The Revolutionary War
The Chestertown Resolves: On May 13, 1774, six months after the Boston tea party, a number of prominent Kent County men gathered at a local tavern to respond to the Tea Act. In an anonymous report to the Maryland Gazette, the gathering condemned Great Britain. At a second meeting on May 18th, the participants approved the Chestertown Resolves, which acknowledged their allegiance to King George III, but registered their sworn enmity to taxation without representation. In their view, the tea tax was calculated to enslave the Americans, and they pledged that any citizen found importing or purchasing dutiable tea would be stigmatized as an enemy of the liberties of America.
The Resolves were followed by a postscript:
The above resolves were entered into upon a discovery of a late importation of dutiable tea (in the brigantine Geddes of this port) for some of the neighbouring counties. Further measures are in contemplation, in consequence of a late and very alarming act of parliament.
"The alarming Act of parliament" was likely the Boston Port Bill of March 1774. In response to the December 1773 Boston Tea Party, the British had closed Boston's harbor until its residents paid the tea tax and reimbursed the East India Company for its spoiled goods. This would have had a significant impact on Chestertown's merchants who traded with New England.
The Brigantine Geddes was a locally-built ship owned by William Geddes, Custom Inspector and local merchant. She had arrived from London on May 7. Her cargo was owned by James Nicolson, one of the signers of the Chestertown Resolves.
"Further measures are in contemplation" likely referred to the establishment of a Committee of Correspondence, with Thomas Smyth as Chairman, and Thomas Ringgold and James Nicholson among its members. Their mission was to share information with similar committees throughout the colonies, and work toward the repeal of the despised parliamentary acts. In June, the Chestertown Committee proposed to "offer a subscription for the poor inhabitants…(of Boston) who may be distressed by the stagnation of business." Samuel Adams replied, "We cannot but applaud the spirit and determined virtue of the Town of Chester…(which) bodes well for the liberties of America."
Legend has a band of citizens marching down the street to board Geddes and dump the tea into the Chester River on May 23. No documentation has been uncovered to definitively support this, although it is possible that there was a ceremonial dumping of the tea. On May 24, 1774, Geddes sailed to Madeira.
Kent Supplies the War Effort: The Delmarva Peninsula supplied as much as one-fifth of the wheat and flour and one-half of the corn received in Philadelphia in 1774. Wheat shipments from the Chester River district equaled those of the entire western shore above Annapolis and Chestertown alone exported two and one-half times more than what was produced on the rest of the Eastern Shore. The Continental Army made heavy demands on Maryland farmers for ships, boats and wagons to transport men and supplies.
Each county additionally was responsible for organizing and outfitting militia companies to protect against invasion and to support the Continental Army. The Council of Safety feared that an attack would take place before they were fully prepared and that communication via the Chesapeake Bay between the eastern and western shores might be cut off. As a member of the Committee of Observation, Thomas Smyth spent considerable time contracting with local suppliers for the militia.
Fortunately, Chestertown had numerous skilled craftsmen eager to assist the war effort and profit as well. Food, salt, tent fabric, even arms and ammunition were in short supply and when available, these items were costly. There was little cash available for purchases and most citizens were skeptical of state paper money. Supplies sent out by ship also risked being seized by British vessels plying the Bay and Atlantic coast. For this reason, merchants and militia commissaries alike hailed the formation of the Maryland State Navy, which went into service by the end of 1776.
Revolutionary Leaders: Although Kent County was never the site of conflict during the American Revolution it produced more than its share of Revolutionary heroes. Kent County men were among the Maryland 400, five companies of Kent County native William Smallwood's battalion. They not only fought in the Battle of Long Island, the first major battle of the Revolution, but also stood as a final anchor of a crumbled American front line, heroically charging the British six times to give Washington time to withdraw his troops. Washington, in recognition of their gallant performance, included the remaining Maryland men in his rear guard where they covered the evacuation of the American force.
Colonel Donaldson Yeates of Knocks Folly, Turners Creek, served as the Eastern Shore’s Quartermaster. He and his neighbor General John Cadwalader of Shrewsbury Neck (present Kentmore Park) supplied provisions to the continental army, causing the region to earn the title: Breadbasket of the Revolution. Cadwalader later commanded the Philadelphia militia at the battle of Princeton, and served on Washington’s staff at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth, before retiring to Maryland in command of the local militia.
Thomas Ringgold helped draw up the Constitution for the new state of Maryland, along with Thomas Smyth, who served on the Maryland Council of Safety. Smyth financially supported the cause of Revolution at the expense of his own financial stability. He built the Galley Chester, which became part of the Maryland State Navy in 1777, at his Lankford Bay shipyard, outfitting the vessel at his own cost. After the war, he was forced to sell Widehall, abandon the building of River House, (both on Water Street in Chestertown) and move back to Trumpington, his family's estate on Eastern Neck.
James Nicholson became the highest-ranking captain in the newly established navy, only to procrastinate setting sail in his frigate Virginia for almost two years. When he finally did, he ran her aground, and she and her crew were captured by the British. Nevertheless, Nicholson went on to pilot the barge carrying Washington to the 1789 inauguration.
Alexander Murray was one of the more versatile leaders of the Revolution. As Captain of the 1st Maryland Regiment, he not only saw action in the campaign of New York and New Jersey, but also became the master of several private vessels that marauded British ships. Another naval hero, Lambert Wickes of Eastern Neck escorted Benjamin Franklin on his diplomatic mission to France becoming the first naval officer to carry the American flag into European waters. As captain of Reprisal, Wickes also captured 20 enemy vessels.
On the final day of the Revolution, Tench Tilghman of Queen Anne's County, as Washington's Aide de Camp, rode through Chestertown on his way to inform the Continental Congress that Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1781.
Education: Young gentlemen could learn navigation, Greek, Latin, arithmetic and mercantile skills at the Kent County Free School, established by law in 1723. Charles Peale, the father of artist Charles Willson Peale, was an instructor there during this early period. Upon his father's death, the younger Peale left Chestertown and went on to become the premiere portrait painter of his time, celebrated for his portraits of George Washington and other Revolutionary luminaries including Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Alexander Hamilton.
The Reverend William Smith, D.D., an acquaintance of Washington's, came to Chestertown in 1780 to take over Peale's post at the Kent County Free School and to serve as rector of Chester Parish. In the spring of 1782 he persuaded the State Assembly to charter a seminary of universal learning on the Eastern Shore, and George Washington to sit on its Board.
Washington College became the 10th college in America, and the first to be founded in the newly independent and unified states. Washington, who contributed 50 guineas to the College, joined the College’s Board of Governors in May of 1784. Other members included Maryland Governor William Paca and wealthy planter-merchant Thomas Smyth.