Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Levin Frazier (1754-1842)
MSA SC 3520-16768 

Biography:

Levin Frazier was born in 1754 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Established in the seventeenth century, Dorchester County was occupied by both European colonists and native Indian tribes for decades after it was settled by Europeans. Farming was one of the most common occupations in Dorchester in the years leading up to the Revolution, and Frazier, who was a farmer after the war, likely worked a small farm with his family or farmed a larger landowner’s property during that time. Despite its prevalence, cultivating the land came with a number of challenges. Prior to the Revolution, less than a quarter of the land in the county was suitable for farming. Much of the rest was either too marshy or densely covered with trees to be worked efficiently; the land had to be clear and sitting at a high enough elevation so as to not be affected by rising tides. Even with these challenges, farming took hold, and tobacco became the main crop produced in the county.[1]

A period of prosperity came to the county following the 1715 restoration of Lord Baltimore’s proprietary rights. This prosperity, which lasted for decades until the outbreak of the Revolution, allowed farmers to establish themselves and their households. Cambridge and Vienna became the trading centers for the county, shipping out crops and bringing in goods such as slaves. The importation of enslaved laborers grew more common as the land became more accessible, for a cheap source of labor was preferred as farming spread to more cleared areas. Although farming dominated Dorchester County and most properties were spread over large areas, certain towns, particularly Cambridge, established themselves as centers of society and social refinement. Not everyone in the county could fit into this sphere, however.[2]

As the Frazier family did not own land in the county prior to the Revolutionary War, they likely served as tenants or hired laborers on land belonging to a wealthier owner. The nature of the land made it harder for these people of fewer resources to produce a crop that could compete with the greater holdings of the elite, who used slaves and laborers to clear the land at a lower expense and with more ease. Often, the poorer farmers would be dependent on the large farmers for financial assistance between growing seasons. Smaller farmers and tenant farmers dealt with local merchants to sell their crops, but the larger landowners could trade with England, where more money was to be made. Land, as was evident to all involved, was the greatest source of power in the county.[3]

Small planters and tenant farmers, such as the Fraziers, not only lacked the power that larger landholders had, but they also fell below this group in social standing. Wealthy Dorchester County residents made up the highest class, with poor whites and tenant farmers forming a lower class of citizens. This difference could be a tangible one, as wealthier families often had grander houses and owned much more property, but it was also evident through better treatment and special privileges; even in church, the rich were separated from the poorer folk. Enslaved men and women made up a class even lower than the poor whites.[4]

Even with this social stratification, the wealthy and poor people of Dorchester County were of a similar mind when it came to fighting oppression. The return to proprietary rule had helped bring about a period of prosperity in Dorchester, but the people were not complacent under this form of law. County delegates were elected to state assemblies to oppose aggressive moves by the governor and his officials, and they were successful enough to gain concessions for the people of the county on several occasions. The strongest of the unifying factors in Dorchester was the trade restrictions put in place by the British, which affected all residents of the county. Eventually, this sentiment was strong enough for Cambridge to be named the headquarters of military operations on the Eastern Shore during the Revolution. Frazier did not have the loudest voice in his county, but his reaction to the situation spoke volumes.[5]

Levin Frazier joined the Continental Army in March of 1776, possibly as a substitute for a man named Thomas Chaplain. He began his enlistment as a private in the Fourth Independent Company of the First Maryland Regiment, serving under Captain James Hindman of Talbot County.[6] The company marched to New York as a part of the Maryland Line and fought in the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, where the Maryland 400 earned distinction for saving the Continental Army. Although the Line was commended for their bravery and sacrifice, Frazier’s company lost only three men and was accused of acting dishonorably during the battle. Captain Hindman vehemently defended his men against these accusations, and wrote that Colonel William Smallwood could attest to their character.[7]

In the months following Long Island, Frazier fought as a member of the Maryland Line at the battles of White Plains and Trenton. Like the rest of Washington’s forces, Frazier’s Company was left in poor shape by the end of 1776. Hindman wrote to Maryland’s Council of Safety, underlining such needs as “necessary clothing for the Maryland Regular troops, which am much afraid shall not be able to procure at present, particularly shoes and stockings, of which we are in great want and unless they can be got will render many soldiers unfit for duty.” Describing the state of his men, he noted that “they have been and still are very sickly, as are all our troops.”[8] Frazier left the Continental Army in 1777, perhaps as a result of these poor conditions, and joined a budding Maryland navy that had recently acquired several ships for defense of the Chesapeake Bay.

His first naval service was as a midshipman on board the galley Conqueror, captained by John David, where he remained for eighteen months. The Conqueror was commissioned towards the end of 1776, but was not completed until 1777 as wartime limited the available supplies. It could hold eighty men, but likely had fewer than that number on board for most of its service due to shortages. Levin Frazier was on board by September of 1777 and could have taken part in its several expeditions to clear the Chesapeake of enemy ships. He would later recall that he spent his time on the Conqueror “cruising up and down the Chesapeake Bay as required, during which time they had some skirmishes but no regular engagements.”[9] When this term ended, he received a commission as a Second Lieutenant from Maryland Governor Thomas Johnson. Upon receiving this commission, Frazier joined the galley Independence, captained by Bennet Matthews.

Although he served on the Independence for a similar length of time as he did on the Conqueror, he likely saw less action during this time than he had seen on his first cruise, for the Independence served mainly as a transport vessel after 1778.[10] Frazier left the military for a short period of time after the Independence was sold in 1780 with the rest of Maryland’s naval galleys. While away from the service, Frazier married Elizabeth Eccleston of Dorchester County in January of 1781. However, it was also likely during this time away from the service that he impregnated a woman named Retty Bromwell.[11] While both of these occurrences are major events in a man’s life, they also gave him ties to Dorchester other than it being his home county. A wife and child would give him substantial reason to return to the county after he was out of the military, which is exactly what he would do.

The sale of the galleys virtually shut down Maryland's navy and left the region vulnerable to the British and Loyalist privateers, and these groups quickly began to construct forces for raiding and invasion; the need to rebuild Maryland’s naval fleet became imminent. This time, however, Maryland’s Council of Safety would look to a different kind of ship to meet their needs. Instead of commissioning more galleys, the council chose to rely on naval barges. The British had used these vessels in New York and in the Chesapeake, and they were versatile in their capabilities and could traverse both open water and shallow shoals, something the schooners and galleys were not built to do.[12]

Interestingly, one of these barges, the Defence, was funded by and built for a number of private donors from Dorchester County in 1781; it is possible that the Frazier family made donations to this pursuit. This barge was constructed with local lumber, a valuable material that had been made abundant by the clearing of land for farming. Victimized by the Loyalist privateers that raided in the Chesapeake, the men who funded the barge’s construction, though remaining anonymous, stated that the barge was built as an endeavor “to bring to condign Punishment and the Perpetrators of the many late villainous and horrid Barbarities [that weigh] more in the Breasts of these Officers & men than any expectation of gain.”[13]

Shortly after being outfitted for service, the barge Defence acquired a new captain. Solomon Frazier, Levin Frazier’s brother, was put in charge of the vessel from his home county in the beginning of 1782 and given orders to recruit a crew.  One of the men he recruited to join him was his brother, and Levin came aboard as his first lieutenant. The recruiting instructions given to the captains offer some insight into what the bargemen, including Levin Frazier, looked like: “the Men enlisted must be able bodied and perfect in all their Limbs and light of sound Health without ruptures or other visible infirmities, above five foot four Inches high and above sixteen and under fifty years of age.”[14] Residents of Dorchester County were preferred, and no servants, apprentices, or deserters of another force were to be accepted. Levin Frazier served on the vessel for a twelve-month term and was on board for several encounters in the bay, including the Defence’s capture of a British barge, the Jolly Tar, in November 1782. Two weeks later, the Frazier brothers led the barge into the deadliest battle that took place in the Chesapeake during the Revolutionary War: the Battle of Cages Straits near Smith Island, Maryland.[15]

The Defence and the Frazier brothers played a very important role in the battle, though it turned into a harsh loss for the Maryland navy. Sent ahead to scout the British positions, Solomon sailed under British flag to the Loyalist base on Tangier Island, Virginia, and was able to trick the locals into divulging information to his men. For the battle itself, the Defence was placed at the far left of the line of barges, and was the first to fire on the British. Ultimately, however, the ammunition reserves on Maryland’s leading barge, the Protector, were hit and exploded, killing and injuring a great number of men onboard. The remaining barges, including the Defence, were forced to flee, and the battle was lost.[16]

Levin Frazier returned to Dorchester County after his term on the Defence ended in early 1783. He came back to his wife and child, though he owned no land in the county at the time. Land was vitally important to a person’s place in the county, as it had been when he left for the army; Frazier worked to acquire land of his own after his return, and he was able to patent a land claim in 1795, a sixteen and one-half acre plot fittingly called “Frazier’s Beginning.” This first land patent was also his last, though he would acquire land through other means. His wife inherited eighty acres upon the death of her brother early in the nineteenth century, making the property jointly her husband's. He turned his property into farmland, but faced the same problems  posed by Dorchester land that had troubled planters for decades.[17]

Although his land was located in one of the poorest and least populated districts in Dorchester County’s Neck district (located between the Choptank and Hudson rivers), this did not inherently mean that Frazier was poor. He continued to accumulate land throughout his life, and he was assessed as having close to 110 acres, worth 360 dollars, in 1837.[18] While his landholding was not great when compared to those of the large planters in the county, it placed him well above many of the other residents of his district. He had also amassed over 500 dollars of personal property, making his total worth one of the highest-valued in the Neck district; his property’s overall value was greater than double the district average. There were 173 people assessed in the survey, and Frazier was one of the top forty.[18]

Working as a farmer, Frazier likely grew wheat and other grains on his land. Tobacco’s value had declined in the years leading up to the war, and Dorchester County planters began to look to other crops to make up for the decrease in tobacco production with wheat being the frontrunner.[19] Though Frazier was more successful than most of the other farmers in his region, the majority of his profits were likely poured back into his farm. He had also accumulated debts that needed to be paid off, possibly as a result of renting in the years before he owned land of his own. As a result of his troubles, Frazier was granted a pension in 1818. This likely helped him to pay off his debts and continue increasing his holdings.[20]

He and Elizabeth had a number of children together, in addition to the one he had with Retty Bromwell, and he owned at least three slaves who served as house servants, though more likely worked his land as farmhands. It cannot be known what their family life was like, but some instances recorded by the local news give insight into a few exciting occurrences in the Frazier household. In 1825 his house was struck by lightning, severely injuring one of his daughters and one of the family's slaves. Only two years later, the family was victimized by a sinister plot. Frazier and his family were poisoned with cyanide, with someone having put the poison in their coffee. After they became sick, their suspicions fell on two slave women, who were then also made to drink the coffee and too became sick. The Fraziers survived the incident upon receiving medical attention, but the fate of the slave women remains unknown.[21]

The simple fact that Frazier owned these slaves and dozens of acres of land shows the social and economic steps he had taken since living as a poor farmer in the years surrounding the war. Though it was an oppressive institution, slave ownership was one of the markers that separated the wealthy class from the poor farmers and tenants of the county and had been since Dorchester County was formed. Prior to the war and for several years following, Frazier had not owned any land, let alone slaves to work it. He eventually acquired enough means to break through the barriers that had divided him from the upper classes. Adding to this is the fact that news of his life was printed in a local paper, indicating the social significance he had attained over the years.

Levin Frazier died in the Morris Neck region of Dorchester County, Maryland, in the summer of 1842. His obituary, printed in a local paper, commemorated him in the following way:

At an early age Mr. Frazier took up arms in defence of his country's rights, and was an active and approved soldier of the American Revolution. He was a Lieutenant in the army, in which capacity he served his bleeding county for about three years, with a zeal and fidelity alike honourable to the head and the heart. . . . Animated by the spirit of '76, he avowed himself ready to follow his leader, regardless of danger. That brave and chivalrous spirit never deserted him, even in advanced age, when any incident connected with that glorious struggle was mentioned in his presence, you would see the fire of youth and manhood rekindle in his brilliant eye, his voice grow stronger, so that it seemed for the time being his age had been renewed;--at such time he would tell of the scenes that himself and his companions in arms had passed through, with the strength and energy of by-gone days. . . . He was a most kind and affectionate husband, an indulgent father and a firm and uncompromising friend.[22]

Jeffrey Truitt, 2014

Notes:

[1] C. Homer Bast, “Benjamin Keene, 1694-1770: Middling Planter of Dorchester County,” Maryland Historical Magazine vol. 93, 1 (1998): 46; Elias Jones, New Revised History of Dorchester County, Maryland (Cambridge, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers, 1966), 62.  

[2] Jones, Dorchester County, 61-62, 188-189.

[3] Bast, “Benjamin Keene,” 51.  

[4] Jones, Dorchester County, 192, 195-196.

[5] Jones, Dorchester County, 67, 156-157.  

[6] Muster Rolls and Other Service Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, 1775--1783, Archives of Maryland, vol. 18, p.9.

[7] Archives of Maryland, vol 12, pp. 344-346.  

[8] Archives of Maryland, vol. 12, pp. 344-346.

[9] Pension of Levin Frazier and Widow’s Pension of Elizabeth Frazier, The National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, W 9436, 7, from Fold3.com.  

[10] Myron J. Smith, Jr., and John G. Earle, “The Maryland State Navy,” in Chesapeake Bay in the American Revolution, edited by Ernest McNeill Eller (Centreville, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers, 1981), 253-255.

[11] Pension of Levin Frazier, 4-5; Dorchester County Court, Minutes, 1785-1788, MdHR 8916, 72[MSA C719-1, 01/04/04/22].  

[12] Smith and Earle, “The Maryland State Navy,” 234.

[13] Bast, “Benjamin Keene,” 46, 50; Smith and Earle, “The Maryland State Navy,” 236-237.

[14] Outfitting and command of the barges, 1783, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, MdHR 19970-10-18/01&2 [MSA S997-10-1757, 01/07/03/012].  

[15] Smith and Earle, “The Maryland State Navy,” 240-242.

[16] Smith and Earle, “The Maryland State Navy,” 241-244; “Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman in Northampton County, to His Friend in Williamsburg, Dated 14 December 1782,” The New York Gazette; and The Weekly Mercury (New York), 20 January 1783, 2.  

[17] Land Office, Certificates, Patented, Dorchester, Fraziers Beginning, Levin Frazier, 16 1/2 Acres, 24 November 1796 [MSA S1196-1302, 01/25/03/054]; Pension of Levin Frazier, 4.

[18] Dorchester County Commissioners of the Tax, Assessment List, Election Districts 1, 3, 5-8, 1837, MdHR 18,755-1/6 [MSA C684-5, 01/06/02/05].

[19] 1837 Assessment, 1-11.

[20] Bast, “Benjamin Keene,” 51, 53, 54; Pension of Levin Frazier, 4.  

[21] City Gazette, 30 July 1825; Spectator, 28 July 1827.

[22] “Another Revolutionary Soldier Gone,” Easton Gazette, 23 August 1842.

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