Annapolis History, Baltimore History, War of 1812

St. John’s College: The Convergence of Walter Farnandis & Francis Scott Key

Well, folks, today’s entry was a rather spur-of-the-moment one. It all stems from a newspaper notice that was printed, on this day, 215 years ago—November 24th 1800.

When last we spoke, we used Walter Farnandis as a test subject for our 1815 Baltimore City map exercise. Today, let us return—however briefly—to Mr. Farnandis’s story.

As a veteran of the War of 1812, and one of Baltimore’s gallant ‘Old Defenders’ who came to the aid of the city during its darkest hour, Walter is already what we historians would refer to as a “person of interest”… But recently, a juicy new tidbit came to light, and it has ratcheted up his interest level—considerably so!

Walter Farnandis was born in Charles County, Maryland, on May 9th 1782, the son of Capt. James Farnandis—one of the famous ‘Maryland 400’—and Ann Elizabeth Wallace Farnandis, his wife.[1] On February 20th 1790, James explicitly stated in his last will and testament: “its my will and deſire that my two ſons Samuel & Walter Fernandis [sic] get proper Education then to be bound out at Walter Stones discretion either to a trade or to any kind of buſineſs that the ſaid Walter Stone thinks proper.”[2] After he died that spring, his young sons Samuel and Walter likely continued their schooling. But Walter Stone’s death in 1791 and his complete omission of the brothers Farnandis from his will almost assures that they were never bound out by him to any kind of trade or business, which leaves quite a gap in their respective life stories.[3] And as if their omission in Walter Stone’s will weren’t already strange enough, they went completely unmentioned in the will of their stepmother, Chloe McPherson Farnandis, as well.[4] By the time that Chloe’s will had been proved on May 2nd 1796, 13-year-old Walter was essentially an orphan, and whatever happened to him between Stone’s death and his arrival in Baltimore City during the early 19th century has long been a mystery. That is … until now!

Late one night, while combing through the far reaches of the internet on a research binge, I turned up the following nugget of information: Walter Farnandis, apparently, graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis. Wow! It proves that, even if we don’t know how he was able to do it, he managed to extend his education all the way through to the collegiate level. An uncommon distinction for most 18th-century Americans, much less an orphan! It places him in some rather exclusive company, probably due to the generosity of an unknown benefactor. St. John’s was—and still is—one of the best institutions of higher learning in the state.

According to a college register published in 1856 (coincidentally the year of Walter’s death), his classmates in the Class of 1799 included: Thomas Beale Dorsey, Thomas Rodgers, James S. Grant, Robert C. Stone, Dennis Claude, Philip W. Thomas, James Shaw, George Washington Parke Custis, Philip I. Thomas, Matthias Hammond, Beale M. Worthington, Kensey Harrison, and James Cheston.[5]

Plus, aside from the relationships that he likely cultivated within his own class, his presence at St. John’s during the 1790s raises the possibility for all sorts of other fantastic connections. Since he later fought in the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, perhaps nothing is more exciting than the possibility that he may have known, or at least crossed paths with, Francis Scott Key—a member of the Class of 1796.[6] I need not detail Key’s historical significance here… I feel certain that readers of The Monumental City require no introduction to him and his exploits. But since 18th-century American colleges were small, fairly exclusive, tight-knit communities, Key and Farnandis almost certainly knew one another… Or, at least, knew of one another.

As luck would have it, my question (as to whether or not the two crossed paths) was answered nearly as quickly as it was asked. From the aforementioned November 24th 1800 edition of The Telegraphe and Daily Advertiſer:[7]

ANNAPOLIS, November 20.

On Wedneſday the 12th inſtant, a commencement for conferring degrees in St. John’s college, was held in the college hall, before a very large and reſpectable audience, conſiſting of the honorable the legiſlature of the ſtate, and the gentlemen and ladies of the city. The vice principal opened the buſineſs of the day with a ſolemn prayer to the Supreme Being, after which the candidates proceeded with the public exerciſes in the following manner: 1. A latin ſalutatory oration, by Mr. Richard Brown, of Virginia. 2. An oration on the character of a good citizen, by Mr. C. Stone, of Maryland. 3. An oration on the modern philoſophy, by Mr. Walter Fernandes, of Maryland. 4. An oration on the advantages to be derived from the ſtudy of hiſtory, by Mr. James Boyle, of Maryland. 5. An oration on ridicule, as the teſt of truth, by Mr. John Sanders, of Maryland. 6. An oration on party ſpirit, by Mr. Philip Thomas, of Maryland. The degree of bachelor of arts was then conferred by the principal of Meſſrs. Richard Brown, Robert C. Stone, Walter Fernandes, James Boyle, John Sanders, Philip Thomas, and Thomas Rogers—Meſſrs. James S. Grant and Thomas Dorſey, who were prevented from attending the commencement with their claſs, were alſo admitted to the ſame degree. At the ſame time, Meſſrs. Charles Alexander, Thomas Chaſe, John B. Ducket, John C. Herbert, John J. Tſchudy, Richard Harwood, William Cooke, Robert H. Goldſborough, Francis Key, Daniel Murray, John Shaw and Carliſle Whiling, alumni of St. John’s college were admitted to the degree of maſter of arts. 7. Valedictory oration by Mr. Thomas Rogers, of Maryland. The principal then cloſed the buſineſs of the commencement with a ſhort addreſs to the graduates reſpecting their future conduct in life, and concluded by commending them to the care of the Almighty Governor of the Univerſe.

Amazing! It’s interesting that the college register says that he graduated in the Class of 1799, while the newspaper account of his commencement ceremony makes it rather clear that he was actually in the Class of 1800. And of course his name is spelled incorrectly in the paper… An all-too-typical error. Regardless, we now know for a fact that—at the very least—Francis Scott Key both saw and heard Walter Farnandis speak! And likely vice versa. Not only that, but Key received his A.M. from St. John’s on the same day when, and at the same ceremony where, Walter Farnandis received his A.B.!

Of additional interest is the fact that the college register lists Jesse Eichelberger as a member of the Class of 1800.[8] Though not in the commencement article from November of that year, Eichelberger was most definitely a student at St. John’s College; his pertinence here being the fact that he served as a first lieutenant in the Baltimore Fencibles—the same unit in which Walter Farnandis served as a private during the Battle of Baltimore.[9] Thus, Walter undoubtedly saw and took orders from his former St. John’s classmate at Fort McHenry during the bombardment on September 13th & 14th 1814. Eichelberger’s post as the second in command in the Baltimore Fencibles may have even been the reason why Walter chose to join that particular unit—maybe he fancied the idea of serving in the same outfit with an old college buddy.

So, the $64,000 question, of course, is: did Walter Farnandis & Francis Scott Key ever talk about the Battle of Baltimore, after the fact? Perhaps at a St. John’s College reunion in Annapolis? Maybe Key even had dinner at Walter’s house, No. 48 Hanover street, years later, and regaled the Farnandis family with his recollection of watching the bombardment from his truce vessel among the Royal Navy’s fleet in the harbor… Followed, of course, by Walter giving his recollection of the same event, from the exact opposite point of view. These two actually saw the rockets’ red glare—the bombs bursting in air. How incredible it would have been to listen in on their hypothetical conversation!

Unless someone turns up a letter, journal, or diary entry which recounts an interaction like the one imagined above, it will have to remain a hypothetical situation for now.

But a huge part of being an historian is using one’s imagination in conjunction with the facts at hand. And in this particular case, the facts at hand spark the imagination quite a bit!

1. For year of birth, see Walter’s tombstone in Green Mount Cemetery. The day & month are from family records. James Farnandis’s biography at the Maryland State Archives details his placement in the Maryland 400.
2. Charles County Will Book, 1788-1791, pp. 386-7. [link]
3. Charles County Will Book, 1791-1801, pp. 47-52. [link]
4. Charles County Will Book, 1791-1801, pp. 333-5. [link] Curiously, Chloe provides for her young stepdaughters, Amilla & Ann, but not her stepsons, Samuel & Walter.
5. Proud, John G., Jr., A.M., Register of St. John’s College, MDCCCLVI, Annapolis, St. John’s College [printed by Robert F. Bonsall], 1856, p. 4. [link]
6. Proud, op. cit., p. 3. [link]
7. The Telegraphe and Daily Advertiſer. 24 November 1800. p. 3, col. 1-2. [link]
8. Proud, op. cit., p. 4.
9. Saffell, Charles C. The Citizen Soldiers at North Point and Fort McHenry, September 12 & 13, 1814. Resolves of the Citizens in Town Meeting, Particulars Relating to the Battle, Official Correspondence and Honorable Discharge of the Troops. Also, Celebration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary, 1889. Reprint., Baltimore, Self Published, 1889, p. 12. [link]