Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ December 2016

History Corner(s)

The Untold History of Gittings’ Cross Roads, Part 2

By Ken Hawkins

[Continued from October]

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....”

An “Inventory of the personal Estate of Benjamin Gittings, late of Montgomery County, deceased,” dated 23 December 1805, lists his slaves, including two 15-year-old “Negro” girls — named “Thursday” and “Friday” — each “valued” at $180.

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.

Where was Gitting’s Tavern?  No one knows for sure.  The tavern was referenced as a landmark in advertisements for property and runaways, but the most specific location came from Augustus Taney in 1817.  He sold lands next to those of “Thomas Gittings, whose Tavern stands on the road leading from Montgomery Court House to Bladensburg,” with distances from the county court house and Washington that place it in today’s Four Corners.  In 1871, the property where the Gittings had resided was mentioned in a deed of Beale’s Indian Spring Farm — next to it on the west — which fixes the property’s location on what became in 1912 the area’s first subdivision, North Takoma Highlands.  The house that its developer, Elwood Matthews, lived in on the southwest part of the property when he was murdered (ironically, by a grandson of Mary Eliza Read) in the late 1930s was a frame house said to be over a hundred years old.  Early taverns were often located in or near the residence of the keepers, so it is possible that the site of this old house was that of Gittings Tavern.  It is now the front grounds of the St. Bernadette School on University Boulevard East.

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 the enslaved once walked along it to lay those who enslaved them to rest, their stories — the history of Gittings’ Cross Roads — can now be told again.   ■

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