Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Infernal" Improvements

Among the many projects Thomas Emory participated in during his life none was perhaps more frustrating than his failed attempt to build a railroad on his beloved Eastern Shore. During the first half of the nineteenth century, internal improvements--the construction of railways, canals, and national road systems for instance--was a hot topic in both state and national politics, heated by the national visions of the Jacksonian Democrats (usually more liberal and friend to "the common man") and the Whigs (rather conservative and friend to banks and big business).  Emory was an ardent Whig and despised Jackson as an American Judas having betrayed the Constitution to the untrained, non-elite. Fittingly, Emory was also a disciple of Henry Clay's "American System" which called for federal and state spending on a system of railways, canals, and roads to facilitate the movement of information and commerce. In 1838, Emory was commissioned by the State of Maryland to travel to Europe in order to raise $8 million to fund the State's ambitious building projects. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad were already in operation and when Emory returned unsuccessfully from Europe he took over as the President of the Board of Directors of the Eastern Shore Railroad Company. 
A portion of what the Poplar Grove team has come across relates to the Eastern Shore railroad, including what appears to be a hand-drawn map of the proposed route; although the resident mice thought it quite tasty. When the team was at Poplar Grove last week during the media bonanza, we took one last sweep through the house and discovered a few items we missed initially, including a large Tilghman family bible from the eighteenth century and a small book on railroads. 
Sitting on top of a stack of relatively recent 20th century do-it-yourself guides and popular novels sat a small brown book entitled "Mitchell's Compendium to Canals and Railroads" emblazoned in gold on the cover. The official title is Mitchell's Compendium on the Internal Improvements of the United States: Comprising General Notices of the Most Important Canals and Railroads throughout the Several States and Territories of the Union: Together with a brief notice of works of internal improvements in Canada and Nova Scotia (Philadelphia: Mitchell and Hinman, 1835). It is, essentially, a snapshot of the national transportation picture during Andrew Jackson's second administration. 
While copies of the book exist elsewhere, the one we found in Poplar Grove is unlike any other. After opening to the title page, I called Adam over to take a look and we immediately recognized the signature in light pencil at the top of the page: it was none other than James Kearney, the chief engineer of the Eastern Shore Railroad. (See image.) It is unclear when or how the Emory's came into possession of Kearney's personal copy. 
Nevertheless, after thumbing through the well kept 84 page book, we opened it to the back cover and unfolded the pullout map Mitchell included. Included in the map were highlighted railways, canals, and roads throughout the United States and into its western territories. The Eastern Shore of Maryland looked conspicuously bare, until I leaned in closer and saw that someone, in all likelihood Kearney, drew in light pencil a straight line from Elkton, through Millington, and down to Princess Anne, where the line then split: the western-most line running towards the Bay and the eastern branch down the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Kearney, however, made his addition to Mitchell's Compendium in vain. Thomas Emory died in 1842, roughly two years after the State of Maryland cut the railroad's public funding. The railroad was not built until after the Civil War.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Struggles of Politics and War

Frankly, I find political history incredibly boring. There... I said it. As a member of the Poplar Grove research team, I know I shouldn't be uttering such blasphemy, but I can't help it. Whenever Jeremy or Abbie read aloud a newly found political letter and start saying words like "whigs" or "petition" I immediately zone out. I think it's a self-defense mechanism.

But war-- that is where my appreciation for history awakens. As I see it, few other areas of historical study offer such raw insight into the human condition. The papers found at Poplar Grove have already shed new light on a wide range of historical topics: slavery, social relations, agriculture-- the list goes on. Thankfully, military history is no exception. In fact, the attic of Poplar Grove housed the personal correspondence of a fascinating Civil War figure, Gen. William H. Emory.

From 1828 onward, W.H. Emory had dedicated his life to serving the United States Army-- a duty which he faithfuly fulfilled and tied closely to his personal honor. William would ultimately serve under the Union flag, but it was not without the struggle of conflicting loyalties. The circumstances surrounding Emory's ultimate commitment are quite foggy, to say the least. In the Spring of 1861 he hastily resigned his commision along with a large portion of southern officers of the 2nd Cavalry (which he commanded). For unknown reasons that have yet to be verified, he quickly retracted his resignation and came home to Washington.

Why the sudden change of heart? The Poplar Grove Papers are quickly lending insight into his actions and motivations during 1861. Recently found receipts and letters tie his economic interests to the Union, while almost all of his social relations including a son and many lifelong friends tie his sympathy and loyalty to the South.

What a struggle that must have been for the man! His own son, Thomas, was a surgeon for the Confederacy! His lifelong friends like Jefferson Davis and Joe Johnston were leading the Secessionist cause! According to his wife, Matilda (great granddaughter of Ben Franklin), all his sympathies fell with the South, yet he became a leading Union officer! What on earth drove him to commit to the North?

"I was simply performing my sworn duty as an officer of the U.S. Write the strongest letter you can & burn this. Five minutes conversation..."

Excerpt from a letter to J.R. 1861

With each letter I transcribe (many of which were secret, which he asked to be burned after being read), my theories make an about-face. Ask me at 8am why I think William retracted his resignation and I'll tell you it's because he was scared. Ask me again 3 hours later after I've transcribed another letter or two, and I'll tell you it was because economic ties kept him with the North. The only "fact" of which I'm sure of, is that I just don't know. But with each transcription, I am edging a little bit closer to the historical truth of William Hemsley Emory.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hey look! Another receipt!

When my father, James Wood, inherited Poplar Grove from our cousin Lloyd, I was ten years old. Even at a young age I was overwhelmed by the property. I had spent my whole life living on Indiantown Farm so it was not as if a farm was a new an exciting novelty to me. I was familiar with farm life and the beauty of my family's property. However, Poplar Grove was a new experience because it feels as though you have set foot into the past. Although the farm has been inhabited by many ancestors for generations, there seems to always be a feeling of time travel upon entering the property. Even at the young age of ten, I was able to appreciate this sense of history that Poplar Grove holds.

Now, ten years later, I am lucky enough to be a part of the group of researchers who are exploring that history. Everyone working on this project has their areas of expertise and interests whether it be in the political background, military history, or farm management throughout the centuries. The collection offers information in these areas and so much more. The best part about working on this project is seeing the excitement on my fellow researchers' faces when we discover something particularly interesting. When we uncover a petition against slavery or a detailed map for the plan for a railroad on the Eastern Shore, the excitement about the discovery is contagious.

Of course the project has its tedious aspects. Sometimes I feel myself getting frustrated at my ancestors for saving every receipt for grain that they received within a five year span. Currently, my ancestor Edward B. Emory has been the victim of most of my verbal abuse. He is an historian's dream come true because he saved every piece of paper he ever received and had more mail delivered than I have in my lifetime. I am now so familiar with his handwriting that I do not even have to read his signature before I recognize a letter, check, or receipt as his. However, despite my frustration at Edward, I appreciate his careful record keeping. I remember that every receipt gives a more detailed perspective into the lives of my ancestors. As a descendant, I feel that it is important to understand and get to know these ghosts of the past. After all, without them I would not have this incredible connection with the past, my heritage, and the land that ten generations before me have lived on.

An old trunk and a lock of hair

In the attic of the main house at Poplar Grove, we found a number of 19th-century steamer trunks, several of them full of photographs and papers. The largest one (on the left in the photo) appeared when we opened it to be full of old bolts of cloth and bits of lace that had been tucked away many years ago. Dr. Papenfuse was ready to close the trunk and move on to the next one - it bears mentioning that it was about 150 degrees in that attic, and that some honeybees who lived in the rafters appeared none too happy to see us - but I started pulling out the bolts of cloth to see what was underneath.

Lo and behold, under the cloth at the very bottom of the chest lay a stash of letters, some three dozen of them. They were written between about 1801 and 1805 from a teenage boy named Alexander Hemsley to his sister Anna Maria. Alexander was living in Chestertown working for to a merchant there, clearly missing his sister, who was back at the family plantation of Cloverfields, about 30 miles south. He also seems to have had a lot of time on his hands to write during business hours - in one letter, penned while he was keeping the "gloomy and silent" shop, he complains that "I see no person except, now and then, an old Negro comes in, and inquires for some thing or other, probably for articles that we have not."

Alexander also told his sister all of the latest gossip from town - who was dancing with whom at the ball, who was kissing whom at the party. He himself seems to have been a shy and somewhat lonely boy, always reproaching his younger sister for not writing him more. The most evocative fragment of the past, though, came to light when Dr. Papenfuse was unfolding the letters to place them into acid-free folders. We heard him utter a by-now-familiar exclamation - "Holy cow!" - and looked over to see what he had found. It was a lock of blondish-red hair, tucked carefully into a letter dated February 14, 1801. Young Alexander had sent his sister a lock of his hair for Valentine's Day.

Alexander lived until sometime in the early 1830s, dying bankrupt after an unsuccessful career as a planter. His sister Anna Maria married Thomas Emory in 1805, when she was just 18, and moved to Poplar Grove, where she would spend the rest of her long life - she died in 1864 and is buried under a marble slab in the family cemetery. Clearly, she cherished and preserved this token of her brother's memory until the end of her days, and it has now survived for more than two centuries to remind us of the long-vanished bond between two siblings.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Television coverage ... and more finds

A couple of the stories that ran last night and tonight about Poplar Grove (click the links to view in new windows):

Fox 45 News (Baltimore)

ABC-2 News (Baltimore)

WJZ Eyewitness News (Baltimore)

There's some nice footage in the Fox report of Olivia Wood, one of the research team who also happens to be an Emory descendant, talking about her ancestors. It also shows the team making some new discoveries inside a trunk that we'd thought held only mouse-eaten fragments.

The ABC-2 report has some great commentary by Dr. Papenfuse, and also features some passages from Robert Emory's journal of his voyage to the Indian Ocean in 1838, which we discovered in the house. (Young Robert died at the age of 28, just a few years after returning from his voyage ... and is buried in the family cemetery at Poplar Grove.)

The WJZ one, shorter than the others, also features the mouse-chewed tidbits, as well as some apparently original news footage of Civil War battles. (Warning: it is also preceded on the website by a urology ad.)

What the TV footage doesn't show is what happened after the crews left yesterday. We did a final sweep through the house to make sure we hadn't missed any documents ... and were rewarded with three Tilghman family bibles from the 18th century (complete with handwritten genealogies) , a 19th-century herbarium preserving pressed specimens of plants, and a very rare pocket atlas of canals and railroads from 1835. (Abbie, who discovered that one, will be blogging more about it later, and sharing photos of the find.)

More to come ...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


As we work our way through this fascinating collection of American memory, we find full letters on politics, and tantalizing fragments from creatures' nests. At the bottom of an 18th/early 19th century travel trunk we found complete letters from Tench Coxe in 1779 and this tiny remainder of another:

"Liberty ...
Poverty is the..
of Man..."

Ed Papenfuse
State Archivist

Monday, June 23, 2008

War of 1812 muster roll

Among the documents that we've just discovered at Poplar Grove is this military roster, on a large sheet of paper in perfect condition. It is headed "A Roster of the Attendance of Capt. Jas. Roe's Company Stationed at Bell Aire - August 31st 1814 the Campaign Commenced." There follows a list of names of soldiers, with check marks to indicate days on which they were present. (Click the images in this post to enlarge.)

Who were these soldiers, and what was the campaign? As it turns out, this document is a rare relic of an almost-forgotten battle in the War of 1812 ... a battle that was, however, one of the precious few American victories in the Chesapeake region ... where, just a week before this document was penned, British redcoats had torched Washington, DC!

With the White House and U.S. Capitol reduced to smoldering ruins, the British military machine turned its attention to the great port city of the Chesapeake - and the most booming metropolis of the young United States - Baltimore. They began moving their land and naval forces into position, determined to inflict a similar fate on the port city, known as a nest of privateers.

As a diversion to the Americans, and to interrupt communications with Philadelphia and New York, a small force of Royal Marines under Captain Sir Peter Parker was sent up the Bay in the 38-gun frigate HMS Menelaus. (The 26-year-old Sir Peter, first cousin of the poet Lord Byron, was described, incidentally, as "the handsomest man in the navy" ... it is unclear if the British commanders expected this to have any impact on the outcome of his mission, however.)

Attempting to pin down the local militia and keep them from reinforcing Baltimore's defenses, the Marines landed in Kent County and marched toward Chestertown. (Sir Peter is said – probably apocryphally – to have vowed: “I will have breakfast in Chestertown, or in hell.”) Shortly after midnight on August 31, the redcoats were intercepted by three companies of the Eastern Shore militia at a place known as Bel Air (not to be confused with the better-known Bel Air north of Baltimore across the Bay). The British charged but were met with deadly volleys from the Marylanders, losing 13 killed and 27 wounded. Among those left lifeless on the field was Sir Peter himself. Lord Byron later composed a poem on his cousin's untimely death and the undying glory that would be his reward.

Research by the Poplar Grove team and by Scott Sheads, National Park Service historian at Fort McHenry National Monument, has shown that Capt. James Roe's company was a cavalry unit of the 35th Maryland Militia, from Queen Anne's County. These troops apparently did not reach the scene in time to participate in the Battle of Caulk's Field, as it would be known, but arrived to reinforce the militiamen from Kent County who had driven off the invading British. Two weeks later, of course, the British would launch a full-scale land and sea attack on Baltimore - and be similarly repulsed by Maryland's militia volunteers at North Point and Fort McHenry.

Among the names on the roster is that of a Private "Will. Emory" - which may explain its presence among the Emory papers at Poplar Grove.

Contemporary newspaper stories also reveal that Capt. James Roe lived near Poplar Grove, in the Church Hill District of Queen Anne's County. He and General Thomas Emory, the owner of Poplar Grove, were political allies as leaders of the local Democratic-Republican party in the 1810s, and in the 1820s joined in support of the administration of John Quincy Adams. James Roe eventually became a militia colonel and judge of the Orphans Court, and lived until 1856.

Distrusting standing armies, America's 18th-century founders had placed their faith in militia companies like this one to defend the nation from foreign invasion. (None envisioned, of course, a scenario in which American troops would ever be called on to invade another country!) However, few militiamen proved as effective in wartime as those who fought at Caulk's Field. Militia companies in 19th-century America were notoriously unreliable, and even unruly, units. Many members lacked proper uniforms and weapons, and occasional regimental drills were often simply excuses for the "citizen-soldiers" to get away from their families for a day or two and do some heavy drinking with the boys. Other local militia documents that we found at Poplar Grove - court-martial records levying fines for absences - attest that commanders often had problems even getting their troops to show up for drill.

By the mid-19th century, according to the historian Daniel Walker Howe (winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in history), the militia had "gradually ceased to function because most male citizens resented it as an imposition, and hated serving in it so much that they either refused to show up for the periodic musters and drills, or if they came made a mockery of the occasion."

The militia does, however, still survive in the form of the modern-day National Guard, which was formed in the early 20th century out of the various state militias. Coincidentally, one of the Washington College students working on the Poplar Grove Project, Jeremy Rothwell '09, recently returned from National Guard Service in Iraq. Jeremy's unit is a direct descendant of a Maryland militia regiment that served in the campaign of 1814 against the British.

A farm, a family ... and their stories

 A first-time visitor to Poplar Grove may think that it has been frozen in time since the 18th century: the old manor house, the outbuildings, the ancient boxwoods and family cemetery all evoke many generations of permanence and self-containment – almost a dream undisturbed by history.

But in fact, the farm that is Poplar Grove has been in constant flux throughout the past 340 years. Its name has changed; its ownership has passed through many hands; its boundaries have shifted repeatedly, growing and shrinking, breaking apart and coming together again. Old proprietors have gone and new ones have intermarried with other families, split the estate among heirs, sold off land and then reacquired it.  

Like the manor house itself – a fabulous hodgepodge of architectural tastes spanning three centuries – Poplar Grove embodies the dynamic change and constantly renewed ambition that are America’s characteristic heritage. And it has always been tied in many ways to the world beyond, even far beyond. Those who have lived there have had roles to play in many important chapters of the country’s history: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the debate over slavery, the Industrial Revolution, the Gold Rush, the Civil War, the rise of the United States as a global economic power. Some family members stuck close to the ancestral soil; others ventured thousands of miles from home. And while a few succeeded brilliantly in their ambitions, others did their best but failed.

Tens of thousands of tattered and crumbling pages preserved by generations of Emory descendants have carried the hopes and dreams of their ancestors into the present day. Each scrap of paper represents a story, a moment in time that has survived: whether an episode as mundane as the purchase of a new pair of shoes, or as dramatic as the outbreak of the Civil War.

These papers hold, still mostly unrevealed, the secrets of many intertwined lives, and it is through them that the dry bones of history can come to life. In sharing some of the documents here, we wish to honor and respect the long-departed men and women whose histories are contained in their pages. 

slide show of pictures of Poplar Grove

From the Annapolis Capital:

Discoveries at Poplar Grove

Please check back later today (Monday, June 23) for details on some of our exciting discoveries at Poplar Grove, including images of historic documents.

We appreciate all of the interest that this story is generating from across the country, and look forward to sharing some of our finds.