Gary Crawford - October 2010


Tilghman Island - 351 Years Young
Gary D. Crawford


We don’t know exactly when Seth Foster came to the New World, but his name appears in court records in Westmoreland County (VA) as early as 1654. Two years later he shows up again, this time linked with Thomas Hawkins, though their connection isn’t clear. It appears that Hawkins was already settled on Nominy Creek near the mouth of the Potomac, so he may have been older or come from England earlier. Hawkins was married to Elizabeth, the widow of Peter Spelling, and in 1645 they had a son, Thomas, Jr.
During the 1640s, the Calvert family had made considerable progress in their effort to launch their new province of Mary-Land. William Claiborne’s overlapping claim was resolved in their favor. Treaties had been negotiated with the aggressive Indians to the north and were holding. As Catholics, the Calverts had been out of favor for some years, but their difficulties at Court were much eased in 1660 when Charles II returned from exile and restored the monarchy.
In 1650, Hawkins bought a 550-acre estate on Kent Island from the governor of Maryland, Thomas Green – and the whole 1,000 acres of Poplar Island. (Poplar was abandoned in 1637 when the original settler, Richard Thompson, returned from a trip to find his entire household massacred by Indians. He never lived there again. It appears that the island came into Green’s possession around 1646).
At some point, Seth Foster crossed the Bay to try his luck on the Eastern Shore in the lush wilderness that would become Talbot County. We know that he was closely linked with Hawkins, for in his will Hawkins described Seth and three other men as his “dear friends and overseers.” Whether he accompanied Hawkins and his household to Kent Island or worked on the Poplar Island plantation, I do not know.
As it turned out, however, Hawkins’ career on the Eastern Shore was short-lived. He passed away in 1656, probably on August 12. His will was probated on October 2. Everything was left to his wife, Elizabeth, except for one-half of Poplar Island, which went to his only child, 11-year-old Thomas, Jr.
It appears that Seth was a dear friend not only of Thomas Hawkins, but of his wife as well, for within a few years, he and Elizabeth were married. It made sense. Elizabeth had known Seth since his arrival in the colonies. He was liked and employed by her late husband. Moreover, Elizabeth was still of child-bearing age. Indeed, she bore Thomas a second son, though he may never have seen the child, for Jonathan was born in 1656, perhaps after his father’s death. There is no mention of him in the will.
The twice-widowed Elizabeth was left with two children to raise, one a newborn. She brought considerable resources to their union, however, which put Seth and his new family on a solid financial footing. We may assume he looked after Elizabeth’s interests on Kent and Poplar Islands and helped Thomas, Jr. get established as he grew into manhood.
With Poplar being partially entailed to Thomas, Jr., Seth and Elizabeth may have decided that the other half eventually would go to Jonathan. In any event, Seth decided to establish a new home for himself and Elizabeth, a place of their own.
By this time, settlement of the Eastern Shore was well underway – and the pace was picking up. Since October of 1658, fourteen grants had been issued in what would become Talbot County – seven in July of 1659 alone. Seth Foster’s claim was number fifteen.
Seth’s eye had fallen upon the property just a few miles southeast of Poplar Island. Not really an off-shore island like Poplar or Sharp’s, Great Choptank Island was almost a part of the mainland, the severed tip of a peninsula known later as the Bay Hundred. We don’t know exactly why he picked Great Choptank Island, but we may speculate.
As an island, it afforded a degree of isolation and security, yet at some points it was possible to wade or ride a horse across the Narrows at low tide. Livestock could be kept without much fencing or fear of predation from wolves. It was a good-sized plantation, about 1,500 acres with large portions of it being heavily wooded. It had one well-protected but shallow harbor in the south, several good landing points, and on the east side near Dogwood Cove a safe anchorage in most winds except nor’easters.
Great Choptank Island was also well located. It stood sentinel at the mouth of the largest river on the Eastern Shore, the Great Choptank, which gave access to the Town of Oxford, then one of Maryland’s only two official ports-of-call. Moreover, the island stood well out into the mid-Bay. From the island, access was easy to the Great Choptank, the Little Choptank, and their many tributaries and creeks, all plentiful with oysters and other seafood. And on the western side of the island loomed the Bay itself; no need to sail for hours just to reach its broad waters.
Whatever his reasons, Foster had the island surveyed and on August 11, 1659, the Lords Proprietary granted him a patent for Great Choptank Island. Seth, Elizabeth and Jonathan set up housekeeping on the island – the first (and last) owners of the Island to do so. Whether Thomas, Jr. lived with them after they married and moved to Great Choptank Island is not known. He may have stayed on at Poplar Island, or Kent, as he was now 15 years of age.
Elizabeth presented Seth with his first child in 1658, a daughter they named Elizabeth. She was the first European child born on Great Choptank Island.
The Fosters appear to have prospered. In 1662, when Talbot County was established, Seth was named one of its first five commissioners. A second daughter, Sarah, was born the same year. Foster also acquired other properties, including Tull’s Delight and Stagdish Wood on the Chester River.
In 1675, at about 55 years of age, Seth Foster passed away – and Elizabeth was widowed once more. Seth left her one-third of his estate, both real and personal. Tull’s Delight went to his stepson Jonathan Hawkins (referred to in the will, confusingly, as his son-in-law), and 13-year-old Sarah received Stagdish Wood. Their older daughter Elizabeth was already married to Col. Vincent Lowe, and she received Great Choptank Island.
The rest of the island’s history is briefly told. When Col. Lowe passed away in 1692, he bequeathed Great Choptank Island back to his wife Elizabeth Foster Lowe, whose father had left it to her. She remarried, and her new husband disposed of the island, mortgaged it to John Hyde, a London businessman. Hyde sold it four years later to Matthew Ward, who left it to his nephew Matthew Tilghman ... and so it is now known as Tilghman’s Island.
In other words, the 350th anniversary of the settlement of Tilghman’s Island, last year! And we didn’t even have a parade. In fact, no one seemed to be aware of it. I confess it somehow slipped my mind.
Anyway, this year, 2010, may be proclaimed as the Three Hundred and Fifty-First Anniversary of the settlement of Great Choptank Island, now known as Tilghman’s Island.
So, belatedly, Happy Anniversary!