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C.V. Starr Center for the

Study of the American Experience

Hot Pursuits

Under the auspices of the C.V. Starr Center, and with the guidance of Washington College faculty, students set forth on thrilling adventures in American history. This page features some of the original, groundbreaking research that these students have undertaken… from tracing the lost pathways of the Underground Railroad to discovering the truth behind the famous legend of the “Chestertown Tea Party.”

Poplar Grove Team Discovers 300 Years of Historic Documents James Schelberg ‘11, Albin Kowalewski ‘07, Jeremy Rothwell ‘09, and Olivia Wood, Rhodes College

imageEverybody likes the idea of finding treasures in the attic—but when the attic is in an old plantation that has been in the family since 1669, such treasures can amount to a historian’s dream come true.

Such is the case at Poplar Grove, the historic home of the Emory family in Queen Anne’s County near Washington College. James Schelberg ‘11, a, first-year student at the College, was searching for research material for a term paper last at Poplar Grove last semester when he happened upon what has turned out to be a historical bonanza: thousands of pages of family papers, political correspondence, military records and much more—a tidal wave of valuable documents spanning 350 years. Schelberg, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and is now attending Washington College on a Hodson Star Scholarship, was interested in the military history of the Emorys, who served in every major conflict from the Revolution through World War II.  Poplar Grove Blog   NPR story MD State Archives

imageAdam Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, contacted Edward Papenfuse, Director of the Maryland State Archives, who made haste for Poplar Grove and was glad he did. “I came over for a survey,” said Papenfuse, “and it was clear how valuable these papers were. This find
is rich in many aspects of the area’s history and national history as well.”

The Poplar Grove Project student team includes Washington College students Schelberg, Jeremy Rothwell ‘09 and recent alumnus Albin Kowalewski ‘07, back for the summer from graduate school and serving as project supervisor under Papenfuse’s guidance. Also participating is Olivia Wood, a student at Rhodes College and descendant of the Emorys. (Panel discussion video)

imageIn addition to many thousands of pages of family letters, the discovery has yielded political correspondence, newspapers and broadsides, military records, a letter describing ex-President Monroe’s visit to West Point in 1828 (the old man jumped in alarm every time the cannons saluted him), letters about politics in the Jackson administration (one written from the floor of the Senate describing near-brawl between Thomas Hart Benton and another senator, as described by John C. Calhoun), an antislavery petition signed by dozens of Queen Anne’s County citizens in the 1830s; original manuscript poems (including a very x-rated one about a young man sneaking into a girl’s bed on a winter night in about 1810), a detailed description by Tench Coxe of buying a slave in Philadelphia in 1779, important Civil War documents, and many more incredible things. (Full press release).

Papers at Maryland State Archives

On the Track of the Underground Railroad Albin Kowalewski ’07

imageLocal lore and oral history have long maintained that the escape routes of many fugitive slaves passed through the region around Chestertown. Yet the precise routes themselves were a secret that 19th-century abolitionists took to their graves.

Until very recently, that is – when Washington College student Albin Kowalewski ’07 began tracing these pathways to freedom on the antebellum Eastern Shore, through archives, old maps, and the back roads of Kent County.

Among the mysteries that Kowalewski is pursuing: did the renowned Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman lead a group of local slaves to freedom in the spring of 1856? An ambiguous reference in an abolitionist’s journal sent him delving into old newspapers, wills, and court records to uncover the dramatic story of how a secret network of activists – both white and black – risked their lives for the cause of liberty. Tubman’s own involvement in the Kent County branch of the Railroad is still unclear, although she is known to have been active not far away, on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland. But Kowalewski has discovered evidence of literally dozens of other successful fugitives. His work is designed to help the National Park Service map out its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a nationwide effort to identify specific stops on the Railroad.

image“There are probably only a handful of places in the country where this kind of research would be possible,” Kowalewski says. “I literally get chills walking in the footsteps of the fugitive slaves, seeing the buildings they lived in and the routes they took to freedom.”

The 21-year-old, a History and American Studies major from Bowie, Maryland, is conducting his research under the auspices of the C.V. Starr Center, thanks to a grant from the nonprofit group Eastern Shore Heritage, Inc. He was previously a recipient of the Starr Center’s Frederick Douglass Fellowship.

Tea and Fantasy? Erin Koster ’07

imageEvery Memorial Day Weekend for the past several decades, tens of thousands of spectators have converged on Chestertown for the annual reenactment of theChestertown Tea Party, a 1774 event at which the Local Sons of Liberty, emulating their comrades in Boston, hurled bales of tea into the Chester River to protest King George’s hated tax.

But did the much-celebrated event actually occur? Washington College student Erin Koster ’07 uncovered some surprising results when she began researching the origins of the tale. Her research earned her the wrath of some townsfolk – but also national news coverage in The American Scholar, the Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press, and elsewhere.