Dorchester is known as the “Heart of Chesapeake County” for its shape that is similar to a heart. It is centrally located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and has always been a popular stopping point for those traveling between the Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. This may be part of the reason that the county grew quickly when it was first settled, because it was an excellent place for trading, and the many waterways made transporting goods up and down the East Coast easy.
Lord Baltimore, a member of the Calvert family, founded Dorchester County in 1669. It was named for Sir Edward Sackville, The Earl of Dorset. In 1667, Governor Calvert sent an armed militia to what is now Dorchester. He wanted the militia to try to get the native tribe of Nanticoke Indians to surrender and agree to live peacefully with the settlers. Many people are not aware that originally Dorchester County was a lot larger. In fact, part of Sussex County, Delaware and all of Caroline County, Maryland were part of Dorchester, In 1773, Caroline County broke off and became its own county, making Dorchester less than half of its original size.
In 1683, commissioners were appointed to lay out towns in Dorchester County. Streets and alleys were designed in long square formations. Houses had to be at least 20 feet square, and had to be built by August of 1685. The very first town built and recognized was Cambridge, in 1684. It was officially named in 1686.
Warehouses were built in almost every town for imports and exports from the Old World. Most towns settled along the many rivers and waterways that make up the current borders of the county. The town of Vienna had a ferry across the Nanticoke River but did not get a public warehouse until 1762. Other towns that were originally settled include Galestown, East New Market and Hurlock. Hurlock was the largest of the northern towns, at one point boasting two hotels and many thriving canneries and factories. To the south, Dorchester was made up of many islands. Some of them are still populated today, such as Taylor’s and Hooper’s Islands. Other islands such as Hog Island and Holland Island are no longer inhabitable, and many have vanished into the Chesapeake Bay with the many storms and high tides the county has seen. However, the southern parts of the county have been an important part of the areas’ history and growth. The first courthouse was in Fishing Creek, built on a plantation. It was used from 1673-1687, when Cambridge built a courthouse and became the center of county activity.
When people first think of Dorchester County, they often think of occupations and goods that come from our many waterways. However, Dorchester County has a much broader history. When it was first settled, the county was known for fur trading – something that is still celebrated at the annual Outdoor Show in Golden Hill. Tobacco and lumber were also heavily harvested and traded when the area was first settled. A large amount of the lumber trade took place in the southern part of Dorchester County, and remnant of lumber mills still remain there today. Boats for the many water activities have always been a large part of our tradition. Many boats were built in the Native American way. Mr. Jim Richardson, from the Hudson area, was a renowned boat builder. In fact, he built a replica of the “Dove” which is one of the two boats that brought the first Maryland settlers to the New World. A small museum in Cambridge is named for him.
Five Maryland Governors have hailed from Dorchester County. John Henry and Henry Lloyd are two of them, as is Thomas Holliday Hicks, who is buried in a small cemetery on the banks of the Little Choptank in Cambridge. Hicks was from Vienna, and served as Governor during the Civil War. When you travel between Talbot and Dorchester County, the old bridge across the Choptank which now serves as a state-run fishing pier is named for another Maryland Governor. His name was Emerson C. Harrington.
Dorchester County has also been home to many other famous and important historical figures. Patty Cannon lived on the Northern border of the county, along the Maryland and Delaware state lines. She was a slave trader and leader of a slave trading gang that kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slaves. Meanwhile, Harriet Tubman, known as the “Moses of her people” was leading blacks to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Tubman was born into slavery on a farm near Bucktown in the 1820’s. She also served as a Civil War spy and nurse, and fought for the rights of both blacks and women. In 1912, Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler built a home in Cambridge. Oakley was known for her skills as a sharpshooter and member of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. It is rumored that she used to shoot birds over the river from the second story windows of her house!
Today, people come to Dorchester for many reasons. Some people come to see the ducks, deer, and other wildlife at places like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Others visit to see and sometimes participate in the many events held here such as triathlons. Our watermen are still hard at work harvesting crabs and oysters to be enjoyed by many. In some ways, Dorchester remains as first described, a “garden of Eden” with its natural beauty and plentiful resources but in other ways, the area has grown and changed, just as the tides have changed the county.
Rebecca C. Brault
Frontier Girls Troop #350
Foley, A.M. and Gloria Johnson-Mansfield: “Images of America: Dorchester County”. Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
Jones, Elias: “New Revised History of Dorchester County Maryland”. Tidewater Publishers, 1966.
mdgenweb.org : online.
visitdorchester.org : online.