Land is a part of the Chesapeake’s glory yet is often intertwined with its problems. Even small parcels have long pedigrees and have been caught up in world events.
After establishing the Maryland Colony in 1634, Cecilious Calvert Lord Baltimore parceled out the right to occupy the land to his favorites. His lordship, meanwhile, retained the title to the land.
In 1642, England was plunged into a three-year Civil War, and in 1645, a well-armed ship full of anti-Royalist soldiers sailed into St. Mary’s River “bringing with them the fire of the English Civil War,” said historian Tim Riordan, author of “The Plundering Time.” They ravaged the colony until Gov. Leonard Calvert arrived with troops and restored order in 1646. There might only have been 100 settlers left at the end of it all.
Leonard Calvert sickened and died in June 1647. Lord Baltimore, preoccupied with the war in England, had a hard time managing the colony and did not issue another grant until after 1649. This time frame coincided with the defeat of King Charles I and his forces in 1647, and his subsequent beheading on a scaffold in sight of Parliament on Jan. 30, 1649.
Under the reign of the Roundhead Parliament, the succeeding Lord Baltimore could still grant land, but had lost the right to govern. This continued until the Restoration in 1659, when the dead monarch’s son, Charles II, announced a general amnesty on his triumphal return to London on May 29, 1660.
Nominally Protestant, Charles II was sympathetic to Catholicism and the Maryland Calverts had an easier time of it.
Maryland’s next decade was a peaceful interlude. Known for its tolerance, the colony was described as “a good poor man’s country” where the fruits of one’s labor could improve one’s station. Land from the provincial government provided fertile ground for such initiative, something that was unavailable to commoners in England. It was during this time that parcels along St. Leonard Creek, principal tidal tributary to the Patuxent River began to be settled.
Court Stevenson, a University of Maryland researcher, says that a settler usually squatted on the land until it was cleared and farmed, then sought a patent to formalize tenancy on the lord proprietor’s lands. Once this was given, the occupant had to come up with six shillings hard coin to be paid each Michaelmas (Sept. 29) at St. Mary’s City. This was no small challenge in a province where tobacco was the predominant barter currency.
In 1651, Thomas Thomas received land that was recorded on the margin of the Provincial Land Records under the name of Thomasville.
No one considered the claims of the former Native American occupants. The remains of earlier inhabitants: oyster shell, charcoal from a campfire and food scraps have been discovered at a site atop the cliff overlooking the creek and cove.
Land often changed hands in early Maryland. A portion of Thomas’ parcel lying along a small cove on St. Leonard Creek seems to have been transferred for a stiff price: The new owner called it Dear Bought!
In 1669, Jerome White, Esq., surveyor general, measured off 200 acres from Dear Bought on behalf of Henry Osborn, which “runneth for breadth sixty two perches to a bounded white oak standing at the mouth of a Cove called Osborns Cove,” the name this little embayment retains to this day.
After the American Revolution, the federal government met with the Calvert family in complex negotiations that ended their land rights in the former colony, after which parcels would be transferred outright. To this day the state retains a commissioner of patents, presently Dr. Edward Papenfuse, whose duty is to apply scholarship and settle questions that still arise from Charles’ time. These conflicts can be very serious, hotly contested and expensive.
In 1814, the creek and adjacent lands witnessed the largest Chesapeake naval engagement in the War of 1812 as Joshua Barney’s bargemen fought the British up and down this tributary. One remnant of these engagements is a cannonball that lodged in land above Osborn Cove.
Two years after the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war in 1817, the land adjacent the cove was sold to Augustus Sollers, an influential Congressman.
Interest in the Patuxent as a navigational route and harbor for shipping over the next two decades brought mapmaker R.D. Cutts from the U.S. Coast Survey and the cove was first mapped on its Mouth of the Patuxent River, Maryland published 1848, the best map of the region since John Smith’s.
The economy of Southern Maryland, where there was great Confederate sympathy, was devastated during the U.S. Civil War.
Somerville Sollers, (probably) son of Augustus, left to serve in the Army of the Confederacy. In the 1930s, a broken Confederate bayonet and a pistol bullet mold—perhaps his—were found near Osborn Cove.
Somerville was County Clerk in 1882 when the Calvert County Courthouse burned. He heroically saved all of the records, dating back to 1654, only to see them lost later in a second fire that destroyed the building where he had moved them for safety. The family name survives in Sollers Wharf Road, running along St. Leonard Creek, to the former steamer wharf and an adjacent store of the same name.
Farmland, especially tobacco land, was still a valuable commodity after the war. Agriculture resumed, with the subdivision of land into smaller parcels from generation to generation. Sarah A. Lemmon sold land in 1867 to Edwin Arnold whose heirs sold 150 acres on one side of Osborn Cove to William Wilson, which he called Rawlins Discovery.
The land was in the hands of William Warren Gantt at the turn of the 20th century. Gantt had built a small cottage on Sollers Wharf Road, a distance from the cove, but considered it too good to live in and left it empty while he stayed in a one-room windowless outhouse nearby. According to author Hulbert Footner, Gantt was a much disliked blowhard fond of flashing a roll of bills, even though he had no significant money.
About 93 acres of the land, bordering Osborn Cove on its south side, was transferred for $300 from Gantt to Albert “Lee” King, 34, the deed recorded in February 1905. King was described as “a kind and peaceful young man, and was liked by all who knew him.”
The land might have been a dowry for A.L. King’s new bride, Mary E. Gantt, who was William Gantt’s sister. The financially strapped Kings mortgaged this waterfront farmland to Joseph J. Bafford for the next three years at $100 per year.
Albert King’s farm fields were small; two running right to the cliff’s edge. He also erected a planked shed using beams rough hewn with a broadax to store his horse– or mule-drawn plow, cultivator and harnesses, that still stands today.
Most of the Kings’ land was in woodland, full of American chestnuts. Fred Jefferson, who lives nearby, says that his grandfather gathered these from the forest floor for a nickel a bucket. They were taken to Baltimore, where they were roasted and hawked on the streets.
King also had a canoe, moored in Osborn Cove—which he worked seasonally as an oyster tonger—and a small skiff used to get to the canoe. The remains of a wrecked, three-log canoe were found in the cove around 1977.
King struggled to build a house for his wife, a small frame structure, with a foundation of stone and logs hewn flat on one side with broadax. The rest of the house was built with rough sawn oak and pine. A little tower with six windows looking out to the creek stood on one end of the house. This Victorian touch was Mary’s point of pride in the place.
With limited income, patched together in a barter economy, the house was a slow-growing project. By winter 1906, the kitchen, with a wood-fired stove, was finished. The place was jury-rigged and the floor joists were spaced at two or three different intervals. There would be an upstairs, but there was no need to rush, as the Kings were still childless.
When ice forms on the cove, the crystals squeeze out salty brine, creating a spongy ice. On Feb 1, 1907, Lee King launched his skiff, breaking through this spongy ice on his way out to the canoe. He sailed out of the cove, tonged up enough oysters for supper and, near dark, returned to his moorings. Unbalanced by a bucket of oysters he stepped down into the little skiff to go ashore. It heeled from the weight and threw him, heavily dressed, into the icy water.
His cries reached the house and Mary came running down the bank. The ice was too firm to allow him to swim, just 50 feet, to shore, but too weak to bear his weight. It collapsed each time he tried, clothes weighing him down, to heave himself up. The water around February is 37°F. He was rapidly overcome and Mary helplessly watched in horror as he sank beneath the surface and was drowned.
King’s body was recovered and the following Sunday afternoon he was interred at Island Creek Methodist Episcopal Church five miles up the Patuxent. It’s reported that his funeral was largely attended. His friend and fellow farmer, J. Walter Fowler, eulogized him in a poem that was later published:
“Farewell, dear Lee, again farewell
Soon we shall rise to thee;
And when we meet no tongue can tell
How great our joy shall be.
The home is sad and lonely
Since he has left us here alone
When we think he has gone forever,
Never to return…
Yet again we hope to meet thee
When the day of life has fled,
When in heaven with joy to greet thee,
Where no farewell tear is shed.”
Mary sold off two parcels of land for $25 and $325 that summer and then lived alone in the unfinished house for more than three decades. “Running water,” as a later owner described it, "came on two feet," from a hand pump and well at the bottom of the cliff.
Mary King, 54, appears in the 1930 Census. A neighbor, Julius Parran, told of riding over through deep snow to make sure the widow was OK in her isolation. She emerged, he said, covered head to toe in soot but pulled up a sleeve to show him: “Mr. Parran, underneath all this I’m as pink as any other woman!”
In 1938, Gantt’s habit of flashing his money caught up with him. Two teenage boys and their girlfriends decided to rob him, and when he did not produce the money, they shot him five times and left his the body propped up against an apple tree in his yard.
The four, who had stolen Gantt’s car, were soon caught in Fredericksburg, VA. A 1938 coroner’s report records that the boys were sentenced to life in prison. The girls, who’d turned themselves in, got lesser sentences; one, years later, would even chaperone school field trips.
Gantt’s money was found in a paper bag in a nearby barn where he’d stashed it.
King who at this point was not only alone but terrified, began to carry a shotgun wherever she went.
Shortly after Gantt’s murder, David Allen, a friend of the McQueens, a family living across Osborn Cove, concluded that the creek would be a better place for his wife and children than the urban Washington, D.C. area. He slowly befriended King, and she eventually agreed to sell for $11,000.
When Allen and a lawyer arrived by land, though, Allen had to stay at the hilltop while the lawyer slowly walked down calling, “Mrs. King! Mrs. King!” to avoid an unexpected shotgun blast.
Sales to country people then were often in cash and that’s how this transaction was concluded, the stacks of bills given to her in a paper bag. Dave Allen agreed to drive King to the 30th Street train station in Washington, D.C. where she would catch a train to return to her remaining family in Baltimore. He pulled up at a red light coming into town and she asked, in irritation, “Why have you stopped?” She had never seen a traffic light in her 62 years!
Once on the train, she traveled out of the Allens’ life but the story filtered back that she’d found Baltimore so changed and frightening that she’d shut herself up in a rented room. They found her dead there with the paper bag and $11,000 in cash, untouched.
What sadness it must have been for her to leave her home, so embedded in everything she did. On departing, she made it known that her little Victorian tower bore a curse upon anyone who would spoil or remove it.
The little house is now 100 years old. I have lived here with the little tower, ever mindful of Mary King’s curse, for a third of a century.