Northwood News ♦ October and December 2016
[This column was originally printed in two parts, in the October and December 2016 issues. This is the complete article.]
In the 1840s, political turmoil and economic expansion in the United States centered on slavery. Explosive growth of the new cotton states of the Deep South was fueled by the sale of slaves from the old tobacco states, especially Virginia and Maryland. The Chesapeake region contributed most of those caught up in the nation’s massive forced migration of slaves, tens of thousands of people per year, that pushed the boundaries of the nation to Texas and the bonds of the Union to the breaking point.
The free and enslaved residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, close by the District of Columbia, witnessed this history first-hand. By the time the little village at Gittings’ Cross Roads named itself Four Corners immediately after the Civil War, they had been living it for over a century. Its physical traces were fixed permanently in features we can recognize today. The lives that made them, otherwise forgotten, bear witness to the struggles of enslaved Americans to be free.
In Maryland, resistance to slavery came in the daring escapes of runaways, the movement and assembly of free blacks, and, occasionally, armed rebellions. The presence of a sizeable population of free blacks in the District — with abolitionists, churches, and newspapers supporting them — spurred fear among slaveholders and their elected representatives. In early 1842, the Maryland Slaveholders convention met in rooms provided by the State Assembly in Annapolis and recommended harsh amendments to the state’s already strict codes on free and enslaved blacks. Convention member Thomas Gittings, who represented Montgomery County in the Assembly as a member of the conservative Whig party, moved the bill containing the convention’s recommendations to the Senate. His family had owned most of the land and many slaves to the north of the old Bladensburg Road, on either side of its crossing with the road from Burnt Mills to Georgetown (e.g., the north half of today’s Four Corners), since the 1780s. The bill, which severely restricted the movement, assembly, and settlement of free blacks in the state and sharply curtailed the manumission of slaves, was passed into law in March 1842.
Nonetheless, resistance and retribution continued. Slaves in Calvert County, led by Mark Caesar and Bill Wheeler, armed themselves in July 1845 and marched through Prince George’s, the District, and finally Montgomery County, gathering upwards of 75 men willing to risk their lives in a bid for freedom to the north. One part of the group came up the Bladensburg Road and likely passed Gittings’ Cross Roads on its way, while the other crossed the Navy Yard bridge and took Seventh Street out of the District, met the first group at their intersection and continued north past Rockville. There they were set upon by the Montgomery Volunteers, a white militia. Many of the slaves fled, only to be shot in the back or killed, with 31 arrested. Such was the swift and violent treatment of those without legal rights.
When the Gittings arrived here with a single slave in the early 1780s, they found a well-settled district of tobacco and dwelling plantations, with small orchards and fields of Indian corn bounded by woods made of chestnut, oak, and pine. Springs that ran cold and small branches fell into the Northwest Branch and Sligo Creek. These streams and a few old roads crossed properties that were patented to their owners between 1703 and 1763 and known by such descriptive names as The Labyrinth, Fenwick, Hard Struggle, Harding’s Choice, the Benjamin, Hills and Dales, Lucy’s Friend, and Clean Shaving.
Some of these properties had been claimed and already worked as tobacco plantations for more than 50 years, the soil was thin, and the original owners and slaves had been succeeded by new owners, tenants, slaves, convict laborers, and indentured servants. Many of the local planters had fought for American independence, then returned to make slaves work for them. Of the 35 families living on the above properties in 1783, only 12 made do without owning slaves. Those that did owned an average of 7.73 slaves per household. Several families owned well above that average, including Walter Beall, the proprietor of the saw and grist mill on the Northwest Branch known as Burnt Mills (19 slaves), his mother Sarah Beall, the widow of the late Richard Beall of Samuel (17 slaves), Henry Clarke, who served on Montgomery County’s first grand jury and owned most of the land south and east of the Cross Roads (14 slaves), and Samuel Harwood, a Federalist delegate to the Maryland Assembly (20 slaves), from whom in 1785 Benjamin Gittings purchased his first property in the area.
Gittings and his wife Jemima (née Lanham), settled on an old plantation of about 200 acres that encompassed all of Clean Shaving and parts of Hills and Dales, Lucy’s Friend, and Fenwick, situated on the road used to roll hogsheads of tobacco to the port at Bladensburg. It included meadow lands, a constant stream, and “soil well-adapted to Indian corn, fine tobacco, and small grain; on it is plenty of wood-land to support the plantation, likewise a very valuable mill seat.”
Harwood had owned the property for only a few years, having purchased it in 1780 from the estate of the man who originally patented the lands beginning in the 1730s. Captain John Adamson was a ship’s captain, peruke-maker, and, finally, a planter. In 1751, Adamson had reassured his customers in Annapolis that, even though he had removed to far-off Frederick County (the county this area belonged to at the time), “he furnishes Gentleman with wigs of all sorts, as formerly.” As wig-makers were frequently barbers, naming his first property “Clean Shaving” shows some humor. Adamson used convict servants who probably found him less funny, as he had to offer rewards for several of them and an overseer (“wears his own Hair, of a brownish Colour, tied behind”) who ran away from the plantation in the 1750s and 1760s.
His daughter Rachel married carpenter John Tannehill, while Rebecca married shoemaker Richard Beall of Ninian. When Adamson died in 1772, he stated in his will that Rachel should inherit “my Negro boy named Norris & Negro boy named Bob,” and that Rebecca have “my Negro boy Sutch & my Negro girl Sid & her increase,” provided that neither let their husbands sell the slaves (valued at a total of 195 pounds sterling) out of the family to pay debts.
His executors were to sell his dwelling plantation and the lands around it, “my own & Wife’s burying Place forever to be excepted from any sale.” The executors discharged their trust, as their deed to Samuel Harwood included all the tracts above, “the burying ground excepted where the deceased Capn. John Adamson and his wife and family lay inter’d within a Stone inclosure.” The Gittings family, in turn, maintained the burying ground and the easement protecting it for as long as they owned the property — the next 70 years.
Gittings enlarged his land holdings in the area four-fold by the year 1800, with purchases from Josiah and Ann Trundle and the Beall heirs, along with about 10 new slaves. His lands stretched from the present site of the St. Bernadette’s School to Northwood High School, from Bladensburg Road (now University Boulevard) to nearby — and in some places to — the Northwest Branch.
In the deeds that were recorded, Gittings identified himself as a planter, but, as early as 1792, the papers for one transaction included a list of supplies — barrels, molasses, brandy, peaches — that suggest he had started distilling liquor. In 1800, his name appeared on a list of tavern keepers licensed in Montgomery County. “Gittings Tavern” was frequently named as a landmark in newspaper advertisements in the following 20 years for notices of stray horses, runaway slaves, and real property sales. Its exact location is not yet determined, though it was a common practice for taverns of this age to operate from the keeper’s house.
The most direct statement of its location came in 1817. Augustus Taney, Esq., conducted a trustee’s auction of property “adjoining the land of Thomas Gittings, whose Tavern stands on the road leading from Montgomery Court House to Bladensburg, about 10 miles from Montgomery Court House and the same distance from Washington and Georgetown.” Taney (whose older brother was later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and wrote the Dred Scott decision) held the auction at Gittings Tavern. The highest bidder was Thomas Gittings, the only son and heir of Benjamin Gittings.
Thomas Gittings was just 19 in 1805 when his father passed away and he inherited, with his mother Jemima, the estate, which reflected the family’s substantial position and possessions. Their inventory of his property included the usual plantation tools, livestock, and assorted belongings of little value, but also a cherry dining table with six leather-bottom chairs, a dozen earthenware plates with blue and green edges, a set of pewter plates and basins, six silver teaspoons, a dressing glass, and “34 lights of sash with 5 pains [sic] of glass,” items that to most country dwellers at the time would be luxuries. Also included was a long list of those in debt to Gittings and the tavern. This part of the family’s income was reflected in the listing of three stills with copper and silver worm (or lines) and tub, along with cider hogsheads, molasses and brown sugar, nutmeg, and jugs of whiskey and rum.
The Gittings’ main income, however, was made possible by the labor of the dozen slaves whose names, sex, age, and value were the first entries in the inventory. Apart from land (which was not included in the inventory), these twelve people were the most valuable property owned by the Gittings, and made up 25 percent of the personal estate’s value.
Christianna Perry, the oldest daughter of a neighboring family that had long cultivated tobacco along Sligo Creek and on the Fenwick patent, married Thomas Gittings on April 2, 1806. Children soon followed: first was daughter Jemima, named after her grandmother who lived with the family, followed by Benjamin, another daughter, and six more sons. In 1813, Gittings was appointed guardian to five orphans of the Trundles, the same family his father had bought land from 30 years before. Two of his sons married the Kisner sisters, heirs of Josiah Bean, whose devises to them included Harding’s Choice and its great house, Holly View (which still stands today above Kinsman Circle).
Thomas Gittings continued to operate the family tavern, a center of social and political activities, and soon traced a career in public life and politics that threaded into his community and the fabric of the Early Republic. He commanded a Maryland militia regiment in the War of 1812, where he earned the rank of Major. After the war he was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Montgomery County, witnessing wills and recording deeds and notices of stray livestock (more common than fences at the time). He served as a land commissioner and county surveyor, school trustee, operated a post office named after the family, and, beginning in 1829, held seats in the Maryland Assembly where he served into the early 1840s. He supported bills for a new county courthouse and for roads into the county from New Market and Ellicot City (the latter conveniently to be built to the Burnt Mills and “then to the Cross Roads near the house of Thomas Gittings…”). He was a Maryland elector for Henry Clay, when Clay ran as a National Republican in 1831–32, canvassing against his neighbor and brother-in-law, Dr. Washington Duvall, who went for the winner of that election, Democrat Andrew Jackson.
Gittings eventually joined the Whigs, a decision that highlights the division of that party over slavery (other Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, were against slavery). As was his father’s, Thomas Gittings’ worth and income was mainly in land and slaves. In April 1809, he paid Nathaniel Wilson, whose family plantation lay in what is now South Four Corners, 600 pounds for “one negro man named Sharper & one negro Milly.” The same day Wilson turned over to Gittings slaves named George, Sophy, Ben, Henry, Elias, and Clair, with the authority “to let or sell the aforesaid negroes to such person or persons as he shall think fit or otherwise to dispose of them the said negroes as he the said Gittings may think most advisable for the interest of said Wilson....”
The Gittings held an average of 18 people as slaves over the first half of the nineteenth century, many of them children younger than 10 years of age. While some of them stayed with the family over the years, others could be sold or separated from their real families instantly. When the family’s oldest son, Benjamin E. Gittings, moved to Washington City about 1829, his father made a gift to him of a six-year-old slave girl named Darkey Ann Snowden, who was his house servant there for the next 30 years. In his 1847 will, Thomas Gittings gave two of his sons their choice of any of his slave girls under the age of fifteen.
Within days of his death in late 1847, a female slave he had owned named Mary Emily was arrested in Washington on a charge of arson. The U.S. attorney agreed to not prosecute the case, provided she was sold out of the District. The executor of the estate, son Jedediah Gittings, agreed. He sought and the Montgomery county court decreed that he “sell the said Negress Mary Emily for the best price that can be had for her either at public or private sale and that he report said sale” to the court when completed.
On Feb. 8, 1848, at the sale of Thomas Gittings’ possessions after his death, just seven of his 24 slaves were kept at the old Cross Roads farm by the widow Christianna Gittings and son Jedediah. These included a mother, Levina, with child, and a woman named Margaret who had nursed Jedediah’s children a few years before. The others were gifted to the sibling heirs or sold that day to the highest bidder:
While the 1848 sale of their slaves netted the Gittings $6,012.00 (an astonishing 87% of the personal property that sold), the cost to the men, women, and children put on the block and taken from one another cannot be calculated.
The death of Major Gittings and the division of his estate dispersed his family members though, unlike their slaves, they profited from the event. It also left markers in the area that remain today. His wife and children could not agree on the division of the land — 823 acres (over a square mile) — so they consented to a decree of the Montgomery County Court, acting as a court of equity, on March 8, 1850. William Veirs Bouic was appointed trustee to act on their behalf. He had the property surveyed into six lots from about 84 to 127 acres and proceeded to sell them and distribute the earnings to the heirs through the court. The largest lot of 191 acres, however, was “laid off as the Widow’s Dower,” and “at the request and by the consent of all parties interested, will not be offered for sale during the life of the widow,” Christianna Gittings.
In 1852, Jemima Gittings, the widow of Benjamin Gittings who had continued to reside with her son’s family, died at the age of 100. Jedediah Gittings, the executor of his father’s estate, moved his family and mother to Washington’s Third ward in the mid-1850s, where he became an officer with the Metropolitan Police. Trustee Bouic offered the Widow’s Dower, “at the crossing of the Bladensburg road and the road from Washington city to Colesville,” for sale after they left. The coming place name change to Four Corners was apparent in his description: “All four lots or corners of land lying at the crossing of these roads, belong to the premises, and afford desirable and commanding positions for many kinds of public business.”
It is not known if Jemima Gittings and her son Thomas Gittings were laid to rest in Captain Adamson’s burying ground on their land before their family departed for Washington, but it seems likely. The burying ground still existed. In 1852, Mrs. Emily Beale of Washington City purchased the lot containing it (as she did all but one of Gittings’ lots), “saving and excepting one half acre of land, including the Family Burying Ground, and a free right of way to and from the same in the most convenient course from the public road.” The remaining Gittings lot to its west, No. 5, was purchased by Dr. Washington Duvall.
The Gittings family continued to be touched by and profit from slavery after moving to Washington. Jedediah Gittings was promoted to sergeant in 1861 after he and another officer arrested Stafford Payne, a slave from Virginia, under the Fugitive Slave Law, and two whites (one of them the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Representatives) who tried to stop them. When President Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act in April 1862, all slaves in the District of Columbia were emancipated immediately, including the slaves the Gittings had brought with them from the Cross Roads farm in 1829 and more recently. These eight slaves had been given them by Thomas Gittings, purchased from his estate, or born into servitude for them. None were freed before this act, and the Gittings lined up with hundreds of other Washington slave owners and filed the detailed applications to be compensated for their “loss.”
No such compensation awaited slave-owners outside the District of Columbia. That spring of 1862, with the Civil War and its promises unfolding around them, other slaves in the old neighborhood took matters into their own hands by simply walking to freedom. “A large number of slaves, perhaps several hundred, have been carried away the Government troops from their owners in this county,” wrote William Veirs Bouic in May. He was seeking U.S. payment “for a negro boy, ‘Theodore,’ who ran away, placed himself in a camp of Federal soldiers, and was permitted to march away with the troops.” Another nearby family, the heirs of Thomas N. Wilson, sold seven slaves before they could do the same.
Emily Beale was known for her business acumen and protected her new holdings in Montgomery County as well as she did Bloomingdale, her family estate in Washington. She placed the properties into two trusts for the use and benefit of — but not sale by — two of her children during their lives. The first went to her son, George N. Beale, and his wife Elizabeth in 1853, who took up summer residence on it, and added the Widow’s Dower to it in 1865, on lands that would become known as Four Corners for the first time the following year. Today his property, which he called Indian Spring Farm, comprises the north half of Woodmoor. In 1854, Emily Beale established the second trust in the name of her older son, the explorer Gen. Edward F. Beale, “(of California, now sojourning in the City of Washington),” who was visiting from his post as first Commissioner of Indian Affairs in that state. He retained ownership of the land but granted its use to his sister Mary Eliza and her husband William Read. The property was only to be granted to the Read’s children when they reached the age of 21 years.
The land remained in the Gittings’ lots for another 50 years. Its division among the seven heirs took place in 1903 and, although the lots were broken into smaller parcels, they remained undeveloped for several decades more. When they were finally sold for residential subdivisions in the 1930s through the 1950s, the shapes and boundaries of Northwood Park and its adjacent developments retained, in many places, the outlines and boundaries of the Gittings’ property.
One line that persisted was the easement that kept a way open to the old burying ground of Captain John Adamson and his family. It was recorded in wills, trusts, and deeds from the 1770s well into the late 1950s. Today it includes the short trail that leads from University Boulevard to the end of Hannes Street. Where slaves once walked along it to lay their masters to rest, their story — the history of Gittings’ Cross Roads — can now be told again.
[Hawkins has a Ph.D. in history and lives in Northwood Park.] ■
© 2016 NFCCA [Source: https://nfcca.org/news/GittingsCrossroads.html]