In observance of Black History Month, we’re publishing Tuckahoe, a cycle of poems which beckon us to learn more about Frederick Douglass’s life and times – and to Stand in the Place.
Robert Madison wrote:
“By chance, in 1996 I moved to the northeast corner of Talbot County just as I was working on a production of my play about Frederick Douglass and John Brown, Prospect for Freedom. When I learned that Douglass was born only two miles away, I began a cycle of poems that looked at the county (and beyond) through his eyes as well as my own.
“Naturally, I have depended heavily on Douglass’s three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and on Dickson Preston’s Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. “
It’s a bit of a stretch to call Reliance a town. Officially, it’s an unincorporated community. It’s a place that straddles two states and three counties – Caroline and Dorchester counties in Maryland, and Sussex county in Delaware.
But in its heyday, Reliance was a place to be reckoned with — a hub of local commerce that served local farms and towns by storing and shipping goods between city and farm. Known as Johnson’s Crossroads, it was the starting point for the boundary that carved the new county of Caroline out of Dorchester County in 1774. And it was still making headlines a hundred years later.
Why was Johnson’s Crossroads (Reliance) so important in 1774? A contemporary map of Maryland (1794) offers clues:
Johnson’s Crossroads was an important junction on a road that linked the ferry crossings over all major branches of the Nanticoke and Choptank Rivers (shown above, north to south):
Hunting Creek at Linchester (future Preston)
Marshyhope Creek at Federalsburg
Nanticoke River at Cannon’s Ferry (now Woodland Ferry)
Broad Creek at Bethel DE and Pottsville DE
This road was noteworthy enough for the Maryland colonial legislature to name it as the boundary to divide Dorchester County in order to create the new county of Caroline.
Why did Johnson’s Crossroads appear on the 1796 map at all?
A cluster of stores and houses sprang up at Johnson’s Crossroads where a spur ran from the main road to Harper’s Mill on Gladston’s Branch and a ferry farther downstream on the Marshyhope Creek.
Marshyhope Creek leads to the deeper Nanticoke River. Flatboats and other river craft probably used this water highway to carry European goods from ocean-going vessels anchored on the Nanticoke to merchants at Johnson’s Crossroads who served the surrounding farms and towns. Flatboats in turn carried tobacco and – after the mid-1700s – grain, cattle, and produce from surrounding farms to waiting ships.
What changed? Why didn’t Johnson’s Crossroads grow like Seaford on the Nanticoke, Federalsburg on the Marshyhope, or Denton on the Choptank?
The Marshyhope and its branches were not deep enough to sustain trade that grew both in size and complexity in the 1800s. Trade in the new century required financial and distribution infrastructure — banks, warehouses, stores, and towns, that concentrated where the rivers were large enough for large sailing ships and later for steamboats. While Johnson’s Crossroads and even Federalsburg languished, Denton on the Choptank thrived, and nearby Seaford grew for another 100 years, because the Nanticoke was deep enough to carry barges in the industrial age.
By 1875, Johnson’s Crossroads still held one store and a church, with a few residences, a wheelwright’s shop, and Wright’s School just up the road leading to Federalsburg.
Did Johnson’s Crossroads have one last chance in the 1880s?
By 1882, the Dorchester & Delaware Railroad ran from Cambridge to Seaford (from the deep Choptank to the deep Nanticoke).
The new railroad line passed within two miles of the town. Did shopkeepers at Johnson’s Crossroads change its name to Reliance, hoping to catch the attention of railroad merchants?
Reliance grew to a half dozen shops by 1897. But never more.
Lord Baltimore commissioned the Bohemian-Dutch merchant Augustine Hermann to produce a map of his Maryland colony in exchange for a large land grant near the head of Chesapeake Bay. Hermann’s map was published in England in 1670.
How accurate was Hermann? I used GIS software to find out.
I laid two prominent points from the Hermann map over GPS ground truth shown in a modern basemap — Elk Neck Point near Hermann’s Bohemia Manor in the north and Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake in the south.
How accurate are the points in between? See for yourself. Pan and zoom, swipe the bar to compare in the map here. .
The skipjack Flora A. Price was built at Chase, Maryland, in 1910. She was one of the largest skipjacks ever built. Flora lived briefly on the upper Choptank at Denton.
Flora dredged Chesapeake oysters for 70 years, sailed as a yacht for awhile, and was finally donated to the now-inactive Old Harford Town Maritime Center (OHTMC) in Denton. She arrived at Denton in February 2000.
During spring and summer of 2001, OHTMC volunteers refinished her spars and re-stepped her mammoth 75-foot mast at Caroline Summerfest. But over the next several winters, it was hard for the small group of volunteers to keep the pumps running in Flora’s bilge, and there was no funding for professional repair and restoration.
In 2008, OHTMC handed over Flora A. Price to the Jim Richardson Foundation in Cambridge. At that time, she was the largest surviving skipjack in the Chesapeake Bay and had been recently named one of the 11 Endangered Skipjacks by Preservation Maryland. The Richardson Museum was working on a restoration plan and hoped to raise money for the restoration through grants and donations. Like OHTMC in Denton, the Museum expected to use Flora for tours and educational programs.
But it didn’t happen. Spinsheet and Last Skipjacks Project both reported that Flora A. Price had sunk in Cambridge Harbor, and in spring 2013 she was raised, broken up, and burned.
Our best photos and memories of Flora A. Price during her stay in Denton are here.
Altogether, they fought at Harlem Heights, Camden, and Yorktown, and on fields of battle in between. They tracked down spies, safeguarded the national treasury, tried deserters, and put down rebellion back home. They conferred with General Washington and urged Maryland’s governor to send more recruits and supplies to the front.
We know where they fought. But we know nearly nothing about the civilian life and final resting place of most of them – Adams, Feddiman, Driver, and Stainton.
The tombs of Richardson and Whiteley are in forgotten places. The rest are lost.
The Tomb of Colonel William Whiteley
Col. Whiteley’s remains lies in the Whiteley family cemetery near Whiteleysburg. The Whiteley mansion is gone. The burial ground now lies isolated in a large farm field.
Col. Richardson’s tomb is located on a plot of publicly-owned land at Gilpin Point, where the Tuckahoe flows into the Choptank. There is a decades-old, rusted marker miles away on MD 16.
By the 1920s, Richardson’s tomb was reportedly “crumbling”, and the manor house at Gilpin Point was already gone. The Caroline Historical Society added brick work and the existing memorial plaque apparently after that time. Today, the parcel is owned by Caroline County and is maintained as a public river access site.
I would like to point out a couple of inaccurate ideas about Frederick Douglass’s birthplace which are presented in your article, Douglass Park opens on bicentennial, in the Times-Record, February 21.
During 1800-1850, Boonsboro was a thriving crossroads village with a church, school, wheelwright shop, and homes. Its leading citizens were the descendants of John Boon, who acquired large landholdings nearby in the late 1700s.