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Settlers | Revolutionary War | War of 1812 | Civil War | Transportation | Timeline | People

Cecil County History: An Introduction

American Indians were the earliest inhabitants of what is now called Cecil County. The first white men to visit the area arrived by ship in the year 1608. The expedition was led by Captain John Smith, and through his written accounts we learn about the Indian tribes who lived along the shores of Cecil's rivers. The Toghwoghs lived by the Sassafras River. John Smith and his men found them to be friendly and of a gentle nature. The natives had never before seen white men and wanted to worship them as gods. The Minquas were located primarily in Delaware, but spread westward into Cecil. The Shawnase were a southern tribe, but they migrated north when they were being killed off in great numbers. They lived near the North East River and became basket makers and fishermen. Some remained even after white men moved to the area. Records show that a few were baptized in St. Mary Anne's Episcopal Church in North East, and one was on the payroll ledgers of Principio Iron Works. The largest tribe the explorers met was the Susquehannock Tribe with 600 people.

Captain Smith encountered the Susquehannocks while exploring the Susquehanna River. They had possession of the land between the North East and Susquehanna rivers whose waters were abundant with fish. Smith described them as the largest men he had ever seen, as if they were giants with big voices. They wore skins of bears and wolves. Heads and claws remained on the skins as they were slipped over the Indian's heads, adding to their larger than life appearance. The Indians met the white men with gifts of skins, bows, arrows, beads, and tobacco pipes. They were friendly with the white men, but could be a powerful force in war. The Susquehannocks were part of the Iroquois Nation of Indians, who considered themselves the most advanced on the east coast, and militarily strong. They frequently absorbed surrounding tribes in territorial wars.

Before leaving the region John Smith and his men explored the North East, Elk, Sassafras and Susquehanna rivers. He gave names to places he visited, many of which were changed by settlers in later years. He also documented descriptions of Indian weapons and eating utensils such as flint knife blades that were lashed to a wooden handle for cutting, and a tool that looks much like a rolling pin, used for the mashing and grinding of corn.


Though Cecil County was not established by Lord Baltimore and his colonists until 1674, a small settlement came prior to that time. In 1633, twenty five years after John Smith sailed the tributaries of the Upper Chesapeake Bay, Englishman William Clayborne opened a trading post on Palmers Island at the mouth of the Susquehanna. He traded beavers and furs with the Susquehannocks, and sold them to the French in Canada. A small settlement and a plantation surrounded the first white man's post in the area.

There are two names that will forever be linked to the establishment of Cecil County. The first is the Second Lord Baltimore, Cecilius Calvert for whom the County was named. He ruled the land called Maryland, after his father -The First Lord Baltimore died. The second name is that of Augustine Herman, one of Cecil's first land owners. Herman offered his masterful map making skills to create a map of Maryland, and in exchange received a large tract of land that spread out from the Bohemia River. Because of his skills he was considered an important man, and it was Herman who was able to convince Governor Charles Calvert to divide Cecil County out of Baltimore County. In 1674 Herman's wish was granted, and by proclamation, the boundaries for the new county of Cecil were established. The first courthouse was located on the Sassafras River.

During the century between the establishment of the County and the Revolutionary War, Cecil developed into a bustling yet rural region at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. The main exports at the time were skins, tobacco, and other agricultural products. The County consisted primarily of plantations, farms, mills, villages or towns, and water ports. At one point it is said that because farming was so important to the economy, the destructive nature of squirrels and crows became a genuine problem. Legislators put a price on the creature's heads in order to eliminate the overabundance of them. Money was scarce and not available for bounty, but citizens were allowed to pay their taxes with squirrels and crows.

Revolutionary War

By 1776 Cecil realized a need to arm local militia of the County. War with Britain was inevitable, and the Bohemia, Susquehanna, and Elk Battalions were formed. They didn't know at that time how outnumbered they'd be when the Kings troops arrived. Because of Cecil County's location, it became a very important place to the English Navy. On a hot stormy day, August 27th in the year 1777, three hundred ships with over 15,000 British soldiers, commanded by General Howe, landed on the shores of the Elk River. They marched to Elkton and made camp. There were more soldiers than citizens in the entire county. In anticipation of the enemy's arrival, people hid their horses, cattle, and valuables in the woods, so that the soldiers couldn't take them.

On August 25th, prior to the landing of the British, General George Washington traveled through pouring rain to reach Delaware and then Cecil County. He came to observe their situation, knowing that the British were sailing up the Chesapeake Bay. Washington stayed at Head of Elk in a hotel owned by Jacob Hollingsworth. On August 27th, General Howe slept in the same room and was waited on by the same servant who waited on Washington just two days prior. The British stayed in the County for a few days, planning strategy, stocking up on supplies, and waiting for the storm to pass. When they marched onward, it was to Brandywine and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.

No battles took place on Cecil ground that August of 1777, but it was a time that Cecil Countians will never forget.

War of 1812

Less than one year after President James Madison persuaded Congress to declare War on Great Britain, British Admiral Sir George Cockburn blockaded the Chesapeake Bay and sailed up the Elk River with a large squadron of sailors. It was April 1813. American militia greeted them at Welch Point on the Elk River with musket fire, but had no cannon. They could only harass the enemy. The English sailed to Frenchtown, a traveler's port, and an important shipping point for supplies. Cockburn's men destroyed it.

They sailed on to Elkton, the County Seat, but met with resistance from Fort Defiance. They also met with quick thinking citizens who put a barrier across the water at Head of Elk. Despite repeated effort, ships could not get past it and close to the town. So they sailed back up the Elk River and charted a course for Havre de Grace where they burned 50 of the 60 homes, and plundered citizen's belongings.

Next, they sailed up the Sassafras River, capturing a small vessel carrying two Americans. They were dispatched by the British to spread a warning to Fredericktown and Georgetown, on opposite shores of the river. If the British met with no resistance, civilians and their property would be spared. They would only burn public buildings and vessels. The warning was ignored, and thus the enemy attacked with full force, burning and pillaging to their content.

They considered attacking Port Deposit, but were told by a prisoner that the town had militia that could put a bullet in an eye at a distance of 100 yards. Instead, they sailed to Principio Furnace, a primary manufacturer of cannons in the United States, located between Perryville and Charlestown. The cannons were considered highly reliable and accurate. Cockburn's men burned the plant, and destroyed finished weapons that were about to be shipped to American troops. The British navy had more soldiers and fire power than Cecil. The County suffered at the hands of British during the War of 1812, but the County Seat was protected by its citizens.

The Civil War - A Border County In A Border State

Though citizens of Cecil County did not have to endure battles on their soil, the County was touched by the Civil War. Maryland was a border state, with some supporting the Union forces, and others sympathizing with the Confederacy. Cecil County was much the same with vastly divided loyalties.

On April 19th in the year 1861, Union soldiers arrived in Baltimore, and were met by angry Confederate sympathizers. A riot ensued, with citizens attacking soldiers and tearing away pieces of train track. By the time the sun set on the tumultuous city that day, the final blows had not yet been felt. Under the cover of darkness the rail lines were burned and destroyed. Union forces seized a ferry to transport its forces to Annapolis. Vessels were dispatched from ports north to the shores of the Susquehanna River to serve as transport vessels. And as gunfire rang out to the south, Cecil County's Perryville became a critical staging area for Union soldiers and supplies. It was the furthest point south the northern army dared go by train. A camp remained at the location for sometime, thrusting the riverside town of Perryville into the history books.

In 1790 there were 3400 slaves in Cecil, which was a significant number. By 1850 that number dropped to 800. When the Civil War was over, the remaining slave owners had no choice but to free those who remained as slaves. For those landowners, the impact of the Civil War was great. For others, the divided loyalties of the region, and the losses that both sides sustained, left bitterness lingering in Cecil County for many years.

Transportation: The Steam Boat

The original inventor of the steamboat was a resident of southern Cecil County. James Rumsey lived on the Bohemia River until the time of his death in 1792. He died in London while lecturing an audience about his steam boat. However, prior to his death, he had the opportunity to demonstrate his prototype for George Washington. Rumsey died before manufacturing his product, so others created and were credited with the ships that soon carried passengers.

One of the first steamboats frequenting the waters of the Chesapeake Bay was The Eagle. It was built in Philadelphia in 1813 and began serving Head of Elk (Elkton) in 1815. Travelers could board the ship in Baltimore any Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday at 4pm, bound for Cecil County. Passengers then took a stage coach from Elkton to Wilmington, Delaware, where they could board another ship that carried them on to Philadelphia.

Transportation: The C and D Canal

The year was 1824, and a project proposed by Augustine Herman in the 1600s finally began. 2,600 workers were hired to dig a ditch along a marshy strip of land between the Elk River and Delaware Bay to create a shipping canal. Laborers were paid 75 cents per day to pick, shovel, and drag mud out of the canal bed and up 90 foot summits. It took years of hard labor to complete the project. The 14 mile long, 10 foot deep, and 66 foot wide canal opened for business in 1829. Toll takers charged ships for the opportunity to save nearly 300 sailing miles. Mules pulled the ships through the canal and the mule owners made money as well - 25 cents per load.

Over the years the canal was widened and deepened, its locks were removed, and it was purchased by the Federal Government. Today, the 14 mile long canal is 35 feet deep and 450 feet wide. It's the busiest canal in the nation with the passage of 15,000 vessels per year from ports around the globe. Vessels vary from small pleasure craft to 900 foot ships, and visitors and locals alike, never miss an opportunity to watch the huge vessels slip beneath the town's majestic bridge. The C and D Canal Museum, adjacent to Chesapeake City, is housed in the old canal pump house and is open to the public, free of charge.

Transportation: The Railroad

In 1831 the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, linking Cecil County to Delaware was one of the first in the Country. It connected industry to canals and ports. It was initially created to protect trade routes from increased competition. At first, the engines were pulled by horses, but by 1833 steam locomotives began to chug their way along tracks, and soon Elkton got rail service. Within 30 years the entire County was covered with rail tracks heading in various directions, to carry passengers and goods to depots in far away places.

Transportation: The Automobile and other Vehicles

It was April in Elkton in the year 1900 and spring was in the air. Horses and riders enjoyed a warm spring breeze. Wagons laden with newly purchased goods lined the streets. Birds chirped. But then the air was filled with an unnerving sound. And WHAT was that SMELL?! The first to see it was a horse who took off in fright, taking his rider with him! The frightening object was the first horse-less carriage in Cecil County…an automobile, that would forever change the face of the community. Though the new invention took some getting used to, the automobile brought positive change to Cecil County. By 1901 the first vehicle was used by the Rising Sun Post Office to deliver mail to rural areas. Before that time, mail waited at the post office, often for long periods, to be picked up by the recipient. Motorized fire engines significantly cut down the response time for arriving at a fire scene. Delivery vehicles could traverse a route much more quickly, allowing more customers to be served. In 1929 Elkton purchased its first patrol car, setting the stage for a new era in law enforcement in the County. The changes brought about by the smelly, noisy contraption were exciting and endless.

Timeline: The 1900s

Listed below are a few of the significant events of the 1900s up to the present:

1908 - FIrst hospital in the County opened it's doors under the name Union Hospital.

1910 - The worst of the ice gorges in Port Deposit's history ripped through the town. The ice slammed into structures and houses on Main Street, severely damaging many. A number of residents had to be rescued from second story windows, by brave souls on sturdy boats.

1920 - For the first time women in Cecil County and across the United States had the right to vote. In this year, 1000 Cecil County women registered.

1923 - Charlestown, on the North East River became a popular summer get-away. Vacationers came to stay in cottages along the shoreline.

1928 - Conowingo Dam began commercial operation. By harnessing the power of the Susquehanna River they produced electricity. As the last of the big gates closed to collect the water behind the dam, spectators watched as the water formed a 9000 acre lake, spreading across land and over rooftops of a village of 30 - 40 buildings called Conowingo. The village remained submerged forever.

1941 - A modern highway was built between Baltimore and Delaware, running right through Cecil County. Route 40 quickly became a popular transportation route.

1963 - President Kennedy cut the ribbon on the impressive new road called Interstate 95. It was the area's first expressway, and the area's last visit from the President. John F. Kennedy was assassinated 8 days later.

1968 - Cecil Community College was established, and opened its doors to the 107 students enrolled.

1976 - The Town of Elkton had a ribbon cutting and ground breaking ceremony at the sight of the 1st major shopping center in the County. Soon others popped up along heavily traveled roads in the county, taking business away from downtown Main Streets.

1987 - The first Bed and Breakfast Inn opened in the County, ushering in an era of increased tourism. Little by little, more attention was given to the tourism industry and its economic benefit. The Inn At The Canal, located in Chesapeake City opened its doors to weary travelers who wanted an overnight experience which differed from a stay in a motel.

1989 - Cecil County's newspaper - The Cecil Whig - became a daily. Prior to that time the closest dailies were out of Wilmington, Delaware, and Baltimore, Maryland.

1991 - Passenger train service returned to Cecil County. For years trains merely passed through, but the historic train station in Perryville re-opened, offering train service to points south.

1998 - The "Wall That Heals" visited Meadow Park in Elkton. It's a half scale replica of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington D.C. Visitors who were touched by the War were able to come to Elkton and touch the Wall with names of 58,202 military men and women whose lives were lost in Vietnam.

1999 - An event called "The British Invasions of Cecil" took place. It celebrated the County's Revolutionary War and War of 1812 heritage.

Re-enactments, encampments, living history presentations, period vendors, and entertainment illustrated that our County's history has come full circle. As Cecil prepared to enter a new century, it celebrated momentous events from two previous centuries.

The 2000s

Elk Landing Foundation began. This organization was formed to promote and develop the Historic Elk Landing area. The site of the British invasion in 1813, this area is being developed as a living history museum. web site

Important People

John Smith

An Englishman by descent, Smith was the first white man to explore the region that is now called Cecil County. His voyage originated in Jamestown Virginia in 1608, and his expedition sailed north to the head of the Chesapeake Bay. It was through his written accounts that we know about the Indians who inhabited the area, and what life was like for them during that time. He explored the North East, Elk, Sassafras, and Susquehanna Rivers, and met members of numerous Indian tribes.

Augustine Herman (spellings also found - Hermann and Hermen)

Herman first traveled on Cecil's soil in the mid 1600s. He was dispatched to carry messages from Lord Baltimore to Dutch leaders of the land along Delaware Bay. He quickly became an important man in Maryland. He was an expert map maker by talent, and after charting Maryland, he received extensive Cecil land holdings as payment. Herman was also considered a visionary. He had the vision to break Cecil County away from Baltimore County, which in fact happened in 1674. He also had a vision to carve a canal between the Elk River and Delaware Bay. Though this project did not happen during his lifetime, it did become a reality in 1829 when the C and D Canal opened for business. Herman is one of Cecil County's founding fathers, and he lived at his treasured homestead "Bohemia Manor", on the Bohemia River, until his death in 1686.

The Hollingsworth Family

Henry Hollingsworth brought his family to Cecil County early in the 1700s when he was appointed the County's surveyor. For generations they were considered prominent citizens who contributed to the community around them at Head of Elk. They were enterprising and industrious, and at one time engaged in milling and the manufacture of flour. It was believed that the patriotic Colonel Henry Hollingsworth (Henry Hollingsworth's grandson) did more to advance colonial rights than others in the region. He took an active part in the military under George Washington, and fought at the Battle of Brandywine. For the remainder of the war however, he returned home under authority of the Continental Congress. His home was strategically located along a much traveled route for soldiers moving north and south. It was his responsibility to purchase and provide numerous and varied supplies for the colonial troops, including ships and rafts. Many family members were property owners in the County, and today, the Hollingsworth name is frequently linked to Cecil's heritage. In the early 18th Century, Zebulon Hollingsworth purchased property called Elk Landing which now has importance in the future of tourism in Cecil County. web site

William Paca: Signer of The Declaration of Independence

1740 - 1799; Paca was a Statesman and Revolutionary War leader. He served the Continental Congress, and served as a judge. Later he became the Governor of Maryland. Paca purchased land and built a house in Charlestown, the first incorporated town in Cecil County, 25 years prior to becoming a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

George Read

1733 - 1798; He was a judge and Revolutionary War Statesman. He was born in Cecil County, and later moved to Delaware. He served as a member of the 2nd Continental Congress, and became a US Senator and State Chief Justice.

Jacob Tome

Jacob Tome came to the western shores of Cecil County, along the Susquehanna River in 1833 on a raft from York County Pennsylvania. When he arrived in Port Deposit, he was penniless but ambitious, and aptly illustrated a "rags to riches" story. He formed a partnership with men of greater means, and went into the lumber business. The men quickly prospered, and he invested well. Tome expanded his business holdings as far away as the Great Lakes region of the United States, and he quickly became one of the wealthiest men in Maryland.

Tome was a critic of county school systems, and used part of his wealth to establish Jacob Tome Institute. He was known for his generosity, and in 1889 he funded the operation of a free school for area youth, through his Institute. After his death in 1898, an endowment of Tome's created a prestigious school for boys at Bainbridge, on a bluff overlooking the Susquehanna River. The school prospered, and its income supported the free schools he believed so strongly in. However, as the county educational system improved, his schools suffered lower enrollments, and all but one eventually closed. The generosity and influence of Jacob Tome are still felt today in the historic village of Port Deposit, as well as at the last of Tome's private schools, located in the town of North East.