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.
[To be continued in the next issue.] ■Part 2 Entire Article
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