This year’s Presidents’ Day reception drew our largest crowd yet. Guests enjoyed conversing over wine and cheese and listening to a talk by University of Maryland Archivist and Curator, Doug McElrath about what was happening at the time of the War of 1812 in Bladensburg and surroundings beyond the infamous battle for which it is known. Mr. McElrath highlighted interesting bits of information unearthed as part of the Bladensburg History Project, which he directs. The aim of this project is to recover the Town’s forgotten past and help restore its reputation as a “place that matters.”
Reaching back, McElrath explained that Bladensburg rose to prominence as a colonial seaport in the mid-18th century, trading tobacco for finished consumer goods, mainly with Scotland. But the town had to reinvent itself when the War of Independence disrupted the trans-Atlantic trade, and the Anacostia river silted in. Helped by its location at a crossroads between Georgetown, Annapolis, Baltimore and Alexandria, and its proximity to the emerging national capital, the town was able to adjust to a new economy based on grain production and manufacturing.
In its heydays, said McElrath, Bladensburg was a regional center for businesses and services.1 There were stores, warehouses, wharves, grist mills, forges, gunpowder mills, a blanket factory, tannery, as well as tradesmen such as carpenters, shoe makers, saddlers, tailors, among others. And there were a fair number of inns and taverns to serve the steady stream of travelers. As a place of business, the Town provided opportunities not only for people in the mainstream but also for those on the margins, including African Americans, to make an independent living. One example was a Margaret (Peggy) Adams, an African American woman, who owned land, ran a tavern and had connections to important businessmen of the day. George Washington, a frequent visitor in the town, stayed at her inn and reportedly recommended it as the “best-kept house in Bladensburg.”
Mr. McElrath had more surprising stories, including an Ode to Education composed by schoolmaster Samuel Knox of the Bladensburg Academy, and recited as an elocution exercise by his pupils in December 1788. McElrath intends to publish a paper on the subject and discuss them at a symposium on October 11. He concluded by extending an invitation to attend the symposium and see an exhibit on historic Bladensburg opening at the University of Maryland in October 2014.
¹ Doug McElrath’s blog “Beyond the Battle – Bladensburg 1814“
For the BHHC’s February 16 Presidents’ Day reception, Prince George’s County Historian Doug McElrath will give a presentation about the Battle of Bladensburg, entitled “The War of 1812 in Berwyn Heights – I Didn’t Know That!”
This talk will share some of the fascinating discoveries uncovered by the Bladensburg History Project – a community history collaboration launched as part of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The area that is now Berwyn Heights was once considered part of greater Bladensburg, and the people who lived and worked here witnessed a great deal more than a disastrous defeat of the American forces in August 1814. Come and hear about what was happening “beyond the battle” in greater Bladensburg in the era of the War of 1812.
Doug McElrath is a special collections curator at the University of Maryland Libraries and is the research director for the Bladensburg History Project. He also is the Chair of Prince George’s Heritage, Inc., a group dedicated to historic preservation in the county.