Poplar Grove Plantation
By David Armenti
Poplar Grove was a vast estate in Queen Anne's County that was held continuously by the Emory family for over 300 years. Researchers from Washington College and the Archives have recently unearthed thousands of documents from the property, which span nearly that whole period. These materials comprise Maryland State Archives Special Collections, (The James Wood Poplar Grove Collection) MSA SC 5807. Much of the salvaging and early investigations of the material can be found at the project's blog. The array of personal, political, and business correspondence provide a fascinating portrayal of the family's activities, especially in the 19th century. As wealthy members of the Eastern Shore aristocracy,the Emorys and Tilghmans have much to contribute to our study of slavery in five of the region's counties, including Queen Anne's.
As the bulk of the Poplar Grove Collection has been scanned and made available online, we have begun to look into the range of activities and individuals that affected African-American lives during that time. These documents have illuminated our understanding of: the pursuit/capture of fugitive slaves, fugitive slave/free black communities in New Jersey, hiring out of slaves to deep South plantation owners, opinions on how to solve the "problem" of free African-Americans' presence in Maryland through Liberian colonization or forced expulsion. Poplar Grove residents and their acquaintances candidly discuss their roles in such activities, which concerned a vast majority of Eastern Shore whites during the antebellum period.
The diverse sampling of documents found in Series 13, has been a valuable starting point for this investigation. One of the more fascinating topics is John Tilghman's ambitious experiment with renting slaves to the growing cotton plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. While many Eastern Shore slave holders were deciding to sell their chattel outright in the early to mid 19th century, Tilghman instead employed a different strategy which seemed to result in more frustration than economic success. There are numerous examples of correspondence (pp. 170 - 190) with his southern agent Samuel Grayson, regarding costs, disputes with planters, and the health/condition of the slaves themselves. This series also provides insight into the flight of slaves from Poplar Grove and other surrounding plantations (pp. 45, 128, 194). The Emorys/Tilghmans maintained a close network of family and business associates throughout the mid-Atlantic region that kept them abreast of potential fugitives, particularly in the black communities of southern New Jersey.
Thomas Emory was one of the patriarchal figures at Poplar Grove from the 1820's to 1840's, a period that saw great upheaval regarding the social status of slaves and free African-Americans on the Eastern Shore. As a large slave holder and a state senator, he had a huge role in the debates of that time and expressed his opinions quite forcibly in his 1837 "Report on Governor's Message, Abolition" (Series 13, p. 241). Free blacks, whose numbers were rapidly increasing, came to be seen as an evil force that was categorically incompatible with the existence of slavery. They were blamed for the discontentment of formerly happy slaves, who were "enticed" to escape their benevolent masters. The rebellion in Virginia led by an enslaved man named Nat Turner fueled much of the fear that was already prevalent among Maryland whites. Thomas Emory's papers, Series 4, are similarly significant to our study of these issues. He corresponded with business acquaintances as far away as New Jersey, sharing information about potential fugitive slaves and the problems posed by free African-Americans (pp. 271, 283, 474 - 480).
During the late 1820's to early 1830's, many solutions were proposed by whites for this segment of the population. These included laws that would limit the ability of owners to bestow freedom, as well as expel all free blacks from the state and/or send them to the Liberia Colony in West Africa. As a state legislator, Thomas Emory was one of many recipients of a petition by Queen Anne's residents, requesting that the Liberia Colonization plan be expanded along with the "binding out" of poor free children, rather than forcing blacks out and restricting manumissions (Series 13 - p. 262). The state did in fact promote colonization and adopted variations of these ideas into law over the next few years, though Emory's exact role in process is undiscovered as of yet.
If you would like to assist in document transcription, or research of issues/individuals mentioned here, please contact Allison Seyler at email@example.com.
Research on the Poplar Grove Collection has been made possible in part by a grant from the US Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural Program with additional support from Washington College and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
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