Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fragments of the Star Spangled Banner and the Figures in the Window?

The other day, a neighbor and her brother kindly invited me to examine a family treasure.  It was a dark wood framed display of two photographs and two fragments, red and white,  snipped from the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry during the British bombardment of September 12-13, 1814.

The fragments were taken from a gigantic flag, 30 by 42 feet, made by Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore whose house is now a museum devoted to its history. Recently the Smithsonian spent millions of dollars conserving the remains of the flag, which originally cost $405.90.

from Lonn Taylor, et. al. The Star Spangled Banner, p. 66

After overcoming the sticker shock of recent auction prices of similar, but less well documented pieces of the flag ($35-65,000), we settled down to unraveling the history of the framed fragments before us and of the two photographs that accompanied them.

The fragments were cut from the flag while it was in the care of Captain George Henry Preble, the first serious historian of the flags and pennants of the United States,and sent to Henry May Keim of Reading, Pennsylvania.  Captain Preble had the first known photographs taken of the flag.  A copy of one of his photographs was framed with the two fragments by Keim along with another photograph of a holograph copy of the song by Francis Scott Key that we know today as "The Star Spangled Banner," our national anthem since 1931.   Henry May Keim inherited the autograph manuscript from his father, a friend of Francis Scott Key, and subsequently gave it to the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Before that either he or Preble made photographic copies which they both retained to frame with fragments of the flag.

When Preble framed three other fragments for himself, he used the same photographs of the flag and Key's song as had Henry May Keim.

from Lonn Taylor, et. al. The Star Spangled Banner, p.89

In all, before the flag finally came into public hands in ca.1912, more than 200 square feet of material had been cut away or lost.

The owner has left the family treasure on deposit at the Maryland State Archives for appraisal and possible sale to the Friends of the Maryland State Archives if they can raise the money to acquire it for exhibit as part of the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations.

But who are the people in the photographs?  Keim's copy is one of two known early photographs of the flag.  The best known has been dated June 21, 1873 and has two figures in the window with the guard below turned slightly to the left.

from Lonn Taylor, et. al. The Star Spangled Banner, p.80
The Henry Keim's and Captain Preble's framed photographs have only one figure in the window and was probably taken within minutes of the other.  Perhaps the single figure in the Keim/Preble photograph is  the commander of Ft. McHenry, Major George Armistead's daughter,Georgiana Armistead Appleton, who lent the flag to Captain Preble, who in turn displayed it unfurled from the third floor of this Boston Navy Yard building?  Her 1860 photograph suggests that climbing to the third floor may have been too great a challenge.  Who is the marine? standing guard.  Might he be African American?  The flag remains embedded in our memories, as one of the great treasures of our Nation.  The figures in the window and on guard deserve to be remembered as well.

Note on Sources and Flag Conservation:

The best overall book on the history of the Fort McHenry flag is Lonn Taylor, Kathleen M. Kendrick, and Jeffrey L. Brodie, The Star-Spangled Banner. The Making of an American Icon, New York: Harper Collins, 2008. The best overall study of the song by Francis Scott Key inspired by the Fort McHenry Flag is P. W. Filby and Edward G. Howard, Star-Spangled Books, Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1972.  See also George J. Svejda, History of the Star Spangled Banner from 1814 to the Present, Washington: National Park Service, 1969. Images other than those from Henry May Keim's framed fragments are excerpted from Lonn Taylor, et. al. The Star-Spangled Banner.  The Wikipedia article on the Star Spangled Banner Flag provides a good overview of the history and recent exhibits of the Ft. McHenry Flag including fragments.  It also provides an example of recent auction prices for fragments: The fragments continue to surface. When the American Antiquarian Society examined the contents of one of Captain Preble's pamphlet on the Ft. McHenry flag, they found fragments tucked inside. They were together in the shape of the Texas flag (sans star). Because they had been protected from the light these fragments are more vibrant than the Keim snippets, or those that were brought together in a 2008 Smithsonian exhibit. See: Robert M. Poole, Star Spangled Banner Back on Display, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2008 (, accessed 2012/05/12)

How to preserve and conserve flags is an expensive proposition.  The Smithsonian spent $18 million dollars on conserving the Ft. McHenry flag, having to undo a well-intentioned (and patented) method that had been employed when the flag was given to it in 1912. As one web site notes: "When the Star Spangled Banner Flag was donated to the Smithsonian in 1912, it was already tattered and in very poor condition. The Institution began a restoration effort in 1914 by hiring Amelia Fowler, a well-known flag restorer and seamstress. She hired ten seamstresses who worked on the flag for eight weeks. First they removed a canvas backing that had been attached to the flag for the 1873 Boston Navy Yard photo. Then they attached a new linen backing with 1.7 million stitches to form a honeycomb mesh across the back of the flag. This mesh of stitches was intended to secure the fabric of the flag and prevent it from falling apart." 

(, accessed 2012/05/12).  Amelia was quite an entrepreneur.  She was employed by the U. S. Naval Academy and the State of Maryland to 'conserve' their battle flag collections.  At the Maryland State Archives we have large collection of Maryland's Battle flags that are a product of her work, and insufficient funds to reverse the damage her method inflicted on them.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Private Property and the American Dream

The ownership of private property is at the heart of the American Dream. From the very beginnings of the United States the right to own and defend private property has been asserted, cultivated, and enthroned in the constitutional and statutory laws of the country. It is also at the heart of the Great American Tragedy, slavery, which was ultimately embedded in Federal Law through the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that firmly asserted slaves as protected personal property, and was only uprooted Constitutionally in December 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment, after the national trauma of a bloody Civil War, the consequences of which still haunt us as a nation.

Recently the Boy Scouts of America, Baltimore Area Council, identified 19.014 acres in Harford County, Maryland, that had long been used for camping and hiking trails, but for which they could not establish title.  They successfully argued that the land was 'vacant', meaning that it was never granted to a private party under conditions of ownership that reach back to the founding of Maryland.  In doing so, the Boy Scouts of America, Baltimore Area Council, have upheld a tradition central to the American Dream and established their rightful possession of a tract of land, that, because of the failure of the person who first identified it to follow through in legally acquiring it, had lain overlooked and unowned for over 200 years. Any one of the surrounding landowners of that ‘vacant’ land who happened to have their own property surveyed over those years, simply assumed that what proved to be ‘vacant’ was owned by the successors in title to the person who first thought about claiming it. The question was never raised until the Boy Scouts and those assisting them began probing  their legal right to possess and use the land.  In the end, with the help of a professional surveyor and  a thorough searching of the land records, they made their case before the Commissioner of Land Patents at a hearing held on March 28, 2012.

Without question, the Boy Scouts are to be commended for the care and thoroughness with which they documented and argued their case.  It is to be hoped that they will take it upon themselves to also help document the history and the lives of those who held the neighboring properties as a part of the effort to enrich the stories of both the bright and the dark side of the evolving American Dream.

For example, Harford County had its share of slaves and free blacks in a state that legalized slavery until November 1864. In the 1814 raid of the British on Bush River during America’s second war for independence, four of Aquila Nelson’s slaves fled to the British frigate Menelaus on the promise of freedom, led the British back to wreck havoc on the property of Bush River residents, and helped take the schooner Fox as a prize. The four men possibly went on to join the British Marines, accompanying those who fought with the British at the Battle of North Point and the Battle of New Orleans. By the time of the Civil War, the county’s slave population had declined to about 1,800, while the free black population was about 3,644. There were at least 168 black men who claimed to have been born in Harford County who joined the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War, fighting to extricate the concept of human beings as private property from the laws of the land. One such veteran was William Watson from nearby Dublin who joined the famed 54th Massachusetts. Another was a Lewis Stump, perhaps associated with the Stumps who lost property in the 1814 raid by the British. One of the neighbors to the vacant land was slave owner Eliza Chase Coale, the daughter of one of Maryland’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, a slave owner himself. It is known where Eliza is buried on her estate, Westwood, in Harford County, but not her slaves, although the slave quarters have been documented. Nor do we yet know much about those former slaves and free blacks who were Harford County natives who fought with the Union for their freedom, possibly including the slaves and their descendants claimed by Aquila Nelson, Eliza Coale and their descendants.

In researching the surrounding ownership of the vacant land, the Boy Scouts have brought themselves close to the heart of the Great American Tragedy, and have an opportunity now to help tell the stories of the lives of those affected by it, both black and white, thereby contributing to the necessary healing process so essential to the definition of the modern American character. I encourage them to do so, working with the Maryland State Archives as it continues to document the lives of all Marylanders, slave and free (see The Legacy of Slavery, The map above is but one example of how the fragmentary sources related to the lives of free and slave can be brought together on the ancient maps of the county through such free dynamic mapping resources as Google Earth. In this case the inter-active map can be accessed from the biographies of all those shown on the map.

As to 19 acres of vacant land identified by the Boy Scouts, the State Archivist is directly involved in determining ownership for two reasons. Apart from his legal and constitutional obligation to preserve and provide access to the permanent records of the State that document property ownership, the Archivist of Maryland is also the Commissioner of Land Patents. The Commissioner of Land Patents derives his responsibilities by Charter and statute from the original land grant to Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, to all of what is today, Maryland. He established the land grant policies that the State of Maryland took over in 1776. Original grants of land to private individuals were, and still are, called land patents. They are the starting point for all land titles in Maryland, followed by deeds, mortgages, and other means of title transfer that we document in If any piece of property cannot be traced back to an original land grant (Patent), there is a possibility that there never was a land grant and that it is available for the giving by the State (at a price, of course, related to the current value of the land). The Commissioner of Land Patents is charged with determining whether the claim for the land is valid, and if so, recommends its granting to the applicant by the State, the final step of which is approval by the Board of Public Works and a land grant signed by the Governor. Any proceeds from the transfer of the land from State ownership to the Boy Scouts will be used, as provided for in law, to further the research and writing goals of the Maryland State Archives, including the employment of interns on the Legacy of Slavery ( project.

Note on sources:

One of the best introductions to the Fugitive Slave Act and its consequences is Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case, Its Significance in American Law & Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). Chief Justice Taney in Ableman v. Booth, 1859, upheld the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law. Ibid., p.453. For the ratification of the 13th Amendment see: Maryland was the fourth to ratify in February 1865 during an unannounced and unheralded visit of President Lincoln. For the abolition of slavery in Maryland see: See also the biographies of Aquila Nelson MSA SC 5496-050755, Peter, George, Mark, and Primus, Eliza Chase Coale,
Dr. Skipwith H. Coale,