Frenchtown

Frenchtown, Maryland, once played two unique roles in the nation’s early transportation history.

Frenchtown, Maryland, once located on the Elk River on the upper reach of the Chesapeake Bay, has long since disappeared. For a place that no longer exists — and which never really was a town — Frenchtown played two unique roles in the nation’s early transportation history.

Public Role

Despite its anonymity today, Frenchtown was very well known throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, from colonial period well into the mid-1800s, as an important transportation node. It linked major water and land routes between souther centers on the Chesapeake Bay (mainly Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland), and those to the north on the Delaware (mainly New Castle and Wilmington, Delaware). Over time, this axis became widely known simply as the “Frenchtown route.”

Frenchtown consisted only of a tavern/inn with a few outbuildings, and, most importantly, the Frenchtown Wharf on the northeast bank of the Elk River. For the better part of a century, the wharf was the major land/water nexus for transshipment of people and goods between the relatively shallow-draft Chesapeake Bay ships and the 16-mile-long New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike.

Because of Frenchtown’s prominence, it figured early in the long and contested planning for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. In 1804, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, noted engineer and architect, was appointed engineer for the canal. His first survey and proposal, submitted a year earlier, initially placed the Chesapeake terminus immediately southeast of Frenchtown Wharf, just above Perch Creek.

In the spring of 1813, two dramatically opposed events took place at Frenchtown. In late April, the British fleet, under Admiral Cockburn, burned ships at Frenchtown Wharf during raids on the upper bay. However, the importance of the town to transportation on the bay was made evident when less than two months later, in June, the first steamship route on the Chesapeake Bay was started between Baltimore and Frenchtown.

In 1831, the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad, arguable the nation’s first rail line, was built south of and parallel to the old New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike, further increasing the importance of the town to bay traffic.

Over the next few decades, however, the once popular Frenchtown route lost out to competitors. With the advent of rail lines running directly between Washington and Philadelphia via Baltimore, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal — finally built in 1829, approximately four miles south of Frenchtown on Back Creek — passengers and freight no longer had to change between ships and land-based vehicles as at Frenchtown. Ironically, the railhead and steamboat wharf for the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad was built at the site Latrobe has first chosen in 1803 for his canal terminus. By 1856, the Delaware Assembly had authorized the railroad to abandon the tracks from Bear to Frenchtown, and the once busy transit point began to be lost to history.

Secret Role

Through both peak and declining years (1830s to 1850s) Frenchtown also played an as yet not fully appreciated secret role as a station on the so-called Underground Railroad. Evidence of Frenchtown’s covert role as a transshipment point for slaves seeking freedom has been both overlooked and misunderstood. Misplaced credit has been given variously to Maryland’s other Frenchtown — located near Crisfield, on the bay’s lower Eastern Shore (see the account of James Lindsay Smith, below) — and to Frenchtown, New Jersey (see the account of Captain Daniel Drayton and the “Pearl Affair,” below). In their individual memoirs, Smith and Drayton simply cite “Frenchtown” — but not the state. In the context of their times, Frenchtown, Maryland, on the Elk River, clearly would have been understood as that of the “Frenchtown route.”

James Lindsay Smith

In May, 1838, James Lindsay Smith, along with two companions, one a sailor familiar with the bay, stole a small sailboat near Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River. The three slaves rowed and sailed, non-stop, for two days, coming ashore at night, “just South of Frenchtown.” They walked through the rest of the night and into the next day, via the Frenchtown and New Castle road, to New Castle. To their amazement, they were able to take a steamboat to Philadelphia and to freedom.

The time spent non-stop rowing and sailing to Frenchtown (two days and nights) and walking to New Castle (part of one night and into the next day) fits the geography for Frenchtown on the Elk River, but not the Frenchtown near Crisfield on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. While adverse winds and tides and poor navigation might conceivably make the short sail from the mouth of the Potomac to the lower Frenchtown take two days, it is highly improbable that they could have walked the approximately 130 miles to New Castle from there in one night. With the Elk River’s Frenchtown only 16 miles from New Castle and consisted with a two-day sail from the Potomac, it becomes the logical choice to fit the account.

The “Pearl Affair”

In April, 1848, Captain Daniel Drayton of Philadelphia hired Captain Edward Sayres, master of the schooner Pearl in an unsuccessful attempt to take more than 70 men, women and children slaves from Washington, DC, via the Chesapeake Bay and “Frenchtown,” for transit to Philadelphia. Unable to go north on the bay in the face of heavy north winds, the Pearl anchored at the mouth of the Potomac, just inside Point Lookout. There, the Pearl was overtaken by a posse from Washington on the steamboat Salem. Captains Drayton and Sayres, and First Mate Chester English, were arrested and taken back to Washington for trial. The slaves were returned to Washington for re-sale.

Frenchtown, New Jersey, located approximately 70 miles north of Philadelphia on the Delaware River, seems to have been generally accepted by researchers and other authorities as the Frenchtown cited by Drayton. However, in his memoirs, he mentions Frenchtown three times, but never mentions the state. A careful reading of the key passage in Drayton’s memoir and examination of the geography involved, along with an understanding of the historic role of Frenchtown on the Elk River, lead to the conclusion that the Frenchtown to which Drayton refers — and which would have been commonly understood at the time — is that of the popular “Frenchtown route.”

Specifically, when the Pearl was unable to sail up the bay “according to [the] original plan” due to heavy north winds, Drayton stated (page 31). “I urged Sayres to go to sea with the intention of reaching the Delaware by the outside passage. But he objected that the vessel was not fit to go outside (which was true enough) and that the bargain was to go to Frenchtwon.” Logically, looking only at his text, had Drayton meant Frenchtown, New Jersey, it would not have mattered, in the context of their discussion, whether Sayres took the Pearl north through the canal to the Delaware, or reached the Delaware via the outside route, to go on to Frenchtown, New Jersey; i.e. in the case of either passage, there would have been no reason for Sayres to add to the seaworthiness objection that “the bargain was to go to Frenchtown,” if Frenchtown had been that of New Jersey. The logical argument is moot, however. Geography itself precludes Frenchtown, New Jersey, as Pearl’s destination. The Delaware River is not navigable north above Trenton, New Jersey, to Frenchtown due to the rapids.

Harriet Tubman’s Advice Regarding the Elk River

Harriet Tubman, who personifies the Underground Railroad legacy, clearly was aware of the Elk River as a sanctuary passage, according to an interview given by 90-year-old ex-slave Jim Taylor in Baltimore in 1937. As a boy, probably in the 1850s, he worked on a tug with “colored crew,” hauling coal barges from Havre de Grace to St. Michaels, Maryland. Taylor said that on 5 July the “colored men decided to escape and go to Pennsylvania. (I was a small boy.) They ran the tug across the bay to Elk Creek and upon arriving they beached the tug on the north side and followed a stream that Harriet Tubman had told them about.

An Embarkation Point

The Smith and Drayton cases, spanning one of the key decades in the course of the Underground Railroad not only point to the covert role of Frenchtown as a special station on the path to freedom, these cases also provide clear evidence of the importance of the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and its mariners, both black and white, as Underground water routes and conductors. Moreover, it seems unlikely that these prominent cases are exceptions, especially with regard to Frenchtown. Perhaps other examples may yet be uncovered.

Just as Frenchtown itself was not a destination but a link between the water routes of the Chesapeake Bay and the land routes to the north, these implications of the importance of the Elk River’s Frenchtown should not be a terminus, but an embarkation point on the trail of further study into the role that this town and the bay’s waters played in the path to freedom.

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