The Ridgely family’s roots in Maryland reach into the colony’s earliest settlement. Robert Ridgely, an attorney from Lincolnshire, first settled at Inigoes Creek, in St. Mary’s County, possibly as early as 1634. Ridgely men, from the beginning, served in government and military posts. They also practiced law and ran mercantile businesses.
Robert Ridgely’s son, Charles, started the family tradition of landowning. The estate known as Hampton evolved from tracts of land acquired by the Ridgely family over generations. During the 1740s and 1750s, Robert Ridgely’s grandson Colonel Charles Ridgely purchased wilderness land for agricultural plantations, an ironworks, and forges. By 1761, Colonel Ridgely ordered teams of enslaved persons, indentured servants, and convicts to clear the land and develop an ironmaking site with supporting farm adjacent to his large Northampton tract about twelve miles north of Baltimore.
This eventually helped to fund his son and business partner Captain Ridgely’s most lasting achievement, Hampton Hall, known as “the house in the forest” and “the palace in the wilderness,” beginning in 1783.
Hampton was an extensive family business, with a fleet of merchant ships, mills, quarries, the ironworks, an iron store near Baltimore harbor and diverse agricultural interests, including grains, orchards, livestock, and dairy products from the plantation. After the Revolutionary War, the Ridgelys no longer contracted for indentured workers to labor at ironmaking and farming and instead relied almost exclusively on the labor of enslaved persons, where the Ridgelys operated as owners and overseers. Generations of Ridgely wealth founded on these institutions would allow the family to become one of the most prominent and influential families in the state and region.
At the height of this affluence, the Ridgely’s property of nearly 25,000 acres equaled half the area of present-day Baltimore City. The Ridgelys hosted lavish gatherings, bred and raced thoroughbred horses, indulged their taste for fine furnishings, art and music, traveled widely, and created formal gardens. There is ample evidence of this inheritance throughout the mansion, grounds, and stables today.
The American Civil War and emancipation proved to be a turning point for the Ridgely family and Hampton. With a large portion of the labor force now gone, or being paid, in addition to continued dividing of lands among heirs, financial troubles began to set in. The family continued to spend decades living lavish lifestyles, traveling to Europe, philanthropic contributions, and throwing parties all while their agricultural income continued to diminish. Eventually the Hampton estate had fallen into disrepair and John Ridgely Jr. looked for ways for the site to be preserved in the 1940s.
John Ridgley Jr. was able to sell the property to Avalon Foundation for $90,000, who then turned the site over to the National Park Service. This historic transaction then opened the door for the creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition to their handing over of buildings to the National Park Service, the Ridgelys also handed over thousands of artifacts and archives which today allows for the recreation of elements of nearly two hundred years of Maryland history. One of the most powerful resources from this are written accounts of the Ridgely family. Hampton has an archive of correspondence, memoirs, diaries, scrapbooks, account books and legal and financial documents which provide context for a host of public records, newspaper articles, escape ads and other historical documents that provide a unique, in depth, history of plantation life with the backdrop of the American story.