James Dawson - October 2008

Saints and Devils in Talbot County
James Dawson

   Talbot County is full of fascinating old place names. Dr. Laurence Claggett’s From Pot Pie to Hell and Damnation, published by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 2004, is an excellent reference on this subject, but much of what follows is new or additional material. All the names are genuine, even though some may sound made up.
    One of my favorites is Dirty Neck, but where was it? No old maps showed it, so perhaps it was one of those wonderful old names that never made it into polite society. Some sleuthing determined that it was Broad Creek Neck, the land just west of St. Michaels that ends at Neavitt.
    That’s where it was, but what was its origin – what does it mean? And, of course, we have the pun of Neck meaning a small peninsula and neck being that part of the anatomy that attaches the head to the body.
    My aunt grew up in Bozman and remembered that her St. Michaels classmates teased her by calling her a Dirty Necker. She never knew what it meant, only that it made her cry.
    I’m sure most people living there now have never heard the term (and doubtless will not be amused by it). But should any Dirty Neckers, uh, excuse me, I mean Broad Creek-ians, think that I am making fun of them, my own neck is far from clean (geographically speaking), having Dirty Neck ancestors on both sides.
    A native of Neavitt thought he had the answer. When he went to St. Michaels school in the 1940s, the St. Michaels road was paved, while the Broad Creek Neck road was still dirt. In hot weather, all the school bus windows were open so that clouds of dust settled on the kids from Bozman and Neavitt while those who traveled only on the paved roads of St. Michaels had clean necks.
    This sounded convincing until a much earlier use turned up in the journal of Dr. John Barnett of St. Michaels. Several of his house calls in 1805-1806 were to people in Dirty Neck. For instance, on January 3rd, 1806 he “went down to Thos. Dawson’s in dirty neck.” This was over a century before paved roads and school buses, so if the name stuck like mud, this explanation had evolved to fit the twentieth century.
    In 1805, few people took baths and all the roads were dusty in summer. Since we have no reason to believe that this Neck was any dustier, nor its necks any dirtier than the others, the mystery remains.
    It has been suggested that Dirty Neck was a term of derision based not on roads or hygiene, but was gastronomical. Young swans have what Roger Tory Peterson described as a dirty neck, and it is only the adult that is all white. Maybe the swan was not a prime food source, so a Dirty Necker might be a term of derision for someone too poor or ignorant to know any better than to eat an adolescent swan.
    This said, Dirty Neck was not a poor area and had rich farms, plentiful seafood and waterfowl, so this explanation is not 100% convincing, but if you know of a better one, please let me know.
    Another oddity is Pot Pie Neck, which is in the vicinity of Wittman. Dr. Claggett dates the name to 1798 and Dr. Barnett visited several patients there, so the name is also over 200 years old. The name Wittman only dates from 1869, when it got a post office.
    There are two versions as to the origin of this gastro-geographical cognomen. The earliest use found is from an unsigned 1923 Easton Star Democrat article titled “Pot Pie Is A Noted Section of Talbot County,” which stated that a traveling salesman recounted that every time he dined there, he was served a pot pie, hence the name.
    In 1960, someone else remembered that old timers had never called it anything but Pot Pie. That once a Methodist minister preached at three churches: Wittman, Sherwood and Tilghman’s Island. Part of his payment was Sunday dinner provided by a family from whichever church he held service. In Wittman, he was always served a chicken pot pie, and the name stuck.
    But whether it was a salesman or a minister, each story ends with a glut of pies, so if that’s not the reason for the name, I can’t imagine what would be.
    My friend the late, great Jane Lowe of Wittman told me that years ago, locals pronounced the name as “Puh-pye” as if it was slurred together into one word. (And as a geographical side note to that, Jane is the only person I’ve ever known to have had a road named after her: Jane Lowe Road.)
    Pot Pie’s most exciting day came in 1947 when dummy bombs broke loose from a Navy plane and destroyed a building in Jones’ boat yard. The Claw Workers of the Tilghman Packing Co. were even inspired to write a poem about the event.

We were working calm and peaceful
On the second of July
When the rumors began to spread
That bombs are falling in Pot Pie...
What is so surprising and exciting
Such has never happened before
Bombs falling in Wittman,
Talbot County, Eastern Shore...”

   Even if they were only filled with wet sand, the 1,000 pound bombs falling from an altitude of 9,500 fet left craters six feet wide and four feet deep. The pot pies were certainly bursting in air that day. It’s a miracle only four people were injured.
    St. Michael was the patron saint of Maryland in the days of the Catholic Lord Calverts who owned it: the ground rents were paid to them on Sept. 29, which was Michaelmas. The St. Michaels River was named in his honor by 1658. The Archangel was also recognized by the Anglican Church, which established St. Michaels Parish in 1696 about the time a church was built on Church Cove, near the present Christ Episcopal Church. In 1778, developer James Braddock began buying up land in the vicinity of the church to found a town named for the church, which was named for the river, which was named for the angel, and soon St. Michael’s came into being. The apostrophe was later dropped.
    Meanwhile, the Quakers gained influence and, unlike the Catholics and Anglicans, had no reverence for saints or anything else that smacked of Papism, so the river became known as the Michaels River or the Myles River and then the Miles River as we know it today. Likewise, St. Michaels Creek in the southeast part of the county was martyred to became Michaels Creek and then, perhaps because of sloppy pronunciation, was corrupted into Miles Creek by 1858.
    The town name St. Michaels probably survived because of the church. Its town square was even named after St. Mary. Apparently Quakers didn’t live in St. Michaels.
    The Tred Avon is a prime example of the corruption of a name due either to sloppy pronunciation or the dismal spelling of the day. Dr. Claggett found eighteen different variations: Tred, Thread, Trade, Third and so forth. Tred gently there as enough ink has already been spilled on this mystery to fill an A-von. Dictionaries and gazetteers were almost unheard of then, so we should cut the early settlers a little slack with their orthography. All the Threads, Treds and Trades sound pretty much alike when spoken aloud, but nobody knows where they came from.
    As for the Avon part, I’ve always heard natives pronounce the Avon in Tred Avon with a hard “A” as A-von. Recently, at least one come-here (i.e. non-native resident) used a soft “A”: Tred Ah-von. This sounds too gentrified to my ears and I hope it doesn’t stick. If it was good enough for William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-A-von, then it’s good enough for us. By the way, avon is from the Celtic for river.
    These cultural forces are still at work eroding our names. Talbot is usually spoken as Tall-butt, not as Tail-but. Yet its neighboring county across the Bay is often said as Cull-vert, not Cal-vert, with the Cal like the Cal in Calvin. However, this point is in dispute as residents aren’t sure now which is correct, even though it was named for Cal-vert the Lord Baltimore and not culvert the ditch.
    J. H. Alexander’s 1835 map of Talbot Co., shows Chlora’s Point at the mouth of Island Creek as Glory Pt., something not seen anywhere else before or since, so certainly someone just misheard the name Chlora, which had been in place since the 1600s, as Glory.
    Island Creek has no island, but Bolingbroke Creek does, so why was the first one named Island Creek and not the second? Both names date from the 1600s. This mini-mystery was solved by the accidental discovery of a 1912 article that mentioned that Island Creek’s island was in the center of its mouth, but was so eroded that it was only visible at extremely low tides, yet it was still an obstacle to navigation. I’d never seen it on any old maps, but when I looked very closely at an 1862 chart, it showed a small island-shaped area under three feet of water in the mouth that must have been what was left of it, sunk like a tiny Atlantis beneath the waves.
    That same chart shows a narrow spit ending into a fist-shaped piece of land extending into the center of the mouth of Bolingbroke Creek. By the turn of that century, the spit had washed away, leaving the fist shaped area an island.
    Just about the time that erosion took Island Creek’s island, it gave another one to Bolingbroke. This one still exists and can be seen as you drive over the Choptank River bridge. It is named Rikker’s Island after an 1880s owner.
    And speaking of the Choptank River, the name goes back in Colonial history to 1640 and is usually said to be the Native American for the river that “flows back strongly,” presumably a reference to the current, although the Choptank, being largely tidal, is not known for its powerful currents. It was first shown on Herrman’s map of 1673. Choptank was also the name of the local Indian tribe and/or their village near Secretary, on the Dorchester County side.
    An alternate translation is that Choptank means the “river with the big bend.” And, if its tidal currents are not overly strong, the river definitely has a big bend in it that, in a sense, would also make the water flow back.
    So maybe flowing back was a mis-translation of bending back.
    Whichever translation is correct, as far as I know, the name Choptank is the only Native American name (other than Chesapeake) that remains on the Talbot landscape, or rather waterscape. But such absolute statements are always risky, so I expect to be corrected on this.
    That bend in the Choptank resembles a bent leg and in fact the point there is called Bow Knee Point because it looks like someone’s bent knee. But whose knee? Certainly not Capt. John Smith’s.
    Despite what you may have read in Michener’s 1978 best-selling novel Chesapeake, Capt. John Smith never saw the Choptank River, let alone helped to establish the town of Patamoke, which was supposedly on the Talbot side near the Choptank River bridge just south of Trappe. There was no Patamoke.
    Curiously enough, the fictional town of Patamoke was located very near the site of Talbot County’s only other fake town, Bullenbroke, which appeared on a couple of mid-eighteenth century maps only to vanish like Brigadoon, except that Bullenbroke was never seen again, nor would it be the subject of a Broadway musical. One 1778 map even shows Bullenbroke as having stylized buildings, but it was never anything but a mapping error.
    Apparently a cartographer confused it with Bolingbroke Creek, which got its name from Henry Bullen, who owned 800 acres of land near the “brook” there in 1659. The progression of the name was Bullen’s Brooke, then Bullenbrook, and finally Bolingbroke Creek. By the early twentieth century, someone theorized that it was named for Lord Bolingbroke, who was Prime Minister under Queen Anne, but that is unlikely, as he is not known to have had any connections here.
    The hamlet of Windy Hill on the Choptank about five miles east of Trappe is so named from the way the northwest wind hits the river bank there. The name dates to at least 1877. Trappe kids once unkindly called the inhabitants Windy Hillbillies.
Whitemarsh or White Marsh is the old church south of Easton off Route 50. The name is first seen in the Talbot County Court records for June 21, 1687 in a reference to “the Church at Whitemarsh” (one word) and later from the Maryland Herald on May 19, 1795 in a reference to the road “from the White Marsh to the Trappe” (two words).
    No one knows where the name came from. Dr. Claggett thought it was named for the white blooms of the marsh mallow plant. Miles Creek reached farther inland 300 years ago, so probably there was a marsh nearby. Dickson Preston wrote that a Richard White owned land near there in the 1660s, and so the name could have originally been White’s Marsh. Also, there is a circa 1735 house at the head of King’s Creek named White Marshes. Or it could have been named for a White Marsh in England. English names were often picked by homesick colonists; there are several White Marshes in Maryland and Virginia.
    The “church at Whitemarsh” was originally named St. Peter’s and was the central church in St. Peter’s Parish. St. Peters Parish was renamed Whitemarsh Parish in 1858 and it began to be spelled as two words again in the twentieth century, usually as the name of the church. Everyone calls it that now, but it was never officially the name of the church.
    Hole in the Wall, half a mile west of White Marsh church, was a crossroads village that grew up at the intersection of the two most important roads in eighteenth-century Talbot County, the Easton-Cambridge Ferry Rd. and the Dover-Oxford Road.  Historian James Mullikin speculated that a tavern there was named for a famous establishment of that same name in England. Hole in the Wall was first shown on a map in 1795, but is certainly older than that.
    The story that this Hole in the Wall got its name because of items smuggled through a hole in the wall is certainly just romantic claptrap. Unfortunately, this wonderful name was changed to Hambleton in 1873 when it got a post office. Col. Samuel  Hambleton was a local politician who has long since been forgotten along with the post office.
    Hole in the Wall is not, and never was, the name of the nearby Old White Marsh church, despite that name being written on the adjacent historical marker and the fact that the church ruins display many large holes. In fact, more holes than walls. But, however logical this may appear, it is mistaken.
    La Trappe River was originally named Dividing Creek. The name was changed by an Act of Maryland’s General Assembly on March 13, 1886, but this name has not been seen on a map. It is usually shown as La Trappe Creek or Trappe Creek.
    Apparently the name was changed by locals as part of an effort to increase trade by getting the creek dredged to make it navigable to larger boats and barges: the reasoning being that a grand river with a fancy name would more likely get an appropriation than a smallish creek. But the Legislature was not impressed.
    The name La Trappe has no historical significance here. Just more fake gentrification. The nearby town of Trappe looked like it might have had some kind of French origin because of the spelling, but the name was only so spelled officially when it was incorporated in 1856. The original name was Trap or the Trap and was usually spelled without the unnecessary extra “p” and “e.” The fancier spelling was probably more pleasing to Victorian eyes and ears than the original harsh and abrupt eighteenth-century version. But the Trap came years before La Trappe and not the other way ‘round.
    Once there were at least seven other Traps in Maryland and a whole article could be written about the name.
    Lover’s Lane is a short road just west of Trappe connecting White Marsh Road with Island Creek Road. Although one can speculate why, no one knows when it acquired this name, or if they do they aren’t kissing and telling.
    Devil’s Lane is another Talbot County oddity, appearing not once, but three times in the old records. The earliest was an untended strip of disputed land in Island Creek Neck between the Ross farm and the Caulk farm shown on an 1866 plat. Ross claimed that Caulk didn’t keep up the fence between their farms, so their livestock was getting out. Ross then built his own fence a few feet in on his property and the resulting “lane” was really a no man’s land that grew up in weeds and brush. It was called    Devil’s Lane because it was the devil’s work that made it- idle hands and untended lands presumably being the devil’s playground.
    The Rosses seemed to have been particularly plagued by his satanic majesty because there is record of a second Devil’s Lane in Bambury Neck circa 1900 between the Ross farm there and their neighbors, the Wrights. Incredibly, a third example is referred to in a 1920s deed of land owned by Ephriam Wells, Jr. for property near a lane commonly called Devil’s Lane just off the Old Trappe Road near Sanderstown Road.
    From Broad Creek to Knapps Narrows, from White Marsh to Black Dog Alley, from St. Michaels to Hel’s Half Acre, and from Lover’s Lane to Devil’s Lane, Talbot has some contrary place names.