Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mystery Marker in Tenleytown leads us to Georgetown

The Mystery Marker in Tennleytown
While I spent a few months on foot surveying the Tenleytown neighborhood in 2003 for a historical survey of the area, imagine my delight when an elderly homeowner had me follow them into an alley near 41st and Fessenden Streets, NW to show me a mystery marker.  There, stuck between a cinderblock garage, a chain link fence, and a few errant trees was an original land boundary marker that had been there for 233 years or so at that point.

Now that makes boring survey work not boring!  I did a rubbing in July of 1770, and determined that it read “John Thrielkeld, Beginning August 1770.”  Note: Surveying on foot had its advantages, unlike a firm in town commonly known as “Cut and Pasteries” that tend to do it from the safety of a car). 

3425 Prospect Street
The marker in upper Tenleytown certainly illustrated the vast size of land that was once owned by our John Threlkeld, (variously spelled Thielkeld) most of which is today’s Georgetown neighborhood.    

And history certainly repeats itself, as Threlkeld is credited with building the impressive Georgian mansion known as Quality Hill at 3425 Prospect Street that we documented and researched in 2009 for the current owners.  It was built between 1797 and 1798 as a speculative real estate venture.       

Threlkeld had been appointed the Mayor of Georgetown the year prior, and had earlier served as an Alderman upon Georgetown’s incorporation on December 25, 1789.

Threlkeld and his wife Elizabeth were enumerated in the 1800 census nearby, on his estate coined Berlieth, on lands “once belonging to Montgomery County, Maryland,” today the site of the Convent of the Visitation.  The Threlkeld family owned a vast amount of land, most of which composes NW Washington today.  Interestingly, the pecan trees still extant in the convent garden today are offshoots of trees given as a gift from Thomas Jefferson to John Threlkeld when he married Elizabeth Ridgely. 

Berlieth was originally the home of John’s father, Henry Threlkeld, who had built it about 1753.  The original house was burned shortly after the Revolution, but another house was subsequently built.[1]

John Threlkeld
Henry Threlkeld (1716-1781) was an early settler from Cumberland, Maryland who bought Alliance, an estate of 1,000 acres bordering on the Potomac River.  This tract, part of which came to be known as Berlieth (spelled variously over the years), extended north from the river to include the grounds of what is now Georgetown University, the Convent of the Visitation, and farther north to the present day neighborhoods of Burleith and Tenleytown. 

 In 1687, the land was part of Charles County, Maryland, of which John Evans of St. Mary’s County had patented 300 acres “called Salcom, Lying in the ffreshes of Potomack River.”  It ran from “a bounded white oak standing near the Patomack River a little above the mouth of Rock Creek,” up to where the Russian Embassy is now. On the same day in 1687, Robert Mason of St. Mary’s County patented 300 acres immediately west of it called Salop. (The name means Shropshire, and Salcombe is a town in Devonshire.)
When it was built in 1753, Berlieth was on a part of land known as Knave’s Disappointment.  Henry Threlkeld also bought tracts called Salop and Resurvey of Salop, which had enlarged Salop by 265 adjoining acres that had been unclaimed.  In 1781, Henry’s son John inherited both, plus Addition to Salop.  He added to it such tracts as Addition to the Addition to the Resurvey on Salop (1785).  He was taxed in 1785 for “a good dwelling house, a kitchen, barn, and slave quarters that stood on them.”

At the time of his inheritance, the land was part of Montgomery County, Maryland.  John Threlkeld would become a leading citizen of Georgetown, first representing it in the Maryland Legislature. During the Revolution, his name appears as one of the county’s Committee of Correspondence (an activity which would appear to have set him apart from the remainder of Georgetown’s men of affairs).
Later, Threlkeld sat on the Levy Court, which governed the part of the District of Columbia called Washington County, which lay outside the cities of Georgetown and Washington. He was, among other things, a director of the Bank of Columbia, but he also had a keen interest in agriculture: he raised merino sheep, and corresponded with Jefferson about fruit trees.
His prosperity and vast land holding was sustained by the use of slave labor, whose traces appear in various local records; He and his wife Elizabeth were first enumerated in the 1800 census, which listed them living at Burleith with 28 slaves.  

An 1804 deed records that Threlkeld freed “Lucy, age 39…in consideration of her faithful and tender attention to my mother to whom she had always officiated as waiting maid with great attention and fidelity.”[2]  Two years later, her Last Will & Testament dated December 19, 1806, stated that she was “bred with my daughter Betsy and liberated by John Threlkeld of George Town.” She had named Threlkeld to be the executor of her will, and the trustee of the $150 that Betsy is to have when she is 25 (when she will also be free).  As Betsy’s guardian, he is not to let her be removed from the District before that time.[3]

By 1785, tax records show that only 250 acres of the new Salop had been cleared, and the soil was deemed “thin and stoney.” He was also assessed for part of Knaves Disappointment, and for 279 acres, part of Dunghill, that boasted three or four old log houses and 150 acres cleared land: “soil thin, land very broken.” The last addition to Threlkeld’s landholdings appears to have been The Scotch Ordinary, in 1811. 

All of these various parcels were consolidated in 1791 into a tract Threlkeld also named Alliance.  Its extent can be judged by the fact that Georgetown University, Convent of the Visitation, Visitation School, Duke Ellington School, and the neighborhoods of Foxhall Village, Burleith, Hillandale, Whitehaven Park, and much of Glover Park, Glover-Archibald Park, and Wesley Heights are all originally part of the Alliance estate. 

In 1814, Threlkeld advertised in the July 22 edition of the Federal Republican newspaper a large reward for one of his slaves who had escaped a year prior.  It read:   

  “150 Dollars Reward. Absconded from Georgetown, where he was bound to a Blacksmith, a Negro Man called SAM, about 24 years old, five feet ten inches high, slender and very black, oval face, a scar over one eye, stands generally with one foot forward, and seems to drag his feet, having a very slovenly walk, notwithstanding is very active and healthy, apt to get drunk, and very quarrelsome; he is a GOOD BLACKSMITH and will probably endeavor to hire as a free man. He is well known to most of the stage drivers, as the man with whom he lived did all the work for Mr. Crawford’s tavern.-He went away 5th July last, and was apprehended at McCoy’s, between this and Baltimore, but escaped the same night; he was again seen and taken, at Gunpowder Ferry, between Baltimore and Susquehanna, about the last of October, but escaped again. I will give 100 dollars if said Negro is lodged in any jail, and information given so that I can get him again; or one hundred and fifty dollars if put in jail at the City of Washington. JOHN THRELKELD, Georgetown.”


In June of 1821, John Threlkeld advertised ‘eight or ten lots’ for sale in northwest Georgetown in the June 1821 issue of the Georgetown Metropolitan.  Three months later, he sold lots 104 and 105 to George Mahorney, a bricklayer, who was listed as a resident of the corner of 36th and P Street by 1818.  He is attributed to have built the four houses then located between 79 and 83 Third (P) Street.

John Threlkeld sold his vacant lot at 73 Third Street (3512 P) in December of 1823 to John Pickrell, one of the founders of Christ Church.  He and his wife sold it just two years later, in December of 1825 to Henry Waring.  The brick house at 3512 P Street was built by 1826, one of the first on the block to be constructed that remains today. 

In 1822, John Threlkeld conveyed an 11½ acre parcel of land to his son-in-law, Col. John Cox, in trust for his wife Jane.  Cox is known as Georgetown’s first elected Mayor, serving from 1823 to 1845,[4] and is well known for his 1805 construction of “Cox’s Row” townhouses still standing today in the 3300 block of N Street.[5] 
Col. Cox erected a magnificent manor home called The Cedars on the site of what is now Duke Ellington School.  Prior to the Civil War, there was only farm land west of Fayette Street (35th) and north of 7th Street (Reservoir Road), and the Cox homestead seems to have been the last outpost beyond which there were only pastures, creeks, and ponds “good for skating in winter.”[6]  The home was destroyed by fire in January 1847 but was subsequently rebuilt by his son, Richard Cox.[7]  

In 1824, Threlkeld sold two slaves named Fanny and Charity, “two old women well known in the family…Nace the Carriage Driver…Jerry, Sandy, Harry, Flora and her children, and Nancy and her children” to his daughter Elizabeth, in  trust for the use of her mother, his wife Elizabeth.[8]  

Unfortunately, like many another man of substance, John Threlkeld had many debts.  In 1826, the Bank of Columbia failed, of which John Threlkeld was founder and director.[9]  The DC Marshall auctioned 296 acres of Alliance two years later, in 1828 “in accordance with writs fi-fa of the Circuit Court,” after Threlkeld had offered it as collateral to local banker Clement Smith earlier, in 1821.[10]  Tragically, Threlkeld’s wife and daughter had both died in 1826, the same year as the bank failure.  The National Intelligencer newspaper reported the deaths in their August 31, 1826 edition that read: “Died on Sunday last at Burleith, residence of John Threlkeld, Elizabeth R. Threlkeld, in her 16th year, eight days after mother.”

A former tenant of Threlkeld’s named Alexander Burrows purchased almost a third of Alliance in 1828, the same year that twenty-five of Threlkeld’s slaves were auctioned on the site of his manor house.[11]  Local demand for slaves in the city boundary was not great, but most planters from the south had agents in Washington that were eager to purchase slaves, with or without their family members.  This advertisement appeared in the May 29, 1828 edition of the National Intelligencer:  
“Servants wanted: I want 45 or 50 likely negroes from 12 to 25 years, to work on my plantation in Mississippi. I will give as much as any other man in the market. Apply at McCandless’ Tavern, Georgetown, or to Ansel Rowley, Bridge Street, Georgetown. - John M. Hendricks.”
John Threlkeld died on what was left of his estate on August 30, 1830.  The National Intelligencer ran his death notice on September 9th of that year: 

“Died: On Aug. 30, at his residence, on the heights of Georgetown, D.C., John Threlkeld, in his 73rd year. Born and resided during his life on the spot where he died. Before the separation of this county from Maryland, he represented his fellow citizens in the Legislature of that state. Mr. Threlkeld was an industrious and worthy man, with a numbrous family. A few years since, misfortune overwhelmed him, and he was stripped of his property. A few days before his death he was active and in hale health.”
Most of the western portions of Georgetown, including Threlkeld ancestral lands were not heavily developed until after the Civil War, as this 1865 photograph shows.  The Aqueduct bridge is seen at right, which then led up to Holy Trinity Church, facing 36th Street.    

Copyright Paul K. Williams

[1] Washington—City and Capital. American Guide Series of the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, 1937.
[2] Washington DC Recorder of Deeds, Liber L 11, folio 37. 
[3] Fletcher, Carlton. Glover Park Gazette, December 1998 - January 1999. 
[4] Prior to 1830, the Mayor was chosen by the Councilmen. 
[5] Col John Cox succeeded appointed Mayor Henry Foxhall, for whom the neighboring community of Foxhall Village was named.  In order for Cox to accept the nomination for mayor, the city limits of Georgetown were expanded to include his estate.
[6] Fletcher, Carlton. Glover Park Gazette, December 1998 - January 1999. 
[7] Richard Cox's sympathies were apparently with the South, as the home was confiscated by the government during the Civil War and was used by the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.  In 1866, it was returned to Cox, and later converted into Misses Earles' Seminary, an academy for girls.  In 1892, Western High School was built on its site.
[8]  Liber W.B. 11, folio 7/6.
[9] Liber W.B. 20, folio 480.
[10] Liber W.B. 20, folio 480. 
[11] They included slaves by the names of: Charity, Fanny, Sandy, Jerry, Nace, Henry, Jem, Bill, Anne, Lucy, Nancy (and her five children; George, Penn, Mary, Francis, and Henry), Flora (and her eight children; Robert, Jos, Fanny, Mary, Jane, Patty, Betsy, and Harry).

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