Slavery at Hampton

Painting depicting what the Northampton ironworks would have looked like
Depictions of the Hampton ironworks.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

Hampton NHS sits on rich soil that was once at the core of Maryland’s second-largest plantation and an ironworks complex. The period of slavery at Hampton, which spanned more than a century, encompassed the American Revolution and the Civil War, only ending when Maryland State law ended the institution in 1864. Farming and ironworking bound together slaveowners, enslaved persons, indentured servants, convict laborers, immigrant laborers, paid artisans, and black free laborers. Together, these people shared a common history, connected through moments of collaboration and conflict.

The six largest slaveholders in Baltimore County in the eighteenth century were the owners of ironworks. Those owners who had been British sympathizers lost their lands and laborers after the Revolutionary War. The Ridgelys grew their businesses by buying land and people who were already skilled as forge men, colliers, carpenters, and other related trades to work alongside already enslaved individuals and indentured servants at the Northampton Ironworks. As the Ridgelys’ farming interests increased, more enslaved persons moved back and forth from farm to furnace.

 
Painting depicting enslaved workers on the plantation farm.
Enslaved workers working on the plantation farm by the overseer's house and slave quarters.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

From the colonial period through 1864, the Ridgelys enslaved over 500 people. African American enslaved persons, from young children to the elderly, labored at Hampton and Northampton, as ironworkers, founders, limestone and marble quarriers, millers, blacksmiths, gardeners, dairymaids, jockeys, cobblers, seamstresses, woodcutters, field hands, carriage drivers, cooks, childcare providers, cleaners, builders and even overseers in the early days of the ironworks. All these positions combined to create a community within the plantation in which enslaved people held meetings, lived together, and practiced their religion while simultaneously being subject to forms of control from slaveholders and overseers.

 

Refuge for freedom seekers was much closer for enslaved persons at Hampton than for enslaved persons in the Deep South. Hampton was close to both the free state of Pennsylvania and the city of Baltimore, which had the largest free black population in the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. More than 80 people sought their freedom from Hampton, with different goals: escaping punishing conditions, establishing new lives as free persons, or returning to family at other Maryland plantations.

 
An artist's depiction of a young African American boy and older African American man
Artist's depiction of a young African American boy and older African American man.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

Hampton is also the site of one of the largest manumissions in Maryland’s history. At the time of his death in 1829, Governor Charles Ridgely owned nearly 350 enslaved individuals scattered across several farms, the ironworks, mansion, and his Baltimore townhouse. In his will, Ridgely granted freedom to female enslaved persons between the ages of 25 and 45 and male enslaved persons between the ages of 28 and 45. Court cases amongst the Governor’s heirs, delayed manumissions and the reality that freedom came for some family members but not others, particularly children, which meant that enslaved families faced a difficult choice: was freedom worth the cost of separation? Children aged 3 to young adults of 27 were not old enough to be freed, nor were those over 45.

Those children, young people and older people were willed away to the governor’s eight heirs. Governor Ridgely’s eldest surviving son, John Ridgely, then inherited a plantation without laborers. The new owner of Hampton plantation then decided to purchase sixty additional enslaved persons and the cycle of slavery continued until Maryland's emancipation on November 1, 1864.

Researchers have a difficult task when it comes to the lives of enslaved people due to the lack of documentation and first-person accounts. The 2014 Historic Resource Study expanded the National Park Service’s understanding of the lived experiences of indentured servants and enslaved persons. Most recently, a three-year Ethnographic Overview and Assessment for Hampton NHS from 2016-19 focused on establishing the connections of enslaved families in Hampton’s enslaved community: finding where the formerly enslaved lived in freedom and if they had living descendants. Primary sources, public records, research documents, oral histories and site visits have provided important discoveries in this ongoing work.

Last updated: June 25, 2020

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