Thursday, June 15, 2023

Letting History Determine the Address


Studying the address where my mother-in-law's third great-grandfather once lived might seem a straightforward process—until we realize that the location given relied greatly on who was in control of rewriting history. 

We've discovered the possibility that Mathias Ambrose, my mother-in-law's third great-grandfather, lived in Maryland with the father he was named after, before moving to Bedford County, Pennsylvania. But did he and his parents really move from one state to the other? Depending on whom we might have asked, had we been living in the region in the 1700s, the answer for this ancestral location might have been Pennsylvania or Maryland. This is where we need to consult history before deciding on our ancestors' residence.

This confusion over location actually dates back to the early 1600s and involved not only the crown of England as the governing power behind the establishment of the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, but two other countries as well. Already in the area were the Dutch, who wanted to extend their land holdings in the New World beyond New Amsterdam (now New York City). Also, only a few years after that in 1638, the Swedish established a colony near Delaware Bay.

In the midst of that, the ill-fated English king, Charles I, granted Cecil Calvert a charter for land along the Chesapeake Bay. While perimeters were noted in the charter, arriving colonists weren't specific about mapping out the territory. This eventually had an impact on the charter given, years later, to William Penn by King Charles II. Meanwhile, Cecil Calvert's son, Charles, had no objections to the establishment of Penn's colony, as long as it was situated north of Maryland's border on the fortieth parallel.

Apparently, it wasn't exactly a clearly-defined boundary, as the parties realized only a few years after William Penn was granted his charter in 1681. The two men took the issue to court, back in England, which case was temporarily decided by a compromise: redraw the borders to the two colonies. From that point, the boundary dispute continued with yet more appeals to subsequent monarchs. With Charles Calvert's death in 1715 and William Penn's in 1718, the dispute was carried forward by their heirs.

By the early 1700s, tensions had erupted further. This was where surveys and mapmaking skills pointed out the obvious: the original charters had some nebulous details, and the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland needed to be clarified. 

While the dispute continued in court, on the ground in the colonies, the boundary issue incited conflict. The boundary claimed by Pennsylvania reached farther to the south into Maryland, while the Maryland claim pushed the boundary between the colonies even farther north than Philadelphia, and just below Lancaster.

Like one giant domino effect, the overarching colonial boundary dispute also precipitated disputes over property rights and even law enforcement and legal jurisdictions. A series of violent incidents prompted conflicts in the region in the 1730s, resulting in the actual deployment of military forces in Maryland in 1736, with Pennsylvania's like response in the subsequent year. The armed conflict was called to a halt by yet another monarch, Britain's King George II, in 1738—the same year in which our Mathias Ambrose senior had left Pennsylvania's Lancaster County and shown up in the far western reaches of Maryland in what eventually became Frederick County.

What I would love to know is whether Mathias Ambrose's move was prompted by hostilities, or even if, perhaps, he was called to military duty during that colonial conflict—which has since come to be called Cresap's War. After all, with the vagaries of the borders—did Mathias live in Pennsylvania or Maryland when he moved to his new home?—the hostilities definitely had to have an impact not only on his official location, but on his family.

If any of this boundary dispute story sounds vaguely familiar to you—or even if you have never heard of Cresap's War—there is one detail about the resolution of this dispute that you have surely heard about. After failed attempts by colonial surveyors to accurately determine the line dividing the two colonies, the heirs of Penn and Calvert agreed to replace the colonial surveyors with a team from England. 

A contract was signed with a British survey team in 1763. Once they arrived in the North American location and following meetings with the local government officials assigned to the task, the team began work on surveying, then reporting back to the local commission, then placing monument stones, providing maps and final reports to local officials, before returning to England in 1768.

By that time, the elder Mathias Ambrose was a well established property owner in Frederick County, who had gifted his namesake son property at that same location—a place which by 1768, thanks to the resolution provided by those two English surveyors, was officially declared to be part of the colony of Maryland.

This story wasn't only about my mother-in-law's third and fourth great-grandfathers, of course. The solution to that century-long boundary dispute established the border for what subsequently became five separate states in our country: not only Pennsylvania and Maryland, but Delaware, New Jersey, and—eventually—West Virginia. And the name of those surveyors' results is still oft-repeated even today.

Those two surveyors' names? Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Their end result? Known since then simply as the Mason-Dixon Line.


  1. Didn't know this part of history, thank you for the concise summary, will keep in mind when I get back to studying the region.

  2. I had never heard of the Penn Family land grant until a month or two ago when I attended a conference. I learned as much history as I did genealogical information. This impacted some boundary's and record keeping for my Mennonite ancestors, too. I really learned the importance of using a historical timeline along with the timeline of my ancestors.


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