Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Recreating Lost Neighborhoods: The House on Ann Street, Fells Point, Baltimore City, Maryland

Stories of life in a seafaring community in the first decades of the Republic, from the perspective of an owner of the Robert Long House (812 Ann Street, Fell's Point, Baltimore, Maryland), her family, and a few of her neighbors

Romaine Somervile, the indefatigable former director of the Maryland Historical Society, and a leading Fell's Point preservationist, asked me to contribute a talk and tour for the Preservation Society of Fell's Point and Baltimore Heritage in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Robert Long House (812 Ann Street, Fell's Point). What follows is an exploration of the first 60 or so years of Fell's Point's history, focusing on the development of the community and neighborhoods now largely lost from memory. It is not meant to be complete, but rather suggestive of what can be known and how it may alter or enhance our perceptions of what life was like on the seafaring frontier of the United States.

The use of the term “seafaring frontier” is intentional. Too often the concept of the frontier in U. S. history is thought of as a free-wheeling place ever moving westward where the essence of the American character was forged and Democracy was born amidst communities dominated by risk takers and speculators bent on acquiring personal fortune. Such was true of the East Coast seafaring community of Fell's Point, which was created by land speculators, built by risk taking developers, and populated by men and women who were not afraid to push beyond the predominant boundaries of class and the law in their search for wealth and personal freedom.

From one perspective, the essay that follows is a belated valentine to Jane Biays Travers and the occupants of Ann, Argyle Alley, and Fountain Streets, Fell's Point, during the most prosperous days of shipbuilding and sail. It focuses on what we can learn about the history of the community from a wide range of sources, from maps to tax lists and court cases, pointing to the need for a more coordinated and sustainable approach to telling the stories of Fell's Point and maintaining their sources in the virtual world of on-line access.

In addition to the story of the long time resident of the Robert Long House and her brothers, prominent mercantile and political figures of Fell's Point, it briefly touches on the lives of some of the ship captain and ship building neighbors, John Smith, John Cock, Thomas Kemp,, and George Gardner, along with that of the notorious slave dealer, Austin Woolfolk and his noted partner, Henry Thompson of Clifton Mansion fame.

It also probes the mystery surrounding the location of the first safe drinking water supply for the Point and the naming of Fountain Street, as well as a brief glimpse into the hopes and aspirations of a neighbor who lived on Argyle Alley, less than a block away from the Robert Long house on Ann Street.

History is best told in stories that resonate with the listener whether it is through the written word or the virtual world of interactive web sites and digital productions of sound and images.

While how well history is presented is the key to good history, mastering the sources with sufficient imagination to fill in the gaps of what can or can’t be known is also critical to even a modicum of success in creating and keeping an audience on-line, or awake in the lecture hall. That also means that the stories of lost neighborhoods and their residents are subject to change as new evidence is uncovered and the interpretation of known sources is challenged. No historical narrative in whatever form is definitive. That is the true excitement and value of history, as long as the evidence cited is sustained in supported archives, both physical and virtual.

Recently the British Museum teamed up with the virtual construction software company called “Minecraft” , now owned by Microsoft, to encourage people to build their own imaginary museums of history (  There you are enticed to create rooms full of museum exhibits, explaining to your viewers what there is to see and why it is important, whether it be the Rosetta Stone or simple wooden device created by a white slave owner on Maryland’s Eastern Shore  for making Maryland Beaten Biscuits which his slaves sold for him for cash in Baltimore. Perhaps the occupants of 812 Ann Street owned one?

Hopefully some day this concept of personal museum building will be extended to the creation of sustainable electronic archives in which not only will the sources of history be accessible on line, but also it will contain a perpetual, dynamic and growing library of scholarship written within those virtual museum walls  that can be mined for new stories and the re-telling of old. For example, a number of years ago, I was asked to tell the story of a house in Annapolis which had a remarkable history attached to it, most of which, with careful digging in a wide variety of fragmentary sources, was proven wrong ( and forthcoming essay) and replaced by an even more remarkable story.

Fortunately, when asked to interpret the early history of one house in Fell’s Point, 812 Ann Street, the sources did not undermine the existing interpretation, but rather proved a sparse yet enticing beginning for a study of its occupants and their neighbors. It is a history that abounds in aggressive entrepreneurial activity by every level of society in search of fortune and personal freedom. It is a history of opportunity on the seafaring frontier of the United States where ship joiners could become merchants, bankers, and political bosses, a place where fortunes could be made and lost in the space of a few years, depending upon the course of international conflicts and the the degree of risk taken. It is a history in which a thirst for knowledge and the skills to achieve it are paramount as is the desire to display the newly acquired wealth in conspicuous consumption and the ownership of property, both real and personal, which in a slave based economy like Maryland, would prove to have dire consequences for the society as a whole.

After the first major bubble of economic expansion in Baltimore burst in the banking scandal of 1819, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, the daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants in Baltimore and the rejected bride of Napoleon’s brother, wrote her own brother her view of why the high fliers of commerce and banking were ruined.

[To quote Betsy, one merchant] by this tragical event, [has] been severely punished for the folly which led him to build and furnish with regal magnificence a palace. I am sorry to express my conviction that General Smith’s fine house, and the extravagant mode of living he introduced into Baltimore caused the ruin of half the people in the place, who, without this example, would have been contented to live in habitations better suited to their fortunes; and certainly they only made themselves ridiculous by aping expenses little suited to a community of people of business. It is to be hoped that in [the] future there will be no palaces constructed, as there appears to be a fatality attending their owners, beginning with Robert Morris and ending with Lem. Taylor. I do not recall a single instance, except that of [William] Bingham, of any one who built one in America, not dying a bankrupt.[Elizabeth Patterson to William Patterson, May 22, 1823, as published in Eugene L. Dider, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1879), 142, courtesy of Lance Humphries]

When attempting to piece together the stories of a neighborhood such as that of Ann or of Fountain Street, and the wharves where the ships of Fell's Point entered and cleared their cargoes of wheat, flour, coffee, sugar, slaves, immigrants, and merchandise from around the world, it is helpful to have a series of good maps and surveys that graphically (and accurately) depict the lay of the land, and the buildings on the streets and in the alley-ways, to accompany the mining of contemporary knowledge of the activities of the Port as reported in such local publications as Joseph Escaville's Price-Current (1803-1830) and as advertisements in the local newspapers.

Baltimore is fortunate in that it had a succession of civil engineers and surveyors who tried to accurately map the city as it developed and persistently re-shaped its urban landscape. The first were two Frenchmen, refugees from the slave revolts in the French West Indies and the revolution in France, A. J. Folie and Peter Charles VarlĂ© . They were followed by Thomas Poppleton, an Englishman, and Fielding Lucas, a native of Fredericsburg, Virginia, whose work was mostly derivative from Poppleton’s map, although Lucas’s maps prove to be more accurate as to the waterfront as it was in the 1820s than Poppleton whose remarkable survey of 1822 was intended to show the configuration of blocks not yet staked out or developed, including depicting fill land along the waterfront that as yet did not exist. An example of Poppleton's projected development on his 1822 wall map, is the shipyard basin into which Alice Anna street ended before it was filled in and the street extended. What Poppleton shows as fast land did not materialize there until the 1830s. It was in this basin that some of the most famous of the Baltimore privateers were built by Thomas Kemp who came to Baltimore in 1804/5 from the Eastern Shore. George Gardner, Kemp's erstwhile partner, continued to build ships at the same place on the basin well after Poppleton’s map was published in 1822, moving down towards the point as the land was eventually filled in.

Still Poppleton’s map is so well executed that it can be overlaid on Google Earth with remarkable accuracy. In 1855 Poppleton’s map was re-issued with corrections and the addition of the lots created from fill land beyond those that had been called for on the original edition. It too overlays well on Google Earth.

For the purposes of this story, the focus is on residents of two streets during the first sixty years of the history of Fells Point, that of Ann and Fountain Streets, as well as brief reference to six of the many wharves that populated the waterfront of Fells Point, Jackson's wharf, Biays's old and new wharves, Water's wharf, and Craig & Barron's wharf. In the stories of those wharves is encompassed the growth of the domestic slave trade, the perils of nature enhanced by the municipal grading of new streets, and the export of Point built ships to populate the navies of South America.

For orientation without access to Google Earth on-line, Fielding Lucas’s map of 1822, works best, an annotated detail of which follows here keyed to the places touched upon in this story.

In the last quarter of the 20th Century, Robert Eney with the able assistance of a large number of people,  including the late Bryden Hyde and Michael Trostel, both distinguished architects and architectural historians, reversed the late nineteenth century addition of a third story to 812 Ann Street, seen here in this 1930s publication celebrating the history of Fells point), and revealed the  wonderful small two story brick structure visible on Google Earth.

The story of the first owner of the Robert Long House  has long been known as far as the records known to date reveal him, although describing him as a merchant at the time in 1781 that he sold the house to William Travers, might not suit him as well as ‘builder,’ the 18th century equivalent of a modern day developer whose success by 1781, permitted him to refer to himself as a “gentleman.” [BA Land Records, WG G, 428] He says as much about his builder career in his own words in 1782, when he deposes that “sometime in the year seventeen hundred and Sixty three”  he “came to Fells Point with a view to settle and Purchase some lotts --That the Streets were staked out at the corners by having two stakes at each corner and one stake between every lott.” He goes on to explain that he assisted in laying out the foundation of at least two houses between 1763 and 1781, not including his own. [Coyle, Records of Baltimore Town, pp. 44-45]. It is likely that Robert Long never lived in this house for long if at all, but built it for rental or for sale. When he married a rich widow, Mary Norwood, he placed the house, the lot (145) its content, and its slaves in trust for his bride as part of the marriage contract, in case they had a falling out and the marriage failed. The marriage lasted and she may have lived in the house, with the furniture and slaves, but only for at best seven years years during the American Revolution until her husband sold it and the lot to William Travers (probably a merchant/planter originally from Maryland’s Dorchester county on the Eastern Shore) in 1781 (see the title to the Robert Long House on file at the Preservation Society).

The house was situated on lot number 145 as originally laid out by the original developers of Fell's Point, the Fell family. The story of the Fell family is complicated, but much of the early promoting of the sale of the lots can be attributed to the widow Ann Fell for whom Ann street is named, and who re-married a Bond, after whom Bond Street is named.

There is a plat of the original layout of the lots at the Baltimore City Archives which can be easily related to Google Earth and is annotated here to show the locations of Lot 145 on which the Robert Long House was built, and Fountain Street where Thomas Kemp sub-leased his shipyard from the Biays's in 1805.

While the Point had begun to grow as a center of wheat and flour exports by the time of the Declaration of Independence, most of the activity of the Port during the war was focused on the privateering exploits of its merchants and ship captains.

It is with the Revolution that Baltimore, and especially the residents of Fells Point, begin to earn their reputation as government sanctioned privateers on the high seas, raiding British shipping and engaging in clandestine trade with the West Indies. In 1906 Charles Henry Lincoln compiled his list of the Naval Records of the American Revolution, a list that Pratt librarian Bernard Christian Steiner drew on for his Maryland Historical magazine article on the Maryland Privateers during the American Revolution [MHM, June, 1908, volume III, issue no. 2, ff.99]. The image of the American privateer successfully eluding a British warship, while probably of a later period, well-illustrates the tactics of the fast sailing Baltimore built privateers that brought fame and fortune to the Point. It depicts the raising of the American colors on the privateer, as the privateer departs, having attacked what it thought was a merchant ship while flying false colors. The merchant ship turned out to be a British warship and the unsuccessful chase ensued, with the privateer flying a pennant “Catch Me Who Can,” and free to find another, hopefully unarmed, prey.
Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum:

Beginning with registration in 1778, the first 41 letters of marque empowering Maryland ships to act as American government sanctioned armed privateers were issued to Baltimore owners, masters, and charterers of ships. The port also became a depot for supplying the American army with flour, an activity that led to charges, possibly true, that a leading lawyer and member of Congress from Maryland (Samuel Chase) used insider information to corner and profit from the market in wheat.  Baltimore and the Point from its earliest beginnings had a reputation for speculation and pushing the envelope of permissible trade that would stay with it well into the 19th century, especially in relationship to dealing with rebels in South America in their fight against Spanish rule after the war of 1812.

The most dramatic and prolonged expansion of the mercantile and shipbuilding activities of the Point witnessed by the occupants of 812 Ann Street would take place after the defeat of the British in 1781 at Yorktown.  

It is to the Travers family and in particular Jane Biays Travers (1758-1845) that credit should go for living in the house at 182 Ann Street for the longest of any single occupant, possibly beginning as early as her marriage to Matthew Travers in September 1784. That was about the time William Travers apparently failed to sell the house and lot to anyone else, and instead deeded the house to his two sons, Henry and Matthew, both of whom were ship captains in the employ of Jane's two brothers, Joseph (1752-1820) and James Biays (?-1822).

Although there is no direct proof that Jane was their sister, the circumstantial evidence that she was is very strong, including the care with which Joseph protected her interest in the house prior to her husband disappearing. Initially Captain Matthew Travers’ earliest address (1796) is given in the directories as being on George (now Thames) Street, and he did own outright a portion of a lot on the street, but it is not clear that there was anything built on it until after he sold it, and it is quite possible that the garden of 812 Ann Street (then numbered 3 Ann Street) ran down to George Street, misleading the compiler of the directory as to what address to specify.   In any event, by 1803, Matthew and Jane Biays Travers were definitely living in the house at what is now 812 Ann Street.  Matthew disappeared around 1811, probably at Sea. Jane remained in the house until she died 34 years later,  in 1845, raising at least four daughters in the meantime.

Jane was literate and a respected member of the community, so much so that while Matthew was away she was the only woman resident in 1797 to sign a petition to the Mayor and City Council to do something about the “stagnated water” on George Street “that in the hot season renders it unhealthy in that neighborhood.” Her brother James Biays signed it as well.

The summers in Fells Point could be brutal and deadly, as evidenced by the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1800 (see Death and class in Baltimore: the yellow fever epidemic of 1800, by
D. F. Stickle, Md Hist Mag. 1979;74(3):282-99). It is possible that Jane escaped to James Biays’s estate in what is now the Waverly section of Baltimore, but then was in Baltimore County which he named Mount Jefferson, reflective of his deep attachment to the President and his party.

If you prospered in Baltimore, the pattern was to invest in a farm or estate in Baltimore County, although some, such as the Ship builder Thomas Kemp and the Winder family, found their respites on the Eastern Shore. Indeed there is a remarkable coincidence if not irony,  in the fact that the Talbot County slave Frederick Douglass, would begin acquiring the means to escape to freedom by working in the shipyard of Baltimore’s Kemp’s erstwhile partner, George Gardner, when he returned to Baltimore in 1836, after having suffered his worst treatment as a slave just over the fence from Kemp’s Talbot County estate [a free recording of Douglass's narrative is available from Libravox].

If Jane did retreat at times to her brother's estate, Mount Jefferson, in what is today Waverly, she would have had as neighbors, other Fell's Point investors, ship captain John Smith (employed by her brothers and a resident of Philpot Street), and William Jackson whose Fell's point wharf was made infamous by slave dealer Austin Woolfolk.

Maryland State Archives, msa_c2843_15_1
James Biays's estate in Baltimore County off of the York turnpike

James and Joseph Biays even manage to secure an act of the legislature passed in 1805, permitting them to build a road from Bond street to York road (now Greenmount) in order to facilitate getting county produce to market and reaching James's country estate. The road was wiped out by the development of the city eastward of the Jones Falls and to the north of the Point, but it appears to be clearly marked in orange on Poppleton's 1822 map of the city.

Joseph and James Biays's road from Bond Street to the York turnpike?

How literate Jane Travers was, is not known, and the whole question of how women of her generation became educated, especially in Baltimore, has yet to be studied in any depth.
Jane's sister-in-law, Susanna (1767-1845), the widow of her husband’s brother, Captain Henry Travers, was identified as a school teacher in the city directories until she died the same year as Jane, 1845, at the age of 78, nine years Jane’s junior. The newspapers reveal that in the early years of the 19th century there were a number of schools for women and the Bias brothers received permission from the General Assembly to run a lottery to establish an academy for women. Whether or not it succeeded is presently not known. That white boys who populated the streets of Fells Point were able to read the newspapers is clear from Frederick Douglass’s narrative of his life on Aliceanna (Alice Ann) and Philpot streets in the 1820s and 30s, and that his white mistress, wife of the Ships Carpenter/builder Hugh Auld, could read, but for the majority of the women who  lived in Fells Point there is no clear indication of how literate they were. A good guess is that more women than men could read and write in those seafaring times, when a majority of those who signed seamen’s articles prior to a voyage could only sign with an ‘x’.

source: British Admiralty papers relating to  a Baltimore prize ship captured during the War of 1812, British National Archives

It is also not known whether Jane attended church, but the Biays’s were active Presbyterians. Joseph had a pew in the First Presbyterian Church in the 1780s. When later, James left with a portion of the Congregation to form the Second Presbyterian Church because of a dispute over who should succeed the previous minister, brother Joseph followed.

The pastor James Biays and others chose for the new Second Presbyterian church came highly recommended by Thomas Jefferson, for  whom the Biays’s were aggressive political supporters. Both Joseph and James served on the city council as Jeffersonian Democrats, and were paid by the City for a multitude of civic works including the grading and paving of streets, the silt from which may have led in part to their financial undoing.

The Second Presbyterian church was a congregation composed of some of the most active seamen/entrepreneurs of their day, as well as one of the most distinguished jurists ever to serve on the Maryland bench, Theodrick Bland. In his role as a circuit court judge, diplomat to the rebellions in South America (scene of some of the more dubious trading ventures from Fell's Point and the inner harbor), and as the erudite Chancellor of Maryland, Bland was accused (but never convicted) of aiding and abetting those Baltimore merchants and ship captains who supplied the Revolutions in the Caribbean and South America.

In the careers of Captains Henry and Matthew Travers, who do not appear to have been members of the 2nd Presbyterian church, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the successes and failures of the men who sailed the ships from Baltimore. Both worked with the Biays brothers, although Henry ultimately deserted the Point for Virginia, selling out his interest in number 812 Ann Street (then numbered 3 Ann)  to his brother and sister-in-law Jane Biays Travers. When he did so, Joseph Biays placed the house in a trust for Jane to protect it from Matthew’s creditors, and to ensure her ability to claim the house in the event of Matthew’s death or desertion. When Matthew did disappear about 1811, possibly at sea, Joseph turned the house over to Jane and the property remained in her possession until her death, although she did sell off portions of it over time until it measured only the width of the house and she had to share a chimney with a neighbor.

Matthew and Henry, along with other captains that worked for James and Joseph Biays, had colorful careers that are documented in the newspapers of which by the time of the War of 1812, there were several dailies and a price current that documented the fluctuating prices of goods and the entrances and clearances of ships to and from the port of Baltimore.

In many ways the masthead of Joseph Escavaille ‘s Baltimore Price-Current which graced his first issue on Valentine’s day 1803, could very will be an artistic rendition of Jane and Susanna Travers, contemplating the fate and fortunes of their ship captain husbands.

Source: microfilm, Maryland Historical Society

Sadly, not all the issues of the newspapers of Jane’s day have survived, and while a large number of those that have survived are on line, a significant number of those that were probably read in Fells Point have not been, and are widely scattered in the inaccessible stacks of a number libraries out of state. An example is the radical newspaper the Whig which may contain advertisements and announcements related to Fells Point that were not carried by its competitors.

What the surviving newspapers do tell us about politics in Jane’s day is the devotion of the Point to the party of Jefferson and U. S. Senator Samuel Smith, the organizer of Baltimore’s successful defense against the British in 1814, and the last Mayor of Baltimore known to ride horseback to face down one of the crowds that gave Baltimore the national reputation of being Mob Town.

The editor of the Federal Republican newspaper, Alexander Contee Hanson would blame James Biays for the attack on, and destruction of, his printing press in the summer of 1812.   The vitriol that Hanson spewed across the pages of his newspaper in attacking the administration’s path to war with Britain was too much for the residents of Fell’s Point and elsewhere in the city. He was not the first person in town to suggest that mob was more an organized, politically motivated expression of democracy than ill-educated drunks on a rampage.

One of the first organized protests against the British impressing American seamen for the British Navy and to serve in disrupting American trade was in Fells Point in 1810.  Three years before an American Ship, the schooner Nimrod of Baltimore registry, was in port, returned from a voyage to the West Indies with a cargo of sugar, cocoa, coffee, sarsaparilla and hides.

When it went to sea again it carried a Spanish certificate that was intended (illegal from the standpoint of American Maritime law) to provide it with some protection against capture by the British as it may have been carrying a cargo of flour intended to feed Wellington’s army. The ruse did not work and the Nimrod was captured, condemned in an Admiralty court, and sold as a prize to the British Navy, which in turn converted it to one of its cutter class sending it in 1810 to Baltimore for supplies and possibly dispatches.  The story of what happened when the Netley, formerly the Baltimore schooner, the Nimrod, arrived in port went viral, making newspapers all over the country from Savannah to Boston.

Isaac Munroe, who in 1812, would come to Baltimore as a Republican editor and founder/owner of the Baltimore Patriot, was , in 1810,  editor of the Boston Patriot newspaper. Recently a volume of issues of his Boston Paper was sold at auction for $1150 which included this editorial:

British Arrogance...
It is probable that the British cutter Netley was sent to Baltimore to insult us; because, we are told, she was once a Baltimore schooner [the Nimrod], taken by the British and since cut and medelled into her present hermaphrodite shape; because, she came here ostensibly for Copenhagen Jackson, who was known not to be here: and because she brought some impressed American with her, and had the audacity to tantalize them with a view of their own native shores!

This latter circumstance being made known to the patriotic sea-boys at the Point, a deputation waited on the Lieutenant of the Netley, and demanded the release of a Marylander detained on board – he demurred, and but one hour was allowed him to decide. This bold summons was obeyed; the poor sailor was released, after being sixteen years in slavery! His friends are said to reside on the East Shore; he had made seven unsuccessful attempts to escape, and was as often lacerated for his pains.

Could it be ascertained, as it is suspected, that this is the same vessel on board of which captain Rider was taken and flogged, there is spirit enough among our seamen to blow her up; but, the proof not being clear, they practise their usual moderation.”

(Francis James “Copenhagen” Jackson was a British minister to the United States. He had negotiated with the neutral Danes to join the British. The British then led a surprise attack on Copenhagen (and burned it) in 1807 after the Denmark tried to maintain their neutrality.) [source: Large Folio. 20 inches. 96 issues bound together. Almost complete run of 1810. Lacking 7 issues: (#38, 51 of V. 2; #33, 35 of V.3; and #8,10,15 of V.4)]

With James Bias at its head, an organized posse of residents of Fells Point visited the Netley and freed the sailor.   James Bias claimed that it was all done properly without violence, but the Anti-Jefferson editor of the Maryland Republican was far from convinced.

Alexander Contee Hanson, jr wrote a flaming editorial about Biays’s own published account of the Netley incident in the  September 19, 1810 issue of the Federal Republican

James Biays, of Fell’s Point, a notorious coward, and unprincipled bully, has issued one of the most false, insolent and seditious publications witnessed since the days of Robespierre and the revolutionary histories of the Parisian suburbs.  In conclusion, he threatens us with the sanguinary vengeance of the Point.  We wish this wrteched patron and leader of mobs to understand, once and for all, that we should despise ourselves, if we did not [defy him and] all his adherents.

Three days later in another editorial, Hanson excoriates the “Fells Point rabble” and again denies that the reception of the Netley was anything but peaceful

It is no wonder that as a leader of the local militia (referred to as Major, and then later as Colonel when he is active in the defense of the city in 1814) that James Biays was involved in the thick of the attack on Hanson’s printing press in the summer of 1812, clearly an organized riot that soon escalated into the assault on the jail, the severe beating of Hanson, and the death of a Revolutionary War hero who happened also to be a staunch Federalist.

There is no question that for nearly a quarter of a century the Biays brothers played an instrumental role in the politics of Fells Point. As early as 1798, they were actively engaged in advocating active political participation of the ‘mechanics and manufacturers of the city and precincts of Baltimore.’ At a mass meeting in September 1798, with James Biays in the chair, those assembled vowed to resist “the unwarrantable and degrading means”  that “have been adopted and resorted to by some persons, to influence”  the upcoming Congressional Elections.

The Biays brothers, who began their careers as ship joiners, made their fortunes in the commodity export and import trade that was centered at Fell's Point and was the major factor in the growth of the city following the American Revolution. 

The single most important exports were wheat and flour.   The demand for housing at the point accounts for  why the Pennsylvania builder, Robert Long, came to Fells Point and invested in the lots laid out under the auspices of Ann Fell, wife of the owner of the point. He and other Pennsylvania imports such as Dr. Henry Stevenson, along with local investors like the catholic and protestant Carrolls, recognized that the wheat produced in Western and Central Pennsylvania and the conversion to wheat of the tobacco plantations of Maryland’s Eastern Shore could make Baltimore and surrounding mills into a major factor in the export to the West Indies and to Southern Europe of American Wheat and Flour, drawing to it a large urban population in need of housing.  In return the commodities and finished goods purchased with the proceeds of the export trade  would accelerate  the import trade for consumption by the local population and distribution to the interior of the country, first by the waterways and the national road, and then by canals and the railroads financed in part by investors from the City. The results in the growth of the city and personal fortunes were phenomenal, especially when combined in the years leading up to the war of 1812 with a re-export trade as a neutral power acting as carrier and supplier for all sides during the Napoleonic Wars.

In population and export figures alone, the growth of Baltimore City with the bulk of trade and shipbuilding focused on Fells Point, was dramatic.  It grew from a few houses and a couple of ships in 1765, to a population city wide of 50,000 by the time of the British blockades of 1813-1814, and hundreds of ships, many of which were locally built. Most of the larger ships were tied up at Fell's Point wharves.

Jane’s husband, Matthew Travers, and his brother Henry are typical examples of entrepreneurial ship captains. They commanded ships that traded for cargoes of wine at Bordeaux, sugar, coffee, and hides from the West Indies and from the cost of Central America. They had considerable independence and often carried cargoes of their own for sale on their own account.  Sometimes they disobeyed orders and it got them into trouble.

Henry Travers was sued by his employers for not following their instructions. Sometimes they had a bit of good luck such as the time on his way to Savannah Georgia, Matthew came upon a ship abandoned at sea and brought her into port as a salvage prize which the Admiralty Court awarded to him and he sold to his personal profit.

Sometimes the captains felt they did not get the compensation they deserved.  Consider the case of Captain John Smith who lived on Philpot Street, owned land adjacent to James Biays's in Baltimore County, and sailed in partnership with James Biays. He became quite disillusioned with Biays, suing him in the Chancery Court for about $70,000 in back pay for services rendered the Biays firm.  The case deserves a story of its own and contains a well documented history of the voyages of several ships under Smith’s command including an audited account of the profits attributed to each outgoing and incoming voyage.  It will never be known how the case was settled, but it was out of court and the papers submitted by both sides lay in a folded case file unrecorded until rediscovered by the Maryland Archives staff in the 1970s. The details can be found on-line at:

Among the letters introduced as evidence is one addressed to Mrs. Smith on Philpot Street which demonstrates the literacy and the affection of both, as well as his concern for the health and welfare of his recovering daughter. Smith wrote from the port of Philadelphia to his loving wife. The letter is well worth reading in its entirety. It is in a nicely formed, well spelled, and largely grammatically correct hand. It illuminates the ways in which the Captain handled commissions and receipts of sales and it makes clear the ways in which ship captains of the Point looked out for each other, sending news about them to their families. He even gives instructions on what he expected his wife to oversee at the “country seat” including putting it in good order, planting good trees, for them that is broke, and that she should “try to rent the old house for any sum …”

When Jane Travers left the house on Ann Street and walked north to Fleet street , over the course of her nearly fifty years as a resident she would have seen little change in the composition of the neighborhood until near the very end of her life. The names would change, but the occupations remained virtually the same.  From the city directories which are now all searchable on line it is possible to reconstruct who lived where and their occupation with a reasonable degree of accuracy subject to the vagaries of the directories themselves which are  often riddled with phonetic spellings and some years more complete than others. Only in 1804 did the compiler of the city directory organize the entries by street and street address,  all other directories were alphabetical by last name.

source: 1804 Baltimore City Directory

In walking up Ann Street towards Aliceanna (Alice Ann) and Fleet Streets she would pass boarding houses for sailors, corner stores and taverns, and the homes of ship captains, ship carpenters, rope makers, scriveners, butchers, customs officers, and a school mistress.  In 1819 she  might stop at the house north of Aliceanna on the east side that was occupied by ship captain Richard Johns’s family, and may also have  been the home a few years before of a relative, Captain John Cock.  Captain John Cock disappears from sight, perhaps at sea, after the death of his son in 1818, leaving to his relatives water colors of his ship the Canada depicted on a voyage to Bordeaux in 1817, as well as a painting by the black portrait artist Joshua Johnston of Cock’s is deceased son, Richard Johns Cock, that could well have been hanging on the walls of Captain Richard Johns’s house on Ann Street.

courtesy of Edith Johns
Further on Jane might turn the corner on Fleet Street, walking east toward the water of one of the busiest ship building basins  in the city.  Looking closely at Folie’s 1792 map of the point there is a bluff or hill near the intersection of Fleet and Washington streets.

detail from Folie, 1792

Slightly below this bluff or hill, James and Joseph Biays leased the rights to the land on the basin , subleasing in turn in 1805 to one of the best known and most prolific ship builders of the day, Thomas Kemp (1779-1824). There Kemp and his partners built some of the fastest and best known privateers of the the War of 1812 (for example, the Chasseur, better known as the Pride of Baltimore). According to Toni Ahrens careful study between 1805 and 1817 when he semi-retired to the shores of Talbot County, Kemp filed the required carpenters certificates for 64 vessels.

The property leased to Kemp lay 360’ to the East of Washington Street between Fleet and Fountain Streets. The shipyard was to the south of his property on the water of the cove or basin as it was called occupying fill land that probably became annexed to his lease hold property by adverse possession. The configuration of the properties off Fountain Street by 1826 can be seen in this overlay of Google Earth with a plat submitted in at court case that reached the Supreme Court. Kemp's lease hold was to the north of Fountain Street at its very Eastern end. The Shipyard was in all likelihood to the south shown with the wharf on the plat. All that land was fill land as the edge of basin was moved forward towards the Patapsco river.

Plat from Barron v Baltimore overlaid on Google Earth showing the damage of the 1817 freshet

Kemp employed free blacks, slaves and white laborers at his shipyard. Initially the neighborhood of Fountain street was an integrated neighborhood of free blacks and whites all associated with ship building, except the keeper of the fountain who first appears in the 1804 city directory as B. Davis, doubling as a keeper of a wharf.

It is at the Kemp shipyard that Frederick Douglass first began to learn the shipbuilding trade, although he did not become a skilled caulker of ships until he moved to Price’s shipyard further south on the Basin  after a bruising encounter with white apprentices at Kemp's.

1822 Poppleton overlaid on Google Earth showing wharves of Craig & Barron and Price

Jane Biays Travers’s house on Ann Street was in the 8th Ward for most of the time of her residency. Thomas Kemp’s shipyard was in the Seventh. Both wards had slaves according to the 1813 tax list, with 243 in the 8th Ward and 472 in the Seventh. Jane owned no slaves according to the tax list. She may have seen, possibly even recognized, Frederick Douglass who had vivid memories of the slaves marched in the dead of night to the Savannah and New Orleans packets tied up at Jackson’s wharf off of Thames street, which lay next to James and Joseph Biays’s old wharf.   Their ‘new’ wharf was built at the end of Alice Anna street, south of the land they leased to Thomas Kemp. The packets to Savannah from Jackson's wharf, were run by the partnership of Henry Thompson of Clifton Mansion fame, and Austin Woolfolk, whose ads soliciting slaves for export to Georgia and New Orleans begin as early as 1815.

When Douglass lived on Philpot street and worked at the Kemp and Price Shipyards he wrote that

In the deep, still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead, heavy footsteps and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door

on their way to Jackson’s wharf.  In fact Jackson’s wharf may have been the site of the most famous of the Abolitionist exposes of the slave trade that William Lloyd Garrison published in Baltimore featuring one of Thompson and Woolfolk’s cargoes on board the Francis (a Rhode Island ship) destined for New Orleans. Garrison was sued for libel in the Baltimore County Court and fled to Boston to establish his newspaper the Liberator and continue his crusade, leaving his mother behind to whom he sent an allowance she deposited in the Bank of Baltimore.

A typical example of the slave cargoes exported from Jackson’s wharf by Henry Thompson and Austin Woolfolk were the 187 slaves sent to New Orleans aboard the Intelligence between 1821 and 1827 of these only 18 were identified by surnames.  The rest by their given names.  They included a number of infants and children, and one voyage in 1823 stopped at Sotterly plantation on the Patuxent river to pick up 29 slaves sent south for sale by John R. Plater. [For the names of slaves and their shippers/owners see Ralph Clayton's Cash for Blood, and his account of the fountain on p. 48.]

Back on Fountain Street, prior to 1817, the Biays brothers expanded their wharf at the end of Aliceanna Street and received permission from the city for a monopoly on delivering water from their Spring to the residents of the Point. In the Niles Register for 1813, the most highly regard weekly journal of its day, Hezekiah Niles not only defends the city against those who would call it mob town, he also waxes eloquent about the Fountain and the Biays’s efforts to supply the Point with pure water:

Just where the Fountain was actually located near Fountain street is not known for certain.  The reason is probably the torrential rainstorm of 1817 which produced a freshet of sediment so powerful and so full of mud and debris that it resulted in the destruction of the Biays’s wharf at the end of Aliceanna street, and the silting up of a number of wharves on the west side of the Basin.

Jehu Bouldin Plat of 1826 showing the loss of Biays's new wharf and the extension of Aliceanna street over fill land below where the Kemp shipyard had been
One such Wharf was that of Craig and Barron. Eventually that wharf was dug out, and as late as 1826, thousands of residents and slaves of the city including Frederick Douglass, would witness the launching of a Brazilian funded warship initially called the Baltimore,  It was so large that a sand bar of silt in front of the wharf had to be dug out before it could sail down the bay, captained by none other than Navy Captain Franklin Buchanan of U.S. and Confederate Navy fame who kept a journal of his voyage to Rio now in the Archives of the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

That Craig and Barron were displeased by the mud that clogged their wharf is an understatement. They instituted a suit for damages in the Baltimore county Court against the city arguing that the grading of the streets by the city provided the dirt that was washed into the basin.  A jury awarded them damages. the city appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court in favor of the City. The lawyers for Craig and Barron then appealed to the Supreme Court under the provisions of the fifth amendment that required that no property can be taken without due process and just compensation. It was the last major case heard by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. He refused to hear the case and the arguments the City was prepared to make through its lawyer, Roger Brooke Taney, who would succeed Marshall on the Court as Chief Justice.

In 1831, another Supreme Court case ended involving seamen's wages which dated back to 1806 and the ill-fated voyage of the Warren from Waters Wharf at the very tip of the point that gave Fell's Point its name. 

Cleared for the West Indies, the voyage of the Warren proved to be a compelling story with which Jane Travers and the residents of Fell's Point would have been most familiar. It probably was the talk of every tavern and table where seamen were lined up to sign the articles that detailed their wages for a voyage. The owners of the Warren promised the seamen and their captain, Andrew Sterett of Baltimore, a Navy officer on leave, that it would be a trading voyage to the pacific northwest with an ultimate destination of a profitable sale of the cargo in China, probably Canton. It turned out to be a smuggling venture to Chili, where the seamen, once they were informed of the real instructions, refused to go further. They were thrown into jail, many for a total of three years, before they were released. Their captain, son of a prominent Baltimore family, committed suicide rather than participate in the clandestine operation any further. Eventually the seamen sued for their wages which by Admiralty law continued until they returned to their home port of Fell's Point. Finally, after a quarter of a century without pay, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the seamen. By that time all the principal owners were bankrupt, many sailors were dead or not to be found, and the Federal Court had no enforcement powers. It proved to be Pyrrhic victory, especially for the surviving seamen, although, as usual in such cases, the lawyers for both sides probably profited. The story is documented in full at the digital commons of the University of Maryland School of Law at It is a classic example of the degree of risk and the manner of taking it that was commonly practiced by the first two or three generations of the shipbuilding merchants of Fell's Point, if the voluminous records of the Admiralty side of the Federal Courts are to be believed. One of the principal owners of the Warren was Lemuel Taylor who Betsy Patterson claimed caused the ruin of half the people” in Baltimore.

As far as shipbuilding was concerned, for an undetermined amount of time, George Gardner continued to build ships at what had been the Kemp shipyard just south of the eastern end of Fountain Street. Apparently it had not been adversely affected by the freshet of 1817, but the Biays fountain as described by Niles completely disappeared by 1822, and had been replaced in 1819 by the fountain at Pratt and Eden street at a cost to the City of $34,000.

Over time, and by about 1833, the year Barron vs. Baltimore was dismissed by the Supreme Court, the marshy land to the south of Fountain street was filled in and Fountain street itself extend to the length it is today. By the time Jane Travers died in 1845 the whole character of the Point was changing. While ships continued to be repaired and built in its shipyards, the adventuresome nature of its trade and the entrepreneurial activities of its ship captain/merchants were on a steep decline. If the summers had been bad on the health and senses of the community before 1845, by the time of her death guano as fertilizer had begun to appear piled high on its wharves. While good for the depleted fields of rural Maryland and Virginia, it gave a new and not very welcome dimension to the smells of summertime.

There are hundreds of thousands of history-less people who live, die, or pass through a city like Baltimore and its subdivisions such as Fell's Point. At times it is only by accident that a glimpse of their lives and their personal histories emerge. Take for example Margaret Temple, a close neighbor of Jane Biays Travers who lived in Argyle Alley just to the north and slightly west of the rear of Jane's property. Somebody found the record of her marriage in England in 1809 and several letters to her in Fell's Point beginning with one dated 1833, and ending with a letter from an English nephew written in 1854. They are mostly about property in England from which she apparently did not derive the benefit she expected, and letters from her son, a carpenter, who ventures out in search of his fortune in Florida, but eventually settles back at the Point. Where they came from, no one knows. They might have been found when her Argyle alley house was renovated. They were deposited anonymously at the Maryland State Archives by an employee who died without retrieving them for their rightful owner. Their value lies in making them available virtually with links to the fragmentary documentation of Margret's and her son's lives that may be found in city directories, tax records, probate, and census records. This can be done quite simply and inexpensively through the virtual world, but as in the case of the history of the house on Ann Street and the wharves of the point, their must be sustainable virtual archives somewhere that will contain both the stories and the documentation of those stories for the enlightenment and enjoyment of the public now and in the future.

As to the history of the lost neighborhoods and forgotten residents of Fells point, the advent of the virtual world and the viability of a permanent electronic archives mated with inexpensive space within which a collaboration of researchers and writers can work is at hand, if only those who need it are willing to make it so. With good base maps, continued assistance from Google, and whatever comes after Google, for cloud storage, open source software, and virtual mapping linked to a research and writing wiki, it will be possible to tell more and better stories about the community of Fells Point, past, present, and beyond.

History is best told in stories that resonate with the listener whether it is through the written word or the virtual world of interactive web sites and digital productions of sound and images.
May we work together in both a sustainable physical and virtual world to make it so through insisting on, and paying for, a permanent virtual archive to hold our memories and the surviving documentation. We owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us.


An earlier version of this lecture is available on line at:

The walking tour on Sunday, March 29, began at the Robert Long House, then down Fell Street to the Harbor, and around the perimeter of the original lay out of Ann Fell Bond's lots, stopping to reflect on the Waters, Barron & Craig, and Biays's new wharves; the site of Kemp's ship yard, Fountain Street, the oldest wooden houses on the point, the first Jewish synagogue across from Ann Fell's lot no. 1 on the corner of Bond and fleet, and then down Bond street (following the first Fell lots) to the park at the end of Bond street on the water to reflect on the sites of the Jackson and Biays Old wharves, as well as the view of what was once Philpot street where Frederick Douglass lived as a teenager. A map of the walk was provided:

Along with handouts of a few of the images from the talk on the 26th:

1 comment:

ahansen said...

I enjoyed learning more about Fells Point and the Biays Family. I am a direct descendent of Joseph Biays. There is direct proof that Jane Biays Travers was the sister of Joseph & James Biays. I’ll be happy to email you the information. Thank you for preserving our history.