Fountain Rock was a plantation about six miles south of Hagerstown, Maryland, from 1792 to 1825. In the antebellum years, the same site was home to the College of St. James (1841-1864), forerunner of today’s St. James School. Both the plantation and the college had slave histories that have seldom been explored. In a new report, I’ve written a fully documented history of slavery on this site, from its beginnings in the 1790s to the demise of slavery in the later nineteenth century. The nineteen-page report (linked here) lists individual names and includes many individual stories.
Slavery at Fountain Rock
The first people enslaved at Fountain Rock were probably brought to western Maryland from Kent County on the Eastern Shore. Their labor almost certainly built the plantation here in Washington County. By 1800, forty people were enslaved at Fountain Rock. In 1810, there were 49 slaves. Ten years later, 64 men, women, and children were enslaved at Fountain Rock, making it one of the largest slaveholdings in western Maryland. Because so many people were enslaved at Fountain Rock, it seems the housing for them included (unusually for western Maryland) a large two-story stone building. This structure was still standing on the grounds in 1919, and a photograph of it exists.
James Creek was one of those enslaved at Fountain Rock. Born about 1798, he had relatives living in Hagerstown. Physically, Creek struck people as looking like a Native American; he may have had some Native ancestry. He was a tall, lively, “talkative” young man, who stood up for himself amongst his peers. But like so many other enslaved people he adopted a different demeanor when dealing with his enslavers, with “a downcast look, and slow in his gait, and apparently humble in his manners when spoken to….” This was his survival mechanism. At Fountain Rock, Creek worked in the house as a “waiter”—that is, a servant whose tasks included serving food—and outdoors “in the garden.” On Sunday, April 21, 1816, eighteen-year-old James Creek took charge of his destiny and left Fountain Rock for freedom. Plantation owner Samuel Ringgold posted a $100 reward for Creek’s return. Whether Creek got safely away is unknown. We can assume there were other attempted escapes from Fountain Rock too, given the frequency of escapes in Washington County. (For more stories of people of enslaved at Fountain Rock, read my full report here.)
From Plantation to College
When the white owners of Fountain Rock fell on hard times in the 1820s, the slave community suffered even more severely, being sold and dispersed. Some of their stories survive in scattered records. Eventually the plantation grounds were sold to the Episcopal diocese of Maryland, to become the new College of St. James. Unfortunately, the church supported slavery, and some its priests and schoolmasters were even enslavers. Slavery continued at the College, though on a smaller scale.
The individual stories of African Americans who were enslaved at the College, and of free blacks who worked there, show us how complex life was for people of color in western Maryland before the Civil War. For example, a freeborn woman named Margaret, who worked for the College, had to cope with the fact that her first husband, an enslaved man, had been sold away to New Orleans and remarried there. After her second husband, a College waiter, died, Margaret wanted her employer, an Episcopal priest, to officiate at her third wedding. Although he was willing and sympathetic, the bishop of Maryland forbade it, on the grounds that Margaret’s first husband was still alive. This and other incidents from the history of the College illustrate the difficult interaction of slavery and freedom.
Legacy of Slavery
Descendants of the people enslaved at Fountain Rock, at St. James, and in the surrounding neighborhood still live in Hagerstown today. Nowadays the beautiful grounds of St. James School feature a memorial, dedicated in 2014, to the white family that owned Fountain Rock plantation and enslaved scores of people there. But there is no memorial to the enslaved. Even the cemeteries where both African Americans and whites were once buried on this site have been lost to modern building projects. My hope is that you’ll take the time to read about the people who once lived at Fountain Rock and St. James, not as masters and students, but because they had no choice about being there.