Ellicott McConnell - June 2007
Talbot County History Revisited
The Battle of St. Michaels
Professor Kollinger, in his masterful review of St. Michaels’ place in history, is to be congratulated for reminding us that although Frederick Douglass may be Talbot County’s preeminent historical figure, he had many remarkable predecessors and contemporaries also worthy of commemoration.
We need look no further than the St. Michaels militiamen, cohorts of Kollinger’s hero, Ezekial Larrimore, who, it may be recalled, was martyred by a British cannonball when he stopped to button his trousers.
On the same evening poor Ezekial stooped to be conquered, the St. Michaels militia manned a battery of cannon on Parrott Point, determined to thwart any attempt by the British to land and sack the town. The suddenness of the call to arms apparently caught the volunteers short of ammunition, for after firing a single volley at the approaching enemy, the defenders headed at top speed back toward the village, presumably to procure more powder and shot
In their eagerness to hasten the trip the majority of the men chose the shortest way to town, and swam across the harbor. Unfortunately for local relationships, their actions were misinterpreted by the rival Easton Militiamen, one of whom, Francis Skottki, a local fencing master and music teacher, dedicated to the event his light-hearted composition, “The Battle Swim of the Republic.”
Several versions of the song became better known in later times and other wars, but memories are long, and even now the tune remains locally unpopular. (The writer’s wife was once respectfully requested to refrain from humming it in a certain St. Michaels home!)
You cannot discuss the history of the Eastern Shore without bringing up the name of John Smith, the man who paved the way for the rest of us. As an interesting aside, some people may realize that his given name was not, as one may think, derived from the Bible, but actually goes back to the time of his great-grandfather, who served the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
At that time, it was a great honor to provide the monarch with a number of personal services, one of which related to the custom of maintaining at the ready a seal-skin cushion to warm and protect the Royal Derriere when nature called.
This position of service was awarded the title, “Keeper of the Privy Seal,” and subsequently included many additional duties. Although it remained a hereditary title, by the time our John’s father came on the scene he word “privy,” as applied to outhouses, was no longer acceptable in polite society, and had been superseded by the French word “Jaune,” due to the British custom of painting such edifices yellow, making them more easily located in nocturnal emergencies.
Logically, the Queen developed the habit of asking for “Jaune Smith” to differentiate him from the other Smiths in the Royal Service, whose services may have been just as vital, but of less immediate concern. The name was soon corrupted to “John,” and remained so through his descendents.
Subsequently, the man, the position, and the service became inextricably mixed, and even today we often refer to “Going to the jaune (John).”
Moving forward in the early days of the colony, we find Randolph “Randy” Waterman, a renowned member of the community of “Fisherfolk,” as workers on the Bay were then known. So successful was Randolph as a fisherman that it became natural for proud fathers to compare their sons to him with such compliments as, “You’re a real Waterman of a fisherman,” or “Excellent, you couldn’t do better if you were a Waterman.” Slowly the name became synonymous with the job, until today there are no fishermen left on the Bay, only watermen!
In the interest of historical impartiality, it must be delicately acknowledged that certain pursuits found Randolph as successful ashore as he was afloat, and that fathers who compared their sons to Mr. Waterman may have been closer to the mark than they knew.
Naturally, in a small community it was impossible to keep secrets, and during the daily exchange of gossip Randolph’s nickname, Randy, and his activities soon became intermingled, hastened by the need for euphemisms to divert the attention of the younger generation. Hence, we have another singular citizen of our county, perhaps the only American known to have contributed to posterity both his nickname and his surname as, respectively, a proclivity and a vocation.
Unfortunately for Randy, he had one more contribution to local lexicography, for although his terrestrial activities were tolerated in the lusty Colonial culture, such was not the case for Talbot’s Native Americans. Discovered while consorting with his daughter by the Chief of the Noodnik village, located on the upper Miles River, poor Randy was quickly dispatched to his lover’s Happy Hunting Grounds.
The official report of the incident quotes eyewitnesses who stated “Aye, Mr. Waterman were so full of arrows he looked a regular pincushion!” As often happens, event became blurred with location, until the general area became, and still is, known as the “Pincushion.” It might surprise us to learn that no punitive measures were considered; apparently certain of the County’s most influential men had reason to sympathize with the Indians.
Moving forward, to the Revolutionary period, we recall those Talbot County residents intimately involved with George Washington’s visit to our county following his victory at Yorktown. The General intended to sail from Annapolis to Rock Hall on his way to Philadelphia, but contrary winds put him ashore in Dorchester County. Making his way to the Choptank River, he engaged the services of Eunice “You row” Roe, proprietor of the wherry ferry, on the outskirts of Cambridge. Eunice refused to allow Washington to pay for the trip, and summed up enough courage to ask for, and graciously receive, permission to name her ferry The Martha Washington, in honor of the General’s wife.
For several generations the Roe family, and successive Martha Washingtons, continued to serve as the connecting link between our two counties until, at the turn of the last century, Noah Sark, a Hooper’s Island boat builder, recognized that the advent of gasoline engines called for design changes amenable with increased boat speed.
Accordingly, he developed a rounded, extended stern that was eminently successful and widely copied. The accepted name for a boat with this type of stern is “Drake Tail,” ostensibly for its resemblance to a male mallard.
The truth, however, is slightly different. When Hoopers Island boat building was at its peak, the belle of the island was one Frances Drake, a charming and physically attractive young lady. While still in high school, Frances decided she would see something of the world before settling down, and true to her word, eventually became proud of her arrest record as a suffragette.
In the meantime, she broke most of the young male hearts on the island. One such bashful young man, well-read, but insensitive to homonyms, confided to his friend Noah that he intended to pay her a wonderful but subtle compliment by naming his workboat after Sir Francis Drake’s flagship. When Noah gently pointed out that Miss Drake might be less than ecstatic when confronted by the Golden Hind, he quickly changed the name to the Fair Frances. But the damage had been done and Noah gleefully bestowed the double entendre, “Drake Tail” on his new design, to the life-long discomfort of his friend.
An unanticipated side effect of this design was the reduced space on the stern available for the name of the boat, and “Martha Washington” was shortened to “Martha,” no disrespect intended. The final vessel in the long series of Roe boats so-named can be seen on display at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.
As previously mentioned, the father of our country, George Washington, made an unexpected visit to our county soon after the Revolution, when contrary winds brought him ashore in Cambridge. Following his crossing of the Choptank, the General reached Easton in time for an early supper and restful night at the Bilgewater, a famous local hostelry.
The inn burned in 1852 after a series of owners and uses. Accounts of the fire mention that a number of young ladies survived the blaze. It seems likely that they were nurses, for the Bilgewater was frequently referred to in correspondence of the time as a well-known house of ill fame, which would have made it the first hospital on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Unhappily, a crisis ensued next morning when the General’s famous false teeth turned up missing, delaying his departure for a number of hours while a futile search was undertaken. Eventually, in the normal course of housekeeping, the missing molars were discovered in a chamber pot by an alert chambermaid who proclaimed, “Lordy, I never liked this job, but I didn’t know there was ‘sompin in there that could bite me!” The choppers were then given to young Trench Stillman, who immediately galloped off in pursuit of Washington. In later years, Trench was erroneously given credit for riding all the way to Philadelphia, Washington’s ultimate destination, whereas in fact he overtook the grateful General just as he was quitting a small inn at Wye Mill, where he had spent the night.
The proprietress of the inn, Miss Trudy “True” Hepburn, having observed the General’s discomfort in dealing with dinner the previous evening, went before breakfast to the owner of the mill, Jonathan Wayne, her betrothed, and asked if he could re-mill the coarse grits customary of the times, to a finer and more palatable consistency. “Wye not?” he flippantly replied, and immediately did so.
With the help of the General’s enthusiastic endorsement, the vastly improved “True’s Grits” quickly became a breakfast staple south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Jonathan and Trudy’s mill prospered, and more than a century later people continued to acknowledge Wayne’s and Hepburn’s roles in the production of “True Grit” and related products.
A little-known consequence of this episode arose from Jonathan’s adoption of his off-hand “Wye not” as the trademark for his products. The slogan became part of local slang and gradually spread its influence from the Eastern Shore across the entire United States, until today the pronunciation of the letter “h” following the letter “w” has itself become part of history.