Harold W. Hurst - January 2007
The landed gentry were the dominant social class in Delmarva throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In an era that had little industry and few towns of any size (except Wilmington, situated at the northern tip of the region), it was the large landowners who controlled the politics, economy and social life of Eastern Shore Maryland and Virginia and most of Delaware.
Slave-holding tobacco planters held sway in the region during most of the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, the large landowners on the Peninsula were growing corn, wheat and other crops, often with the help of free black and white labor. Plantations grew smaller as the estates were divided among many heirs. Due largely to economic reasons, slavery declined in Delaware and some parts of eastern Maryland. But the landed gentry remained the ascendant social class in the area. In this sense, Delmarva resembled the South rather than the commercial and industrial states of the North.
Kent and Sussex counties in Delaware were agricultural districts controlled by land-holding families who settled the area in the early 1700s. The Chew, Dickinson, Loockerman, Ridgely and Rodney families lived in two- or three-story brick mansions while the mass of yeoman farmers occupied one-story frame houses of, at most, two or three rooms.
Most of the latter class owned only a few acres. The landed gentry, however, in areas like Dover Hundred (township) possessed estates of 500 to 2,000 acres. The Comegys family, a powerful political clan in the Dover area and Delaware at large, held 2,000 acres, while Gustavus and John Dickinson Logan, who inherited the Dickinson plantation, presided over 2,500 acres.
Richard L. Bushman, author of The Refinement of America, Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), describes, in fascinating detail, the evolution of the gentry class in Delaware. Several chapters in the book focus on this subject. The Ridgely family, for instance, purchased a plantation near Dover in 1748 and built a large brick house, calling the entire estate Eden Hill. As their wealth increased the Ridgelys, like other gentry families, adopted a refined and genteel existence that marked them apart from the Plain People.” They acquired elegant furniture, glassware and books, and sent their children to be educated in Wilmington and Philadelphia. The manners and social attitudes of this upper-class family approximated those of older societies in Annapolis and tidewater Virginia, differentiating them from the common people in their own neighborhood.
The Georgian and Federal style mansions that graced the Chester River waterfront in Chestertown, Maryland, were built mostly in the 1700s by wealthy merchants who fell on hard times after the Revolution. The leading landowners in Kent County, Maryland, however, continued to play a commanding role in local, regional and state affairs until the early 1900s. Agricultural diversification during the antebellum era created new wealth, allowing gentleman-farmers to build Greek Revival and Italian Villa-style manor houses that still dot the landscape of Kent County in the 21st century.
According to the 1860 census, the two richest men in Kent County owned large tracts of land. Ezekiel Forman Chambers, a lawyer by profession, also possessed several farms in the county. His real and personal property were valued at $137,000 – a considerable fortune in this era. Edward Comegys, whose homestead was situated in Quaker Neck, owned a number of farms that totaled in size about 4,000 acres. His real and personal property were estimated at $135,000.
In neighboring Queen Anne’s County, wealthy planters like the Carmichaels, Emorys and Goldsboroughs lived in a lavish style, enjoying elaborate dinners, brilliant balls, fox hunting and horse racing at local tracks. Queen Anne’s County was a hotbed of Confederate sentiment during the Civil War.
Talbot County was the citadel of the Eastern Shore aristocracy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Lloyd family, whose seat was at Wye House near Easton, lived like English dukes as they presided over thousands of acres of land worked by hundreds of slaves. The Wye House mansion consisted of three wings erected between 1710 and the 1780s. The elaborate estate included a heated orangery where exotic fruits were raised under glass.
The Lloyds also owned thousands of acres of land in Kent, Queen Anne’s and Dorchester counties. Edward Lloyd VI (1798-1861) lived on the family estate most of his life, devoting his time to farming. His possessions in the antebellum era also included plantations in Louisiana and Arkansas.
Edward Lloyd VII (1825-1907) survived the social upheaval following the Civil War and continued to support a lavish lifestyle that most other planters could no longer afford.
Other landed families dwelling in Talbot County included the Goldsboroughs, Hambletons, Harringtons, Hollydays, Hughlets, Martins, Skinners, Spencers and Tilghmans. Many lived in houses built in Colonial times, like Myrtle Grove, the seat of the Goldsborough family, and Ratcliffe Manor, the old homestead of the Hollydays. During the antebellum period many new houses were constructed that featured the Greek Revival and Italian Villa styles of architecture.
Somerset County on the lower Shore was also the home of many large landowners. One great plantation was that of Nemiah King who, in 1796, owned 7,000 acres of land and scores of slaves.
Littleton Dennis Teakle, a wealthy farmer and businessman, erected one of the most elegant and commodious mansions on the Eastern Shore. Located in the town of Princess Anne, the Teakle mansion was a five-wing residence constructed between 1802 and 1820. Teakle was one of the first planters in the region to build a steam mill for processing flour.
The gentlemen farmers of old Delmarva formed a powerful coterie of families whose political, social and economic interests extended far beyond the boundaries of their own estates. An agrarian elite facing no competition from any regional industrial group, these families managed the area’s banks, law offices, newspapers, agricultural societies and railroad and steamboat companies.
The influential agricultural societies in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland were organized, directed and funded by rich planters, not by plain ordinary farmers. Henry Ridgely, a wealthy farmer and physician in Dover, was elected president of the Delaware Agricultural Society in 1860. Edward Wilkins, a large land owner and peach cultivator in Kent County, Maryland, established the Kent County Agricultural Society in 1836 and helped organize the Maryland Agricultural Society in 1847.
General Thomas Emory, who lived on his large estate called Poplar Grove in Queen Anne’s County, was active in the local agricultural society. He imported sheep, cattle and race horses from foreign countries that he visited and experimented with making new kinds of beer.
Talbot County planters organized the Agricultural Society of the Eastern Shore as early as 1818. This group, like other societies of its kind, encouraged diversified farming, crop rotation and the use of guano as fertilizer. General Tench Tilghman of Plimhimmon, his estate near Oxford, was the first land owner on the Shore to purchase a reaping machine as well as to use Peruvian guano as a fertilizer on his wheat fields.
Big land owners were the only men possessing enough capital to fund a regional bank. Talbot County blue bloods organized the Farmers Bank of Easton in 1805. The Board of Directors during the antebellum era included members of the Goldsborough, Hambleton, Hammond, Harrison, Hughlet, Kerr, Martin, Tilghman and other landed gentry families. The bank provided loans to planters and farmers and also helped fund the Maryland Steamboat Company and the Delaware and Maryland Railroad. The Easton Bank was the only one on the Shore until 1885, when a second bank was organized.
The agrarian elite also helped to establish the transportation companies in the region. Henry Ridgely, Samuel Harrington and Charles I duPont, Ann Ridgely’s husband, started the Delaware Railroad in the 1850s. General Thomas Emory was elected president of the Eastern Shore Railroad while Thomas E. Eliason, a wealthy Chestertown merchant and land owner, established the Kent County Railroad and supported regional steamboat operations.
Nearly all professional men from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware came from the landed gentry. Most of the era’s lawyers, physicians, Episcopal clergymen and military officers were of planter origins. Even the less renowned profession of journalism attracted men of genteel origins, some of whom became fervent spokesmen for the economic interests of their class, as well as defenders of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Wealthy landed gentlemen possessed a virtual stranglehold on political office-holding in eastern Maryland and most of Delaware. They represented their state and district in the United State Congress and filled the local and regional judgeships. Kent County, Maryland, notables, for example, who served in the United States Senate included Ezekiel Forman Chambers, Philip Reed, James Lloyd, James Alfred Pearce and George Vickers, all men of remarkable talent who were planters and lawyers by profession.
Henry A. Wise, a patrician politician from Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, represented the First Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives between 1833 and 1845 and later served as governor of his state between 1856 and 1859.
Between 1789 and 1947 the Eastern Shore furnished twenty-three of the forty-seven men who served Maryland in the United States Senate. The sixty-six congressmen who came from the Shore during the same era included members of the Crisfield, Goldsborough, Kerr, Lloyd, Pearce, Martin and Riçaud families. Two outstanding Eastern Shore patricians who served in the United States Congress during the twentieth century were T. Alan Goldsborough, a graduate of Washington College who sat in the House of Representatives in the 1920s, and George L. Radcliffe, a graduate of Johns Hopkins who served in the United States Senate from 1934 to 1946.
What about the religious affiliations of the Delmarva gentry? A few were Quakers, like the Dickinsons who owned a large plantation in Dover Hundred. Some were Presbyterians who had settled in the lower counties of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Accomack County in Virginia. A few educated planter-politicians like George Vickers of Chestertown adhered to Methodism. The majority of the gentry, however, were Episcopalians who served on the vestries in their parishes and were the financial mainstay of Delmarva’s upper class church.
After about 1900 a new wealth gained a foothold in eastern Maryland and most of Delaware. Canning manufacturers, food processors, real estate developers and resort hotel operators acquired riches and power, enabling them to secure access to the area’s banking, professional and political activities. Many of the new class were Republicans, challenging the ascendancy of old-line gentlemen who tended to be conservative Democrats. The advance of the public school system resulted in at least a partial leveling of the social order while new transportation links to the outside world lessened the isolation of the region, making gentry control more difficult.
Nevertheless, Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival manor houses still dot the landscape. Some are still owned by the descendants of the original proprietors. The old order has passed away, but remnants of the old gentry class can still be found dwelling in the historic homes of their ancestors.