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Delmarva Heritage Series

* John Bordley, Agriculturist

Salisbury Times - May 22, 1958

One of the many famous old families of Maryland, which played prominent roles in the development of both the state and the nation, was that of the Bordleys. Thomas Bordley, the first of this great family in Maryland, came from Yorkshire, England in 1694. By 1712 he had reached such prominence that he was holding the office of attorney general for Maryland. Bordley 

married twice, his first wife being Rachel Beard of Annapolis. In 1723, a year after her death, he married Ariana Vanderheyden, a granddaughter of the famous Augustine Herrman of Bohemia Manor.

By his first wife, Thomas had a son, Stephen, who besides becoming an excellent lawyer, was one of the wealthiest and best educated men in the colony. Libraries during this period were few and meager even in Annapolis but Stephen Bordley's was an exception for he maintained a fine collection of books. The story is told that Stephen, who trained such famous Marylanders in the field of law, like Samuel Chase, William Paca, and Thomas Johnson, almost discouraged his half-brother, John Beale Bordley, by taking him in to his rather large library and saying, "there, Beale, when you have read through all those books, you may then practice the law."

Besides having good taste in books, Stephen Bordley maintained a fashionable home in Annapolis. Although it was a bachelor's abode, it was well furnished and the table he set was the talk of the colony. There was an abundance of excellent wines in the cellar, and his letters show that he frequently ordered a "pipe of your best Madria, cost what it will," or a cask of champagne, or a cask or two, or a few dozen Burgundy. It is any wonder that the judges were always made a point of dining with this gentleman when they were in Annapolis?

The member of the Bordley family who achieved the greatest influence in American history was not Stephen, but his half-brother, John Beale Bordley, the agriculturist. John was born in February, 1727, four months after his father's death. His mother remarried for the third time and the young boy did not have a pleasant home life. So at the age to ten, he went to live with his uncle in Chestertown. He received his early education under the direction of schoolmaster, Charles Peale, the father of the later famous American painter, Charles Wilson Peale. It is noteworthy that in later life, John Beale Bordley arranged for Peale to study in England under the famous Benjamin West. Bordley, with the aid of others, saw to it that Peale had enough money for at least two years of study. Peale later painted four portraits of John Bordley, and also a picture of his two sons, Thomas and Matthias.

At seventeen, John went back to Annapolis to live with and study under his half-brother, Stephen. Before practicing law, however, he spent more time in studying history, philosophy, mathematics, surveying, and other fields of the arts and sciences.

Shortly after his marriage to Margaret Chew in 1750, John felt it necessary to break away from the luxurious and fashionable society of his brother's world in Annapolis. He and his young wife went to live at Joppa, then in the "wilderness" of Baltimore County. For the next 12 or 13 years he worked his plantation and at the same time held a most lucrative clerkship, for Joppa at the time was the county seat. Later he moved to Baltimore City, where he was appointed a judge of the Provincial Court in 1766, and in the following year, a judge of the British Admiralty Court. In 1768, he had been one of the commissioners to help determine the boundary between Maryland and Delaware (some say Pennsylvania), and also served as a member of Governor Sharpe's and Governor Eden's Councils.

The year 1770 was of great importance in the life of John Beale Bordley for his wife inherited from the Chew family half of Wye Island - the other half going to his sister-in-law, Mary, wife of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of Maryland. Although the Bordleys maintained their winter residence in Annapolis, they moved to his beautiful estate on Wye Island in Queen Anne's County.

For many years he was able to devote much of his time and wealth to agrarian experiments. From time to time he added to his holdings with the purchase of Poole's Island and farms on the mainland in Kent, Harford, and Cecil Counties. He farmed on a large scale and endeavored to improve practices of agriculture with the aid of imported machinery, seeds, and books on husbandry. It was because of his farming practice on Wye Island and on his other farms that Bordley became widely influential in the field of agriculture in this period of American history. Bordley personally conducted what amounted to an agricultural experiment station on Wye Island.

Although tobacco had long been the basis of the Maryland economy with wheat and flax which he proved to the other farmers could be grown successfully. He also condemned the two and three field rotation system in favor of an eight field system, which included three fields of clover in the rotation plan. Thus, even without the aid of chemistry, he had hit upon the contribution of legumes to the soil. He also experimented with hemp, cotton, fruits, many kinds of vegetables, and animal husbandry.

Before long, the wharves that he had built at his plantation were busy for he had established a profitable wheat trade with England and Spain. However, despite the fact he had made a small fortune from this trade when the Townsend Duties were passed by England against the colonies, Bordley showed his patriotism by abiding with the policy of non-importation. Historian Scharf, quoting from memoirs of the Bordley family says, "When his foreign beers, wines, porters, ales, etc., began to diminish in his cellars, he started a brewery of his own, and planted a vineyard. He ground his own flour in his own windmills; made his own brick in his own brickyard and kiln; clothed his own servants in kersey and linsey woolsey, manufactured by his own looms from led, spun and wove his own flax; rotted and twisted hemp grown on his far in his won rope-walk; did his own carpentering and blacksmithing, and had his own private granary for the ships. When this independent Maryland farmer's beer was fermented, he put it away in casks made by his own carpenters, from timber cut down out of his own woods, and he even manufactured his own salt, from the Chesapeake Bay water, rather than be dependent upon Great Britain for anything."

And when the Revolutionary War broke out, Bordley continued his personal fight with Great Britain. Poole's Island early became an important base for sending supplies to General Washington's army and other military units. And although he had gone to Annapolis at the beginning of the war, because of the danger of British raids on the Eastern Shore, he returned to Wye Island in 1778 to raise provisions for the American army. Shortly thereafter the British Tories and army stragglers attacked his plantation, but luckily they were driven off by the militia before much damage was done.

In the meantime Bordley's first wife had died, and in 1777 he married Mrs. John Miffin, a widow of Philadelphia. From that time on the Bordley family wintered in Philadelphia instead of Annapolis. He soon became a member of the famous American Philosophical Society. In, 1785 he made probably his greatest contribution to development of American agriculture by encouraging the formation of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, of which he was vice president and actively interested until his death. Although this society was not the first of its kind, (the South Carolina Agricultural Society specializing in rice culture was organized in 1784), it was by far the most influential in promoting general agriculture. The Society's voluminous Transactions presented the results of the members' experimentation in agriculture. Bordley himself made important contributions with his writings about agriculture. At first the results of his farming operations and studies were published on cards, then on handbills, and as essays, before coming out in book form. Some of these works are A summary View Of The Courses of Crops, In The Husbandry of England and Maryland (1784) and Sketches on Rotations of Crops and Other Rural Matters (1797). His famous book Essays and Notes on Husbandry and Rural Affairs, published in 1799, with additions in 1801, contains 566 pages describing a system of farming based on rotation of crops and deals with the several kinds of crops, fruits, and animals grown on England and Maryland farms, manures, farm buildings, dairy products, food, and even the diet for farm people. Although the style of writing is clear and practical, some of the advice would seem strange to us today - "threshing wheat by driving 24 horses in four ranks around a large threshing floor until they traveled 25 miles."

Bordley also had the time and knowledge to write on such other subjects as yellow fever, manufacturing, national credit, money, weights and measures, the last three topics being published in 1789 with a supplement coming out in 1790.

Bordley, who died in 1804 and was buried in St. Peter's Churchyard in Philadelphia, has been characterized as a "beneficent, vigorous and original" man. His tombstone is engraved with these words - "...of probity and integrity unblemished - As a Philanthropist, Patriot, and Man, Equaled by few, Excelled by none." Many may dispute his right to such high praise, but none can dispute John Beale Bordley's right to be placed among America's foremost agriculturists.

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