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  • The Names on the Wall:
    An Historical Puzzle in East New Market, Dorchester County

    by Greg Lepore, Maryland State Archives
    Diagram and images of names

           In July, 2002, I received a phone call from an acquaintence from Dorchester County, Maryland.  He asked if the Maryland State Archives, where I work as an archivist, would be willing to examine an interesting historical find that had recently come to light in East New Market.  The current owner of the Edmonson House in downtown East New Market was in the process of renovating an upstairs bedroom, after removing panels from the walls, he began scraping the paint and underneath he found approximately 30 signatures written on the wall, circa 1835-1837.  Some of the names were local to the area while others were from out of state.  In addition to names, counties, states, and dates were included for several names.
        The Edmonson house is approximately 600 feet from Friendship Hall, the home of Thomas Holliday Hicks Maryland's Governor from 1858 to 1862.  Both houses were built by the Sulivane family, the Edmonson house in ca. 1780, and Friendship Hall a few years later.  Local historians had heard of a tunnel behind the Edmonson house which, reportedly, connected the house to Friendship Hall.  Local legend stated that the tunnel had been used on the Underground Railroad and that the Edmonson House was once owned by Quakers.  The Quaker connection, along with the proximity to the Delaware border made the connection to the Underground Railroad very possible.  After conferring with Chris Haley, Deputy Director of Reference and Research, and Dr. David Terry, Research Specialist in the History of Slavery, we decided to visit the house and document the names and the tunnel.
        On August 18, 2002, Chris, David and I drove to East New Market.  Arriving more than an hour late due to traffic on the Bay Bridge, we were greeted by my friend and the current owner of the house.  The temperature that day was more than 90 degrees, and only one room of the house was air-conditioned.  The five of us crowded into the living room of the house and made our introductions.  We then moved upstairs to the bedroom that the owner had been renovating.  The room was in the front of the house, approximately 10 feet by 8 feet, with two outside windows on the wall to the left.  A few small pieces of furniture were sparsely arranged along the walls.  With five people and a video camera, the room was crowded and extremely hot.  We moved quickly from wall to wall in amazement, pointing out various names and attempting to decipher the old handwriting.  My acquaintance again mentioned the Quaker connection and speculated that the room may have been used as a meeting room.  If it was, it was a crowded meeting.  We began documenting the names on the walls, via written notes, digital camera and video camera.  Many of the names were difficult to read due to their age and the poor lighting conditions in the room.  After moving a large bookcase from the short wall immediately to the right of the doorway, several more names were discovered .
           We were were able to document at least 46 separate inscriptions, plus one in the hallway leading to the room, which was previously undiscovered.  Also found in the second bedroom was an engraving in the window glass that read "Dr. Edmondson Jenni Edmondson".  We examined the loft on the third floor briefly.
        The earliest dated inscription was from 1806.  It read "William B. Hutson was bled on the 1st day of April 1806 and the said Hutson was drunks at the time".  The other dates on the wall were all from 1835-1837.  Several of the inscriptions listed a name, date, county and state, including "James C. Chiles Nov the 28 1835 Upson County Georgia",  "Carry Cobb North Carolina Caswell County July 15th 1835".  Some inscriptions, including Mr. Cobb's, were surround by a heart shape.  One the long wall to the right of the entry door was a poem:
    "The rose is red the violets blew
    [...] is sweet and saw is you
    I am sure as the grape grows on the vine
    I will be yours if you will be mine"

    Below the poem, the name Major Hewitt appeared to have been erased, and the date Dec the 23 1835 was below the erasure.
           While the majority of the names were connected to southern states, at least three, Henry B. Lecompte, Algernon Harper and William Gootie,  were local Dorchester County citizens.  An article in the Cambridge Chronicle on December 31, 1831, read "Henry B. Lecompte has just opened a tavern at New Market in the well known and commodious house called the "Old Tavern".  The following month a sheriff's sale was advertised to be conducted at the tavern of Henry B. Lecompte in New Market.  Other public sales were also held at the tavern.  Lecompte had previously been the Constable of New Market in 1829 and early 1830; and would again be Constable in 1835 and 1836.
           Another local name that appears on the walls (four different times) of the Edmonson house was Algernon T. Harper, with the unusual addition "at the Book 1837" appended after one inscription.  Harper was also a constable of New Market, in 1842.  Thomas B. Davenport was also listed as being "at the Book".  Two possible meanings for the phrase "at the Book" come to mind; a recording book for sales and the Bible. Evidence from chattel records in Dorchester County indicate a drop-off in the number of slaves sold to southern buyers occurred in the 1830's, compared to the 1820's.  Preliminary numbers indicate that from 1823-1833, more than 54% of slaves sold in Dorchester County went to out-of-state buyers (including the Woolfolk's, who were from Tennessee and Georgia, but headquartered in Baltimore).  From 1833-1836, only 10% of slaves sold were to out-of-state buyers.  Perhaps the number of slaves sold remained constant, but the number of sales recorded declined
           After documenting the names on the wall of the upstairs bedroom, and examining the second bedroom and the loft, we made our way outside to look for the tunnel, last seen, according to my friend and our host, at a costume ball for the Bicentennial in 1976.  After being advised that snakes frequented the area, we began walking over the large back yard of the House.  Unfortunately, we were not able to discover the entrance to the tunnel, which had been made of brick.  We traversed the entire backyard in the direction of Friendship Hall without discovering any sign, indentation, etc. of a tunnel.  Not quite halfway between the two houses is a graveyard, which would make digging a tunnel in the area interesting.
           We eventually said our goodbyes and made our way back to the western shore.  Over the following weeks, I researched as many of the names on the wall as I could, and began to form some basic conclusions:
    1.      Without the tunnel, any connection to the Underground Railroad was going to be very hard to prove.
    2.      The predominance of southern names on the wall seems to indicate a connection to slavery.
    3.      Two of the names on the wall can be connected, directly or indirectly, to notorious Baltimore slave trader Austin Woolfolk.
    4.      No Quaker connection was found.
           The distance from the Edmonson House to Friendship Hall is approximately 600 feet, which would be a very long distance to attempt to cross underground.  Even if the tunnel only went part of the way to Friendship Hall, it should have been possible to discover some indentation in the soil, which was extremly dry and brittle.
           Possibly a tunnel did exist, as well as a connection to the Underground Railroad, but it must have existed independent in time from the names on the wall.  A slave running away from an owner, and a free citizen helping the slave break the law, would not commemorate the event by putting their names on the wall of a house in downtown New Market.  Evidence still exists just a few houses away of a slave pen in town, few runaways would have been so bold.
           An examination of the names and locations on the wall reveals mention of the following states:  Florida, Virginia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia.  Following up on specific names, I placed messages on websites related to genealogy in those states and counties.  I received a very informative reply to one such request.  After asking about John D. Moore of Columbus, Georgia, a researcher sent the following excerpt from Columbus, Georgia, Newspaper Clippings (Columbus Enquirer), Volume II, 1835-1837
    Thursday, October 26, 1837
           Ran away on the 3rd September from the employ of J. D. Moore near Columbus, three of my negro men, viz: Adam and his brother William, of yellow complexion, the former aged 25 or 30 years, the latter about 20 or 22.  Also Henry, of a darker compexion, 21 year of age, stout built.  Said negroes are recently from Maryland and are probably endeavoring to return.  It is said that Adam can write.  He is the tallest of the three, nearly six feet high.  circumstances that have since transpired induce the belief that they were stolen. (Signed) John Woolfolk.
           From this notice, it appears that John Woolfolk was renting his slaves to a J. D. Moore of Columbus, Georgia.  This John Woolfolk was probably the uncle of Baltimore slave trader Austin Woolfolk (rather than his adopted son John),  well-known for transporting over 2,600 slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans, Louisiana from 1818 and 1846.  However, the J. D. Moore of the newspaper clipping may not be the John D. Moore whose name is on the wall of the Edmonson House.  I have been unable to trace the particular slaves mentioned in the above notice.
                       Another name on the wall is Thomas W. Overley of Virginia.  Overley (or Overly) was  a known slave trader from Richmond, Virginia who often dealt on the Eastern Shore.  Again from Eastern Shore newspapers:
           Thomas W. Overley "…wishes to purchase 30-100 likely negroes from 10-26 years of age; apply to subscriber or leave a letter with Mr. S. Lowe, Easton Hotel" (Kent Inquirerer), "…wishes to purchase 50-100 negroes at Centreville" (Centerville Times)
           Overley's connection to Austin Woolfolk can be found in the May 25, 1830 issue of the Village Herald,  "Cash for negroes - Woolfolks, Sanders &. Overley"
                       Another significant fact that relates the names on the wall to the slave trade is the counties and states from which the southerners hail.   The counties and states are as follows:  Upson and Macon County, Georgia, Caswell County, North Carolina, Leon County, Florida, and Port Gibson, Mississippi.  A search of previous slave sales in Dorchester, Talbot, and Somerset counties reveal that southern slave traders from Port Gibson and Caswell County in North Carolina made purchases.  In addition, six other Georgia counties near Upson and Macon sent men to Maryland's Eastern Shore to buy slaves.  The presence of these localities on both the wall of the Edmonson House and the chattel records of the county is more than coincidence.
                       Identifying the names on the wall is only one part of the larger question - Why did they write their names on the wall?  One possibility, courtesy of R. J. Rockefeller at the Archives, was that the names of the owners were written above the heads of the slaves being sold.  A bit far-fetched, although there was evidence of erasures on the wall, which could indicate multiple sales.  Since the room was small, the number of slaves sold at any one time would have also been small.
              A brief examination of Quaker records at the Archives failed to reveal any connection to the names on the wall. However, the records are not complete.
                       Chris Haley of the Maryland State Archives videotaped many of the names on the wall and this video will be converted into still images so individual names can be discerned.  The digital photos that were taken will also provide a record of the names.  I plan to link the research and the images in an online presentation which will be made available on the State Archives website.  Further research is needed to more clearly define the role of Southern slave traders in the Eastern Shore slave trade.  Preliminary evidence indicates that more than half of all slaves sold in Dorchester County from 1823 to 1833 were sold to out-of-state buyers (including the Woolfolk family of slave traders).  This represents a considerable impact on the economy of the County.  By tracking the out of state slave traders, and the slaves they trafficked in, we can realize a better understanding of the forced migration of slaves can be realized.

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