For Spring Break, my family and I headed to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to visit our history. It was there in Kent County, that my third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart was born, studied at Washington College, married, and raised his children. My husband, daughters and I were only there for two days and one night, but that was long enough to recreate significant pieces of my family’s past.
I have Washington College archivist, Susan Elter and C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience director, Adam Goodheart to thank for all of these discoveries. When I first learned that my triple great grandfather studied at Washington College, I contacted the C.V. Starr Center. Goodheart recalled William R. Stuart’s name from a collection of letters he and his students found at Poplar Grove, an estate not too far from the college. Those letters are now part of the Emory Family Papers at the Maryland State Archives. Finding the Poplar Grove papers inspired Goodheart’s highly acclaimed book, “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” just released in conjunction with the sesquicentennial anniversary of the conflict. Goodheart also contributes to “Disunion,” the New York Times blog about the Civil War.
Goodheart then put me in touch with Susan Elter who quickly turned up four of William R. Stuart’s letters in the Joseph Wickes IV papers at the college’s archives. Dated from 1828 to 1840, the letters are an intimate look at Stuart’s work as a merchant selling everything from buckwheat to slaves. I was sorely surprised that he sold slaves for Wickes because in his personal letters to his sons, he warned them against getting involved in slavery. Like some of our founding fathers that espoused that all men are created equal while keeping some of those men as slaves, my third great-grandfather was contradictory and flawed.
As I was leaving the archives to meet up with my husband and kids who were waiting patiently outside for our long overdue lunch, Elter came running out with a manila folder in her hand. It was labeled Alexander Stuart, also from the Wickes collection. Both William’s father and brother were named Alexander, but these letters undoubtedly belonged to his brother, also a merchant, also acting as the middleman to sell other people’s slaves. (Alexander Sr. died in 1806. These letters are dated in the 1830s). Elter is applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that would go toward digitizing and indexing this collection. That way, people like you and me can search the collection from our computers and she won’t have to chase us down when she very graciously finds more information that might be useful.
But Elter didn’t stop at finding my ancestors’ letters in the Wickes collection. She also helped me search through the library’s extensive research materials on Colonial Era Maryland. There, she located a land survey that showed Denbeigh, William’s plantation was located near Swan Creek in nearby Rock Hall and surveyed in the early 1600s! She also found an abstract of Alexander Stuart’s will and references to his service in the Revolutionary War (DAR here I come!) Not only was it exciting to find all of these documents about my family’s past, but I reveled in sharing the information with my daughters. My oldest is in the middle of studying early settlements in America. Before our trip while I was helping her study and asking her the names of explorers, her eyes glazed over and she answered, “one of those guys named John.” With the information we found, I was able to explain that there was a connection between at least one of those guys named John and her history. As we drove from Chestertown to Rock Hall past creeks and farms both bucolic and serene, she took in the scenery and I explained how Capt. John Smith explored that very area in 1608 and wrote that it was a great place to settle and set up trade. Cecilius Calvert, the Second Lord Baltimore, studied Smith’s writings before he sent the Ark and the Dove in 1634 to establish a colony on land granted to him by the King in that area. Lord Baltimore then granted the land to other English colonists for a small fee. According to “Maryland’s Colonial Eastern Shore: Historical Sketches of Counties and Some Notable Structures” by Earle Swepson, Denbeigh was one of the large tracts of land granted by Lord Baltimore.
So, I explained to my daughter that her ancestor, William R. Stuart lived on a piece of land that was among the earliest settled in Maryland and our country. This time, her eyes didn’t glaze over. She just smiled and said, “Cool!”
What cool discoveries are you making about your history?