Standing on a hill overlooking terraced gardens, exotic trees, and green lawns, Hampton National Historic Site invites visitors to explore what life was like on the Hampton estate beginning in the late 18th century. Captain Charles Ridgely directed the construction of his Georgian style mansion between 1783 and 1790. In 1790, the house was the largest in the United States. Captain Ridgely and many of Hampton’s later masters used the vast grounds of the Hampton estate to amass great earnings and wealth. At its peak, Hampton had 25,000 acres with ironworks, grain crops, beef cattle, thoroughbred horses, coal mining, marble quarries, mills, and other mercantile interests.
The running of such a vast estate required an enormous amount of labor. For a brief time, Hampton’s masters used indentured servants from Europe. Eventually though, many of Hampton’s masters relied upon enslaved African Americans to ensure that the plantation ran smoothly. While very little evidence exists about the daily lives of enslaved African Americans on the estate, the preserved slave quarters and some of the other artifacts from the estate collectively help to provide a brief glimpse into the lives of those who lived and worked at Hampton.
Six Ridgely masters presided over Hampton estate, each using the mansion and the grounds in different ways. Three of the six masters owned slaves who worked to sustain their upper class lifestyle. Captain Charles Ridgely, “The Builder,” established ironworks on the land near Hampton by 1762. At the time, iron was one of the most profitable exports of the mid-Atlantic colonies. In addition to his ironworks, Captain Ridgely owned a fleet of merchant ships, mills, quarries, orchards, and a general merchandising business in downtown Baltimore. An entrepreneur, Captain Ridgely provided iron implements, arms, and ammunition to the patriots during the Revolutionary War. Having retired from a seafaring life, Ridgely developed these many businesses and the Hampton estate and mansion. The mansion’s large, lavish, extravagant rooms, which visitors can still see today on a guided house tour, are symbolic of the power, influence, and wealth Ridgely acquired during his lifetime.
Hampton Mansion is considered one of the finest examples of late Georgian style architecture in America. The mansion’s design was likely conceived through collaboration between Captain Ridgely and Jehu Howell, a local carpenter and highly skilled builder. Howell used local stone and stucco to construct this classically symmetrical Georgian mansion; the three story building, with its wide porticos, is connected to two smaller two-story wings on either side via hallways. It is believed that Ridgely paid Howell nearly 3,500 British pounds and 68 quarts of rum for his work.
Following the childless Captain, Charles Ridgely Carnan inherited the largest part of Hampton’s land and business, under the condition that he take Ridgely as his surname. Like his uncle, Charles Ridgely Carnan was an astute businessman who worked to make Hampton estate a grand showplace. Charles Ridgely became governor of Maryland. Upon his death in 1829, Governor Ridgely owned at least 339 enslaved African Americans. In his will, he freed his slaves upon his death but imposed many specific stipulations dictating their freedom, including variables such as age and sex.
As the third master of Hampton, John Ridgely inherited the estate with only a small remaining enslaved population. He purchased about 77 slaves to work around the estate. John Ridgely and his wife Elize Ridgely were the last slave owners at Hampton. Noteworthy for the time, money, and attention they devoted to the gardens, they enhanced the landscape by bringing in exotic trees and designing terraced gardens. Visitors can take self-guided tours of John and Elize Ridgely’s planned landscape on the grounds of the estate.
Between 1790 and 1830, the Ridgelys of Hampton owned one of Maryland’s largest enslaved African American populations. Slaves labored as field hands, cobblers, woodcutters, millers, ironworkers, blacksmiths, gardeners, and jockeys, and worked in the mansion as cooks, servers, cleaners, and childcare providers. Since the Ridgelys were so involved in industrial pursuits, the slaves on the estate had many industry related responsibilities different from slaves on agricultural plantations.
While limited evidence remains to interpret the lives of enslaved African Americans at Hampton, artifacts reveal some information about their lives. At Hampton, slaves had access to medical care, but they also endured beatings. The Ridgelys provided the slaves with clothing including, aprons, trousers, dresses, hand-tailored shoes, hats, shawls, and jackets. The Ridgelys seemingly cared about save families as demonstrated by slave lists identifying individuals by familial relation and by the many slave houses that extended over a quarter of a mile eastward from the mansion. Three of the slave quarters still remain; two are two-story stone houses, the other a log cabin. These quarters appear to have been designed for double family use and not as dormitories, although no hard evidence exists to support this finding. Visitors may explore the quarters with their exhibits and furnishings.
After the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the remaining masters, Charles Ridgely, John Ridgely, and John Ridgely Jr., could no longer rely on slaves to ensure that the plantation ran smoothly. Hampton began to decline, even as its masters sought to maintain the aristocratic traditions that had become synonymous with the estate. The Sixth Master, John Ridgely Jr., sold the estate to a Mellon family trust, which donated it to the Federal Government. This ensured the preservation and interpretation of the mansion, 60 acres, and the historical narratives associated with the estate. Today, visitors to Hampton National Historic Site can take a guided tour to see the mansion with its high 13-foot ceilings and different Ridgely masters’ furnishings including oil paintings by American artists, large gilded mirrors, and a variety of imported furniture. The public can experience what it was like to live in a grand Georgian style mansion on a vast estate from the late 18th until the early 20th centuries, and learn about what life was like for the Ridgely family and the slaves and indentured servants who were essential to the running of the plantation.
Hampton National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located just north of Baltimore, at 535 Hampton Lane in Towson, MD. The park is open daily from 9:00am to 4:00pm, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the National Park Service Hampton National Historic Site website or call 410-823-1309.