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Nineteenth Century Life in Havre de Grace

By Heidi Glatfelter, 2013. Excerpted from Havre de Grace in the War of 1812: Fire on the Chesapeake

At the turn of the century, the people living in Havre de Grace had been citizens of the United States of America for fourteen years. The new nation had been founded on the beliefs of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the residents of Havre de Grace found their town a perfect spot to pursue happiness.


As John Smith and George Alsop had recorded in their diaries over one hundred years prior, the area’s first merit was its splendor and beauty. Its riverside location provided beautiful vistas from every vantage point in the town.


Additionally, the area was home to a wide variety of wildlife that the villagers could feast on and trade for other material goods. “Seafood such as fish, crabs, and oysters were plentiful, as well as a variety of birds: ducks, geese, loons, grebe, whistling and trumpeter swans, Canadian geese, blue and snow geese, black ducks, and mallards were evidenced to have lived in the area.”[i]


The bears, wolves, and deer that Alsop mentions in the 1660s were also still roaming the area in the dawn of the 1800s to provide game meat for the residents. Besides the plentiful wildlife, the area was rich with fertile land. The fields in the area were constantly filled with wheat, maize, tobacco, and potatoes.


Havre de Grace residents could also feast on the abundance of wild fruit growing in the area. There are records of fruit-producing trees including mulberries, crabapples, persimmons, wild plums, and bushes full of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, huckleberries, wild raisin, and wild grapes.[ii]


The area was also full of trees, which were very valuable to the English. England had been cleared of most of its trees years ago, and the wood that American trees could provide was a coveted commodity. Logs were used to build ships and buildings, among other, smaller items like furniture and utensils.


An ad appearing in the Maryland Journal on September 30, 1785, gives details of the area at the time: “To be sold…Swan-Harbour, commonly called Black-Walnut, containing Five Hundred and Eighty Acres. This valuable tract is…advantageously situated on navigable water. There are about 250 acres in valuable Timber, the Remainder in Meadow and Fields well laid off, adapted to the Growth of Wheat, Tobacco and Indian Corn.”[iii]

Also making Havre de Grace ideal was its location a short boat ride away from the third largest city in America at the time – Baltimore, with a population of 46,555. (New York and Philadelphia were larger.) Baltimore had become an important shipping and grain-milling center.


Town planners and speculators had taken notice of this small waterside town and began to promote the land to buyers. In 1799, Charles P. Hauducoeur produced a map of Havre de Grace that “seemed to be a product of an attempt to make it a prominent port and city for the trans-shipment of freight”[v] similar to the much larger Philadelphia. On it, he included a theater, town gardens, a hospital, a college and an almshouse, among other institutions.

Minerva Denison Rodgers, whose father bought the Sion Hill property near town and moved to the area in 1801, mentions the Hauducoeur map in her memoirs, saying that “Havre de Grace…had been named as one of the destined places for the seat of government, and I suppose that was one of the reasons that induced my father to purchase land in the vicinity. There had been a French engineer there, who had planned a fine city and had given it the name of Havre de Grace, which it has always retained. I have seen this plan with its fine avenues and streets, churches and theaters, as it was then projected.”[vi]


Minerva’s quote sheds some light on what Hauducoeur envisioned for the town of Havre de Grace, but manages to turn two other town myths on their ears. First, she implies that the story of the area becoming a capital city may have had more credence than was discussed above. Secondly, she states that Hauducoeur named Havre de Grace, not Lafayette.


This is not the place to dissect either claim looking for truth but rather to acknowledge that there are different theories on some key elements of Havre de Grace’s history, and the definitive truth might be lost to time. What is not in dispute, however, was the growth Havre de Grace was experiencing, thanks in no small part to the speculative materials being circulated.


By 1803, the area had attracted the notice of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a renowned architect who had designed the U.S. Capitol building. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson “about the glorious future awaiting Havre de Grace.” He predicted that because of Havre de Grace’s location on a deep bay, the area would soon rival Philadelphia and Baltimore as a commercial center. “One Million of Bricks were laid during the year 1801 in building stores and houses in Havre de Grace and double that number is expected this year,” said Latrobe to Jefferson.[vii]


Thanks to the convergence of the post road, ferries, and taverns, there was a daily influx of travelers, and the town was thriving. Merchants were able to set up stores, and the community that once housed small self-sufficient farms gave way to a bustling seaside town with about seventy-four residents, according to the 1810 census. Add the travelers and farmers who lived outside Havre de Grace but made weekly trips into the town for goods, and the merchants could make a living for themselves.


Please see Havre de Grace in the War of 1812: Fire on the Chesapeake for complete source citations.

[i] Rountree, 232-233.

[ii] Ibid., 21.

[iii] Maryland Journal, September 30, 1785.

[iv] Preston, 250.

[v] Clark, 404.

[vi] Shank, Origins, 27.

[vii] Weeks, 57.

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