman had even taken the advice of his intimate friend George Washington about buying acres of land in western Virginia. On this advice, Henderson bought 25,000 acres in the area and sent his three sons out to tend to the land that was in the Mid-Ohio Valley. In fact, one of Henderson’s sons, Archibald Henderson, went on to become the longest-serving Commandant of the Marine Corps with 38 years of service.

Postcard depicting the Old Pohick Church located near Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Despite Alexander Henderson’s many acomplisments, it should be noted that he did actively uphold the institution of slavery through his work and in his personal life. As shown below, an 1810 U.S. Census record does confirm that Alexander Henderson owned 22 slaves at the time. Henderson also regularly advertised sales that included the sale of Black slaves in local newspapers to attract customers. Although there is not enough documentation to gauge Henderson’s personal beliefs were in respect to the insitution of slavery or its ethicality, it is fair to say that Henderson was not too concerned with making any strong objections regarding the topic during his lifetime. This assumption is also further supported by his close association with figures who remain notorious for their role in supporting the institution of slavery in the colonies and abroad, e.g. George Washington and John Glassford.

1810 U.S. Census. Highlighted portion shows that Alexander Henderson of Dumfries, VA owned 22 slaves.

In conclusion, this Scottish-born immigrant’s impact on the mercantilism and development of this nation in Virginia is undeniable. Henderson, along with his brother Archibald Henderson and fellow Scottish business partner John Glassford, was able to establish chain stores located throughout Virginia, which specialized in bringing locals the highest quality goods they could find in exchange for tobacco. On top of his impact within the world of Virginian mercantilism, Henderson played an essential, yet often forgotten, role in the events leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In Henderson’s obituary, the successful merchant and politician are remembered for his respectability, assiduity, and remarkable talents, among many other admirable traits. However, as previously mentioned, Henderson’s role in supporting slavery should not be ignored, as it is essential to give the reader the entirety of the story, not just the parts that we are comfortable with. Henderson not only made his mark on his adopted community in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but he did so with incredible care and a character that demonstrated real admiration for not just his clients, but also those he represented and served.


Alexander Henderson Timeline


Alexander Henderson’s Obituary

Taken from the Alexandria Gazette, November 25th, 1815.

Departed this life at Dumfries on Wednesday the inst. after a short illness, ALEXANDER HENDERSON, Esqr. in the 79th year of his age.

The deceased has been a resident of Virginia for nearly sixty years, during a considerable part of which time, he has been a merchant of the first class, and always a man of the first respectability. He was the particular and intimate friend and associate of the Great Father of his Country General Washington, as well as of many of the other sages and patriots of the revolution, now no more; and in all instances has supported the character of a real and firm friend to the rights and liberties of his adopted country. He has from a very early period of his life to his last days been a most active and useful magistrate in the counties of Fairfax and Prince-William counties of which he has been repeatedly elected the representative in the Legislature of Virginia. In the character of a legislator he exhibited uncommon assiduity & superior talent; and it is believed, few men have rendered more essential services to the state in that capacity; as one instance, he may be considered the father of the equalization law. His loss will be long regretted by his numerous family, as well as by his extensive acquaintance, to whom his hospitality, liberality and charity, were so well known.

Dumfries, Nov. 25.


Bibliography

McCue, J., 1915. The Henderson chronicles. New York Public Library, p.8. https://archive.org/details/hendersonchronic00mccu/page/n3/mode/2up?ref=ol

Bakels, Michelle, Julia Bennett, Laura Braddock, Robin Dunn, Andrew Heer, Morgan Holman, Altuan Mcgarvin, et al. 2013. “Glassford & Henderson Transcription Project.” Mount Vernon’s Midden Project. http://mountvernonmidden.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/UCF_S2013_BlogPosts.pdf.

“Advertisement.” Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Virginia), no. 1310, September 14, 1776: [9]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A12992F6A66B3869C%40EANX-12B8A8D612AC7CB0%402369988-12B8A8D6402FF940%407-12B8A8D6B4324630%40Advertisement.

Charles, Kromkowski. 2007. The Virginia Elections and State Elected Officials Database Project, 1776-2007. Accessed November 15, 2021. http://vavh.electionstats.com/php/bio.php?pid=3552.

Ancestry.com. U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970, v. 303, p. 228-230 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Henderson, Alexander. 1766. Record of Charges from Late 1766-1767 at the Colchester Store. In Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.

“Moore-Hill, March 14, 1785. to the Freeholders of Fairfax County.” Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser (Alexandria, Virginia) II, no. 60, March 24, 1785: [2]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A10CBAA5E454916A0%40EANX-10F33750A84F2EF0%402373101- 10F33750CBDAAEE8%401-10F337518F072EE8%40Moore-Hill%252C%2BMarch%2B14%252C%2B1785.%2Bto%2Bthe%2BFreeholders%2Bof%2BFairfax%2BCounty

Rowland, Kate Mason, G. Mason, Alexander Henderson, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, T. Stone, and Samul Chase. “The Mount Vernon Convention.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 11, no. 4 (1888): 410–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20083227.

“Advertisement.” Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser (Alexandria, Virginia) I, no. 8, March 25, 1784: [3]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A10CBAA5E454916A0%40EANX-10F33753E6CE9200%402372737-10F337542A3B2458%402-10F33754F7BFAAE0%40Advertisement

Ancestry.com. 1810 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

“Mortuary Notice.” Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia) XV, no. 4464, November 28, 1815: [3]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A109C88C3000E7338%40EANX-10AEC81146C58540%402384306-10AEC811D10AF9E0%402-10AEC81413DECAC0%40Mortuary%2BNotice.

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