Baltimore History, Revolutionary War

Happy 29th of July! The Day that Baltimore Read Aloud the Declaration of Independency

Huh? You may be wondering: the declaration of—ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄʏ? Well, mass standardization of the English language had not quite yet taken hold by the 1770s, and believe it or not, Baltimoreans referred to their country’s de facto birth certificate as such.

Back in 1776, news traveled much slower than it does today. Though Continental Congress actually declared “ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄᴇ” from Great Britain on July 2nd 1776—which is the day that John Adams (1735-1826) thought future Americans would celebrate—the document listing Americans’ grievances with Kɪɴɢ Gᴇᴏʀɢᴇ III (1738-1820) and their reasons for declaring independence, was dated July 4th 1776. Word of Congress’s decision rippled outward from Philadelphia, with the central point of dissemination being the Pennsylvania State House, now justly known by a different name: ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄᴇ ʜᴀʟʟ. Several days later, on Monday, July 8th 1776, the president of Continental Congress—John Hancock (1737-1793)—wrote a letter to the Maryland Council of Safety in Annapolis, informing Marylanders of the congressional action:

Philadelphia July 8th 1776.

Gentlemen.

Altho’ it is not possible to foresee the consequences of Human Action, yet it is nevertheless a duty we owe ourselves & Posterity in all our Public Councils, to decide in the best manner we are able, and to trust the Event to that Being, who controuls both Causes and Events, so as to bring about his own determinations.
Impressed with this Sentiment, and at the same time fully convinced that our affairs may take a more favourable turn, the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve all connection between Great Britain and the American Colonies, and to declare them free and Independent States, as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed by Congress to transmit to you, and to request you will have it proclaimed in your Colony in the way you shall think most proper.
The important consequences to the American States from this Declaration of Independence, considered as the ground & foundation of a future Government will naturally suggest the propriety of proclaiming it in such a manner as that the People may be universally informed of it.

I have the Honour to be Gentlemen
Your most obedt and very hbl Sevt
John Hancock Prest

to the Maryland Council of Safety

The next day, Tuesday, July 9th 1776, the Declaration of Independence was published in full on page two of Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette; or the Baltimore General Advertiſer, in columns two and three. The document having been voted on, but not signed [ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴄᴛᴜᴀʟ ᴅᴏᴄᴜᴍᴇɴᴛ ᴡᴀsɴ’ᴛ sɪɢɴᴇᴅ ᴜɴᴛɪʟ ᴀᴜɢᴜsᴛ 2ɴᴅ], the Gazette listed John Hancock as the lone signatory. While Hancock’s letter to the Maryland Council of Safety included an official copy of the Declaration as an enclosure, it is clear that John Dunlap (1747-1812) decided to publish the Declaration independently of Hancock’s correspondence. This is because Dunlap’s paper ran the Declaration under the following header: “P H I L A D E L P H I A, July 6.” In other words, Dunlap’s source for the information was two days older than Hancock’s letter. The notion that Dunlap could have gotten the news out so quickly is not surprising. After all, in addition to his printing office on Market-street in Baltimore Town, he had another office that was in Philadelphia [ᴄᴏɪɴᴄɪᴅᴇɴᴛᴀʟʟʏ, ᴀʟsᴏ ᴏɴ ᴍᴀʀᴋᴇᴛ-sᴛʀᴇᴇᴛ], where he published his senior newspaper—Dunlap’s Pennſylvania Packet; or the General Advertiſer, which (founded in 1771) predated his Maryland Gazette (founded in 1775) by four years.

1776 Dunlap Broadside

The Dunlap Broadside that belongs to the Library of Congress.

Dunlap was well established in Philadelphia, having gone there as a ten-year-old boy in 1757 to apprentice with his printer uncle, William Dunlap. By 1766, Uncle William had left the business in his hands—making the nephew a full-fledged printer at nineteen. Ten years later, with Continental Congress in session at the soon-to-be-called Independence Hall, Dunlap’s star rose even higher as he obtained the lucrative printing contract for the fledgling U.S. Government. With the congressional contract in hand, Dunlap’s sources regarding news streaming out of Congress were impeccable. Case in point: on the night of July 4th 1776, word of the Declaration came straight from John Hancock himself. He ordered Dunlap to print about 200 copies of the document on broadside—ɴᴏᴡ ᴋɴᴏᴡɴ ᴀs ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴜɴʟᴀᴘ ʙʀᴏᴀᴅsɪᴅᴇ. This was the first time the Declaration was ever committed to type, and of that original run, only twenty-six copies are known to exist. It was undoubtedly a Dunlap Broadside copy of the Declaration that Hancock enclosed with his letter addressed to the Maryland Council of Safety. So, knowing that Dunlap got word of the Declaration of Independence from Hancock, and on July 4th 1776 no less … when he ran the document in his Baltimore newspaper on July 9th 1776, his header could just as easily have read: “ʜᴀɴᴄᴏᴄᴋ ᴛᴏʟᴅ ᴍᴇ ᴛʜᴇ ɴᴇᴡs!”

That Dunlap was actively engaged as a printer in Baltimore Town while simultaneously maintaining operations in Philadelphia was no secret. The colophon at the bottom of page four in Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette even advertised the fact that he also published a Pennsylvanian newspaper: “B A L T I M O R E: Printed by JOHN DUNLAP at his Printing-Office in Mᴀʀᴋᴇᴛ-Sᴛʀᴇᴇᴛ, where Subſcriptions at Tᴇɴ Sʜɪʟʟɪɴɢs per Annum, Advertiſements, &c. are received for this Paper; alſo for the Pennſylvania Packet, and all manner of Printing Work done with the utmoſt Expedition.” The corresponding colophon on the bottom of the Pennſylvania Packet‘s fourth page noted that the physical printing of that paper was farmed out to the office of the Saturday Evening Mirror, at 23 S. Seventh-street in Philadelphia. This would suggest that Dunlap’s business in Philly had grown to such an extent that he was contracting at least some of his newspaper work out to other area printers.

— PROCLAIMING IT IN PUBLICK —

George Washington ordered that the Declaration of Independence [ᴀ ᴅᴜɴʟᴀᴘ ʙʀᴏᴀᴅsɪᴅᴇ!] be read aloud to the Continental Army in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 9th 1776. Baltimoreans learned of that event one week later, in the Tuesday, July 16th 1776 edition of Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette, on the first column of page two—an excerpt of which appears here:

N E W – Y O R K,  July 11.

On Tueſday laſt, the Congreſs’s Declaration of the Independence of the United States of America, was read at the head of ſeveral Brigades in this city, with acclamations of Joy ; and, ’tis expected, will be declared in form by order of the Provincial Congreſs, in a few days.
Same day, in the evening, the ſtatue of King George the Third, on horſeback, in the Bowling Green, was taken down, broken into pieces, and its honour levelled with the daſt.

In the adjacent column, on the same page, news from Easton, Pennsylvania described their having received the Declaration, and publicly proclaimed it:

EASTON (Northampton county) July 8. This day the DECLARATION of INDEPENDANCY was received here, and proclaimed in the following order : The Colonel and all other field officers of the firſt battalion repaired to the court-houſe, the Light Infantry company marching their with drums beating, fifes playing, and the Standard (the device for which is the thirteen United Colonies) which was ordered to be diſplayed, and after that the Declaration was read aloud to a great number of ſpectators, who gave their hearty aſſent with three loud huzzas [ᴘʀᴏɴᴏᴜɴᴄᴇᴅ “ʜᴜᴢᴢᴀʏ”], and cried out Mᴀʏ Gᴏᴅ Lᴏɴɢ Pʀᴇsᴇʀᴠᴇ and ᴜɴɪᴛᴇ the Fʀᴇᴇ and Iɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴀɴᴛ Sᴛᴀᴛᴇs of Aᴍᴇʀɪᴄᴀ.

From the wording in that excerpt, it would seem as if Easton had a public reading of the document on the exact same day that it received it. Baltimoreans learning about the news from New-York and Easton may well have been asking themselves: ᴡᴀɪᴛ, ᴡʜᴇɴ ɪs ᴏᴜʀ ᴘᴜʙʟɪᴄ ʀᴇᴀᴅɪɴɢ? Oddly enough, despite receiving the Declaration and disseminating it via newspaper on July 9th 1776—Baltimore Town did not hold a public reading of the document until nearly three weeks later. The much-anticipated event took place on Monday, July 29th 1776, at the Baltimore County Courthouse.

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The old Baltimore County Courthouse, which was erected in 1768 when Baltimore Town replaced Joppa Town as the County Seat of Government. It stood at the point where Calvert-Street dead-ended into the cliff that gave way to a roughly sixty-foot-straight drop to Jones’s Falls.

An account of the proceedings was published the following day in Dunlap’s Gazette, in the second column on page three:

B A L T I M O R E.

Yeſterday, by order of the Committee of this Town, the DECLARATION of the INDEPENDENCY of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA was read aloud at the Court-Houſe to a numerous and reſpectable body of Militia and the company of Artillery, and other principal inhabitants of this town and county, which was received with general applauſe and heart felt ſatisfaction : And at night the town was illuminated, and, at ſame time, the Effigy of our late King was carted through the town and committed to the flames amidſt the acclamations of many hundreds.—The juſt reward of a Tyrant.

Another account appeared a day later, Wednesday, July 31st 1776, in a rival paper: the Maryland Journal, and the Baltimore Advertiſer, on page two, column number one:

B A L T I M O R E.

On Monday laſt, at 12 o’Clock, the Dᴇᴄʟᴀʀᴀᴛɪᴏɴ of INDEPENDENCY was proclaimed at the Court Houſe in this Town, at the Head of the Independent and Artillery Companies, and the ſeveral Companies of Militia, to the great Joy and Satisfaction of the Audience, with a Diſcharge of Cannon, &c. and univerſal Acclamations for the Proſperity of the Fʀᴇᴇ Uɴɪᴛᴇᴅ STATES………In the Evening the Effigy, repreſenting the King of Great-Britain, was carted through the Town, to the no ſmall Mirth of the numerous Spectators, afterwards thrown into a Fire made for that Purpoſe. Thus may it fate with all Tyrants.

The wording in both of these accounts differs slightly, and both offer unique versions of the day’s proceedings. The array of militia & regular units under arms for the reading must have stood in the public square immediately to the south of the courthouse—near the intersection of Calvert-street and East-street [ᴍᴏᴅᴇʀɴ-ᴅᴀʏ Fᴀʏᴇᴛᴛᴇ-sᴛʀᴇᴇᴛ]—as the document was read from the steps. Exactly what kind of cannon was used for the “diſcharge” is anyone’s guess, but it likely belonged to Captain Nathaniel Smith’s Company of Matrosses out of Fort Whetstone [ɴᴏᴡ ᴋɴᴏᴡɴ ᴀs Fᴏʀᴛ MᴄHᴇɴʀʏ]. And the fire that consumed the effigy of Kɪɴɢ Gᴇᴏʀɢᴇ III most likely occurred in the same public square where the document was read, as it was spacious enough to accommodate such things.

Courthouse 1776

The building marked ‘J’ is the old Baltimore County Courthouse—the present-day location of which is occupied by the War of 1812 Battle Monument. [From A.P. Folie’s 1792 Map of Baltimore Town, LOC]

Newspapers did not provide the only written documentation of the event. A review of the minutes of the Baltimore County Committee of Observation offers an additional insight into the political climate of Baltimore Town, circa July of 1776:

BALTIMORE COMMITTEE.

At a Meeting of the Committee
July 29, 1776

PRESENT: SAMʟ PURVIANCE, (Cʜᴀɪʀᴍᴀɴ,) W LUX, (Vɪᴄᴇ-Cʜᴀɪʀᴍᴀɴ,) AND BUCHANAN, Dʀ. JN CRADOCK, THOs GIST, THOs SOLLERS, W WILKINSON, WALTER TOLLY Jᴜɴɪᴏʀ, DARBY LUX, THOs RUTTER, JN MERRYMAN, JAs CALHOUN, DANʟ SHAW, EDW TALBOT, CHAs RIDGELY of Wɪʟʟɪᴀᴍ, JAs GITTINGS, JN SMITH.

This day, agreeable to the resolve of this Committee of the 22d instant, the Declaration of Independency was proclaimed at the Court-House by Mr. William Aisquith, (Mr. Christie being out of Town:) Captain Nathaniel Smith’s Company of Matrosses, Captain John Sterrett’s Company of Independents, Captain John Smith’s, Captain James Cox’s, Captain George Wells’s, and Captain William Richardson’s Companies being drawn up under arms on occasion. 

Though it may seem rather innocuous on the surface, the “ᴍʀ. ᴄʜʀɪsᴛɪᴇ ʙᴇɪɴɢ ᴏᴜᴛᴛᴀ ᴛᴏᴡɴ” line subtly hints at a more sinister subtext. John Thomas Scharf sheds light on page 147 of his 1874 history of the city, The Chronicles of Baltimore:

Mr. Robert Christie, Jr., who, as sheriff of the county, it had been supposed was the proper person to read the Declaration of Independence to the people at the court-house, refused to appear there for such a purpose. In consequence of this refusal on his part, threats had been made against him, which he deemed it prudent not to brave, and therefore he withdrew from the town. 

The Committee of Observation was not happy with the tension that these threats of violence induced, and feared that inaction on its part would lead to public mayhem. So the next day, it passed a resolution that clearly stated its position—as elaborated in the minutes:

BALTIMORE COMMITTEE.

At a Meeting of the Committee
July 30, 1776

PRESENT: W LUX, (Vɪᴄᴇ-Cʜᴀɪʀᴍᴀɴ,) JN MERRYMAN, BENJ GRIFFITH, JEREʜ TOWNLEY CHASE, W AISQUITH, JAs CALHOUN, JN COCKEY, JN BOYD.

The Chairman being informed by Mr. Robert Christie, Sheriff of this County, that he had reason to be apprehensive of violence being offered to him, the said Sheriff, on account of his not attending to read the Declaration of Independence on Monday last, agreeable to the desire of the Committee; and that from these apprehensions, he would be under the disagreeable necessity of retiring to the country, and withdrawing himself from the publick service; whereupon,
ResolvedThat the Committee do declare their utter disapprobation of all threats and violence being offered to any persons whatsoever, as contrary to the Resolves of Congress, and the sense of the Convention of this Province; that they conceive themselves bound to protect (as far as is in their power) the Civil Officers in the discharge of their duty; that they do expect of, and call upon every good citizen and friend to his country to assist them in their endeavors to preserve the peace and good order of society, and to prevent all riots and tumults, and personal abuse or violence to individuals; that the good people of Baltimore, having hitherto been so respectfully attentive to the Resolves of this Committee on all occasions, they flatter themselves that due regard will be paid to this recommendation.

Attest: Geo. Lux, Secretary.

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Were William Aisquith standing today on the spot from which he read the Declaration of Independence to the citizens of Baltimore Town in 1776, this is more or less what he would see: the view looking south on Calvert-street from the location of the War of 1812 Battle Monument. [Photograph taken by the author of this article, on August 20th, 2013.]

William Aisquith not only took Christie’s place at the reading, but he took his public office as well. Christie had served as the Sheriff of Baltimore Country from 1774 to 1776, but Aisquith became Sheriff in 1777. Though they never came to pass, the threats aimed at Robert Christie Junr eerily foreshadowed a problem that tormented Baltimore all throughout the nineteenth century, and one that still haunts it to this day: the riotous, mob mentality, which caused later generations of Americans to defame Baltimore with its most shameful moniker, “ᴍᴏʙᴛᴏᴡɴ.”

— A REVOLUTION ON PAPER —

While the Revolution occurred through spoken word for the unlettered masses of America, the educated classes also bore witness to a Revolution on paper. In this respect, John Dunlap led the charge on the front lines of Baltimore Town. In the same issue of his Gazette that described the public reading of the Declaration, he included a couple of well-placed adverts on the fourth page, just above the colophon. The first, was for a map of New-York that he was readying for the press:

In a few days will be ready for Sale by the Printer hereof (abſolutely neceſſary for every Officer under Marching orders for New-York.)
A ᴍᴀᴘ of New-York, Staten-Island, part of Long-Island, and New-Jerſey, in which will be delineated, the ſituation of the Britiſh Forces now on Staten-Island, alſo the different Batteries thrown up for the defence of Continental troops in thoſe parts. The Utility of ſuch a Map muſt appear obvious to every Officer who underſtands the nature of Actual Service.

The second was a plea to the local citizenry of Baltimore Town, for clean rags to keep a steady supply of paper on hand for his printing press:

L I N E N   R A G S.

Tʜᴇ higheſt price is given for clean Linen Rags, by Jᴏʜɴ Dᴜɴʟᴀᴘ, in Market Street, Baltimore. Who begs leave to inform the Public in general, and the good people of this town in particular, that the Paper Mills are idle for want of Rags; and of Conſequence, the Preſſes, the important vehicles of inſtruction and amuſement, muſt ſoon be reduced to the ſame unhappy ſituation.—We therefore flatter ourſelves, that this intimation of the languiſhing ſtate of ſo intereſting a manufacture will be ſufficient to prevail upon all careful Houſekeepers to ſave their RAGS and ſend them for ſale to

JOHN DUNLAP.

Both of these adverts paired nicely with a notice on the first page, which featured a plea of a different sort:

July 23d, 1776.

W A N T E D

As an Apprentice for the Printing Busineſs, a Lad about 14 or 15 years of age, who can be well recommended—Enquire of the printer.

Just as the militia and regular forces needed recruits, printers did too. And just as the militia and regular forces needed supplies and ammunition, printers did too. This is how they fought their Revolution.

So if you are wondering how to celebrate this 29th of July, and how best to honor those who gave us the freedoms that we now enjoy, allow me to suggest this:

Do something … ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄʏ!

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Eastern Shore History, Revolutionary War, War of 1812

The Amazing Lifespan of John Mitchell Senʳ (1710-1816)

“AT THE VERY ADVANCED AGE OF…”

While today’s post has nothing to do with Baltimore City in particular, it does reference a small notice that ran in a Baltimore newspaper, nearly two centuries ago. As printed in the June 17th 1816 edition of the American & Commercial Daily Advertiser: “Died on the 3d inst. at his residence in Dorchester County, E.S. Md. Mr. JOHN MITCHELL, at the very advanced age of one hundred and five years and nine months.”1

This short notice, and the news that necessitated it, provides an interesting window into how news spread, organically, during the beginning of the nineteenth century.

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James Mitchell Bigwood posing next to the grave of his fifth-great grandfather, John Mitchell Sen’r (1710-1816).

Truth be told, there is much confusion surrounding the date of death for John Mitchell Senr. His tombstone says, rather vaguely, that he “departed this life in 1815,” but this cannot be correct. Every single newspaper that reported his death, did so during the year 1816, and with someone who lived to be as old as John Mitchell Senr did, there is no way that newspapers would have delayed reporting that news for an entire year! The June 3rd 1816 date, referenced in the above newspaper notice, is also incorrect, for reasons that we will detail below. Based on the interpretation of the earliest known primary source, it seems clear that he actually died on May 20th 1816 … two hundred years ago, today!

We know May 20th to be his proper death date, because his death notice first appeared in a newspaper on the Eastern Shore—the Republican Star or General Advertiser in Easton, to be exact—on Tuesday Morning, May 28th 1816. It reads as follows: “DIED—On Monday last, at his residence in Dorchester county, E. S. Md. Mr. JOHN MITCHELL, at the very advanced age of one hundred and five years and nine months.”2 Had he died on Monday May 27th, the notice probably would have said “yesterday,” instead of “On Monday last.” So it is reasonable to assume that “Monday last” refers to the 20th day of the month.

The June 3rd vs. May 20th confusion is likely due to a bit of laziness at the Daily National Intelligencer in Washington, D.C., which appears to have been the first Capital-area newspaper to echo the news.3 It did so on Thursday June 6th, and assuming that it was referencing the above-mentioned Republican Star or General Advertiser report of May 28th, which said “Monday last,” it is possible that the editor at the Daily National Intelligencer, absentmindedly read it and thought it referred to the Monday of the week that he was already in, which would have been Monday June 3rd … thus beginning a snowball effect of misinformation, as many newspapers in major cities were more likely to have subscribed to a Washington, D.C. newspaper than to an Easton, Md. newspaper. Proof that lazy journalism is not just a byproduct of modernity—it stretches all the way back to the early 19th century, at the very least!

— A HOUSEHOLD NAME —

John Mitchell Senr has long been an interest of mine. Partially because he happens to be my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, but also because 18th & 19th-century centenarians were mighty uncommon. Consequently, the elder John Mitchell’s story is quite unusual for its time.

It is not the actual death itself that was newsworthy, but rather the fact that he had lived as long as he had. News of his longevity spread like wildfire up and down the east coast. This was 30 years before the Associated Press (AP) formed, so newswires—and telegraphy, for that matter—did not yet exist. There was, however, a method by which newspapers transmitted news to one another during the 1810s, which I alluded to above: newspapers subscribed to other newspapers. Sort of a pre-newswire wire service, shall we say. When the out-of-town newspapers would arrive at a newspaper office, editors or reporters would skim for the best little nuggets and bits of out-of-town news to include in their own papers.

The thought of a man living to be 105 years old is intriguing even now, during the 21st century, so it must have seemed doubly so to someone living during the early 19th century, when the infant mortality rate was much higher and the average lifespan much shorter. Accordingly, the death notice for John Mitchell Senr was picked up by newspapers as far afield as Charleston to the south, and Boston to the north. Each editor must have thought something along the lines of, “Whoa! John Mitchell on the Eastern Shore of Maryland lived to be 105 years old! That’s the kind of news that people want to read. I’ve GOT to include that one.”

John Mitchell Newspapers

Some of the newspapers that picked up the death notice for John Mitchell Sen’r.

Though the full list of newspapers which ran his notice remains unknown, it made it into at least the following editions: the aforementioned Republican Star or General Advertiser (Easton, Md.) on May 28th and the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on June 6th, the Washington City Weekly Gazette (Washington, D.C.)4 on June 8thThe Columbian (New York City)5 on June 10thThe Albany Daily Advertiser (Albany, N.Y.)6 on June 12th, the City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Charleston, S.C.)7 on June 13th, the Commercial Advertiser (New York City)8 on June 13th, The Albany Advertiser (Albany, N.Y.)9 on June 15th, the New-York Spectator (New York City)10 on June 15th, the aforementioned American & Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Md.) on June 17th, the Independent Chronicle (Boston, Mass.)11 on June 20th, the Columbian Centinel (Boston, Mass.)12 on June 21st, the Newburyport Herald, and Commercial Gazette (Newburyport, Mass.)13 on June 21st, the Salem Gazette (Salem, Mass.)14 on June 21st, the American Watchman (Wilmington, Del.)15 on June 26th, The Recorder (Boston, Mass.)16 on June 26th, the Hampshire Gazette & Publick Advertiser (Northampton, Mass.)17 on June 26th, the New-Jersey Journal (Elizabeth-Town, N.J.)18 on July 2nd, and lastly, the Camden Gazette (Camden, S.C.)19 on July 4th.

Not bad for an unlettered farmer from rural Maryland, huh?

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Part of Mitchell’s Garden, the farm owned by John Mitchell Sen’r (1710-1816). This photo is looking toward the direction of the family burial ground.

In life, John Mitchell Senr may never have even traveled outside of the 20-mile radius surrounding his farm. But in death, he … quite literally … became a household name.

— A MAN OF HIS WORD —

This was not just a case of someone claiming to be old. He was consistent when reporting his age, and when one looks at his story with a critical eye, the story checks out.

On July 21st 1764, the following appeared in Dorchester County land records:20

The Deposition of John Mitchel of sd County aged fifty four years or thereabouts deposeth & saith that about seventeen years agoe he was present when Thomas Mackeel & William Byus met as commiſsioners to take Dipositions conscerning the Bounds of the Land formerly calld Indian Quarter now called Thomas Chance when John Soward swore that his Father John Soward told him that at the place where he now shews was a pine as well as he remembers which was the first bounder of Indian Quarter & farther saith not.

John (his  marke) Mitchel

Sworn to ye 21st Day of 7br. 1764 before
Robt. HonHugh Spedden,
Commiſsioners

The fact that he deposed to be 54 years old or thereabouts, and then proceeded to recite the particulars of an event that he had witnessed relating to a boundary dispute, some 17 years prior—roughly around the year 1747 or so—lends a good deal of credence to his claim.

He would have had no reason to lie. And his claiming to be 54 years old in July of ’64 would place his birth date sometime around July of 1710, give or take a few months—which lines up beautifully with someone who would have been pushing 106 in May of 1816!

— MITCHELL ORIGINS —

Whence these Mitchells came is not exactly certain. The family lore has it that one William Mitchell and his wife, Elizabeth Gibbs, immigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland to Bermuda in 1612. Supposedly William and Elizabeth had a son named William Junr in Southampton Parish, Bermuda, in 1623, and this younger William is alleged to have fathered a son named John Mitchell. As the story goes, it was these Mitchells who immigrated to the Province of Maryland and settled in Dorchester County in 1684, where the John Mitchell (son of William Junr), supposedly fathered the John Mitchell Senr (1710-1816) who is the subject of this article.

This Scotland-to-Bermuda-to-Maryland story is one that has always piqued my interest. But does it match up with the historical record? I decided to do some digging to see if I could either confirm, or deny, its veracity. This proved to be a tricky task, though, since the Dorchester County Courthouse burned down in 1851 (thanks, apparently, to some maleficent arsonists). The county register’s office went up in flames, and 1777-1851 probate records are nonexistent. However, by some miracle, the clerk’s office records were salvaged from the fire, and county land records stretch all the way back to the year of its founding: 1669.

So, while the lack of probate records is a definite handicap, one can use land (and other) records to piece together whatever fragments of information remain, and with a little luck, further analysis of those fragments can form a story. In the specific case of John Mitchell Senr, there is also a very visual component to this analysis. He was an unlettered man, so he made his ‘mark’ on documents, instead of providing a signature. While it would be easy to write him off as being an ignorant, uneducated man, the type of mark that he made actually suggests that—while he may not have been able to read, or write in full sentences—he did possess a base level understanding of the alphabet. This is because, instead of the more traditional ‘x’ mark that is so often seen on old documents, John Mitchell Senr wrote a capital ‘I’ with serifs and a slash through the middle. “Why did he write an ‘I’?” you may be asking. Well, up until the 17th century, the letters ‘I’ and ‘J’ were interchangeable in the English language—especially in Latin texts. For instance, people named John often wrote their name as ‘Iohn’. Since John Mitchell Senr was born in 1710 (and raised by parents who were born in the 17th century!), it makes sense that he would have used the ‘I’ in this fashion. So, essentially, when he made his mark, he was writing the first letter of his given name. He may not have known all 26 letters, but he knew his letter! And his letter was ‘I’. [In order to properly convey the visual effect of his mark, I have chosen to display it as a ‘ᵻ’ glyph, as that is how it looks on most documents.]

Like tracing a name, one can follow John Mitchell’s glyph backwards in time—it is a trail of sorts. Wherever, and more importantly, whenever John Mitchell Senappeared, to make his mark, we are able to anchor him to a specific time and place.

IMG_2564

The ‘marke’ of John Mitchell Sen’r (1710-1816)

The earliest such instance of John Mitchell making his distinctive ‘ᵻ’ mark on a document, as far as I know, is a Dorchester County land deed from August 20th 1732. John Mitchell (who had not yet acquired the Sensuffix) witnessed a land transaction between Joseph Thomas and his son, John Thomas. Since John Mitchell was witnessing a legal document, he must have, therefore, been of legal age by August of 1732, which suggests that he was at least eighteen years old by that point … meaning that the very latest that he could have been born was August of 1714. Though this does not prove that he was born in 1710, conversely, it does not disprove it. At the very least, it verifies and cements his claim that he was a legitimate centenarian by the time of his death in May of 1816!

The crucial ‘link’ which proves the placement of John Mitchell Senr within the Mitchell family is a land deed from June 15th 1801:21

This Indenture made the 15th day of June in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and one between John Mitchell Senr of Dorchester County and State of Maryland planter of the one part and Richard Mitchell and Levin Mitchell of the said County and State aforesaid planters of the other part. Witneſseth that for and in Consideration of the love and and Affection which the said John Mitchell Senr hath and do bear unto his son Richard Mitchell aforesaid and his Grand Son Levin Mitchell aforesaid and also in Consideration of the Sum of Ten Shillings Current Money to me the said John Mitchell Senr in hand paid by the said Richard Mitchell and Levin Mitchell at or upon the Sealing and delivery of these Presents the receipt whereof I the said John Mitchell Senr do hereby Acknowledge hath given granted, aliened enfeoffed Confirmed and Conveyed, and by these presents doth give Grant, alien enfoeff convey and Confirm unto the said Richard Mitchell for and during his natural life and after his deceaſe unto the aforesaid Levin Mitchell and his heirs forever, All that part of two Tracts of Land lying and being in Dorchester County and State of Maryland affsd called Mitchells Garden and Johns Garden excepting that part of the Mill Point where the old Mill now Stand until the said Mill shall be movd off the said Mill Point, now in the occupation tenure and Poſseſsion of the ſaid Richard Mitchell and Levin Mitchell after the Decease of the said Richard and to Levin Mitchell and his heirs forever as aforesaid together with all and singular the houses outhouses Gardens trees, fences liberties advantages Emoluments hereditaments and appurtenances to the same belonging or any ways Appertaining, and the reversion and reversions, remainder and remainders, rents and Services iſsues and profits of all and singular the Lands and Premises hereby released and Confirmed or mentioned or intended so to be and all the Estate right, title, Interest property claim and demand whatsoever in Law or Equity of him the said John Mitchell Senr of in and to the Premises or any part or parcel thereof with the and every of the Appurtenance. To Have and To Hold the said Lands and Premises hereby Granted and Confirmed or mentioned or intended so to be with the Appurtenances to the only proper uses benefit and behalf of the said Richard Mitchell during his natural life as aforesaid and after his decease to his son Levin Mitchell and his heirs forever. And the said John Mitchell Senr for himself and his heirs executors and Administrators doth Covenant grant and agree to and with the said Richard Mitchell and Levin Mitchell afsd by these Presents that the said Richard Mitchell and Levin Mitchell shall and may lawfully from time to time and at all times hereafter Peaceably have hold use occupy Poſseſs and enjoy the said Lands and Premises hereby Granted and Conveyed with all and Every of the appurtenances free clear and fully discharged or will and Sufficiently save and keep harmleſs and indemnify from and against all former and other Gifts grants and bargain according to the true intent and meaning of these Presents. In Witneſs whereof the said John Mitchell Senr to these Presents have hereunto set his hand and ſeal the day and year first above Written, Signed, Sealed & Delivered

John (his  mark) Mitchell Senr {seal}

In the presence of…
Jno Stevens
Levin Woolford

KILM-10

Richard Wesley Mitchell’s house at Kilmaurie Farm.

In the above deed, John Mitchell Senr is giving a portion of his farm, Mitchell’s Garden, to his son, Richard Mitchell, and his grandson (the son of Richard), Levin Mitchell Senr. This farm—owned by Richard Mitchell—now bears the name Kilmaurie, and because it was originally part of the Mitchell’s Garden tract, sits directly adjacent to Mitchell’s Garden. It has a family burial ground on the property which contains not only Richard Mitchell (c.1740-1824), but his son, Levin Mitchell Senr (1768-1849), his grandson, Levin Mitchell Junr (1799-1846), and his great-grandson, Richard Wesley Mitchell (1827-1900)—the respective 5th-, 4th-, 3rd-, and 2nd-great grandfathers of yours truly—all of which corresponds with the entries in the Mitchell family bible.

KILM-24

The Mitchell Family Graveyard at Kilmaurie.

Since John Mitchell’s grave is located in the burial ground at Mitchell’s Garden, adjacent to Kilmaurie, and his mark in the 1801 land deed corresponds with the mark in the 1764 deposition, we may reasonably conclude the John Mitchells from the land records and the one buried at Mitchell’s Garden are the same person. But we can do even better than that!

“JN: TO HAVE Y FIRST CHOYCE…”

Following the chain of title backwards in time for Mitchell’s Garden, we find that before the land fell into Mitchell hands, it was originally called John’s Garden, and it was owned by a fellow named Richard Owen (sometimes listed as Richard Owing). Richard Owen purchased the property for 5,700 ℔ of Tobacco from James Williams on January 6th 1673/4, and maintained it until his death in 1713. A look at Owen’s Last Will & Testament provides some VERY interesting clues:

In the Name of God amen I Richd. Owing of Dorchester Co:ty being sick & weak but in perfitt sence & memory am minded to ~ settle my temporall affairs in a Christian Like manner first I bequeath my Soul to almighty God that I am aſsured of Pardon for my Sin’s don in this Life & this to be my Last will & Testamnt: making voyd all other wills & Testamt: here before made I appoint my Lo: wife Jane my whole & Sole Extx: of this my last will & Testamt: & of all & singular my Goods & Chattles & that my Grand=ſon Richd. Michall I joyne wth: ye afore Jane in ye Executr-ſhip afsd: the ye sd. Jane to have ye sole authority dureing her naturall Life & to pay all my just debts out of my Estate I likewiſe give unto ye afsd. Richd. Michall all my two Tracts of Land ye one called John’s Guarding ye other called Owings adventure during his naturall Life & after his deceaſe to his two ſon’s Richd. & Jno: to be equally divided between them Jno: to have ye first Choyce & after ye deceaſe of ye sd. Jno: Michal & ye sd. Richd. I give ye sd. Land to ye male heirs of their body’s ~ Lawfully begotten for evermore & for want of heirs then to ye next & nearest of blood to ye sd. Richd. Owing I likewiſe ordr. what is due from Jno: Brānock to me be left in his hands to be of Council for my wife Jane in her Capacity & likewiſe for my Grand=ſon Richd. Michal in his Capacity that I may be buried in Christian Like manner Sealed & delivered in the Prsence of us this tenth day of Septembr: 1713 //

Richd: Owing {seal}

Tet.
Jno: Brannock
Jos: (his T marke) Thomas
Jno: Moriſon //

And on ye back was Endorsed //

Decembr: ye 3d. 1713 //

Came before Jno: Brannock & Jos: Thomas two of ye wth: in Evidences & made oath on ye holly Evangelist that they saw Richd: Owing ſingn ſeal publish & declare ye wth: in written will to be his last will & Testamt: & that he was at ye same time of a Perfect & sound mind & memory to ye best of their knowledge Juratt Corum Mee Rogr. Woolford Depty. Comry. ~

Dorchester County // Mr: Rogr. Woollford whereas my deceaſed husband Richd. Owing by his last will & Testamt. made me ye Exrx. of his ſaid will wth: my Grandſon Richd. Michel but for as much I am very ancient & weake I pray that you would be pleaſed to grant Lrs. of Admracon unto him ye sd. Richd: wholly in his name for I have Riſigned my Right unto him as witneſs my hand & ſeal this ſeaventh day of Decembr. 1713 //

Jean Oen {seal}

Test Jno: Brannock

Wow! So John’s Garden (which was eventually resurveyed and renamed Mitchell’s Garden) was passed down to a ‘Richard Mitchell’ by his grandfather, Richard Owen! And the document further tells us that Richard Mitchell, grandson of Richard Owen, had two sons: one named ‘Richard’ and one named ‘John’.

IMG_2563

The signature of Richard Mitchell the Elder, and the mark of Richard Mitchell the Younger.

By Richard Owens’s specification that John should have the first choice of lands, it would seem that John was the older of the two Mitchell brothers. And, sure enough, when our John Mitchell acquired John’s Garden on June 13th 1744, he did so from a ‘Richard Mitchell’ and a ‘Richard Mitchell the Younger’—which we can presume was his father and his brother. A telling detail that would be easy to overlook on this land deed is the area where both Richard Mitchells (the elder & the younger) affixed their signatures and seals, confirming the validity of the transaction. Richard Mitchell signed the document in full, Richd Michell, while Richard Mitchell the Younger made his mark—a large capital R at that. So the elder Richard was lettered, while the younger Richard was not … just like John Mitchell! And, the younger Richard made his mark by writing the first letter of his given name … just like John Mitchell! Is anyone seeing a pattern here…? It seems that, not only were John Mitchell Senr and Richard Mitchell the Younger nearly identical in age, but they both had the exact same level of education, which further entrenches them as, not only close contemporaries, but brothers as well. Given the specifics laid out by Richard Owen in his Last Will & Testament, and the manner in which John’s Garden was transferred from one party to another, we may correctly conclude that Richard Mitchell the Younger, and John Mitchell Senr, are the same Mitchells mentioned in Owen’s will and, thus, his great-grandchildren!

By 1744, the year that John’s Garden transferred into the possession of John Mitchell Senr, both John and his brother were in their mid-thirties, likely well into raising families of their own. Their father was evidently still alive, but he was probably in his mid-fifties—not incredibly old for the time, but certainly not young either. Since Richard Owen deposed that he was “aged fifty six” in November of 1700, he was probably born in the year 1644, which would mean that any grandson of his, who would have been old enough to have had a child by the year 1710, (Richard Mitchell the Elder) was probably born sometime during the late 1680s or early 1690s—roughly around 1692, let’s say. This gets the Mitchells almost back to their supposed 1684 date of arrival. But I have my doubts as to whether or not they actually settled in Maryland in 1684, because the records would seem to suggest that they were actually here earlier than that.

There are two Mitchell brothers—Abraham & Mark—who lived in Dorchester County during this time frame. Abraham died in 1723, and Mark died in 1734, suggesting that they were likely both relatively old by that point. And there was a ‘Mark Mitchell’ from Dorchester County who was paid 300 ℔ of Tobacco by the Upper & Lower Houses of the Maryland General Assembly for military services rendered during the punitive expedition against the Nanticoke (a.k.a., the “Nanticoke Indian War”) of 1678. This, most likely, is the Mark who died in 1734. Assuming that he was at least 18 years of age during his military service (placing his birth year around 1660), he would have been around 74 years old at the time of his death—which would certainly explain the general shakiness of the ‘marke’ on his Last Will & Testament. In fact, neither Abe, nor Mark, were lettered, and both made their respective signs—an A and an M—on official documents. And Richard Mitchell the Elder (the lettered one) appears to have been closely associated with both! When Abraham’s Will went to probate, Richard appeared before the court and testified that he had actually written Abe’s will for him by hand, and then read it out loud to him before Abe agreed to its terms and wrote his giant, capital A next to the seal. And in Mark Mitchell’s Personal Inventory from 1734, “a (sic) old Gun & Augur” is listed among his property … might this be the very gun that he used during the 1678 expedition against the Nanticoke?! Further solidifying a relationship, the following signatures—Richd Michell, and the R mark of Richard Mitchell the Younger—are shown as “kindred” of the deceased. So, it seems clear that Richard Mitchell the Elder & Richard Mitchell the Younger were both close blood relations of Mark & Abraham Mitchell. What that blood relationship was, exactly, remains unclear. They may have been a son and grandson. In 1734, Richard the Elder would have been in his mid-forties, and Richard the Younger in his early-to-mid twenties; the younger Richard was certainly old enough to sign a legal document like the Inventory for his grandfather.

The working hypothesis is that Richard the Elder & Richard the Younger were direct descendants of Mark Mitchell. Mark seems like the most likely candidate based, in part, on an interpretation of the land records surrounding a tract of land called Paradice. This tract—which lay on the south side of Fishing Creek, off of the Little Choptank River in Dorchester County—was deeded from Thomas Vickers & Elizabeth his wife, of Dorchester County, to Abraham Mitchell of Dorchester County on March 15th 1720. In Abraham Mitchell’s aforementioned Last Will & Testament, made just a little under two years later on January 24th 1722, he left all of his land to Anne Vickers, the daughter of Thomas Vickers. Yet he did so with the following caveat: “if it please God the said Anne Vickers Dyd wthout iſſue then the Land ſhall fall to Mark Mitchell and the heirs of his body Lawfully begotten.” Anne Vickers must have died without issue, because twelve years later on April 30th 1734 when Mark Mitchell made his Last Will & Testament, he left a tract of land called Paradice to his four daughters—to them and their heirs forever. This means that at some point, the tract of land “fell” from Abraham Mitchell to his brother Mark Mitchell. None of Mark’s daughters are named in his Will, and there is no mention whatsoever of a possible son. But just because there is no mention of a son does not mean that a son did not exist. By the time that Mark Mitchell wrote his Last Will & Testament in 1734, Richard Mitchell the Elder would have already been adequately taken care of in terms of inheritance. Remember that Richard the Elder had been named in the Will of his grandfather, Richard Owen, 21 years before. So, perhaps, knowing that his father-in-law had made his son a legatee, Mark saw no need to add onto his son’s already fairly lucrative inheritance. Especially when Mark had four other children to provide for—his four daughters. Regardless, whether it was an outcome that Mark Mitchell had intended or not, after his death, somehow, Paradice mysteriously wound up in the possession of Richard Mitchell the Elder and his son, Richard Mitchell the Younger. Mark was dead by June 12th 1734—the date that his Last Will & Testament was admitted to probate—and yet just over one year later, on June 14th 1735, Richard the Elder & Richard the Younger, in tandem, deeded Paradice to Thomas Vickers. So, since it wound up in Richard’s hands after Mark’s death, going off of Abraham’s aforementioned caveat that the land should pass from Mark to the “heirs of his body Lawfully begotten,” we may reasonably conclude that Richard Mitchell the Elder was … one of the “heirs” that was “Lawfully begotten” from Mark Mitchell’s “body” … a.k.a. Mark Mitchell’s son!

Mitchell bloodline aside, it also seems clear that there was a very, very close relationship between the Mitchell and the Vickers families. The way that both intertwine just in terms of the chain of title for Paradice, is pretty ridiculous: the tract passed from Vickers, to Mitchell, to Vickers, to Mitchell … to Mitchell, and then back into Vickers hands! It would not be in the least bit surprising if one, or more of these Mitchells, was married to a Vickers bride.

They may all have been married to Vickers women.

And Elizabeth Vickers, the wife of Thomas?

She may have even been a Mitchell.



Footnotes:
1.
The American & Commercial Daily Advertiser. 17 June 1816. p. 2, col. 5. [link]
2. The Republican Star or General Advertiser. 28 May 1816. p. 3, col. 3. [link]
3. The Daily National Intelligencer. 6 June 1816. p. 3, col. 4. [link]
4The Washington City Weekly Gazette. 8 June 1816. p. 232, col. 3. [link]
5. The Columbian. 10 June 1816. p. 2, col. 5 -to- p. 3, col. 1. [link]
6. The Albany Daily Advertiser. 12 June 1816. p. 3, col. 1. [link]
7. The City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser. 13 June 1816. p. 2, col. 3. [link]
8. The Commercial Advertiser. 13 June 1816. p. 2, col. 5. [link]
9. The Albany Advertiser. 15 June 1816. p. 1, col. 3. [link]
10. The New-York Spectator. 15 June 1816. p. 2, col. 5. [link]
11. The Independent Chronicle. 20 June 1816. p. 3, col. 2. [link]
12. The Columbian Centinel. 21 June 1816. p. 2, col. 4. [link]
13. The Newburyport Herald, and Commercial Gazette. 21 June 1816. p. 3, col. 3. [link]
14. The Salem Gazette. 21 June 1816. p. 3, col. 3. [link]
15. The American Watchman. 26 June 1816. p. 3, col. 3. [link]
16. The Recorder. 26 June 1816. p. 104, col. 4. [link]
17. The Hampshire Gazette & Publick Advertiser. 26 June 1816. p. 3, col. 3. [link]
18. The New-Jersey Journal. 2 July 1816. p. 3, col. 1. [link]
19. The Camden Gazette. 4 July 1816. p. 4, col. 2. [link]
20. Dorchester Co., L.R. Liber Old 19, folio 429-432. [link]
21. Dorchester Co., L.R. Liber H.D. 17, folio 231-235. [link]

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