I grew up in the northern reaches of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Although I-95 passes straight through the county, it has much more in common with the slower, rural way of life of the Delmarva Peninsula than it does with the suburban/urban life of central Maryland (the Baltimore-Washington DC area). It’s a quiet corner of Maryland full of rolling hills and coursing waterways–the county is cut through by five rivers.
The area has a rich history as well, going back deep into the colonial era. The house I grew up in is part of that history. My father bought the house in 1978, well before I was born, and we still own it. I lived there until I left for college. After returning home from graduate school a few years ago, I found myself unemployed and with time on my hands. I’d always been curious about the history of that old house and decided to do some research.
I had some information to go on. My mother had done some research not long after my father bought the place. I’d always been told the house had been built some time before the Civil War (though when exactly wasn’t clear) by the Rogers family. I knew the house had been a duplex; that one section of the house, the western half, was the newer part of the house. It was built sometime in the late 19th century.
A quick description of the house: The older portion of the house has two rooms down, three rooms up, a walk-up attic, and an earth-floor basement. Off the front is a deep porch. The newer portion of the house has two rooms downstairs (large kitchen and powder room) and three upstairs. The back stairs in this part of the house are steep and make a 90-degree turn at the bottom, coming to a stop at a plank door. There used to be a rickety porch off the side of the house (in addition to the front porch), but that was rebuilt and incorporated into the kitchen. Outside, the house is flanked by two enormous trees, each of them five or six stories high and the largest of their species in the state. Just to the south are the barn and the granary, both of which are large old structures in their own rights. Beyond that are pastures and corn fields. The house now sits on only two acres, but at one time it included about 100 acres all around.
My research began with the land records. I headed off to the Cecil County courthouse to pull the deeds. Luckily, deeds lead you backwards through time. I found my parents’ deed, which said it was purchased from such-and-such a person, who had purchased it in turn from such-and-such a person, the deed being in such-and-such a book on such-and-such a page. I easily worked backwards through time. Before my parents bought the place, it was abandoned for a while. It was the subject of a sheriff’s sale in 1958. Between 1912 and 1978 (when my father bought it), the house was sold to seven different owners. You can see time passing through the physical deeds: the deed from 1912 is type-written, but the deed from 1875 is handwritten, and the handwriting gets progressively more difficult as the decades pass. That last type-written deed, from 1912, marks the last date at which the Rogers family (who built the house) still lived there.
Smith Rogers was the last Rogers to own the place. He and his brother Isaac had inherited the property in 1845 from their father, Jeremiah Rogers, Jr. (That, one thinks, has to be when the second part of the house was built, to hold both the brothers’ families. The timing is right.). Jeremiah Rogers, Jr., in turn inherited the place from his uncle John Rogers. This much could be found easily in the deeds. But when I went to find out who John Rogers had inherited from, I hit a brick wall.
I found a document in the records, but it wasn’t another deed at all. It wasn’t a will, either. It appeared to be a document settling (in part) the estate of Thomas Rogers in 1825. It was a fairly odd document and left me with many more question than answers. It certainly didn’t help answer my main question: when, exactly, was our old house built? Sure, there were deeds to the land, but that didn’t mean there were any buildings on that land. Yes, the documents mentioned “improvements” (ie, buildings), but that could be legalese: if there were buildings on the land, they were included, but that didn’t mean there were buildings. It’s sort of a legal nicety. So, there was no proof that the house was on the land in 1825, just proof that land was owned by the Rogerses.
And what the heck was this odd document? It was hard for me to decipher the handwriting and the language, but I made out this much: Thomas Rogers had passed away in 1819 and divided his assets between his children. However, it appeared that, in lieu of cash money, John Rogers got the land (and house?). The document I found seemed to settle the matter officially (it was listed as a “decree’). One question that is still outstanding is the timing: Thomas Roger died in 1819, but this document was dated 1825. Why on earth was there such a gap?
It also raised the question: who were these Rogerses, and where had Thomas Rogers gotten the land? The trail seemed to run cold with him.
I started answering the first question first. As I was poking around the Cecil County records, looking for anything related to the Rogerses, I came across the story of one Catherine Rogers. I’ll have to look this up to fill in the gaps, but what I found was that this old lady, Catherine, was apparently taken advantage of, and her younger relatives petitioned on her behalf to have her land returned to her. In the process, it was mentioned that Catherine Rogers attended the local Brick Meetinghouse.
Although the story was interesting in and of itself, what I took away from this was the fact that the Rogerses were Quakers, because the Brick Meetinghouse is an old, local Friends Meetinghouse. This was an important clue, because the Quakers were wonderful record-keepers. I went to the library to search the local history section and found a very useful book of Quaker births, deaths, and marriages. From that, I was able to reconstruct a very full Rogers family tree. It all fit together beautifully with the scant information I was able to glean from the land records. It gave me some idea of who these Rogerses were. For instance, I found that they all had a lot of kids–and that at one point it appears a sister came to live in the house. It must have been one crowded house, because it isn’t that big!
So, a little about Quakers: In the early 1800′s, the Quakers (or Friends) were some of the most socially progressive people in the country. They believed in things like equality of the sexes and races. They were early abolitionists. They were usually pacifists, as well, who believed in plain speech and plain dress. There was, of course, a large Quaker community in Pennsylvania (founded by the Quaker William Penn). It made sense for Quakers to be in our corner of Cecil County, because it’s less than a mile from the Pennsylvania border. And, significantly, at one time, it was in Pennsylvania (at least according to Pennsylvania). In colonial times, the Penns and the Calverts (proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland respectively) argued over the boundary between the colonies. Pennsylvania and Maryland both claimed the land that our old house sits on. It wasn’t until Messrs. Mason and Dixon surveyed their famous line in the 1760′s that the matter was considered settled and the plot of land in question was formally and from thenceforth part of Cecil County, Maryland instead of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Of course, it isn’t clear (yet) who the land belonged to in the 1760′s…
From 1912 to sometime before 1825, however, I know for sure that the Rogers family owned and lived on this land. That makes me wonder about who they were–what were they like, and are there are any interesting stories about them? I’m not sure I’ll ever find that kind of information, aside from (perhaps) a few references in the Quaker meeting minutes. For more than that, I have to use my imagination.
When I was little, I used to think that the root cellar in the basement, a ramshackle little room in the corner, was a hiding place for slaves. Why I thought that, I don’t know; it wasn’t a very secret place. (Give me a break; I was young.) However, given the fact that the Rogers family were Quakers, there is the possibility that they sheltered runaway slaves after all.
This much and no more was I able to learn from the land records and Quaker genealogies. I was a bit frustrated by the absence of a better explanation. My search had come to a puzzling dead end with a document that seemed to be neither deed nor will and that was unclear about many things.
That was when I turned to other sources. Next time, I’ll start filling in some of the gaps. Let’s just say it involves a will filed in Chester County and a graveyard.