The Town of Chestertown
Chestertown can be said to be both “in the middle of nowhere” and “in the middle of everywhere.” This unusual circumstance helps make it an ideal location for thinking and writing about America’s past.
The town and its rural surroundings of Kent County both have populations barely larger today than at the time of the American Revolution (4,000 in the town, 19,000 in the county). This part of Maryland’s Eastern Shore has been called “America’s last great 18th-century landscape”: a patchwork of wheatfields and tidal waterways, sparsely strewn with farmsteads and crossroads villages. Many families have been in the area since colonial times. Traditions, oral histories, and a sense of place run deep.
Yet Chestertown also lies near the center of the teeming mid-Atlantic corridor. The town sits just past the eastern fringe of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, 90 minutes south of Philadelphia, and less than three hours south of New York. The museums, libraries and cultural institutions of these cities are within easy reach. And increasingly, Chestertown and its surroundings are attracting newcomers, retirees, and weekenders from the nearby metropolises. Chestertown was noted in the 18th-century for its cultural energy – accounts tell of scientific lectures and Shakespeare performances – and the new arrivals have reawakened this long-dormant scene, launching galleries, bookshops, and theaters, often in partnership with area natives. With its proximity to the nation’s capital – the Beltway is barely an hour away – Kent County also draws many diplomats, public servants, and other Washington, D.C., figures. An April 2006 article in the New York Times hailed the community’s “intellectual and cultural life” and “a small-town atmosphere that is peaceful and stimulating at the same time.”
In colonial times, Chestertown was a flourishing international port; its customs records note local vessels bound for the Caribbean, Europe, West Africa, and beyond. It also lay squarely astride the main north-south overland route along the Atlantic seaboard, halfway between the plantations of Tidewater Virginia and the burgeoning urban center of Philadelphia. (Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and others frequently passed through town on their way to and from sessions of the Continental Congress.) The first national Census, in 1790, would even pinpoint Chestertown as – statistically speaking – the center of population in the United States. The lofty ambitions of Washington College’s founders are vividly attested by the fact that the first college building, on a hilltop above Chestertown, was the largest structure of any kind in North America when it was built.
The town’s layout of streets and squares has barely changed since its era of peak prosperity in the mid-1700s, and its downtown – designated a National Historic Landmark – encompasses dozens of historic structures from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like Williamsburg before its discovery by the Rockefellers, Chestertown was preserved by isolation and economic stagnation. (Henry F. du Pont, the founder of Winterthur, collected so many historic furnishings and interiors here in the 1920s that he named his Long Island estate “Chestertown House”).
The community’s historical connections extend far beyond its architecture, however. Its story is intertwined with the long American narrative of freedom and slavery. In the 17th century, Catholics, Puritans, and Quakers settled on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in search of religious liberty. In the 18th century, Chestertown merchants led protests against British tyranny, Chestertown mariners commanded warships in the Revolution – and some of these same merchants and mariners also participated in the cruel trade that brought slave ships to Chestertown’s wharves. In the 19th century, Chestertown’s loyalties were divided between North and South (its Civil War monument honors soldiers from both sides, many with the same last names), and more than 400 African-Americans from Kent County enlisted in the Union Army to fight for their freedom. In the 20th century, Kent County’s public schools were among the last in the country to desegregate, and the Freedom Riders marched up Chestertown’s High Street.
Thus, Kent County represents a living laboratory of the American past for Washington College students and faculty. Its courthouse records stretch back unbroken to the 1650s, and many local attics hold caches of family papers almost as ancient, but few scholars have yet mined these riches. The Starr Center is already finding innovative ways to do so. To mark Chestertown’s 300th anniversary in 2006, the Center sponsored a weekend-long symposium examining three centuries of American history from the vantage point of this one community. The president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation delivered the keynote address, and Washington College students presented original research alongside historians and archaeologists from the University of Maryland, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, George Washington University, and Vassar College, as well as representatives of the National Park Service, Mount Vernon, and other groups.
Resources in African-American history are especially rich here, spanning three-and-a-half centuries. The Starr Center has supported oral-history and archival research by students, scholars, and creative artists who have drawn upon these resources for a variety of projects. In the summer of 2007, it sponsored “A Chesapeake Journey: From Slavery to Freedom,” a travel program for Washington College students and regional history teachers that explored both famous and little-known sites around the Bay.
Indeed, Chestertown has become something of a Mecca for public history of late. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors witness a reenactment of the Chestertown Tea Party, a 1774 incident in which patriots reportedly dumped British tea into the Chester River. And between 1998 and 2001, the entire community came together to build the Schooner Sultana, a faithful replica of a 1768 Royal Navy vessel that patrolled American waters in the years before the Revolution. Docked 100 yards from the Starr Center, the ship is owned by Sultana Projects, Inc., a local nonprofit that uses it for educational programs on history and the environment throughout the Chesapeake region. Recently, Sultana Projects launched a replica of the vessel that Captain John Smith used to explore the Chesapeake, which retraced Smith’s entire voyage as part of the 2007 anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The Starr Center has worked closely with Sultana Projects on many public programs, and sponsors sailing programs for students, faculty, and special guests aboard the historic schooner.