Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thomas Emory (b. 1782 - d. 1842)
MSA SC 5496-51322
Property Owner, Queen Anne's County


    Thomas Emory was patriarch of the vast Poplar Grove Estate, in Queen Anne's County, from the early 1800's to his death in 1842. Throughout that time, he served various public roles including state senator and United States Army colonel. Emory was also an avid student of agriculture, whose research into the subject allowed for the plantation to maintain production during that period when economic stagnation plagued much of the Eastern Shore.1 In 1818, Thomas Emory purchased 124 acres of what was originally the families' land, thereby consolidating a swath of property that covered more than twice that amount of acreage.2 This complex, located on the Spaniard Neck along the Chester River, would from then on be known as Poplar Grove.3

    As a wealthy property owner and agriculturalist on the Eastern Shore, Emory utilized a great deal of slave labor in the estate's farming operations. In 1810, he held at least 32 African-Americans in bondage, significantly more than any other planter in the immediate region.4 While slave flight was not nearly as prevalent as it would become later in the 1840's and 1850's, Marylanders with large numbers of  forced laborers could expect such resistance to occur periodically. Thomas Emory, like associates Henry Hollyday and John Tilghman, did not resort to the common practice of placing runaway advertisements in local newspapers.5 Instead, prominent slave holders consulted networks of acquaintances as far north as New Jersey when they suspected that their bondsmen had absconded to the free states. Documents in the Poplar Grove Collection, reveal that Emory had several correspondances that related directly to the potential discovery of fugitive slaves.6

    William Duhamel's 1826 letter begins, "having a recollection of the circumstances of your negroes leaving you, I embrace this opportunity to communicate to you the probability of their apprehension."7 It is unclear what incident the Delaware farmer is referring to, as Emory did not publish any escape. Duhamel goes on to tell Emory about the black settlement near Salem, New Jersey, which is allegedly composed  mostly of Maryland fugitive slaves. He and his aggrieved associates apparently colluded with local whites to investigate this community's residents, despite the lack of expressed evidence. No response has been found to confirm whether Thomas Emory took advantage of this offer. Several years later, L.C. Pascault, contacted Emory with another chance of recovering fugitives, this time with the constable of the Dover jail as his contact. In summarizing the situation, Pascault said "I have reason to believe that the servants who abscond from the Shore go to New Jersey."8 This belief did come to represent a recurring them in Emory's correspondance on the topic.

    There are several instances where his acquaintances targeted African-Americans in southern New Jerseythough it is not entirely clear how accurate their sources wereIn an 1831 letter, "C. Knight", of Philadelphia, related to William Y. Bourke that "the spy will have an opportunity of going to New Jersey in pursuit of your man."9 Knight hoped that a "young Mr. Emory", Thomas's son or nephew, might provide a physical description of the runaway slave so that any recapture could be legally justified. Though the subjects of these efforts were never named, it is possible that Emory was searching for the house servants described in his son's memoir. William H. Emory wrote about his father's personal servant, Jacob, whose family of eight fled at an unspecified date. According to his recollection, these had been the only enslaved people to attempt an escape from Poplar Grove, due to the relatively humane conditions they lived under there. Most shocking in the account is the contention that his mother, Anna Maria, had basically given the family permission to flee when both heads of household were not at home. William stated that she was an "avowed abolitionist," a fact which must have complicated situations for her slaveholding husband. His description remains the only explicit mention of slave escape by a member of the Emory family.10 

    As with other northern states that had gradually abolished slavery, New Jersey enacted laws to account for fugitives from nearby states like Maryland. An "oath of affirmation" was required from the aggrieved claimant to prove the fugitive's identity, which would then authorize local authorities to capture them.11 Such vague stipulations were hardly fool-proof, and applicants might embellish the available evidence in order to retrieve their alleged property. Emory's correspondance on this matter reveals that slave holders would utilize different strategies, including the testimony of a child, for these purposes. However, there is little evidence to confirm that this escape is the same one described by William H. Emory, or that any freedom seeker was recaptured in the northern state.

    In an 1834 letter, Robert Johnson, informed Emory that some blacks had just been arrested for stealing sheep near Salem, and that "They say they came from below Dover but do not say with whom they ever lived, or who ever were their masters."12 Again, simply being non-white in that area of New Jersey made one a suspected runaway slave. Johnson spread the word to multiple Maryland slave holders, including Colonel Henry Hollyday and William A. Bordley, perhaps hoping to secure the rewards of a fugitive capture. He seems to be desperate to make such a connection, telling Emory "From the description given by Mr. Bordley ... I think one of these fellows now in confinement must be him."13 Thomas Emory was clearly considered a man of consequence, whom associates could expect to support the property rights of slave holders and investigate potential fugitives, even if the evidence was not too convincing. However, this position did not just limit his interactions to others concerned with preserving the institution of slavery.

    Emory also received correspondance from Ezra Michener, a known abolitionist, whose interests were far different than either Duhamel or Johnson. Dr. Michener resided in Chester County, Pennsylvaniaa community that had also absorbed many African-American fugitives.14 In 1831, he sought out Thomas Emory in regard to the concerns of Charles, a black man whose family was confined at the Centreville jail in Queen Anne's County. Charles allegedly had a signed an agreement in which Emory had agreed to a $250 payment for their "indemnification." Presumably, the wife and children had been jailed for fleeing from servitude. Michener proclaimed, "such are my views of the injustice of slavery that I could hardly with a clear conscience pay one man an indemnity for the unalienable right of another."15 Again, there is no response from Emory, which might shed light on how he chose to deal with this unusual request. That Michener would even attempt the strategy of negotiating with Emory was quite bold, and possibly indicative of some familiarity with the Queen Anne's patriarch. Regardless it is rare to find such a direct, personal appeal from an abolitionist to a prominent slave holder, particularly one who worked to limit the rights of free blacks like Thomas Emory. 

    By at least 1841, Emory had become a Vice President of the Maryland Colonization Society, whose expressed purpose was to remove free African-Americans to the Liberian colony in West Africa.16 Like most other Maryland planters, he viewed the presence of free blacks in the region as the "evil" element that was disrupting the maintenance of slavery. During his time in the legislature, Emory was viewed as a friend to the movement. He was active during a time when numerous measures were enacted to restrict the rights of this segment of society, while simultaneously promoting their removal from the state. 

    In 1834, the Colonization Society's "home agent," Reverend William McKenney, wrote at length to the state senator regarding his role in promoting the cause. He expressed concern to Emory that "the whole system of Maryland Colonization is now dependent upon the present Legislature." McKenney believed that nearly all of the members were favorable to the general concept, but were split into two factions who differed mainly in their attitude toward free blacks. He warned Emory that allowing the immigration of slaves into the state would also be a source of contention, which "will most undoubtedly alienate our friends from us." McKenney also viewed the colonization movement as effectively occupying a middle ground between abolitionists and slave holders. Figures such as he and Emory could "assume the task of holding back the tide of immediate abolition," which would otherwise threaten the security of the state. Like Ezra Michener, McKenney saw Thomas Emory as a practical businessman and politician, who would consider proposals even if they did not completely align with his personal beliefs. He indeed went on to become a strong advocate for colonization, and likely spread that message during his time in the legislature. However, Emory would express a wide array of views and solutions regarding the future status of African-Americans in Maryland. 

    In 1837, Thomas penned a lengthy treatise, entitled "Report on Governor's Message Abolition," in which he had scathing critiques of  "deluded abolitionists" and the idea of black freedom that they promoted.17 One of his proposed resolutions was to deposit free blacks in New Jersey, where he saw "the most substantial evidence of their desire to have amongst them this class of people."18 Ever the politician, Emory makes no mention of his numerous Philadelphia and New Jersey contacts who were actively hostile towards the African-American communities there. Instead he alluded to the 1836 fugitive slave case, State v. Sheriff of Burlington, involving a Queen Anne's fugitive slave. Alexander Hemsley, formerly known as Nathan Mead, would ultimately be declared a free man by Chief Justice Joseph Hornblower.19 This, and the existence of established black communities there, were enough for Emory to claim that  New Jersey would be an ideal destination to "expel all the free negroes from the state." Colonization proponents would continually use this strategy of publicly praising various settlement locations, despite their private knowledge of the various challenges of each site. Naturally, Emory saved his negative comments for abolitionists and the alleged epitome of free black failure, the self-emancipated nation of St. Domingo, later known as Haiti.

    He posited that this formerly enlightened paradise had descended into "bitter and savage barbarity," with a "military despotick government" that could not maintain agriculture or any other commercial production.20 Ignoring the crippling economic policies that France and the United States would enact toward St. Domingo, Emory predicted a similar fate for the British West Indies, and American slave states by extension, were they to allow for general freedom among their black populations. After sufficiently stoking white fears of such an outcome, the author used faulty logic and data to bring that reactive emotion to the local level. Emory claimed that the free African-American population of Maryland had "gone on to double itself or very nearly so in every ten years!!," from 1790 to 1830. While this may have been true for the first two decades in question, this demographic would not double itself again until 1840, a thirty year period. He took his argument one step further, asserting that "without legislative restriction" Maryland would inevitably become "a free negro state."21

    Though in actuality whites still composed more than two-thirds of the state's population, their paranoia about the free black presence could be a strong motivator for white citizens to support colonization and other measures that would ensure their dominant position. According to Emory,  "insurrections it is known have been & can again be gotten up in the strongest communities," possibly an allusion to Nat Turner's 1831 uprising in Virginia, which was still fresh in the minds of many Maryland whites. Emory concluded his ten page tirade with a final jab at the British, whose "cruelty & seeming ignorance and insanity" in legislative choices had laid the foundation for the racial troubles ahead.22 Unfortunately, it is unclear if and to whom this speech was presented. By 1837, Thomas Emory was no longer a state legislator and he would not formally join the Colonization Society until four years later. Still, his social status and political connections would have easily afforded Emory an influential audience, favorable to such ideas. There is little other evidence of his contributions to the colonization movement, which remained a visible, yet unsuccessful, force in Maryland into the 1850's.

    Thomas Emory died in August of 1842, purportedly due to "pulmonary consumption."23 This must have been somewhat surprising for the community, as Emory was still quite active in political and economic affairs. Much of his last few years had been dedicated to establishing the Eastern Shore Railroad, though the project did not come to fruition until after the Civil War. He was also spared most of the strife regarding the institution of slavery, which gripped the nation for the 25 years after Emory's death. His 1842 will contains surprisingly few provisions related to the human chattel at Poplar Grove, particularly since he owned roughly 31 slaves at that time.24  He passed on the "use & services" of eight servants, including "Pere and his wife Ann." There is no other specific reference to Emory's enslaved work force. Strangely, he did not grant any manumissions or make mention of the Maryland Colonization Society, which certainly would have welcomed more emigrants.25 Documents relating to Thomas Emory's dealings with slaves and free blacks reveal a personal concern for the issues, as well as a central role in the processes that controlled them. His experience in this realm illuminated the ever-changing racial dynamics, which disrupted the world of Eastern Shore slave holders in the early half of the 19th century.

Link to Legislative/Personal Biographic Information

Footnotes - 

1. Adam Goodheart. "Poplar Grove and the Emorys: A Preliminary History Subject to Revision." 1 June, 2008.

2. Queen Anne's County Court (Land Records) Book TM 2, pp. 9 - 10.

3. "Spaniard Neck". Queen Anne's County, District 3, J. G. Stong's Map of Queen Anne's County, 1866.

4. 1810 United States Federal Census, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, p. 11.

5. James Wood Poplar Grove Collection, Special Collections 5807, Series 4, Series 13.

6. Ibid.

7. Poplar Grove, Series 13, pp. 129-131.

8. Poplar Grove, Series 4, pp. 270-272.

9. Ibid, pp. 475-478.

10. William Hemsley Emory. Unfinished copy of memoir, Reminiscences of General William Hemsley Emory, pp. 12-13. 

11. New Jersey, General Assembly, Act 50, 26 December 1826, "A Supplement to an act entitled 'An Act Concerning Slaves."

12. Poplar Grove, Series 13, pp. 195-197.

13. Ibid.

14. Poplar Grove, Series 4, pp. 432-433.

       Ezra Michener. Autobiographical Notes From the Life and Letters of Ezra Michener, M.D.  Philadelphia, PA: Friends' Book Association, 1893.

15. Ibid, p. 433.

16. "Maryland State Colonization Convention" Baltimore Sun, 4 June 1841.

17. Poplar Grove, Series 4, pp. 730-733.
      Poplar Grove, Series 13, pp. 240-252.

18. Ibid, pp. 245-6.

19. Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Law. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

20. Poplar Grove, Series 13, pp. 245-246.

21. Ibid, p. 251.

22. Ibid, p. 252.

23.  "Death Notice" Baltimore Sun, 27 August 1842.

24. 1840 United States Federal Census, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, Centreville, pp. 7 - 8.

25. QUEEN ANNE'S COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Wills) Thomas Emory, Volume TCE 2 pp. 136 -139.

Researched and written by David Armenti, 2011.

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