Talbot County, Maryland, is one of the oldest centers of European settlement in the New World. Talbot County's long history has always been linked to the water that surrounds it. With more than 600 miles of tidal shoreline, the most of any county in the United States, it retains a maritime flavor to an unusual degree.
Like the Native Americans who moved through this area many centuries ago, European settlers were drawn to Talbot County's wealth of natural resources and profusion of waterways for ease in travel. Its first English settlers, arriving by boat in the 1630s, established tobacco plantations along the shores of the Choptank, Wye, Tred Avon and St. Michaels (now Miles) rivers on the long stretch of Chesapeake Bay coast known as Bayside and on its countless creeks and coves.
By 1662, these settlers had formally created Talbot County. Boundary adjustments were made in 1706 with the establishment of Queen Anne's County to the north and again in 1773 with the creation of Caroline County to the east, resulting in the Talbot County of today.
For a century, Talbot life center around tidewater and tobacco, which served as money and was traded for English manufactured goods with ships which anchored directly off the plantation wharves. Oxford, its first town, was laid out in 1683 and served as a port of call for vessels from all over the world. St. Michaels was an early shipbuilding center and created the swift, sharp-hulled sailing craft later known as the "Baltimore Clipper," famous in the War of 1812.
Established in 1661 and named for Lady Grace Talbot, sister of the second Lord Baltimore, the county soon became the geographical and spiritual heartland of the Eastern Shore. Here the great families that dominated the Eastern Shore's social, political and economic history—the Tilghmans, Lloyds, Goldsboroughs, Hollydays and their kinfold—had their principal seats of residence, many of which are still standing today. The county seat, first known as Talbot Courthouse and later as Easton, was known as the "East Capital" of Maryland because the Eastern Shore's courts and governmental offices were located here. Easton had the Shore's finest bank, its first newspaper, its first Federal offices, and its first brick hotel.
Many of Talbot's early settlers were Quakers, seeking a haven from persecution. Their Third Haven Meeting House, completed in 1684, is still active as a house of worship. Others were Puritans driven from Cavalier Virginia in the Cromwell era or Irish and Scottish rebels transported to the colony as indentured servants. Talbot County had one of the highest percentages of free blacks in the country. The county's African-Americans, both slave and free produced in Frederick Douglass the nation's greatest 19th Century advocate of black freedom and justice.
In the Revolution, Talbot Countians played key roles. Matthew Tilghman was Maryland's acknowledged leader in the events leading to independence. His son-in-law, Tench Tilghman, was General Washington's aide de camp, famous for his ride to carry the news of Cornwallis's surrender to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Young Perry Benson was a Revolutionary War hero and later, as Brigadier General, he headed a citizen army which repulsed a British attack on St. Michaels in 1813.
The Civil War found the county deeply divided, with scores of fighting men on both sides. Unionville, a Talbot County community, was settled by Union soldiers who were freed slaves returning to their homes. In post Civil War times, the county gained national note as a site of summer homes for wealthy Northerners and a vacation resort for summer boarders from nearby cities.
From its very beginning as an English colony, products of the Bay and agriculture have always provided Talbot County's chief sources of income. Talbot County originally had an economy based on tobacco, but "King Tobacco" died with the Revolution, replaced by wheat to feed Washington's Continental Army. In more recent years, tomatoes, fruit and dairy products, and today, corn, soybeans and poultry, have sustained the county's basic population of sturdy family farmers.
Equally important have been the maritime industries of shipbuilding, seafood harvesting and processing, and today, water-related tourism such as sailing and sportfishing. Several vibrant small towns have supported both the farming and maritime industries by providing centers for trade, craftsmen and moderate manufacturing concerns.
Completion of the Bay Bridge in 1951 brought increasing population pressure and ended the county's isolation. Also with the bridge, U.S. Route 50 and other major signs of "progress" have come the benefits of travel and tourism, but also concerns over preservation of the past. The history of Talbot County is still being written and the landscape is everchanging.
Originally called the "Talbot Court House" an act of legislation in 1788, renamed the town and county seat Easton. The early Federal period found the Court House, circa 1711-1712, serving the Maryland General Court and later became known as the "Capitol of the Eastern Shore".
Quakerism began to impact the town in the late 1600s when the Third Haven Meeting House, circa 1682-1684, was constructed. The House stands today as the oldest religious building still in use in the United States and the earliest dated building in Maryland.
Easton's experienced its first building activity following the War of 1812. Steamboats started plying the waters of Tred Avon River around 1816 and utilized Easton Point until their demise in 1932.
The Christ Church was built in 1840-44. A stone edifice in the early English style, having a tower surmounted with a spire, the granite parish house was built in 1890.
Disastrous fires, the railroad and historical preservation have all contributed to Easton's architectural evolution. The combination of Colonial, Federal and Victorian architecture creates remarkable streetscapes throughout the town. This style of architecture represents a way of life rapidly disappearing in many regions of the United States. The Talbot County Historic Preservation Commission, appointed by the Talbot County Council, continues to work with the community and residents to save our historic traditions and preserve our architectural treasures for future generations.
The Historical Society of Talbot County provides a walking tour of Easton which reveals public buildings dating back to 1711 and houses of architectural significance dating to the late 18th century. The tour reveals historic places of worship, old taverns and a mill. The site on which the Tidewater Inn stands today has been home to an inn for over 200 years.
Traditionally, Easton has served as the hub of business activity in the county since its earliest days. Today, it is known for its quality education system, medical facilities, businesses opportunities, county airport, award-winning restaurants and accommodations, boutiques, specialty shops and unique shopping centers.
Exploration of the past can be enjoyed at the Historical Society of Talbot County at their Museum headquarters, the James Neall House, the Joseph Neall House or the Museum Shop. Well-trained and knowledgeable Docents provide tours through the historic district. The Maryland Room of the Talbot County Free Library can also provide a wealth of information on the history of the area.
The Arts can be enjoyed at the Historic Avalon Theatre, recognized by Governor Parris Glendenning as the "Maryland's perfect example of smart growth". Built in 1921 as a movie/vaudeville house, the restored art deco theatre was renovated in the late 1980s with state-of-the-art sound, lighting, and comfort. The 400 seat theatre serves as year-round non-profit performing arts center with diverse programs, musical concerts, films, seminars, plays and community events.
The Academy Art Museum is housed in a renovated 1820 schoolhouse and exhibits the best of local, regional and national artists. The Academy's permanent collection includes works by many of art history's most recognized figures of the 19th and 20th centuries. In additional to the permanent collection, the Museum hosts over 200 visual and performing arts programs annually.
Chartered back to Augustine Herman's 1673 map of Maryland & Virginia, Oxford is one of Maryland's oldest towns. Mandated in 1694 by Maryland legislation as the first and only port-of-entry on the Easton Shore, the town gained significant prominence in colonial days and remained a booming port for over 75 years.
Once named Williamstadt under the reign of Dutch King William III of England. Merchants from London, Liverpool and Bristol established stores in Oxford to trade merchandise for tobacco. Second only to Annapolis, Oxford was recognized as port to the largest number of ships. Ships delivering goods to the port could number as high as seven at any given time. When going on board, one would find that the favored cargo included tobacco, hides, salt pork, wheat and lumber.
The most prominent merchant was Robert Morris, the father of the financier of the American Revolution. Arriving in Oxford in 1738, Morris acquired a fortune as chief factor for the Foster Cunliffe & Sons, a large Liverpool trading house. A part of Morris' residence is incorporated in the Robert Morris Inn. Oxford's trade was unfavorably affected by the War of Independence and the popularity and growth of Baltimore as a chief transshipment point for the Chesapeake Region.
The economy began to wane in the 1700s but came alive again in the mid-1800s. The construction of two churches, the Oxford Military Academy opened, the railroad terminus for the Maryland Delaware Railroad was built, two banks were erected and the first brick sidewalks were laid. Boat building skyrocketed in the late 1800s and two steamboat wharves serviced the rail and boat services.
During the early 1900s, Oxford slowed down again. As Oxford and the nation were affected by World War II, the only successful business left was boat building. Many of the residents left to seek employment in wartime industries.
While the economy was hard hit at times, Oxford maintained its charm and community unity. Today, the town is compared to a picture-perfect postcard. Its beauty is recognized by visitors, magazines and books and protected and preserved by its residents. Elegant historic homes frame the banks of the Tred Avon River while sailboats and yachts gently pass by well manicured landscapes. With approximately 700 residents, the town's charming and unique characteristics portray miniature America at its very best.
When James Braddock came to town, he was an agent for a Liverpool firm of merchants. In 1778, he began developing the town and purchased land grant properties sold at auction. The area he developed began at St. Michaels Harbor (originally known as Church Creek) westward to Talbot Street (once Market Street) and included the inlet known as Church Cove.
St. Michaels named for the Archangel St. Michael, has been an active port since the town was developed. The shipbuilding industry has played a major role in its economy with specialization in seagoing vessels and bay craft. The log canoes built in the 1800s, served as workboats and later evolved in the sport of log canoe racing. As many as 2500 people arrived by steamboats and un-boarded at the Navy Point Wharf in the late 1800s and early 1990s.
Oyster and crab packing houses and tomato canneries fed the economy in the first part of the 20th century. Today, tourism is the town's economic engine. Visitors enjoy arrival by vessels from all over the world as well as by land. The world-renown Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is solely dedicated to portraying the history of the Chesapeake Bay and its people.
Its newest permanent exhibit, "Oystering on the Chesapeake", exemplifies the significance of Maryland's treasure - the skipjack and the art of dredging the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
The architectural significance is reminiscent of the Victorian era but there are houses on the walking tour which date back to the 18th and early 19th century. Victorian houses serve as unique boutiques and specialty shops as well as restaurants and accommodations. Exploring the town of St. Michaels will reveal the historic tale of how it became known as the "Town that Fooled the British".
Tilghman Island was admitted to Talbot County in 1707. Originally called the "Great Choptank Island", it was known also as Foster's Island, and later Ward's Island. In the mid-1700s the island was inherited by Matthew Tilghman who changed the name to Tilghman Island. During the mid-1800s General Tench Tilghman bought the body of land and established two steam sawmills.
In the early 19th century, parcels of land were sold to oystermen wanting to close proximity to the prime harvesting grounds surrounding Tilghman Island. By the turn of the century, two thriving industries - steamboat service and seafood had been established. The island later became a popular vacation haven for vacationers, who were anxious to experience the well-known fishing destination and its accommodations.
The mainland at Knapps Narrows features the drawbridge which continues to serve as the mainland connection to Tilghman Island. Maps dating back as far as the late 1600s reflect the existence of a bridge connecting these two villages.
The Methodist Church was built in 1784 and the current church on the main road was built in 1879. St. John's Chapel, circa 1891 has been restored and is now available to all denominations for weddings and christenings alike. In the early days circuit riders would arrive by horseback to deliver sermons at the church.
A distinctive house style (circa 1890) which is known as a "W" shape, has three gables on the front and has become a Tilghman classic. The "W" shape design allowed for air flow to be equally and continually distributed throughout the house no matter what direction the breeze may be coming from, an important feature in the days before air conditioning. Many houses of this style were built on the island but only a few have survived. Surrounded by the famous Chesapeake Bay and the Choptank River, most residents have earned their livelihood from the bounty of the Bay. Crabbing, oystering, tonging and dredging, seafood packing and canning has provided employment opportunities for islanders. Boat building was a natural industry and two of the most popular models - the skipjack and log canoe were built on the island. Today, the largest fleet of working skipjacks graces the waters of Dogwood Harbor.
Approximately 970 people reside on the island. Fine dining, award-winning accommodations and restaurants keep vacationers returning. Kayaking, sailing, skipjack charters, sport fishing, bicycling, bird watching and simply relaxing are the among the favorite things visitors enjoy. Every year during August, thousands of Monarch butterflies find the island as the perfect resting place as they travel back to Mexico for wintering.
A grist mill has been working in the little village of Wye Mills since the late 1600s. Richard Sweatman operated a saw mill and two grist mills in 1706, and the village then became known as Wye Mills.
Today only one grist mill remains standing and continues to operate as a living museum, the Wye Grist Mill. The mill dates back to circa 1682. Restoration of the mill was completed in 1990 under the direction of Preservation Maryland and a lot of hard work and effort of local residents.
The Wye Oak, Maryland's State Tree, reigned supreme at 450 years old with its own twenty-acre park until it toppled on June 6, 2002 during a thunderstorm. The Wye Oak measured 31 feet, 8 inches in circumference, 96 feet tall, with a crown spread of 119 feet (covering nearly 1/3 of an acre). The Wye Church, circa 1721, has been restored and is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in America. The church features high box pews, a hanging pulpit and original silver communion pieces.
Wye Mills evolved from a mill town that supplied Washington's troops at Valley Forge with ground wheat during the American Revolution to a community with historic gems worth seeing.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Talbot County
Page last modified 01/30/21 15:05:27