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The town that sprawls across 3 counties, 2 states, and 3 centuries

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 (red) was marked but unnamed in Griffith’s 1794 map of Maryland

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?

River geography.

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.

1875 map of Caroline Caroline County by Isler

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).

1882 map of Maryland by Rand McNally and Company

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.

1897 map of Caroline County by Saulsbury
Reliance on the map in 1915 – USGS
Reliance on the map in 1941 – USGS
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1670 map of the Chesapeake – How good was it?

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.

In his A Biography of a Map in Motion: Augustine Herrman’s Chesapeake, Prof. Christian Koot uses contemporary accounts of Dutch and English navigation, land survey, and maritime map-making methods to imagine how Hermann gathered data and produced his map.

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.
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