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* Kent County Court Records Introduction

By Dr. Alexa Cawley, Ph.D.

Return to the database index.

Three years before the 1634 landing of the Dove and the Ark at St. Mary's, a trading post and small settlement was established on Maryland's Eastern Shore at Kent Island.[1] Under the leadership of the English gentleman speculator William Claiborne and the indirect control of the Virginia colony, the Kent Island colony was ideally poised to conduct trade with Native Americans from the Susquehanna River to the north and down the length of the Chesapeake Bay. Claiborne did not confine his business interests to trade, however; he also grew crops for sustenance and sale. He built a fort at the southern tip of the island and established a farming community called Craford on the eastern side of the island south of Craney creek.[2] (see Figure 1) Claiborne peopled his settlement with craftsmen, unskilled indentured servants and maidservants, and freemen, many of whom were able to establish their own plantations.

Claiborne's settlement was mired in controversy. The fight for control of the island involved legal wrangling that stretched across the Atlantic to England as well as to bloody sea battles fought in the waters off Kent Island. The Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, and Claiborne each struggled to establish their legal right to control and profit from Kent Island, including several challenges by Claiborne to Lord Baltimore's charter from the king. Eventually Baltimore won the battle for control of Kent Island and of the much larger Kent County, and it became the second county in the Province of Maryland. (See Figure 2) Lord Baltimore then populated his colony through a generous land grant system and a policy of religious toleration. However, the political instability that the Eastern Shore settlers suffered shadowed the colony for at least twenty years. Claiborne repeatedly took advantage of instability in the new province to inveigle himself into control of the island and, forty-six years after the original settlement, he was still appealing for the return of his colony.

Claiborne's settlement laid the groundwork for settlement throughout the Eastern Shore. Not only did he introduce the first English settlers to the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake, but the legacy of his colony and the controversy it sparked lay the basis for an independent and self-sufficient colony. Several of his workers and settlers can be found among the population decades later, and their families and farms lay at the core of the developing community. Contrasted to Lord Baltimore's colony at St. Mary's, the Eastern Shore settlers, especially in the first thirty years, created an interdependent community that was not closely tied to the interests or influence of St. Mary's. While they capitalized on Lord Baltimore's land patent system, laying claim to thousands of acres of land and becoming entwined in the international tobacco trade, they also maintained an independent spirit which separated them from St. Mary's. Populated by immigrants who either came directly from England, but more frequently by way of the Virginia colony to the south, Baltimore's policy of religious toleration also encouraged dissenters to migrate from the more rigid Virginia and Quakers were able to establish themselves in significant numbers.

Kent County initially encompassed most of the northern part of the Eastern Shore, stretching north to the Sassafras River, south to the Nanticoke River, and inland for at least thirty miles. The county was later subdivided with Talbot (1659) and Queen Anne's (1706) counties being formed in the southern portion, including the eventual incorporation of Kent Island into Queen Anne's County, and Cecil County (1674) being established to the north of the Sassafras. (See Figure 2) Kent Island, approximately fifteen miles long measuring from the northern Love Point to the southernmost Kent Point and six miles wide, encompasses 25,673 acres.[3] The northern tip, characterized by low cliffs unbroken by creeks, fans out to face the Chesapeake Bay, the Chester River and Eastern Neck Island dipping down from the north. Most of the island, however, consists of necks of land less than a mile wide, fingers extending into the Chester and Wye rivers and the Eastern Bay. Woods, salt marshes, swamps and ever-increasing cultivated acreage characterized the early period.[4]

Kent Island is separated from the Delmarva peninsula's mainland by the Kent Narrows inlet.[5] Initial settlement of the county was confined to the Isle of Kent, but within twenty years of Maryland control and perhaps even earlier, the population had grown sufficiently for land claims to be levied on the mainland of the Delmarva peninsula. Settlement followed the rivers, east and north up the Chester and south across the Wye River.[6] The relatively early separation of Talbot County from Kent, after only twenty-two years of Maryland control and despite high mortality rates, attests to the rapid spread of the population along the riverbanks. Countless creeks flow further inland, the most significant being the Corsica and the Tuckahoe. While settlers did not move onto the mainland until the late 1650's, as they did, they discovered steadily improving soil conditions. Weakest at the mouth of the Chester River and on Kent Island, the soil became increasingly fertile as one moved inland and northward.[7]

Settlers coming to this region were farmers already sensitized to the geographic, climactic and transportation needs of commercial agriculture. Whether they came directly from England or from Virginia these settlers recognized the value of the relatively mild climate. The heavily forested area also offered ". . . miles of level or gently sloping . . . farmland . . . awaiting hoe and ax."[8] For those emigrating from Virginia where the tobacco planting regimen had already been established, migrants soon discovered that the complex and delicately timed process of sowing, topping, and picking tobacco could be accomplished in this temperate climate.[9] Similarly, the miles of easily navigated rivers and creeks offered quick and easy access to the Chesapeake Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean. For an economy dependent on access to international markets for sale of crops and purchase of consumer goods, the Chesapeake had much to offer. Historian Paul Clemens points out, the Eastern Shore "bore a marked resemblance to those regions of England to which commercialized agriculture had recently come."[10]

Lord Baltimore originally dreamed of forming stable communities in Maryland based on manorial relations of lord and tenant farmers.[11] In Kent County, Lord Baltimore was probably attempting to secure loyalty and control of the unruly Kent Island settlement through these manorial patents by giving considerable power to the manor lords he appointed.[12] But, it never appears that these manors functioned with full powers granted them, ". . . to enjoy within the said Mannor a Court Leet and Court Baron, with all things thereunto belonging, according to the most usual forme and custome of England."[13] Instead, local leadership and governance was granted to the local county structure, initially led by a Commander but, after 1658, led by the county court's justices and their underlings.

Despite Calvert's dream of establishing a manorial system with responsibility for local government structured into the manor, manors did not become the primary form of land tenancy or local government. Instead, the sluggish growth of Maryland's population, like Virginia's, required a more generous land grant system and a flexibility in laws that encouraged both freemen and indentured servants to immigrate. Baltimore's land grant system tried to encourage settlers to migrate with their families and servants not only for survival but to increase the population. After a decade of Maryland settlement, land grants were reduced to 100 acres, and later to fifty acres, for every adult and child over sixteen, including servants, who immigrated into the colony. Until 1663, freedom dues for male servants included fifty acres of land. Shrinking patent sizes can be attributed to the gradual reduction in good farming lands.[14] Planters hoping to settle large tracts of land were able to gain patent to land only through the importation of large numbers of servants. Importing a continuous supply of servants allowed settlers to expand their holdings as they gradually cleared and planted acreage. All of these factors combined to encourage the immigration of great numbers of servants.

Lord Baltimore's policy of religious toleration also made Maryland, and the Eastern Shore in particular, a desirable home for many. While initially established as a haven for Catholics, Lord Baltimore also opened the Maryland colony to dissenters. In 1648 he appointed a Protestant governor and issued an invitation to persecuted Puritans in Virginia to settle in Maryland. At least 400-600 moved to Maryland's western shore, especially in Anne Arundel County, and many of those later migrated to Kent Island. Many leaders who established themselves in Kent County in the early 1650s, including Robert Dunn, Thomas South, Joseph Wickes, Thomas Hynson, and the Ringgold and Coursey families, arrived with this migration.[15] Given the continuous upheaval with William Claiborne and the potential for divided loyalties, Baltimore wisely offered full participation to Protestant settlers. Claiborne's failure to achieve support during his tenancy in the 1650s may owe much to Baltimore's welcoming policy.[16]

Quakerism also flourished in the Maryland colony, first appearing after a visit by Elizabeth Harris in 1656. Early followers surfaced in Anne Arundel and Kent counties and, by 1660, Quaker meetings had been established on Kent Island and in Talbot County.[17] While Quakers in Maryland never faced the intense oppression that those in Virginia and New England did, the return of Proprietary control in 1658 witnessed a short-lived persecution. The Quaker refusal to swear oaths, serve in the militia, or even remove their hats in court, led to imprisonment and fines. Henry Carline, a large landowner on Kent Island and member of the local council was fined for failing to remove his cap as were Robert Dunn and Edward Coppedge for refusing to bear arms.[18] The "suffering" of Quakers in Maryland was relatively short-lived, however. By 1661 Charles Calvert, the Proprietor's son and new governor, was actively recruiting persecuted Quakers in Virginia to settle on the Eastern Shore. Several important early settlers in Talbot County appear to have been escaping Virginia's persecution of their faith.[19] That many Eastern Shore Puritans and Quakers became prominent landowners and officeholders attests to the success and validity of this policy of religious toleration.

Despite the steady immigration inspired by Baltimore's policies, the population grew very slowly in Maryland and in the Chesapeake region as a whole. Population growth in Kent County reflected this colony-wide problem. While the total numbers who immigrated to the settlement can not be clearly identified, one can get a sense of the population through rent rolls, county tax records, and compilation of land grants and servant registrations. When Robert Philpot, Claiborne's brother-in-law, was named captain of the island's military band in 1638, 120 men were identified as able to bear arms. Many of these men were servants, however.[20] The 1642 tax levy to raise funds for an expedition against local Indians threatening the island listed only seventy-one freemen on the island.[21] The 1652 tax levy of 2877 pounds of tobacco indicated a tithable population of sixty-four as forty-five pounds were levied against each tithable. While no definition of a tithable person exists in that year, ten years later they were defined as all males transported in at or over the age of ten.[22] On April 5, 1652 sixty-six men publicly proclaimed their oath of loyalty to the English Commonwealth, formed after the overthrow and execution of King Charles I in 1649. Of these sixty-six men, thirty-two made a mark instead of a signature indicating a high degree of illiteracy on the island.[23] A total of 330 "souls", which would have included tithables, women and children, are purported to have been present in 1652-1653.[24] By 1660 the population consisted of 600 persons and in 1671, despite the separation of Talbot from Kent County, the population was listed as 1000 people, including 257 tithables.[25]

More reflective of the growth of population and expansion of the community is an appreciation of the dispersal of the community over the land. When Kent Island first came under Calvert's control in 1638, it was listed as a hundred "'within the county of St. Mary's," and thus subject to the laws and government of the proprietary colony as directed from St. Mary's. The County was initially divided into two "hundreds," Fort Hundred at the lower end of island at Kent Fort and North East Hundred farther north. Most early settlers, especially those reconfirming their land patents, could be found in Fort Hundred.[26]

A review of the land claims, tax lists and local laws pertaining to transportation and local government show that, as the population grew and land was taken up, settlers moved eastward across the Kent Narrows and up the Chester River (see Figures 3,4,5). This growth was accompanied by the shifting of the county court and expanding transportation networks. County courts met monthly and attended to almost all of the business of local government. Imposition of taxes, appointment of local officials, debt disputes, applications for land grants, felony and misdemeanor trials, recording of cattle marks, and the registration of servants are among the important local issues attended to by the court. The Kent County Court, which functioned as the primary form of local government under the direction of the Commander with the assistance of county commissioners, sheriffs and constables, met in the homes of county commissioners for the first twenty years of Maryland settlement. In 1659 a court house was built at Broad Creek on land deeded by former servant, John Meconnicon, to the inhabitants. In 1674 the court was moved to Eastern Neck Island, and in 1679 it was again moved to land at New Yarmouth also on the northern side of the Chester River. Finally, in 1697 the Court was moved to Chestertown, where it still meets today.[27] The original pathways between plantations were gradually replaced by crude roads, although the yearly appointment of Overseers of Road did not begin until 1670.[28] In 1668 the Lord Proprietor ordered the establishment at Chester Point in the Chester River as ". . . a seaport, for the discharge and unloading of goods and merchaundizing out of ships." Ferry services also started to run between Kent Island and New Yarmouth.[29]

The settlement of Kent County was unique in many ways, especially given the long battle waged between William Claiborne and the Calverts. The fact that the earliest settlers came to the Eastern Shore as part of Claiborne's settlements may have affected their loyalties and this can be seen in the occasional passionate, but more often complacent, acceptance of Claiborne's reappearance on the island throughout the 1640s and 1650s. But, in many other ways, Kent County is representative of the settlement process as experienced throughout the Chesapeake region. Lord Baltimore's land grant system and policy of religious toleration appealed to settlers throughout the Maryland province. Similarly, the primacy of tobacco as a profitable cash crop and the importance of servitude to the acquisition of land and the successful cultivation of tobacco can be seen on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore's land grant system offered many English settlers the opportunity to establish themselves on considerable plots of land.[30] Indentured servitude also offered many poor or youthful English settlers the opportunity to travel to the colonies and, hopefully, establish themselves one day as independent landowners. But, the opportunity for independence and advancement was not guaranteed. Mortality rates were especially high in the seventeenth century and the strenuous work of carving out a plantation in relative wilderness was exhausting, if not lethal at times.

The process of community building was a complex one. What began with Claiborne's dream of a profitable trading post soon became a permanently established farming community closely tied to the international trade in tobacco. Beginning with Claiborne's imported workers and transplanted free settlers, the Kent County community grew throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first forty years of settlement were unstable in many respects, from the initial control and leadership of the colony, to the ongoing struggles between Claiborne and the Calverts. But the settlement on Kent Island, and later on the mainland, showed a great deal of persistence and continuity, both in population and leadership of the community.

The Kent County Court Records database was developed throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of the doctoral research for my dissertation, Household and Community: Kent County, Maryland, 1631-1676, (American University, 2004). Based primarily on records published in William Hand Browne's Archives of Maryland, including records from the 17th century Kent County Court, the Maryland General Assembly, the Council of Maryland, and the Provincial Court, the data presented was augmented by using land patents, wills and inventories. While the Kent County Court records are among the most complete for the earliest years of settlement, some gaps do exist and thus quantitative analysis is faulty at best. The Kent County records are available for the period 1648-1676 with three significant gaps totaling eleven years. There is a gap from February to December 1660 during the period of Fendall's Rebellion, from 1662 to 1667, and from 1672 to 1675. The records for the 1650s are the most complete for any of Maryland's early settlements.

In analyzing these land patents, Kent County and Provincial Court records, wills and inventories, it is possible to cast a new light on the Kent County settlement between 1631 and 1676. Over 1200 individuals who appeared in the colony can be identified, and it is possible to physically locate many on their land. Longevity of the population and continuity of leadership can be identified as can multiple connections between settlers and households. Court records reveal economic and social ties such as partnership agreements and complex debt relations, household visiting, and other social activities. They also show the community tried to protect residents' reputations and looked after widows and orphans. Wills and inventories further define the quality of relationships, both through the debt relations uncovered and the practice of leaving bequests to clearly identifiable friends and children. Drawing on English traditions, but adapting them to this frontier environment, seventeenth-century Kent County settlers created a fairly cohesive and stable society through local networks of exchange, mutual support, and shared values.


1 Kent Island is more frequently called "The Isle of Kent" during the colonial period.

2 Erich Isaac, "Kent Island: Part I: The Period of Settlement." Maryland Historical Magazine, 52 (2) 1957:103 (drawn from his doctoral dissertation "The First Century of Settlement of Kent Island" Johns Hopkins University, 1957). The name "Craford" can also be found with the spelling Crayford.

3 Fredric Emory, Queen Anne's County: Its Early History and Development. (Baltimore: Baltimore Historical Society, 1950), 4. (Originally published as a serial in the Centreville Observer 1886-1887). Isaac, 93.

4 Isaac, 94.

5 The "Delmarva peninsula" refers to the entire peninsula of land on the east of the Chesapeake Bay. Part is controlled by Delaware, part by Maryland, and part by Virginia, thus the monocre "del-mar-va."

6 During the period of settlement, the Wye River is called the St. Michaels River.

7 Clemens, The Atlantic Economy and Colonial Maryland's Eastern Shore: From Tobacco to Grain,( Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980) 44-47.

8 Clemens, 43.

9 Clemens, 43.

10 Clemens, 43-44.

11 Land Office Patent Records, Liber AB&H: 89; Donnell McClure Owings, "Private Manors: An Edited List" Maryland Historical Magazine, 33(4) (1938): 312-314.

12 Isaac, 211.

13 Archives of Maryland, 3: 47-48; Owings, 307.

14 Archives of Maryland, 1:97, 3:47-48.

15 Archives of Maryland, 54: xv-xviii.

16 David W. Jordan, "'God's Candle' within Government: Quakers and Politics in Early Maryland." William and Mary Quarterly, 39 (1982), 629-632.

17 Kenneth Carroll, Quakerism on the Eastern Shore. (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1970), 8-15, 24-25.

18 Carroll, 15-16.

19 Jordan, 631-632. Jordan also suggests that the new governor was making a ". . .calculated effort to broaden the proprietor's base of support and, in this instance especially, to bolster his claims to the disputed territory of the Eastern Shore."

20 Erick Isaac, "Kent Island: Part II: Settlement and Land Holding Under the Proprietary" MHM, 52, 2 (1957), 214.

21 Archives of Maryland, 54: 12.

22 Archives of Maryland, 1: 449.

23 Henry C. Peden, Inhabitants of Kent County, Maryland, 1637-1787. (Westminster, Md.:Family Line Publications, 1970.) 101.

24 Archives of Maryland, 4: 99, 121-124; George A. Hanson, Old Kent: The Eastern Shore of Maryland: notes illustrative of the most ancient records of Kent County, Maryland. and of the parishes of St. Paul's, Shrewsbury, and I.U., and geneological histories of old and distinguished families of Maryland, and their connections by marriage, &c., with an introduction. (Baltimore: Regional Publishing Co., 1967), 60.

25 Archives of Maryland, 54: 317.

26 Isaac, "Kent Island: Part II," 210-212.

27 Fred Usilton, History of Kent County, Maryland, 1630-1916, (n.p., 1916), 45.

28 Archives of Maryland, 54: 272.

29 Usilton, 5, 7, and 53.

30 In fact, presumably in an effort to increase the population and cultivation on the Eastern Shore, Lord Baltimore offered considerably larger patents to Eastern Shore settlers after 1665. Thereafter, patents often granted those who settled on the Eastern Shore twice as much land as those who settled on the Western Shore. Land Office Patent Record, Liber7.

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