C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience
The Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence: A Short History
The Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence, one of the oldest structures in Chestertown, has myriad connections to American history – and to the history of Washington College – stretching back nearly three centuries.
The Original Owner
The front part of the house is a rare survival of the “hall-and-parlor” floor plan, typical in the 17th-century Chesapeake. It was constructed about 1735, just as Chestertown began to attract significant population and trade. The house’s first owner was a wealthy Englishman named John Buck (1703-1745) of the port town of Bideford in Devon, southwest England. Buck was a prominent merchant and Member of Parliament, the owner of extensive land in the Chesapeake region, who exported pottery and woolen goods to the colonies in exchange for tobacco and timber. He was also an avid participant in the flourishing commerce in transported convicts, purchasing the bonds of condemned criminals and shipping them across the Atlantic to work on his tobacco plantations in Maryland and elsewhere. It is likely that Buck never lived in or even visited his Chestertown property, but he may have had the house on Queen Street built as a residence for his American “factor,” or trade representative.
The 18th Century
John Buck’s heirs sold the house in 1771 to Capt. Emory Sudler (1725-1797), a Queen Anne’s County planter and local Revolutionary leader. Shortly after the American Revolution, the property was purchased by Benjamin Chambers, a local attorney and veteran of the war. Chambers had enlisted in 1775 as an officer of the famous First Maryland Regiment that later distinguished itself under Washington’s command at the Battle of Long Island in 1776, winning the sobriquet “The Old Line.” He later became commander of the Kent County militia.
General Chambers was one of the seven Visitors of the Kent Free School who, in May 1782, successfully petitioned the Maryland legislature to charter Washington College. As the fledgling institution’s first treasurer, he served as Dr. William Smith’s right-hand man in raising funds; the two men’s names also appear together on a 1783 newspaper advertisement seeking bids to erect the first College building. He would likely have been on hand to greet George Washington when the great man visited campus in 1784. Chambers’s association with the College as President of the Board of Visitors and Governors would stretch into the 1810s, when he represented a surviving link with the institution’s long-departed founder, Dr. Smith.
As perhaps the house’s first resident owner, Chambers undertook a major expansion, doubling its size with an addition behind the original section. The first-floor rooms featured handsome fireplaces and dentil moldings that were fashionable in the early Federal period.
Ezekiel Forman Chambers
The most distinguished resident of the house was probably Benjamin’s son, Ezekiel Forman Chambers (1788-1867), a member of the Class of 1805 at Washington College, who was born and grew up while his family lived in the house.
In the summer of 1814, shortly after the burning of Washington, D.C., British warships menaced the upper Chesapeake and prepared for the assault on Baltimore. As a feint to draw American militia away from the Western Shore, a small force under Capt. Sir Peter Parker of the HMS Menelaus landed in Kent County and marched toward Chestertown. (Sir Peter is said – probably apocryphally – to have vowed: “I will have breakfast in Chestertown, or in hell.”)
Shortly after midnight on August 31, the redcoats were intercepted by three companies of the Kent County militia – one of them commanded by the young Capt. Ezekiel Chambers. (Chambers’s father, Benjamin, who as brigadier general should have been commanding the entire militia, was instead sick at home that day.) Capt. Chambers’s company held the left flank of the American line against a frontal assault by the British. The attack ended only when Sir Peter fell mortally wounded by buckshot. The Battle of Caulk’s Field, as it is known, was – though a minor skirmish in the scheme of things – one of the rare American land victories of the War of 1812, and drew nationwide acclaim. In the American commander’s dispatch, Capt. Chambers was singled out for conspicuous gallantry under fire.
Perhaps building on his military renown, Ezekiel Chambers went on to pursue a career in politics, culminating in his appointment to the United States Senate in 1826. He would serve until 1834, gaining a reputation as a fierce opponent of Andrew Jackson, especially of that president’s financial policies. Chambers later became a judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, received an honorary degree from Yale in 1833, and was an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1864. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he served as chairman of a controversial statewide convention that proclaimed both Maryland’s sympathy for the Southern states and its loyalty to the Union.
Throughout his long life, Senator Chambers was a devoted supporter of his alma mater, serving for several decades as president of Washington College’s Board of Visitors and Governors. Indeed, after the disastrous fire of 1827, it is unlikely that the institution would have survived without his efforts. It was he who insisted – in the face of strong opposition – that the College be rebuilt on its original site, he who raised the funds to do so, and he who personally laid the cornerstone of Middle Hall, now its earliest surviving building. Washington College historian Fred Dumschott has called Senator Chambers a “tower of strength” during the institution’s darkest days. With his death in 1867, Washington College lost its last living connection to the 18th century, and to the school’s founding decades.
The 19th and 20th Centuries
By the early 19th century, the Chambers family – its wealth and prominence increasing – had left Queen Street and moved into the waterfront mansion that would later become known as Widehall. The house once again became a rental property, and its residents therefore are difficult to trace. In 1841, the Rev. William Kesley, a Methodist minister, was recorded as its occupant, renting the house from descendants of the Chamberses. In 1914, the house was divided into two apartments.
In 1963, Dr. Norman James, the Ernest A. Howard Professor of English Literature at Washington College, purchased the property with his wife, Alice. They restored the house and converted it back into a single residence. During the James family’s long occupancy, the house became the scene of many convivial dinner parties for Washington College faculty and students, and prominent American literary figures, such as Katherine Anne Porter, also visited. After the death of Professor James, his widow married Dr. Guy Goodfellow, a professor of history at the College.
From 2000 to 2006, Ted Widmer – a historian, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and inaugural director of the Starr Center at Washington College – lived in the house with his wife, the artist Mary Rhinelander, and their son, Freddy.
In January 2007, a generous gift from the Barksdale-Dabney-Patrick Henry Family Foundation allowed Washington College to purchase the house from a subsequent owner. It was renamed the Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence, and is now being restored and furnished as a house for visiting fellows of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. It welcomed the first Patrick Henry Fellow, historian Henry Wiencek in the fall of 2008.
Patrick Henry in Chestertown
The new name of the Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence honors the family of its donors, who are descendants of the 18th-century American patriot.
Henry is also known to have visited Chestertown on at least one important occasion – and in very distinguished company. In September 1774, en route to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Henry traveled in company with his fellow Virginia delegates George Washington and Edmund Pendleton. On the afternoon of September 2, the three men arrived on horseback in Chestertown, having crossed the Chesapeake by ferry to Rock Hall that morning. Clearly in too much of a hurry for sightseeing, they departed northward before breakfast the next day.
“I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past,” said Henry in his famous speech to the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775. A house in which future generations of American historians will shed new light on our nation’s past could have no better namesake.