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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story

Walter B. Norris

published by
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p42  Chapter IV

A City of Wealth and Fashion

In spite of the efforts of Governor Nicholson and the enthusiasm of the Assembly to make Annapolis a fitting capital city for the province, it is evident that in 1708 the town had many features that savored more of the frontier than of London and was quite unlike, at least in its appearance and life, the elegant little provincial center of the middle years of the century. Though Anne Arundel was already the richest and most populous county, Governor Blackiston complained that there was no house provided for the Governor and that necessaries were much dearer in Annapolis than elsewhere.

A famous satire of the early days of the century also hints at a town of few beauties. This is "The Sot‑Weed Factor" (The Tobacco Buyer), by Ebenezer Cook, published in London in 1708. Cook was the son of an English captain who made frequent voyages to Maryland and was himself a resident for some years  p43 as Deputy Receiver General for the Baltimores. Writing in his poem, from personal experience, perhaps, he tells of reaching Maryland, visiting a rude settlement where everybody becomes drunk at the tavern, of being robbed of his clothes, and finally of being swindled out of all his money by a Quaker on the Eastern Shore. He thereupon travels to Annapolis to secure restitution by a law suit.

Of the town he says, in the Hudibrastic style in which he writes,

"Up to Annapolis I went,

A city situate on a plain,

Where scarce a house will keep out rain.

The buildings framed of cypress rare

Resemble much our Southwark Fair.

But stranger here will scarcely meet

With market place, exchange, or street.

And if the truth I must report,

'Tis not so large as Tottenham Court."

In the end he loses his case before a biased and drunken court.

Though William Parks, the Annapolis printer, remarked, when he reprinted the poem in 1731, that it was a description of the town twenty years earlier and did not agree with the  p44 condition of affairs later, there was evidently some truth in the picture. To one accustomed to the neatness and uniformity of English towns, except for the distinction between the gentlemen, tradesmen, and laborers, the motley crowds at taverns and markets in Maryland must have seemed crude and uncivilized. Indians were plentiful, and those from the Eastern Shore, who had been civilized and Christianized, might often be seen on the streets. The toleration of all sects brought in Quakers in their distinctive garb; Scots came in large numbers, as did Irish, both Catholic and Protestant. Many Germans were also attracted, and in 1755 three shiploads of poor Acadians were landed in Annapolis and scattered through the province, most of them going to Baltimore. Many black slaves were also imported.

The need of labor, and Lord Baltimore's offer to give as high as one hundred acres of land to any one bringing in a servant, resulted in the arrival of indentured servants and convicts in large numbers. Hardly a ship arrived without its load of twenty to fifty men and women who were to be sold off for from two to  p45 five years to pay for the money advanced for their passage. These reached their height about the middle of the century.

The importation of convicts continued up to the Revolution. In 1736 one shipload of 105 convicted felons from Newgate, Marshalsea, and various county jails reached Annapolis. While many of these were not real criminals, but had been imprisoned for debt or were the victims of the harsh criminal statutes of the time, many others were the worst characters and did nothing to increase the wealth or prosperity of the colony. Severe penalties were imposed upon indentured servants who ran away from their masters; if caught, they were condemned to still longer servitude or sent to labor in the iron mines of western Maryland.

With a population in the middle of the century which was one‑third negro slaves, many social difficulties arose that gave the colony anything but the appearance of a well organized and respectable English town. Laws even had to be passed dooming to perpetual slavery all offspring of marriages between white women and negroes, and providing severe punishment  p46 for any clergyman who performed such marriages.

The insecurity of the life of the Maryland plantation owner, and even of the townsman, is picturesquely displayed by the following letter written in 1739 by Stephen Bordley, a young Annapolis lawyer, to his friend Matthew Harris. It read:

"We have lately discovered a conspiracy among the negroes in Prince George County to rise and massacre all the inhabitants on this shore, and the [scheme] was as well laid as any of the kind that I ever heard of. They were on a Sunday appointed to meet at a particular place to the number of two hundred, and after having chosen their several officers (the first thinker of mischief having been all along agreed by them to be their king) they were to disperse every one to their several houses and there to stay till after the families in the county were abed, when they were to destroy all those of their several families, negro women and all, except the young white women only, whom they intended to keep for their wives.

"By [seizure] of the several arms which they  p47 would pick up in each family and their masters' horses and furniture they were immediately to repair to the field where the consultation was to be held, and, when a sufficient number of them was got together, they were to ride in the night immediately up to Annapolis. And dividing into two parties, one was to secure the Powder House and the other the Council Room; which when they had done and sufficiently fortified themselves with arms and ammunition, they were to disposeº in several bodies over the town and cut the throats of men, women, and children, excepting none but the white young women; when they had done (as they expected and no doubt but they would) all the negroes far and near would flock into them, they were then to disposeº again into the country in large bodies and to cut off all the surviving families, and when they had done this job they intended to return to town with their young white wives and dividing the houses among themselves were to settle their government, laws, and upon the first opportunity to dispatch all the boats they could over to your [Eastern] shore to bring over such negroes as would be willing to join them.

 p48  "And in case they heard of any considerable head being made against them from your shore or other shores so that they could not keep these parts, they were to pack up all worth carrying and depart the country with their white wives to settle back in the woods.

"The first Sunday appointed for the undertaking was so rainy that few met; among those wanting were their chiefs, and the same cause providentially put it off for two other Sundays, and in the meantime a good fellow of the number belonging to Mr. Brooke, finding they were resolved to kill his master among the rest, informed him of it, which blew up the design of them, (among whom is their king, and they say a clever and sensible fellow between 40 and 50 years old). [He is] now in the county gaol, and the sheriff daily expects eight or ten more.

"This affair had been eight months in agitation; this happy disposing has put us all upon our guard, however, and will no doubt produce some good effects among us. We are now at last contriving ways and means to secure the Council House and magazine by nightly watch — and likewise for the town — of four hardy fellows and  p49 arms and ammunition now disposed into every one's hands, and the time is come (alas the day which I never thought to see) of my being made a soldier. Col. Gale is the captain of our independent troop, Rogers of the foot. We can muster forty good horses at a quarter of an hour's warning with as many bold, daring fellows on the backs of them, and sixty foot, all completely armed.

"It is said, before the appointment of any day for the execution of the design, a negro woman lying ahead in a quarter overheard several of the negro fellows talking in their country language concerning this very affair, and she accordingly told her mistress of it next morning but could not gain belief. Foolish woman that sooner than give herself the trouble of looking into the affair would run the hazard of having her throat cut; but perhaps she had a mind for a black husband."1

Yet the fact remains that by the year 1750 Annapolis was beginning to be known as a city different from most of the colonial towns in respect to wealth, culture, and fashion. The process  p50 is an interesting one to trace, and the rise of the city is seen to be founded on two chief factors, its distinction as the capital of the colony and the rapid growth in wealth of Maryland from the cultivation of tobacco. The increase in population is clearly marked in the vestry records of St. Anne's, where the number of persons who pay the yearly tax of forty pounds of tobacco is recorded. In 1696 they numbered 374, in 1714 they had increased to 430, in 1717 to 504, in 1723 to 663, in 1729 to 809, and in 1768 to 1,217.

The location of Annapolis geographically made it the easiest town to reach from all parts of the province, and the legal and political activities which went on here also brought to it at some time in the year almost all the important landowners. Isolated on their estates a considerable part of the year, they rather welcomed the opportunity to travel to Annapolis for litigation, which was frequent, or to represent their county in the Assembly. Many of them made it a regular practice to spend the inclement weather of the winter in the capital city and to bring their families with them. Even if they  p51 did not possess a house of their own there, as did the Carrolls, hospitality was profuse and family relationships exceedingly wide.

It is also important to recognize that colonial Maryland was an exceedingly prosperous community. For the production of tobacco it had great advantages, temporary though they were. Land was plentiful and cheap, white labor was in general easily secured at a reasonable rate through the use of indentured servants, and there were also many negro slaves. With cheap food and cheap labor came prosperity, and with prosperity came the benefits of education, a higher type of hospitality and entertainment, beautiful architecture, interior decoration on an elaborate scale, better furniture, and all the refinements of life. To‑day much of such a surplus would be invested in better means of transportation, public and private, or in machinery for saving labor or performing automatic operations, but in the period before the Industrial Revolution a surplus of wealth such as the tobacco fields and the rising land values brought had to be used in refining life rather than in improving its utilities.

 p52  This accounts for what seems to us the excessive desire for dress, silver plate, fine furniture, and carvings as interior decoration, as well as for the large brick mansions erected. It also accounts for the prosperity of the merchants of the colony — an important class — for the only source of these luxuries was Europe. Thus imports were large and profits great. When a merchant advertised that his price to cash buyers was only double the cost of the goods to him, what must have been his profits when goods were sold on a year's credit.

One result of prosperity was frequent and close relations with relatives and friends in England and marriages between English women and the colonials. Not only did the young men spend a good part of their boyhoods in England in school, but visits were frequent, and such cases as that of one of the Dulanys, who served for several years as an officer in the Royal Navy, were not uncommon. And a considerable part of the higher circles of Annapolis was occupied by Englishmen who came over for a term of years as officials of Lord Baltimore and brought with them all the  p53 life, dress, and ideals of eighteenth century Britons.

Such intimate contact with the mother country naturally caused much imitation of English society, and we find most of the features of life in English towns reproduced on the streets of the colonial capital and in the homes of well-to‑do Annapolitans. Eddis, an Englishman who came over in 1769 to serve in the Loan Office, which was concerned with lands, and remained till the Revolution, gives us one of the best pictures of life in the town and proves himself a charming writer of letters as well as a good observer. His "Letters from America" stand as high as literature as any description of colonial life we possess. In regard to imitation he remarks that changes in fashion in London are transplanted to the colony even sooner than they are adopted by many persons of wealth in London itself. "In short," he says, "very little difference is in reality observable in the manners of the wealthy colonist and the wealthy Briton."

Thus in Annapolis, as in London, the men of the upper class wore such huge powdered  p54 wigs with the hair falling down in great curls that their hats had to be carried under the arm. They walked with a sword clattering beside them and threatening all the time to trip them by getting between their legs. The skirts of their coats were stiffened with buckram so that they stood out like huge sails. And the convivial habits of the eighteenth century Englishman were reproduced on the banks of the Severn. Stephen Bordley, a wealthy lawyer and bachelor who had been educated abroad, had Burgundy and champagne by the cask in his cellar and bought his Madeira by the pipe. He served the very finest wines and brandies, and died, like a real English gentleman of fashion, of the gout.

The ball dress of a lady of the time in Annapolis as in London was a masterpiece which required expert assistance in donning and made the wearer able to dance only the slow, stately steps of the minuet. On her head was a pyramid of hair, surmounted by a turban or a great feather head dress, while jewelled stomachers and tightly laced stays contained her waist and encouraged fainting. The dresses had trains of  p55 taffeta fifteen yards in length, and turning was possible only with the assistance of a maid.

For such ladies and gentlemen the coach with its four or six horses was the proper accompaniment. At the time of the Revolution at least six families in Annapolis exhibited this sign of gentility, and at the races at Upper Marlboro, and doubtless at similar events in the capital, sometimes fifty such vehicles were to be seen. There were also sedan chairs in Annapolis as well as on the streets of London, for Thomas Pryse, in 1774, advertises he has "a very good coach and herald painter, that undertakes painting of coaches, chariots, or chairs, either in cyphers, festoons of flowers, or coats of arms."

Another sign of imitation of English life was the interest in horse racing just mentioned. As early as 1745 horse races are referred to, and soon after the Maryland Jockey Club was organized by Governor Ogle and other gentlemen of the city. Regular races were instituted, generally during the sessions of the county court, when people naturally congregated in town. Races were for four miles, so that endurance, then referred to usually as "bottom," was essential.  p56 But the horses were of fine breed and frequently imported for the purpose. The usual subscription purse was one hundred guineas. The Governors seemed to feel it incumbent on them to follow Ogle's example and usually kept a racing stable. When Selim, the first thoroughbred horse of importance bred in America, and whose blood still flows in many American turf favorites to‑day, was sold in 1760, he brought £1,000.

As in Britain also, the luxuries and pleasures of life were carried to excess. Bull baiting, in which the wildest bull in the county was attacked by the fiercest and most courageous dogs of the gentlemen of the district, was generally a feature of the week devoted to horse races and court business. And cock fighting was well nigh universal. On account of the time required in raising fighting birds and the fact that fights were generally to the death, such a sport drained many a gentleman's pocketbook.

More serious than either was the excessive drinking. Liquor was cheap whether imported or manufactured in the colony. Club meetings and all social dinners were expected to end in  p57 the servants assisting their masters home. After the usual dinner was over the ladies retired and the gentlemen sat and consumed bumpers of all sorts until they were at least incapable of intelligent conversation. At dedications, celebrations, and holidays there was never lacking plenty of wine for the gentlemen and rum and beer for the common people.

A striking picture of the life and hospitality of the Annapolitans just before the middle of the century is contained in the Journal of William Black, secretary of a commission from Virginia which visited Annapolis in 1744 to discuss a joint treaty with the Iroquois by the colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The party sailed up the bay and arrived in the harbor of Annapolis on the 18th of May. They were met by the gentlemen of the town, who —

"Conducted (them) to the first tavern in the town, where they welcomed the Commissioners and the gentlemen of their levee to Annapolis with a bowl of punch and a glass of wine, and afterward waited on us to the home of the Honorable Edmund Jennings, Esq., Secretary of the Province, where we dined sumptuously."

 p58  The next morning the whole party soon proceeded to the home of Governor Bladen, where they had been invited to dinner.

"We were received," Black records, "by his Excellency and his lady in the hall, where we were an hour entertained by them, with some glasses of punch in the intervals of the discourse; then the scene changed to the dining room, where you saw a plain proof of the great plenty of the country, a table in the splendent manner set out with a great variety of dishes, all served up in the most elegant way, after which came a dessert no less curious, among the rarities of which it was composed was some fine ice cream, which, with the strawberries and milk, eat most deliciously. After this repast was over, which, notwithstanding the great variety, showed a face of plenty and neatness more than luxury or profuseness, we withdrew to the room in which we were first received, where the glass was pushed briskly around, sparkling with the choicest wines, of which the table was replenished with a variety of sorts."

Governor Bladen's wife he describes as "of middle size, straight made, black hair, and of a  p59 black complexion, much pitted with small‑pox, but very agreeable. . . . She is a passionate admirer of the game of whist, which she is reckoned to play admirably well."

He visited the Assembly while it was in session, but he found it nothing but a "confused multitude, and the greater part of the meaner sort, such as make patriotism their plea but preferment their design."

The Commissioners were given a ball in the Council Room, and, here he says, "Most of the ladies of any note in the town were present and made a very splendent appearance. In a room back from where they danced were several sorts of wines, punch, and sweet meats; in this room those who were not engaged in any dancing match might either employ themselves at cards, dice, backgammon, or with a cheerful glass."

The ladies were so anxious to have the visitors dance that Black remarks facetiously that they may have had designs to test their endurance, and did continue the ball till one o'clock in the morning. At a later dancing party in a private house the gentlemen were supposed to escort their partners home, but one lady had  p60 so captivated the company that she found herself with two escorts. Yet she did not lack wit to extricate herself from the difficulty; "with the help of her heels she gave both the slip, leaving them to grope their way to where they lodged." Another gentleman, after escorting his partner home, lost his way and fell into a swamp, from which he emerged and appeared at his lodgings in mud to his knees.2

The Author's Notes:

1 Letter Book of Stephen Bordley in MS. Collections, Maryland Historical Society, page 58 ff.

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2 "Penna. Magazine of History and Biography," vol. I, p124 ff.

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