When I read Arthur Pierce Middleton's marvelous book, "Tobacco Coast, a Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era," I considered it a touchstone in understanding our past and the forces that initiated changes in the Chesapeake forever. When L. Eugene Cronin, then director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, offered to introduce us over lunch back in the mid-1990s, I was delighted at the unexpected opportunity.
Thus began my friendship with Pierce, which lasted more than two decades until his death on Oct. 18 at the age of 93.
Pierce was born in 1916 to Arthur and Olive Middleton, then living in Berwyn, MD. The family was descended from another Arthur Middleton, a young, radical patriot who was elected a delegate to Congress from Charleston, SC, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Once hostilities began, Middleton fought to defend Charleston, was captured by the British and imprisoned in England until 1781. Six years after his repatriation, he died at the age of 44.
Pierce Middleton's great-grandfather, Capt. Benjamin Franklin Newcomer, made his fortune shipping Maryland wheat flour to South America in his schooners, which then returned to the United States with cargoes such as coffee. When the Civil War broke out, Newcomer-a Confederate sympathizer-won a lucrative contract to victual Federal troops, then lost it when he refused to take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States.
The next awardee of this contract found himself without the right connections and was unable to supply the requisite flour. In the absence of modern disclosures, checks and balances, he simply subcontracted the work back to Newcomer. One of Newcomer's schooners in this trade was captured by the Confederates. It was sold at auction by a prize master, who on liquidating the spoils, knew that it was Newcomer's ship, and that he was a sympathizer. The money was put in a bank until the war was over, whereupon Newcomer reclaimed the amount and invested it all in the Southern Railroad.
Pierce Middleton was brought up by Sylvia, born an enslaved African American in 1853 at Leonardtown, MD. Sylvia remained a slave long after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation because Maryland, a Union state, did not pass a "Free" Constitution until about 1866. Much beloved, Sylvia stayed with the Middleton family for the rest of her life.
Pierce's grandfather was a patent attorney and businessman in Washington, D.C. He invested in a quarry near the mouth of Aquia Creek on the Potomac, where a soft stone was cut from exposed bedrock and used to build many of the capital's famous structures. The stone cut easily from the parent material, and could be shaped with normal steel tools, but on long exposure to weather, became increasingly hard and durable. Middleton marketed this material as "Aquia Freestone." The quarry cuts, Pierced informed me, can still be seen in the rock where they were mined. We talked about going out on a boat so he could show me the site, but never managed to find the time.
Pierce, whose father was a Chesapeake yachtsman, recalled proudly the skills thus given him, and his joy in the 1920s of cruising a then-unspoiled Bay.
Young Pierce was industrious and cautious in the Great Depression era when currencies were unstable and converted his savings to gold coins. When he graduated from high school in 1932, he chose to be educated abroad, and even funded his own steamer ticket to Scotland for $90.
He matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, where he had originally planned to major in physics. He was mentored by an Edinburgh historian, though, and switched his major to history. During these years his first sport of choice, being trim and quick on his feet, was fencing. He also negotiated for access to the 18th century Archer's Hall, where the Royal Company of Archers-active since 1676-trained. He started an archery club at Edinburgh, and soon mastered the English longbow as well.
Pierce returned to the United States, where he pursued his graduate studies at Harvard University, where he was noticed, and mentored by Samuel Eliot Morison, New England's premier maritime historian. Pierce announced that for his Ph.D. dissertation, he wanted to write a maritime history of the Chesapeake. Morison was skeptical, considering the effort he'd put into his Massachusetts history. The dissertation manuscript turned into "Tobacco Coast" and was published in 1953 by the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, VA.
Middleton once joked that the original print run of 2,000-3000 copies "took decades to sell." A recent Google search of the title produced 1,060,000 entries. Johns Hopkins Press reissued this volume in 1984 as a softcover; it is still in print.
While still at Harvard, the threat of war increased and a call went out to young men in the graduate school, asking them to come forward if they had special skills that might be useful to the nation. Pierce immediately stood to that call. When he was asked what he could do, he announced, "Sir, I can sail. I am an archer and a fencer." To this the official replied: "Those skills would be valuable, Middleton, if we were again fighting the War of 1812!"
The senior Arthur Middleton, like many boaters, donated his family's yacht as a coastal patrol boat during World War II, and it was put into service in the New York Bight, searching for Nazi submarines attempting to breach the harbor defenses.
I'm not sure how this came about, but Pierce, commissioned as a U.S. Coast Guard officer, ended up captaining the vessel he'd grown up sailing. "We would motor out on station, then sail on a prescribed pattern of courses, and under sail, we could listen for Jerry subs and they couldn't hear us. There was a brigantine (a classic two-masted vessel, square-rigged on her foremast) serving on these patrols and I always wanted to captain her, but never could get the chance."
When these civilian vessels-occasionally-made contact with Nazi subs, they radioed the Coast Guard, and dirigibles patrolling the shipping lanes were able to sink their enemies with depth charges. One of these submarines was only recently found off the New Jersey coast.
Pierce married Jane Day Scofield in 1943. It was a happy marriage that lasted many decades until Jane's death, when he was in his 80s, and left him bereft.
After the war, with Morison's recommendation, Pierce became director of research at Colonial Williamsburg, a position he retained for 14 years. At one point, while traveling in England, he was invited to high tea with Queen Elizabeth II. The invitation was one of his cherished mementos.
Though he was not on the front line of combat, the stress of wartime brought Middleton closer to his roots in the Episcopal Church. Once in civilian life, he remained close to the church, becoming a lay reader at Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church. Soon he was a regular and later read services as a lay vicar at an outlying chapel founded in the 1660s. He became the first deacon ordained there since 1663. As his tenure lengthened at Colonial Williamsburg, his heart leaned more and more to his faith.
Pierce took Holy Orders, and beginning in 1960, served as rector of St. James Church in Barrington, MA. He rose to canon of the Episcopal Church. He retired after 20 years' service. In retirement, he wrote a definitive history of the Anglican Church in Maryland, 1692-1792, in tribute to the institution he served for decades.
Pierce was also chaplain for the Society of the Ark and the Dove, an organization of families descended from Maryland's first settlers since 1634. He was made, and remains, "honorary rector in perpetuity" of the ancient chapel at Jamestown Fort, where the colony was started. He was thus successor in a long line back to the Rev. Robert Hunt, who died before his time in 1608, a much-admired peacemaker in the fractious young English settlement.
I thought it auspicious that he went to meet his maker on a Sunday, a day he honored each week with a short homily or sermon.
Pierce never lost his keen edge for history and visits to his home always included his sharing of knowledge and items from his past. In 1993, he told me that he planned to live until it was determined that tobacco-he'd smoked in a pipe for 50 years-and caffeine were good for one's health.
I was able to return his hospitality in November 2000, when I invited him to my home and put him in touch with some of the people who appreciated his work. These included Edward Wright Haile annotator of "Jamestown Narratives" and J. Court Stevenson at the University of Maryland, who have stood upon Pierce Middleton's shoulders in advancing historical knowledge of the Bay.
Pierce did not want to remain alone after his wife, Jane, passed away. "I had wonderful years with Jane, and I'm not ready to be alone" he said with a twinkle, "I'm still just too vital." Well into his 80s, he started looking around for a new partner and in 2004, he married Lucy Corbett, a neighbor, who survives him. He is also survived by three of his children with Jane: two sons Geoffrey and Mark, and a daughter, Pamela.
At 92, he collaborated with Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City, a Maryland state museum associated with neighboring St. Mary's College, on a publication about John Lewger, the first secretary to the early Maryland colony-as well as a Middleton ancestor.
Despite his pedigree as a maritime historian and sailor, Pierce never sailed aboard one of the replica square-rigged ships representing those that shaped the Chesapeake's colonization and its pivotal tobacco trade. Two years ago, Capt. Will Gates and I planned to get him aboard the 17th century replica Maryland Dove. "I regret that I must confine myself close to home" he said, and quipped, "Make me admiral of the Maryland Dove instead."
I will miss his wisdom and wit.