History, Architecture & Artifacts
Dorchester County has a long and rich history beginning with the Native Americans who lived in this area, existing in harmony with their natural surroundings. They hunted game in the forests and harvested seafood from the rivers, creeks, and the Chesapeake Bay. The two most predominant tribes—referred to as the Choptanks and Nanticokes—lived in villages, established trails throughout the countryside, and traded with one another. When Captain John Smith sailed up the Nanticoke River in 1608 as part of his Chesapeake Bay explorations, he initially received a hostile reception from the native people but later came ashore near present-day Vienna and traded with them at the large Nanticoke village. See the Native American theme for more information.
Within about fifty years of Smith’s visit, settlers from England began to claim lands under land grants from Lord Baltimore. Colonial law favored the new settlers and gave European customs and interests dominance over Indian traditions and needs. In 1669 Dorchester was recognized as a county, named for Edward Sackville, Fourth Earl of Dorset, a friend of the Calverts (the family name of Lord Baltimore). By 1684, an act was passed to locate a town on “Dan’l Jones’ plantation on the South side of Great Choptank River,” that town being the county seat, present-day Cambridge.
The abundance of natural resources and access by water were essential factors in the county’s growth. Early in its history, tobacco was the main crop, and a “town bill” passed in 1683 set up towns, ports and points of entry for tobacco throughout the colony. During the eighteenth century, farmers shifted their production to grains. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, including Dorchester County, had become the “breadbasket for the American Revolution.” Dorchester’s forests also supplied timber for the shipbuilding industry with local builders developing unique vessels like skipjacks, bugeyes, dovetails and clipper ships to meet the needs of those working and trading on the Bay and its tributaries. In 1869, the first large factory, J.W. Crowell and Company, was established in Cambridge to supply white oak timber for the Central Pacific Railway.
In the late 1800s, Civil War veteran James Wallace recognized the potential of canneries to process locally harvested seafood and began packing oysters in Cambridge. Cambridge’s oyster industry was second only to that of Baltimore with over a million bushels of oysters being shucked annually. With the advent of the refrigerated railcar, the packing industry diversified and began canning local vegetables. In 1902 the Phillips Packing Company was started, and by 1939 was marketing more than 60 kinds of canned goods. However, the phenomenal reign of the company ended in 1957 when the company, facing competition and slumping sales, was sold. Today the population of the County is 31,631, and that of its largest city Cambridge is 10,911, constituting about a third the county’s population.
The Dorchester County Historical Society is a wonderful resource for viewing artifacts and exhibits on Dorchester’s history. The LaGrange Plantation houses the restored Georgian style Meredith House (c.1760), the Neild Museum, and Robbins Heritage Center. The Richardson Maritime Museum, located in a former bank building in Cambridge, invites visitors to discover the wooden boat building heritage of the county with a unique collection of ship models. At the Museum’s Ruark Boatworks facility on Cambridge Creek, volunteers and visitors can participate in a hands-on experience in boat building and restoration.
Dorchester County has many old homes and buildings of historical and architectural interest. These include Old Trinity Church, circa 1690, an outstanding survivor of Dorchester’s early colonial period. While it has undergone numerous restorations, it is reportedly the oldest Episcopal Church in continuous use in its original form in the United States. According to local legend, it may have been one of the roughly thirty parish churches in existence in Maryland at the time of the establishment of the Anglican religion in 1692. The church is a simple, one-story structure laid in Flemish bond brick. The graveyard holds the remains of three Revolutionary War veterans, Maryland Governor Thomas King Carroll, and his daughter Anna Ella Carroll, a Dorchester native and Unionist author described as the unofficial member of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. The church is located in a serene, waterfront setting off of Rt 16, about seven miles from Cambridge, just outside of the small town of Church Creek.
Spocott Windmill, west of Cambridge on Hudson Road (Rt. 343), stands as a reminder of a bygone era. On property donated by the late State Sen. George L. Radcliffe, noted Dorchester boat builder James B. Richardson and his son-in-law, Thomas A. Howell Jr., designed and built the replica windmill using traditional shipbuilding tools. The board-and-batten structure, dedicated in 1972, is the towering centerpiece of a small roadside complex with a farm tenant house built in 1800, the one-room Castle Haven school built in 1870, blacksmith shop and a country store museum. There has been a succession of windmills at this location dating to the 1700s. A similar working windmill stood near the site until it was knocked down by the blizzard of 1888. The replica contains the original grinding stones and internal steps. Except for museum, buildings are open for self-guided tours 9 to 5 daily. Museum is open by appointment.
High Street in Cambridge, with its tree-lined street ending at the Choptank River at Long Wharf, contains many interesting, historic structures illustrative of various time periods and types of architecture. The Goldsborough House at 200 High Street was constructed about 1790 for Charles Goldsborough (1765-1834), a U.S. Congressman and Maryland Governor. The house is a well preserved example of the Federal style. The Bayly House was reportedly built circa 1755 in Annapolis and moved across the Bay to Cambridge around 1760. At 111 High Street is a beautiful brick Federal/Greek Revival style house, circa 1840, to which an elaborate Victoria scroll-saw porch was added in 1884. It was the birthplace of Phillips Lee Goldsborough who became a U.S. Senator and Maryland Governor.
The front section of the present Dorchester County Courthouse was constructed in 1854 in Italinate style by noted American architect Richard Upjohn. In the years leading up the Civil War, the courthouse was the site of slave auctions and the trials of alleged Underground Railroad conductors. Across the street from the Courthouse, the Christ Episcopal Church, of high Victorian Gothic style, occupies a prominent position at the corner of High and Church Streets. It is the third church to occupy the site. Constructed in 1883, the church is built of granite covered with green serpentine stone. There is a large circular rose window on the front of the building, and a row of smaller stained glass windows below. The cemetery, also of historic importance, houses the remains of five Maryland governors, other leading citizens of the 18th and 19th centuries, and Revolutionary War soldiers.
Also in Cambridge is the former home of sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler. The Annie Oakley house, now in private hands, overlooks Hambrooks Bay. Designed and built by the couple, the house features a roof line which was altered to allow Annie to step directly out of the upstairs windows so that she could shoot incoming waterfowl over Hambrooks Bay.
Another notable figure in Dorchester history is Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, a Dorchester County native. She grew up in slavery on the Brodess Farm in the southern part of the county near Bucktown. She is said to have received a blow to her head at the Bucktown Village Store as she attempted to assist a fellow enslaved man—called her first public act of defiance. While it may not be the same store where this historic event occurred, there is at present a 19th century Bucktown village store located at the crossroads of Bucktown and Bestpitch Ferry Roads. The store is undergoing restoration by the Bucktown Village Foundation. While Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849, she returned to the area to assist others to escape to freedom. The Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center on Race Street in downtown Cambridge is a resource for further information. A 105-mile self-guided Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Driving Tour through Dorchester and Caroline Counties is also available from the Dorchester County Tourism Department.
Further information about touring historic Cambridge sites is contained in the Cambridge Historic Walking Tour Brochure, which can be obtained by contacting Dorchester County Tourism. For a more personalized approach, the West Side Citizen’s Association conducts walking tours of the downtown.
Like Cambridge, the Town of East New Market, located about nine miles to the northeast, was settled by Europeans during the latter half of the 17th century. It began as a trading post between the Native Americans and the new settlers, and lay on a north-south Choptank Indian trail. The town grew after the introduction of the railroad, and religious and educational institutions were established. Maryland Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks began his early political life here and is credited with keeping the State in the union during the Civil War. Numerous examples of lovely 18th and 19th century homes can be found here, and a registered National Historic District was established in 1975. Further information about such historic homes as Buckland, Friendship Hall, the Daffin-Mitchell House (previously called House of Hinges) and East New Market House can be found on the Town’s website at www.eastnewmarket.com. A walking tour brochure is also available b y contacting the Dorchester County Tourism Department.
The Town of Vienna, on the county’s far eastern edge along the Nanticoke River, also has a long history from the days that Native Americans lived in the area through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to its quaint aspect today. The Vienna Heritage Museum’s collection includes the machinery from the last remaining mother-of-pearl button factory in the United States and Native American and other artifacts from the area. An illustrated walking tour brochure describes twenty-six buildings of historic and architectural interest.