The Shore's First Settlers
May 01, 2018 12:00AM ● Published by Brian Saucedo
Photography by Robin Harrison
In 2012, the Rackliffe House Trust opened a restored 1742 seashore manor home to the public, the first one of its kind along the mid-Atlantic coast. This once-magnificent mansion on Sinepauxent Bay, adjacent to Assasteague National Seashore, had been abandoned and fallen into such ruin that it seemed a pile of rubble would soon be its demise. Enter Tom Patton of Berlin, Maryland, a noted and award-winning heritage preservationist, who thought otherwise.
For many years prior to its restoration, the old estate was publicly-owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Patton saw an opportunity to restore the wreck into an educational example of what life was like on the seashore in Colonial Maryland. He formed the Trust, raised the money, and Rackliffe was resurrected as the Rackliffe Plantation House Museum—restored by the skilled hands of local artisans, such as members of the Widgeon family.
The manor house was originally built by a grandson Charles, named after his grandfather, the first Rackliffe, and was a must stop for merchant ships in the Atlantic trade. They delivered fine fabrics and furniture to this home of elegance and provisioned it with livestock, salt, and shingles.
The Atlantic trade was brisk on this site until a hurricane in 1818 silted in Sinepauxent Bay and closed it forever to deep-drafted ships. Fortunately, the nearby Philadelphia Post Road had opened some years earlier, but trading by sea was over.
During the early years of the New World’s settling, the area was teeming with wildlife, fish, and forest, yet was isolated, out of sight, and out of mind to mainstream colonists in town centers. It would take 60 years with no seeming source of income before substantial brick homes would be built. There were three of them in close proximity: Genesar, built in 1732 by Mr. Purcell, who married a daughter of Rackliffe, would become a National Historic Landmark in 1971, but was privately owned, eventually abandoned, and later vandalized; The Fassitt Home, built in 1730, is still occupied today; and Rackliffe.
Beyond their names, who, exactly, were these early settlers? Mystery surrounds. Some believe they were opponents of the Monarchy, who fled England to the isolated peninsulas of the Eastern Shore.
In England, the Whalley Abbey, founded in 1296, was the wealthiest monastery in Lancashire until 1538, when monasteries were demolished by order of the Court Lancashire. It became a strong puritan site with followers of Presbyterianism and daily condemnation of Catholics and other non-protestants.
Meanwhile, the Radcliffes (note this different name spelling) were a prominent gentry and knighted family in Whalley Manor as far back as 1200. But by the 1600s, the Whalleys, Radcliffes, and Cromwells were related through marriage and were supporters of the Roundheads, followers of Cromwell.
The manor house was originally built by a grandson Charles, named after his grandfather, the first Rackliffe, and was a must stop for merchant ships in the Atlantic trade.
Life for the puritans changed when the Monarchy was restored. Edward Whalley, the regicide, fled to Boston in a fledgling America, moving from place to place to avoid those who pursued him with an arrest warrant. Rumor attested that he had escaped to Sinepauxent.
Some assert that the land conveyed to Charles Rackliffe and an Edward Wales was really the regicide Edward Whalley. Historians have concluded that the Edward Whalley in question died in Massachusetts. However, his death is speculated and burial site unknown. That Wales was a Whalley is substantiated by the marriage of Charles Rackliffe’s daughter to Wales’ son, Elias Whalley. But mystery continues to surround Genesar’s meaning, “Here I rest, located in Boguetodmorton Hundred.”
What’s in a name? Genesar? Boguetodmorton?
Rackliffe is spelled in the English Doomsday book as Radeclive. Other variations are Radcliffe, one of the most powerful and wealthiest English families for 400 years in Lancashire, Ratliff, Radclyffe, and Rathclyffe. Even the Maryland Historical Society refers to the Sinepauxent family as Ratcliffe, but nowhere is the alternative spelling of Rackliffe found.
In 1742, grandson Charles Rackliffe would build the restored brick mansion, which was quite elegant for its time. It was also infused with mystery. Rackliffe’s son seems to have been murdered by his slaves; a mistress of the house, dressed for a ball, fell down the steps and died; and through the years, into the 1900s, people would flee the house they claimed was haunted by wailing ghosts. So much so, that it earned a reputation as the most haunted house in the country.
Meanwhile, Rackcliffe’s neighbor Captain William Fassitt, built his brick Flemish Bond home in 1730. A strong Presbyterian, Fassitt urged Colonel William Stevens, a Protestant appointed by Lord Baltimore to settle the area, to bring a godly minister to the seashore site. Evangelist Reverend Robert Maddox had been preaching since 1678 and was considered. However, Francis MaKemie, an ordained minister from Glasgow University, arrived from Ireland in 1682. MaKemie is considered the father of Presbyterianism in America and founded the first Presbyterian Church in the New World at Rehoboth, near Pocomoke, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Fassitts prospered, the home remained privately owned, and is still in good condition.
From the initial 2,200-acre Genesar estate, nine existing historic homes would be built on the peninsula. Unlike large land grant parcels on the Western Shore, the land conveyed to Charles Rackliffe and Edward Wales was parceled to family members. Charles was parceled 600 acres, Edward 800, Elian Ratcliff 500, National Ratcliff 300, and additional sites were divided to children in 200-acre parcels. This suggests family sustainability was a priority concern. It seems the first settlers—former English Gentry fleeing from England to this isolated place—were joined by family members. After sheltering in the wilderness and establishing a new way of life, they would become merchant-planters, eventually forming a new social culture with a Protestant foundation.
Today, Rackliffe Plantation House Museum tells the story of daily seashore life in Colonial Maryland. The story of its “why and wherefore” demonstrates the will of people to “carry on.”