CECIL COUNTY MARYLAND: Where Our Mothers and Fathers Lie Buried
Carolyn M. McDaniel
"To stand where those we reverence once stood, to see the very sites where they were born and toiled and died, gives us feeling of still mythical contact with them and is a practical expression of our homage." Runciman

Before leaving Maryland in 1993, I had the opportunity to make many journeys throughout Cecil County. It is a wonderfully rural and beautiful area of gently rolling farmlands which run along the many "necks" and inlets which characterize the Chesapeake Bay region. St. Stephen's Church, where our families worshiped and where many early parish entries reflect their vital records, is west of Cecilton on Sassafras Neck, the southernmost peninsula of the county. Depending on one's viewpoint, the Sassafras River drawbridge either connects or separates Georgetown from Frederickstown, which is on the site of the original Pennington land patents of Happy Harbour, Sylvanias Folly, Pennysworth, and the adjoining Buntington. Nearby was William Drake's mill on his patent of Civility, as well as holdings of John Atkey, John Coppen/Copping, the Othosons, Wheelers and Beadle/Beedle/Biddles who were among the early families allied with the Penningtons.

In the 1730's the Penningtons with the help of surveyor William Rumsey, hoped to develop their holdings at Frederickstown into a sort of colonial version of a travelers' accommodation. The difficulty was that property owners across the River (now Georgetown, in Kent County, Maryland) held much the same hope for their town. Consequently, neither of these speculative aims was ever realized, and the two little towns seem never to have contained more than a handful of houses.  Frederickstown therefore remains a tiny, enchanting remnant of the earliest Penningtons, nestled on the banks of the Sassafras, which is usually dotted with sailing craft of all sizes. The setting seems unlikely to have changed much over the intervening three hundred years since Henry Pennington first took up the Happy Harbour patent in 1671, and affords us a unique opportunity for a spiritual pilgrimage, following and examining the same byways and homesites of these ancient Mothers and Fathers.  Happy Harbour was well and truly named.

Cecil County lies like a plump backward E, bent and tucked into Maryland's northeast corner, providing the head of our munificent treasure, the Chesapeake Bay. It is separated from Harford County by the Susquehanna River; Baltimore is southwest; Kent County, Maryland directly south; Chester County, Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia area are north. Further north and east across the Delaware River is the southern tip of New Jersey and on the east, New Castle County, Delaware. The western portion of Cecil County above Baltimore is quite different in topography from the eastern half of the county, which comprises the base of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, referred to locally as the Delmarva Peninsula.

In 1608 Captain John Smith of Virginia fame, left Jamestown and sailed as far as possible up the Chesapeake, attempting to ascend the rivers of what is now Cecil County. He soon found the county's northern rivers, the Susquehanna, North East, and Elk Rivers, to be broad and beautiful where they flow into the Bay but not to be accessible for any meaningful distance by ship. During this trip Smith made contact with some of the original dwellers of the region and was mightily impressed with the Susquehannas, which at that time seems to have been predominant tribe among the native peoples. Smith estimated the Susquehanna numbers at about 600 able men. The Susquehannas inhabited the northwestern area of the county, along the river which now bears their name. They were a part of the Iroquois nation who in turn were a part of the alliance of Iroquois tribes which was called the Five Nations and consisted of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. This alliance was joined by the Tuscaroras, after which the federation was called the Six Nations. There were other Native Peoples, but they do not seem to have been so vigorous or numerous as the Susquehannas. The Massawomekes were the principal rivals of the Susquehannas and were probably also of Iroquois stock. There was a group of Toghwoghs who were of more gentle disposition, who were likely Algonquin or Muscogee origin. A tribe called Minquas lived around the Christiana and Brandywine Rivers just above Cecil County in Delaware and were considered to be a part of the twelve tribes found in Delaware belonging to the Leni Lenape which translates to "the Original People." Early Colonial writings refer to other native tribes in the region but it is difficult to conclude what presentday locations correspond to the references. Smith was fascinated by the Susquehannas and wrote in great awe of them and their chief: "calves of his legs were three-quarters of a yard about, and all the rest of his limbs so answerable to that proportion, that he seemed the goodliest man" Smith ever saw. The Susquehannas met them with skins, bows, arrows, targets, beads, swords and tobacco pipes, for presents. "They seemed like giants," Smith related, "and were the strangest people in all the countries, both in language and attire; their language well becomes their proportions, sounding from them as a voice in a vault. Their attire is the skinnes of beares and wolves, some have cossacks made of beares heads and skinnes, that a man's head goes through the skinnes neck and the ears of the beare fastened to his shoulder, the nose and teeth hanging down his breast, another beares face split behind him, and at the end of the hose hung a pawe, the half sleeves coming to the elbows were the necks of beares, and the armes through the mouth with pawes hanging at their noses. One had the head of a wolf hanging in a chaine for a jewell, his tobacco pipe, three-quarters of a yard long, prettily carved with a bird, a deare, or some such device at the great end, sufficient to beat out one's braines, with bowes, arrows, and clubs suitable to their greatness." After this trip Smith made a map of the Chesapeake which showed a Toghwogh fort a few miles above the mouth of the Sassafras River. The Susquehannas had a fort near the mouth of Octararo Creek and may have had a village near the mouth of Conestoga Creek in what is now Lancaster County, PA.

As in the other colonies, the earliest white settlements in Maryland were established for commerce. Carl N. Degler in his American History, Out of Our Past, The Forces That Shaped Modern America, put it well: "Capitalism came in the first ships." Competition soon became quite fierce between the early contingencies of Swedish, Dutch and English dwellers in the Delaware River-Chesapeake Bay region. The Dutch and Swedes vied for territory along the New Jersey side of the Delaware River while the English began moving up the Bay from Virginia and their first Maryland site at St. Marys. Palmer's Island at the mouth of the Susquehanna, now called Watson's Island, seems to have been the initial location of settlement within Cecil County and was set up principally for the fur trade with the native tribes. Spesutia Island, which lies below the mouth of the Susquehanna on the western side of the Bay, directly across from Sassafras Neck, and Kent Island which lies on the eastern side of the Bay below the mouth of the Chester River were also early trading locations. Spesutia island was occupied by Nathaniel Utie, while a William Clayborne from Virginia, who would become a difficult fly in the ointment for Maryland's settlement, established himself on Kent Island and Palmer's Island.

The Chesapeake Bay was as much a cradle of civilization for the New World immigrants as the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was to ancient peoples of the Mediterranean region. The Bay afforded them easy access to the new lands, nurtured them with its abundant larder of game and seafood, and the flatlands rising up from its shores provided farming opportunities. While the initial settlers were traders, the ensuing immigrants quickly discovered that a unique New World product could be traded profitably with England, and they began energetically cultivating tobacco. The leaves of the plants were harvested and dried, then formed into huge bales to be rolled down to the rivers' edges and laded aboard waiting vessels for shipment to England.

Settlements established in the West Indies became an adjunct to the trade with Europe, with slaves, rum, and tobacco forming a chain of commerce linking the three areas. It is possible to draw an almost perfect diagonal line between New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Elkton (Cecil county's seat), Baltimore, and Washington, D. C., which seemingly would place the county in the enviable position of being enroute to these cities. However, during the initial settlement of the area and through much of the colonial era, land travel was quite difficult, and most journeys were made by water, rendering little relevancy to Cecil County's proximity to these important population centers. Rather, the county developed like most of the Bay Region, because of its water accessibility, and the opportunity to grow tobacco on its broad level land reaches. People used the waterways because they provided easier, speedier travel and transportation of their trade goods. As early as 1680 when Augustine Herman was founding Bohemia Manor, the area was recognized as a prime location for a canal to the Delaware Bay and various attempt to construct one were undertaken throughout the 1700's and 1800's. The canal was finally constructed and now affords a northern access to the Chesapeake, comprising a strategic part of the Inland Waterway.

In colonial times, tobacco was not only a commodity, but also was a medium of exchange, as whiskey became later in the interior areas. Payment for goods or property is referred to in many indentures and records as so many pounds of tobacco. This would become a terribly irony for Cecil County, because just as tobacco cultivation led to settlement and development of the county, it ultimately depleted the soil and became the motivating factor for subsequent migration. Farmers sought the promise of more fertile areas in the south and west. The Penningtons and many of the earliest families connected with the county are not found there in modern times.

With many records missing it is hard to determine when a land transfer signifies a removal from the area, but we learn of one such case when Abram/Abraham Pennington, "late of Cecil county, now of the Colony of Vergenia" is identified in this manner within the body of a deed. (Vol. 5, Fol. 16, 1733/4.) Research of the 16th century families is in some ways easier than for their descendants of the 17th century. The early planters were busy acquiring property and establishing their new communities. They did not enjoy a very long life span and most did not stray far from the areas where they originally purchased. Almost a century passed in this manner before much migration began, making collecting information and determinations easier to locate than for the more mobile later generations. There were at least two notable Pennington exceptions. First, Thomas Pennington, named in his brother John's 1699 will, whose three children's births are recorded at St.   Stephens.


Thomas and his wife Allie [Ealie, Alice, etc.] made several Cecil county deeds in 1702, divesting themselves of their Maryland property. There are later records in Salem County, NJ which may indicate where he went after leaving Cecil county. Another was Abraham Pennington, the Indian Trader, who left the Susquehanna region before 1733, making an interim stay in Frederick County in western Maryland before journeying into Virginia. Abraham is an intriguing subject in many ways. He was in the vanguard of migration of his generation, as Richard Pennington was in the era of Daniel Boone fifty years later. Abraham's migratory patterns were likewise mirrored by a more famous early frontiersman, Thomas Cresap. From the similarity of their movements and locales I suspect they were not only contemporaries, it seems highly likely their lives were intertwined. They certainly lived in the general proximity of one another along the Susquehanna and both moved westward in the 1730's. Abraham's descendants ultimately populated the south, spreading outward from the Appalachians all the way to South Carolina and Georgia. Similarly, I find a much later Cresap family near some of mine, shown as early settlers of Grant County, Oregon, in the John Day area.

Most persons have a perfunctory knowledge of the dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania over their common boundary. William Penn and his Pennsylvania settlers were imbued with many virtues but some of these seem to have been set aside when territory was at issue, as Pennsylvania had similar boundary disagreements with Delaware, New York and Virginia. Penn's bloodless coup against Maryland, which gained 20 miles of Maryland territory all along the border, succeeded for many years through a variety of subterfuges. Although minor squabbles and disputes continued over the question, nothing changed until the 1730's. At the heart of the issue was the where the charters physically placed the boundary, Penn's faction placing it about 20 miles south of Philadelphia, Baltimore's faction insisting it ran smack into the city of Philadelphia, along the 40th parallel. Subsequent Pennsylvanian apologist writings to the contrary, the line was easily established by even primitive surveying techniques. The unusual Marylander who took it upon himself to right the wrong stepped forward in the unruly person of Thomas Cresap.

Thomas Cresap, a man of quite fascinating character, had a ferry at presentday Port Deposit on the Susquehanna, but about 1730 moved upriver to the 40th parallel, which should have been the boundary line. Although he was unschooled, and certainly not a surveyor, Cresap accurately located himself near the 40th parallel, a location Pennsylvanian surveyors had not determined. Perhaps responding to an innate contentiousness, and certainly encouraged by the financial blessing of Lord Baltimore's Maryland government, he was soon spearheading efforts to regain the territory Pennsylvania controlled. The more stoic German and Quaker landholders of Lancaster, County, Pennsylvania didn't quite know how to deal with the flamboyant Cresap, who began waging a back-woodsy sort of mini-war against them over the boundary issue. There were a variety of bloody conflicts.

In the History of Lancaster County by Ellis and Evans, the troubles were outlined as follows: "When Col. Thomas Cresap came up from Maryland in 1730, he established a ferry and built his cabin near Patterson's land. The object of the Marylanders in sending Cresap and those who accompanied him to this point was to drive out all settlers under Penn and take possession of the land. They commenced operations by shooting several of Mr. Patterson's horses. As soon as Patterson heard of this he went to Justices John Wright and Samuel Blunston at `Wright's Ferry,' [now Columbia, Pennsylvania] and procured a warrant for the arrest of a man named Lowe who belonged to Cresap's party. Constable Jones of Hampfield and Mr. Patterson, and his son James and several others went over the river and arrested Lowe in his house at night, and forced him over the river on the ice and took him to prison in Lancaster, where he was after rescued from jail by a party of Marylanders. This was the commencement of the border troubles, sometimes called `Cresap's War.' These troubles between the Marylanders and the Pennsylvanians increased, and entirely broke up Patterson's Indian trade on the west side of the river, and entailed a great loss to him."

Back in England, Lord Baltimore became alarmed over the increasing violence and sought to compromise with the Pennsylvanians. But duplicity again characterized the Pennsylvanian faction. A fraudulent "compromise," through its deceptive wording, fooled Lord Baltimore into believing the new boundary would be near the 40th parallel. Hostilities were renewed in 1734 when the new Pennsylvanian chicanery was recognized.  Cresap eagerly jumped into the fray once again, confiscating Quaker properties and then awarded them to Marylanders who assisted him in his missions. The sheriff of Lancaster county formed a posse and arrived at Cresap's doorstep in the middle of the night to arrest him. The posse surrounded the Cresaps' cabin and an overly bold deputy named Knowles Daunt began hacking at the hinges of the door with an ax. Cresap fired through a hole the cabin chinking, wounding Daunt in the leg. With the drawing of blood, the Pennsylvanians called a truce, pleading with Mrs. Cresap to provide them with a candle so they might examine Daunt's wound. Hannah Cresap, who seems to have been cut from the same pugnacious fabric as her husband, denied them the candle, crying out that not only was she glad he had been hit, she would have preferred the wound had been to his heart. Daunt ultimately did die, and Governor Gordon of Pennsylvania wrote Governor Ogle of Maryland demanding that Cresap be arrested for the murder of the man. Although Governor Ogle's written response was flowery and diplomatic, his more telling response was to make Cresap a captain in the Maryland Militia. [There are descendants of the Ogle family here in Oregon who are my neighbors. My great-grandfather George Strather Smith was killed at the Benjamin Ogle homestead during the Bannock War of 1878.]

Thereafter Cresap and his followers undertook a rampage of violence mainly directed against the Quaker elements nearest them, ransacking farmsteads, destroying barns and livestock, but without any loss of human life. In keeping with their pacifistic religious beliefs the Quakers did not retaliate. By 1736 the Lancaster county sheriff finally was able to muster a non-Quaker force against the Maryland guerrillas. They attacked Cresap, once again surrounding his cabin while he cursed them from within, terming the Sheriff's assistants "Scotch-Irish sons of bitches." Cresap was promised he would not be harmed if he came out, but true to form, he refused to surrender. The Sheriff later recounted: "Cresap with several horrid Oaths and the most abusive Language against the Proprietor & People of Pennsylvania, answered that they should never have him till he was a Corpse, and filling a Glass of Rum he drank damnation to himself & all that were with him if he or they surrendered." The Sheriff, who seems to have been as outraged by the blasphemous language as much as by his nemesis' deeds, set the Cresap cabin afire. With her family threatened, Mrs. Cresap was forced from her home and ran from the cabin with their children. Cresap himself ran to the river, evading enemy fire while attempting escape by boat but the posse was upon him before the boat could be launched.

Even in captivity Cresap was still able to crow loudly, boasting he would soon be free. Again, the Sheriff records Cresap's offensive behavior: "Cresap affirmed Lord Baltimore would soon be over in Maryland, and then he would drive all Pennsylvanians to the devil, and the court in Philadelphia would be called in Lord Baltimore's name ...Cresap (said) that if he was in prison in Lancaster Town they could not keep him long, for he would soon be relieved and the town set afire." While being rowed to his ostensible destiny in Lancaster, the wily Cresap managed to push one of his captors overboard, calling out, "Cresap's getting away." In the darkness, completely fooled by this ruse, the Pennsylvanians began pounding their poor waterlogged companion with their oars believing they were pummeling Cresap. Once in Lancaster a blacksmith was fetched to forge steel manacles to restrain him. He felled the blacksmith with one mighty blow. Restrained in steel, the troublesome prisoner then was hauled safely off to Philadelphia where he was paraded through the streets of Philadelphia so the gentle folk might catch a glimpse of the Maryland Wildman. Chained but ever unbowed, the irrepressible Cresap proclaimed, "Damn it, this is one of the prettyest towns in Maryland!"

Cresap remained imprisoned until 1737 when the King intervened in the border dispute, ordering a cessation of the violence between the Penns' and Calverts' landholders and a settlement within the courts. Thereafter Cresap moved on to Frederick county, Maryland where he entered a new phase as a Frontiersman and Indian-fighter. I like to imagine that he was inspired by his neighbor Abraham Pennington's decision to move westward. Landholders within the Nottingham and New Munster tracts of Cecil County were squarely in the middle of the border difficulties, finding themselves taxed by both Pennsylvania and Maryland, their allegiance demanded by both factions and title to their property in questionable order. The courts dithered over the matter for many more years, until they decreed in 1750 that Lord Baltimore had forfeited his original rights by agreeing to the phony compromise with the Pennsylvanians.

In 1767 a Mr. Mason and a Mr. Dixon, an English surveying team, undertook the job of laying out the proper border line. Philadelphia and an intervening 20-mile swath of villages between the 40th parallel and the new Maryland border contentedly returned to being pretty towns -- in the colony of Pennsylvania.

Most of the information regarding Thomas Cresap is taken from “Cresap’s War,” by Richard Hershey in the Susquehanna Magazine, Volume 13, #5, May, 1988. From The History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, by Ellis & Evans, Philadelphia, 1883, and from Thomas Cresap, Maryland Frontiersman, by Kenneth P. Bailey, Christopher Publishing House, Boston, Mass, 1944.

Penningtons and Allied/Associated Families of Cecil County, Maryland
The William Marion Pennington Family
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