From Joppa to Joppatowne, What’s in a Name?

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When we look at a map of the United States, we see a very large and diverse topography of cities, towns and villages. We see contemporary names such as New York, New London, New Carlisle, New Gloucester and New Bedford along with more oddly familiar historical names such as Paris, Madrid, Dublin, Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster. These are truly American cities and towns in every respect, and some even retain a flavor of their early, but very foreign cultural heritage; but their true origins by name embrace a history that is not theirs or ours to claim.

Just over 55 years ago, Joppatowne was a brand new community being carved out of well worn, but still fertile farm fields and mixed hillsides of multi-generational growths of deciduous oaks, maples and sycamores. A new community was taking shape on the shores of the Gunpowder River just as it had some 250 years prior with the town of Joppa. Men in distant cities had high hopes for their new community, just as they did when the Gunpowder ran deep and ocean going ships of deep draft sailed her waters. But, Joppatowne would be different from her long forgotten predecessor; it would have a new name, a new identity and be a “planned community” with the very latest in construction materials and practices, ultra-modern appliances and services and other amenities including a showcase community shopping center, churches, schools and even a swim and tennis club.  Maryland’s first planned community would be not unlike those that had begun to spring up across the northeast after the Second World War.  Leon and Stanley Panitz’s community would also have a waterfront presence that would be the envy of the upper bay. The latter, though ambitious and boastful, would never quite live up to expectations.

The farmlands that would soon be turned over for this new community of Joppatowne were not chosen because of their proximity to, or relationship with the long forgotten colonial seaport of Joppa, but rather their proximity to Maryland’s growing military-industrial complex. This growing industry included the area that had its roots in even older colonial settlements along the shores of the Gunpowder and Bush Rivers, known today as Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal. The rapid growth of civilian payrolls in the Department of Defense fueled the demand for new housing and the Panitz Corporation had a plan. This new community would also be strategically located near the proposed Northeast Expressway, a major artery between the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area and the Northeast, known today as Interstate 95 or the JFK Memorial Highway. Joppatowne was to be a true “bedroom” or “satellite” community. There were no shipping wharves or warehouses teeming with tobacco or other goods destined for far off shores, just young growing families commuting to nearby Baltimore, Washington, APG and Edgewood.

Long before this new modern community, even before the vast, well-tilled farm fields and “new-growth” forests, a small but vitally important colonial shipping port took shape on the marshy shores of the Gunpowder River once deep enough for vessels that plied the oceans and where waters teemed with fish and fowl that few coastal towns or cities today can scarcely match. Farmers, planters, millers and ironmasters from the backwoods and hills up-river would bring their goods to port. Ships from Europe and the West Indies would come to call, unloading their staples and exotic goods and taking with them great hogsheads of tobacco, grains and iron bound for the Crown and other distant ports. Men of wealth and prominence would hold Court, conduct trade, collect taxes and advance the word of God, all in the name of the British Crown. Joppa was not a place for young and growing families to play and rest, but a vital working port and seat of government in the wild and unpredictable frontier of early Maryland.

A History

Between 2 Apr and 17 Apr 1706, acting upon a declaration from Queen Anne to Virginia and Maryland the previous year, the Maryland General Assembly heard debate, crafted and passed legislation known as “An Act for advancement of trade and erecting Ports & Towns in the Province of Maryland.” Within this Act it was decreed that forty-two new towns and ports be established, including one on the shores of the Gunpowder River on land known as Forster Neck” (sic).[1] Foster’s Neck was a land patent issued to Matthew Goldsmith and Edward Foster on 24 Feb 1661 and was originally recorded as “Goldsmith’s Neck.” Sometime in the 1680’s it had come to be recognized as Foster’s (often Forster’s) Neck and the name stuck; possibly beginning with Augustine Herrman’s map of 1670 which identified the waterway in the area as Foster’s Creek. The area of Foster’s Neck is today Mariner Point Park and about an additional 180 acres of the middle section of Joppatowne along Foster Branch Creek, areas to the north and now under water at the town marina.

It has long been asserted that Queen Anne dissented to the Act of 1706 and as a result, the General Assembly on 1 Apr 1707 passed an amendment to the original Act which decreed, among other changes, that the town designated to be built at Foster’s Creek be abandoned in favor of a site just to the north, but still on the Gunpowder River, on land owned by the widow Ann Felks and known as “Taylor’s Choice.” This was not the case. As can be found in the archival records of the British Parliament, the Queen was not even aware of this Act or any of the subsequent Acts, and had not addressed them, until December 1709. Included within this amendment was the stipulation that a Court House be built at the new town at Taylor’s Choice; this was not a part of the original Act of 1706. The changes to the Act of 1706 with respect to the location of the town along the Gunpowder River and the inclusion of a new Court House was as the result of a petition drafted and submitted to the General Assembly by John Hall and James Philips on the part of themselves and other citizens of Baltimore County. [2] The location of the Baltimore County Court House had been a contentious debate among many in the County for several years and would continue for a few years more and then reignite a few decades later as Joppa began to deteriorate and decay and the much more prosperous town of Baltimore on the Patapsco grew to become the center of all things economic, social and cultural.

Taylor’s Choice was granted to John Taylor on 28 Jul 1661, but by the 1690’s it had passed to James Thompson and then to his widow Ann. Ann would later marry Edward Felks in February 1701, but retain ownership of the land through an “ante-nuptial” agreement. Many of the towns and ports created by the Act of 1706 still exist today including: Piscataway and Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County, Chestertown in Kent County and the Port of Baltimore, later incorporated into Baltimore City itself. The Queen’s dissent to the Acts of 1706 and the supplementary Acts of 1707 and 1708 was an accumulative, singular action and was not executed and recorded until 15 Dec 1709.[3]

As noted previously with respect to the Act of 1706, the General Assembly did not include the building of a Court House at the Foster’s Neck site or any other it was not within the scope of the Act as laid out by Queen Anne and Parliament. The notion of a Court House at this location is first believed to have been proffered by one Coleman Yellott, a prominent Baltimore lawyer who in 1854 at the laying of the cornerstone of the new Towsontown Court House in Baltimore County erroneously stated this. Many well-received and distinguished authors, journalists and local historians have since written that the Court House and County Seat, which in 1706 was situated at “Gunpowder Town” along the forks of the Big and Little Gunpowder rivers in an area known as “Simms Choice,”[4] was actually ordered moved to Foster’s Neck as part of the Act of 1706. No such order was ever made and no such action ever taken.

Competing voices from across the County at the time were calling for the Court House at Gunpowder Town to be moved for a variety of reasons, but Foster’s Neck was not on their list of desirable places. The debate over the move to Joppa raged for several years, before, during and after the construction of the Court House. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the “anti-Joppa” voices was Richard Colgate, a wealthy landowner and surveyor for the Queen. Colgate’s land holdings of over seven thousand acres of Baltimore County waterfront included much of modern day Middle River and the area of Canton in Baltimore City. He detested the idea of a Court House at Joppa and would petition loudly for a move to Richardson’s Forest at the head of the Middle River, on property he owned. A remark has been attributed to Richard Colgate in a few articles in years past where he allegedly referred to the site of Joppa as “Gunpowder Town,” supposedly a vulgar reference, along with a few other choice words. There is nothing to substantiate this and it can most likely be attributed to a misinterpretation of remarks he may have made at some point. It doesn’t make much sense that Colgate would refer to Joppa as “Gunpowder Town,” when that town already existed on Simm’s Choice, and was situated on the Gunpowder River itself. There is probably little doubt that he had a few choice words about Joppa, but they are most likely lost to history.

“Joppa” was not actually named in the Act of 1707; rather “50 Acres to be erected into a Town in a Tract of Land on the same River, belonging to Anne Felks, and called Taylor’s Choice, and the Court-house to be built there” was how the Supplementary Act was written.[5] The consensus among writers and local historians over time has been that Queen Anne had dissented in approving the Act of 1706; however, the Supplementary Act of 1707 makes no mention of this, but rather implies that the deadline had passed for many of the towns and ports that were to be built and that the delays for such were varied. Modifications and new requirements were also added to the Act of 1707 as well that had not been addressed previously. It was a petition introduced by John Hall and James Philips on behalf of themselves and others of Baltimore County asking that a town be erected at a place called Taylor’s Choice and that the County Court House be built there that gave cause for the Assembly to cast Foster’s Neck aside.[6]

The name “Joppa” first appears in 1709 and again in 1710[7], when Col. James Maxwell, son-in-law of Ann Felks, was awarded a contract by the County Justices to build a Court House “at the Towne of Joppa.” At the November Court, a levy of 40,000 pounds of tobacco was approved for building the courthouse and jail and a contract with Col. James Maxwell was sealed at the following March Court. A measure was also introduced in the General Assembly on 10 Nov 1709 for building the same, but rejected as it was sufficiently addressed by the Supplementary Act of 1707.[8] No one knows for sure who named the new town “Joppa”, but generations of local families, historians and others have all agreed that the name was given in deference to the port city of “Jaffa” in old Palestine. It may have been the wish of Ann Felks herself, or even Col. Maxwell, but most likely the name was established through a vote by the Vestrymen of St. John’s (then located at Elk Point on present day Edgewood Arsenal near the Officers’ Club). Towns were for the most part, named locally.

Using Biblical references at the time was commonplace and is evident throughout the area with such communities as Jericho, Salem and Jerusalem among others in the ensuing years. Biblical names even found their way into land patents. Vestrymen of old were civil officials as well as guardians of their churches so matters such as naming towns within their parishes would most certainly fall within their scope.

Though the “Town at Taylor’s Choice” was established in 1707, the town of Joppa would actually not take shape for another seventeen years. There are no known records to show that any construction of homes or businesses had been undertaken before the building of the Court House and jail in 1709. This is most likely due to the fact that Queen Anne had on 15 Dec 1709, vetoed, or “repealed” the Acts of 1706, 1707 and 1708. Notice of her dissention in a letter from Parliament dated 16 Jan 1710, had reached the General Assembly by February of that year. In the intervening years since the passing of the original Act of 1706, the Queen and Parliament had been engrossed in the affairs of State, Scotland, the War of Succession with Spain, the growing border dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania and of course the affairs of the other American and Crown colonies. Though there are ample records of correspondence, discussion and petitions for additional information and clarification at various times between the British Parliament, Maryland’s Governor, the General Assembly and the Governor’s agents in London, there no evidence of any decisive action undertaken by the Queen or Parliament until late 1709 culminating with the Queen’s dissention that December.

The Court House was not a consideration in the Queen’s dissent though it was technically a casualty as a result; the same fate befalling Court Houses in other counties as measures were later passed in the General Assembly to continue with or build Court Houses in towns disapproved by the Queen.[9] The dissent was primarily due to the overarching contention by Parliament that the establishment of so many towns, well above the initial intent of her Majesty’s wishes, would divert and complicate resources and hamper the business of planting, processing and shipping tobacco, the chief export, thus severely impacting trade, revenue and taxes. The establishment of towns would also promote industry, chiefly the woolen industry (clothing) and lessen its dependence upon Britain, thus injuring industry and revenue at home.[10]  In simple terms, these Acts would ultimately lead to less dependence and ultimately less control, not something the Queen or Parliament would stand for. They went far beyond what the Queen had initially intended when she wanted to improve the tobacco trade of Virginia and Maryland.

The location and building of Court Houses was a local matter for the provincial government. Whereas the Queen and Parliament would oversee and address Acts, legislation or Court rulings which would affect territory, revenue, taxes, the property of Her Majesty’s subjects residing in Great Britain, religious and other matters that may run counter to British law and the Crown, the location of a County Court House would typically be a local matter.

The period 1709 thru 1712 in Maryland was rife with fierce debate and political posturing over the location of the Baltimore County Court House, both in the General Assembly and in the County Court. The idea of a town had taken somewhat of a backseat during the period following the Queen’s dissent. Richard Colgate was not one to give up without a fight and fight on he did with many others joining his efforts in filing motions in the General Assembly and petitions to the Court. Addressed on several occasions throughout 1709-1710 and put to a vote by order of Annapolis, the citizens in 1711 and the General Assembly in 1712, Richard Colgate and his allies were repeatedly defeated and the Court House would soon be permanently settled at Joppa.

James Maxwell had nearly completed work on the Court House when the General Assembly passed the Act to permanently establish the Baltimore County Court House at Joppa on 15 Nov 1712.[11] The Court House would finally be completed late in 1713, though at least one meeting of the Court was held there in 1712. The “town” of Joppa itself would not be laid out for another thirteen years. Another error in the historical record with respect to beginnings of Joppa concerns an alleged survey that was to be undertaken after the establishment of the Court House there. Some have written that a surveyor was instructed to “respect the dwelling of Mrs. Eleanor Rumsey.” There was no Eleanor Rumsey in Joppa in 1712 and there was no land survey undertaken at this time. The Rumsey family lived in Cecil County and Benjamin Rumsey would not appear in Joppa until at least 1768 when he married the daughter of John and Hannah Hall. Hannah was the widow of Ashael Maxwell and as such inherited what eventually became the Rumsey mansion.

After the death of Queen Anne in 1714 Maryland once again reverted to a Proprietary Colony rather than a Royal Colony in 1716 and local efforts to build Joppa into a town were renewed, but not aggressively pursued. James Maxwell had part or all of Taylor’s Choice resurveyed in 1719 after the death of his mother-in-law, but Ann Felks’ will stipulated that the land would pass to her grandson Ashael, after his parents James and Ann passed, so that stopped the progress once again. Contrary to what has been written countless times over the years, the period of inactivity with respect to the building of the town between 1712 and 1719 was not due to the land being in the name of a minor it was due to the fact that interest had waned somewhat after the Queens dissent of 1709. It is also due to the fact that Ann Felks was still alive during this period, she would pass away in 1719 and her Will not probated until March of 1720, so the contention that the land being in the name of a minor was a roadblock to the building of the town up to that point in time is incorrect.

That is not to say that there weren’t some other buildings or homes in Joppa, there may have been, but there are no available records to confirm this. With the court and jail in full operation, it is entirely plausible to assume that at least one maybe two additional structures housing the Clerk of the Court and possibly the County Sheriff or jailer stood in Joppa at that time.

By 1722, the citizens of Baltimore County had begun to raise their voices loudly once again in hopes of getting the General Assembly to authorize the plans for a town at Joppa.[12] The crux of their petition and argument over the next two years  laid out the problems encountered with conducting the County business in a location devoid of convenient accommodations including  lodging, food, drink and places of entertainment, at or near the said Court House. The officers of the Court as well as the citizenry were often forced to travel great distances for want of necessary accommodations. But by this time, the issue of the land being in the name of a minor had become an issue. When Ann Felks wrote her Will, she stipulated that her home and lands would pass to her grandson Ashael upon the death of her daughter Ann and son-in-law James Maxwell.[13] That meant that though James and Mary Maxwell had legal rights to the property with respect to its use during their lifetime, they were essentially caretakers of the land until Ashael reached the age of 21 and that they had no rights to convey title. The General Assembly addressed this in 1724 through legislation that would finally launch the town that would become Joppa.[14]

In summary, the Act provided for; “the Land already allotted for the Building of a Court-House and Prisons, and whereon the Court House and Prisons at Joppa aforesaid, are built, (not being less than Two Acres of Land) shall be and remain to the Use of the said County, forever.” It further stipulated that Thomas Tolley, Capt. John Taylor, Mr. Daniel Scott, Mr. Lancelot Todd, and Mr. John Stokes, or any three of them, shall be appointed commissioners for Baltimore County and are authorized and empowered to agree for the buying and purchasing of twenty acres of land at Joppa. The surveying and laying out of the same, in the most convenient manner that may be, into forty equal lots and that the same lots shall be laid out so as not to affect the buildings or improvements of Col. James Maxwell, or his son that have already been made. The Act goes further to lay out the stipulations for purchasing lots, timeframe for building upon the lots, twelve months, penalties and defaults for not meeting said timeline and the construction requirements of dwellings meant for habitation.

One of the most important and beneficial stipulations in this Act for the new town of Joppa was the inclusion of what we would today consider a “tax cut” to boost trade at the new port, or “stimulate the economy.” Within this Act it also provided: [excerpt] “And be it further enacted, that there shall be allowed to all debtors whatsoever, owing any tobacco to any person or persons whatsoever or howsoever, such debtor bringing his tobacco to the town aforesaid, and there paying the same to his creditor or creditors, or his or their receivers, the sum of ten pounds of tobacco per cent, for every hundred pounds of tobacco so brought to the place aforesaid.”

Joppa would rise relatively rapidly over the next few years, but in 1731, the first of more ominous misfortunes to come would hit the young town. A breakout of smallpox would have a devastating effect and ultimately signal the beginning of the end for Joppa. Malaria was also a constant concern given the topography of the surrounding area, one of low lying marshes prone to frequent flooding and prolonged periods of swamp-like conditions in and around the town. In addition to its place as the seat of justice for the County, Joppa would be for a time, home to all things business, social and cultural.

There weren’t many roads in early Maryland, but in Baltimore County, most of them led to Joppa. Two of these are still with us today, albeit with a few changes: Old Court road to the north and west of Baltimore City which then joins Joppa Road to the east near Jones Falls Expressway. Joppa Road still runs through Baltimore and Harford Counties terminating in present day Joppatowne. Over these roads and others would also come large rolling casks of tobacco known as “hogsheads” that would be stored in large warehouses on the wharves like those of prominent Joppa merchant David M’Culloch prior to shipment, thus giving rise to the term “rolling roads.”

Though the business of growing and exporting tobacco was the principal industry in early Maryland, Joppa was also home to other trades and businesses, from tavern keepers and blacksmiths to clothiers and of course, a good supply of lawyers. Like most any town, Joppa was not immune to controversy of one sort or another during its short life either. There is the election of 1752 when where the election victories of all four candidates for State Representative had their victories contested and subsequently overturned. It would seem that a practice still in use today was also quite common in early Baltimore County; buy the votes you need to be assured of victory. Rum was the currency of choice and plenty of it. The problem is, so much was provided before and during the polling that too many voters either couldn’t stand to register their vote or forgot who they were to vote for, and some were prevented from voting altogether. The Sheriff eventually shut the vote down for a few hours and then a new vote was ordered. The turnout was so large, relatively speaking, that the voting lasted three days and was rife with fighting, ending in the deaths of two men. In the end, the corrupt candidates that started it all with their plying of rum won all of their contests.

Many a high profile criminal case was adjudicated and penance dispensed during the existence of the Joppa Court, including one group of co-conspirators who viciously attacked a wealthy farmer named John Clark and his wife Sarah in November of 1751 in a remote County location. John Clark would survive, but Sarah would not. John Berry, a stepson of John Clark, would coerce two indentured servant women into killing his parents so that he could claim the estate early. Needless to say, all involved were caught, tried, convicted and hung for their crime.   A similar fate would await one John Barrett in 1753. In November of that year, John Barrett was convicted in Joppa Court of murdering his wife and subsequently sentenced to death by hanging. After his hanging, his body was “Hung from a gibbet as high as Hamon’s Gallows” near Baltimore Town where the crime was committed.

Almost from the beginning, another more ominous harbinger of doom was looming for the young town of Joppa, as more and more of the backcountry upriver was being deforested for farms, tobacco plantations and mills. Though it was good news for the colony and the crown, it would ultimately seal Joppa’s fate. As more land was cleared and tilled the soil would ultimately become unstable and begin to wash into the Little Falls and settle downstream in the Joppa Harbor. The town prospered for a good many years, but by mid-century, another town to the west was taking shape along the shores of a broader and much deeper harbor. For the next thirty-plus years Joppa would do battle with the new town of Baltimore, but ultimately lose the fight.

Though slowly declining in prominence and population, Joppa was still a vital port and town in the northeast corner of the State throughout the middle years of the 18th century. However, by the 1760s, it was becoming abundantly clear that her days were numbered. The voices of discontent with its location and declining harbor began to rise in earnest: Joppa was too far from this town or too far from that village, too small with too few accommodations for the growing numbers of visitors to Court, the roads were deteriorating, the Court House, jail and town were falling into disrepair and the harbor could no longer accommodate the larger ocean going vessels it once did.

By 1768, no less than forty-one petitions had been filed with the General Assembly requesting that the seat of government be removed from Joppa and installed at Baltimore town. Standing out as a leader of those opposed to the move was John Paca, father of William Paca, a member of the Lower House of Delegates, signer of the Declaration of Independence and eventual Governor of Maryland. His plantation was also near Joppa. Promoting the move to Baltimore was one John Moale, a merchant, land developer and planter who at this time was a new member of the House of Delgates from Baltimore County. He had been instrumental in promoting Baltimore as the new County Seat. The Baltimore County Court House and seat of government was officially moved by an Act of the Assembly signed 18 Jun 1768.[15]

Though no longer a major port of trade and without its Court House, Joppa would soon fade away into the dustbin of history, but she limped on for a few more years. Soon after the Court House move in 1768, Baltimore County would be carved up once again and Joppa would become part of the new Harford County in 1774; named for Henry Harford, the last Proprietor of Maryland and the illegitimate son of Frederick Calvert and his mistress Mrs. Hester Whelan.

It was about this time, a few years before the creation of Harford County that Benjamin Rumsey came to town. He would soon marry Mary Hall, daughter of John and Hannah Hall, but continue to live in Cecil County for a time. Hannah was the widow of Ashael Maxwell and owner of what would become the Rumsey mansion. Benjamin Rumsey, from a prominent Cecil County family, was an accomplished lawyer, legislator, member of the Maryland convention of 1775 and member of the First Continental Congress. He would later be appointed Colonel of the Lower Harford Battalion of Militia during the Revolutionary War.

Joppa would not see any military action during the war, nor would any of the founding fathers or any military men of importance grace her taverns or inns, but there is record of at least one ship being “outfitted” at the town for war service. It is not known if this ship, a “Row Galley,” was built at Joppa or was there for repairs or conversion. It is believed that it was there to be converted into a warship. A Row Galley is a small, usually somewhat flat ship with a shallow draft that could be outfitted for oars for use when there was no wind or for close quarters maneuvering. They were quite common in the Chesapeake during the war, antagonizing the British ships at every opportunity. There was a shipyard at the time owned and operated by a Capt. John Sewell, who would also appear on the 1783 tax rolls as having a shipyard at or near Joppa. There is no record of this ship actually being pressed into service as a letter from the Council of Safety to Benjamin Rumsey notes that this ship had not been made seaworthy.[16]

The closest the citizens of Joppa would see of any action during the war was in 1781 when Local Millers Heathcote Pickett and a friend and business partner, John Paul were arrested for selling flour to the British who had sailed some distance up the Gunpowder on the Brig Nesbit in April of that year. Both men were arrested immediately upon departure of the British ship and thrown into the jail at Joppa. John Paul is alleged to have convinced the jailer to loosen his hands so that he may smoke. He overpowered the jailer and escaped. Heathcote Pickett was hanged as a traitor the next day. John Paul hid upriver in a cave for the duration of the war.

Throughout the 1770’s and increasingly thereafter, Joppa began to lose more of its remaining citizens at an ever increasing rate. Benjamin Rumsey would also begin to buy up all of the vacant and abandoned lots and proceed to dismantle them and sell or give away the salvaged building materials to include the site of the old Court House and both jails. By 1814, a map drawn by Edward Day would show only the Rumsey place, then under ownership of John Rumsey, the church and three other houses.[17] By the end of 1815, St. John’s church had moved to its current location in Kingsville and Joppa was officially no more. The once mighty port was now reduced to a farm with but a few reminders of what once was. Every so often, a map would point to the spot where Joppa once stood, but as time went on, Joppa would disappear as a “town” and reemerge as a “village.”

Joppa Becomes a Village

By the early to mid-19th century, the town of Joppa had transformed into a geographic locale rather than a consolidated town with distinct borders. Most references to the area would generally mention land or livestock sales that would appear as Joppa or Joppa Farm. It had essentially become a wide area village, a community of farmers, millers, miners, professionals and others consisting of some former town residents and the descendants of others. The countryside surrounding the town of Joppa was, however, still considered the postal area once served by that Post Office, so the name continued. It would stay that way and would eventually become the name designated for the Federal Zip Code for the area and the new community of Joppatowne in 1963. The farm that was once Joppa would eventually pass from the Rumsey family and through the hands of several others before being acquired by the Panitz Brothers Corporation. The colonial town of Joppa was but a fleeting memory by 1961 and if not for the diligence of a few local conservation groups, then First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and the discovery of a deed of ownership by the St. John’s Diocese, it would today be a yacht club with a swimming pool, tennis courts and a parking lot.

It would be of great service and of tremendous historical value for the people of Harford and Baltimore Counties and to the State of Maryland if the site of Joppa could one day be seriously studied and explored archaeologically. Beneath the fields of the Church of the Resurrection still lie many clues to the early history of the Gunpowder River area in Colonial Maryland. There too are the long buried remains of many early and prominent citizens including Benjamin Rumsey, a very important and very prominent figure in early Maryland. Perhaps someday soon the whole story of Joppa can be told, but for now, that town and that name lie buried in time.

So, what’s in a name?

Though periodically written in news articles and local historical treatises over the years as “Joppa Town,” this new town first chartered in 1707 was in fact established as “Joppa,” being locally named sometime between 1707 and 1709. It was not uncommon to see in writing such towns as Bel Air, Havre de Grace, Perryville and others often with the addition of “town,” but they were not founded as such and are not referred to in that manner today. Never is Joppa referred to in the General Assembly, the Acts of Assembly, the Courts, or in official correspondence as “Joppa Town” or anything other than Joppa, save the occasional “Town of Joppa.” Benjamin Rumsey wrote what amounts to a treasure trove of correspondence and other records during his nearly forty years in Joppa and never once made reference to “Joppa Town” in his signature or elsewhere.

It is not uncommon to see a reference made by someone unfamiliar to call it by something other than its designated name. We see examples of this even today on an almost daily basis in the news, in various print media and even in the occasional Hollywood production. Many towns in Harford County, not unlike any other locality in America, were often tagged with “town” or the “the town of” when referred to in the written word. There is a distinct literal difference between the two words and how they are used; “The town of” being an acceptable designation when used in conversation or in the written word. Authors and journalists often take liberties when crafting their works, usually by assumption or to add character to their writing. Read any newspaper from 18th and 19th century Maryland and you’ll often find such places as Joppa Town, Baltimore Town, Bel Air Town and even Annapolis Town in its pages. The question then becomes, do we rely upon journalists and authors, or do we rely upon the official records.

Merriam-Webster defines the word “Town” as “a compactly settled area usually larger than a village but smaller than a city,” or as “a compactly settled area as distinguished from surrounding rural territory.” Whereas this may describe colonial Joppa, it most certainly not describe modern day Joppatowne. Joppatowne is essentially a village that is swallowing up the surrounding landscape as it grows.

We cannot base reality on the assumptions or creative license of clerks, journalists and authors when the official record provides a clear and concise origin for such things. “Joppa Town” was the result of literary license on the part of a clerk or two and many writers over a long period of time, most of whom were simply reproducing the work of others. Even today, some rely upon the superficial rather than the evidential record; such things as signs created by clerks or armchair historians crafting history to fit a particular narrative or agenda.

The modern day community of Joppatowne was established in 1961 with the first home sold for occupancy in late 1962. The name was essentially a “hat tip” acknowledgement to a long ago British colonial town, complimented by the old world spelling of “towne.” But it is a community that has its own identity and its own legacies that should not be glossed over by a history that is not its own. Interestingly enough, the first homes of the new community weren’t even built at the site of old Joppa; as mentioned previously, that “Town” was to become a yacht club with swim and tennis facilities, the graveyard most likely covered over by a parking lot. It is also important to note that the original plan for the man-made “Rumsey Island” within the new Joppatowne community laid out a gated community with only one entry-exit point at Bridge drive and a round-the-clock guarded gate. The other entry and exit point, Shore drive, was an afterthought. It’s not very likely that this plan would have been in the spirit of Old Joppa.

There remains no legacy from the old colonial town of Joppa today, no trading ships come to call at the marina, tobacco is considered the demon seed by most these days and there are no Courts hearing complaints and dispensing justice anymore. The Rumsey mansion as we know it today did not take its present form until sometime after the removal of the Court House and most businesses, most likely after the Revolutionary War, and the town and its wharves that once were lie partially buried under a Church, homes and marshlands that weren’t there 250 years ago.

There are however, tangible legacies that we can touch today that took root in the early Joppatowne community of the 1960s. Vestiges of a young community’s commitment to service and youth still remain, but growing pains, economics and cultural shifts have tempered enthusiasm and commitment in some corners. Priorities within communities and young families are somewhat different than they were forty and fifty-plus years ago, but that doesn’t mean that what was begun nearly sixty years ago cannot be resurrected, it simply means that a new approach needs to be developed and nurtured.

As important as it is to discover and preserve our distant past, it is even more imperative that we remember and continue to foster that which is our own history and identity. Joppatowne is not a port town, it does not produce or process and ship agricultural goods and is not a seat of government, but it is still very much the “bedroom” community it was when the first home was sold back in 1962 and still retains much of its original character, tarnished as it may appear to some at times. Attempting to change the name of a community to reflect a history or an identity that doesn’t exist or is no longer relevant is a disservice and an insult to those who have spent a lifetime raising families, attending and graduating its schools, and striving to build their own community identity, especially in one so often neglected in the halls of County government.

Often the first piece of information we have about a place is the entrance to that location. It’s usually this impression that sticks with you and is what you may refer to when forming an opinion or judgment at a later time.  The problem with first impressions is that they are typically much harder to change than they were to form initially.

Case in point: driving into Joppatowne from Rt. 40 there are two conflicting signs, one is a brick wall that has fronted the community shopping plaza for over fifty years and emblazoned across it is the name of the community as established in 1961, “Joppatowne.” Turn to the left and up on the hill sits a much newer sign put up in 2012 to commemorate the alleged 300th anniversary of “Joppa Town.” Drive about one half mile further and you come upon another brick wall, only this time it is emblazoned with the name of the community as it was established, “Joppatowne,” but with a date founded of 1712. It would seem someone, somewhere seriously crossed wires.

To set the record straight, Joppa was founded in 1707 by an Act of the General Assembly and named locally soon thereafter, not in 1712 when the County Seat and Court House were set there by another Act of the Assembly. These Acts and subsequent actions addressing both were wholly unrelated to one another. The Act to set the Court House in Joppa in 1712 specifically references a town that already exists therefore you cannot have a founding date that post-dates the official record. If one were to look at the whole of the Acts to create the town, including the Queen’s dissent in 1709, then the official founding of Joppa should be 1724; when the General Assembly actually passed an Act to create the town after the initial Act had been vetoed and the land cleared of all encumbrances. The modern day community of Joppatowne was established as a “planned community” in 1961, it was not a modernization of a town still in existence and it was not a continuation of an industry and culture that disappeared over one hundred and fifty years before. If we cannot get a grasp on, and agree upon our own history and legacy, or even the spelling of our community’s name, it then becomes that much harder to promote our own identity and even harder for others to take us seriously. Many Joppatowne residents have been fighting long and hard for the community to be noticed at the County level, but that fight should be in unison for Joppatowne, not for a long ago and forgotten port.

While to some the name and spelling of the modern day community of Joppatowne may be just a game of semantics, it is a source of identity and pride for the majority. The community is not the legacy of a long forgotten port-of-call, but at the same time, it is not just a demographic in a larger Federal postal zone or County planning district, it is a distinct community with its own identity. A Zip Code does not define a community, much like Bel Air, Aberdeen, Baltimore and many others, a Zip Code can house two or more very distinct communities with their own identity and their own history.

There is no question that Joppatowne’s identity, not unlike many communities, has blurred somewhat over the past twenty years and its legacy bruised a bit, but every community, every town has and will always weather downturns and growing pains, it’s a very unfortunate reality today more than in the past. It is what we do to turn course that matters most.


[1] In Baltemore County at Whetstone neck in Patapsco river, Upon the Land called Chillberry in Brush river and a Town on Forster neck on Gun Powder river.” – An Act for advancement of trade and erecting Ports & Towns in the Province of Maryland. On the behalf of her most Sacred Majesty Queen Anne &ca, I will this be Law, John Seymour (Governor) April the 19th 1706.

[2] “The Petition of Mr John Hall and Mr James Philips on Behalf of themselves and other Inhabitants of Baltimore County praying a Town to be erected on a Place called Taylor’s Choice and there to settle the Court House was read and granted.” By his Excellency the Governor and Council in Assembly, April 1st 1707. Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland March 26, 1707 – November 4, 1710.

[3] At the Palace of St. James; Order of Queen in Council. Repealing 3 Acts of Maryland, for erecting ports and towns etc. 1706–8. Signed, Chris. Musgrave. Endorsed, Recd. 9th, Read 12th Jan., 1709/10. 

[4] “Simm’s Choice” was a tract of land situated at the head of the Gunpowder River encompassing much of the land above the Days Cove area to include modern day Pulaski Hwy in the vicinity of Jones Rd and between the Big and Little Falls of the Gunpowder. It is thought that the Court House stood back beyond the B&O railroad tracks between Jones Rd and Midway Liquors. In 1700, the Gunpowder River and fork of the Big and Little Falls would have been much closer to Pulaski Highway.

[5] A Supplementary Act to the Act for advancement of Trade and Erecting Ports and Towns; 11 April 1707. Read and assented to by the house of Delegates. Signed per order W. Taylard, Clerk of the House of Delegates, 11 April 1707. Read and assented to by her Majesty’s honorable Council, Signed per order W. Bladen Clerk of the Council, 15 April, 1707. On behalf of her Majesty’s  Queen Anne of England &c. I will this be a Law. John Seymour (Governor).

[6] L.H.J.; p. 112, Assembly Proceedings, March 26-April 15, 1707. By his Excellency the Governor and Council in Assembly, April 1st 1707.The Petition of Mr John Hall and Mr James Philips on Behalf of themselves and other Inhabitants of Baltimore County praying a Town to be erected on a Place called Taylor’s Choice and there to settle the Court House was read and granted.

[7] At a Session held at Annapolis, By the House of Delegates, 30th Octo. 1710 (Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, March, 1707-November, 1710)- Mr Tyler enters the House: “Moved That a Bill be brought in to settle Baltimore County Court House at the Town of Joppa.”

[8] “Which being read in the House their Accounts it’s Ordered it lye on the Table for the Members Perusal Bill for building a Court House in Baltimore County brought into the House Read the first and second Time and rejected for that the Supplementary Act for Towns have sufficient provided already to treat with Workmen and build the same.” By the Council in Assembly Nov. 10th 1709. Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, March, 1707-November, 1710.

[9] Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland: March 26, 1707 – November 4, 1710, An Act for securing persons Rights to Town Lands, 4 Nov 1710.

[10] Commissioners of H.M. Customs to the Lord High Treasurer: Report upon the Act of Virginia (In kind for Maryland) for settling the towns, ports, wharfs and keys, etc. v. C.S.P., Custom-house, London, 31 Jul 1709. Council of Trade and Plantations to the Queen: Representation upon an Act of Virginia for establishing ports and towns. Instruction to the Governor of Maryland, 3 Acts have been passed there for advancement of trade and erecting ports and towns, 1706–1708, against which there are the like objections as to the fore mentioned Virginia Law, and therefore in consideration (as we have been informed) that there has been hitherto very little done in pursuance of the said Acts, we humbly offer, in case your Majesty shall think fit to repeal the Virginia Act, that these Acts be repealed also. Whitehall, 30 Nov 1709. 

[11] “It is therefore Enacted, (2.) That Baltimore County Court shall be from henceforth held at the said House, now built at the said Town of Joppa, and not elsewhere: And that the same House be, to all Intents, Constructions and Purposes, adjudged, used, reputed and taken, as the proper Court-house of Baltimore County. And (3.), That all those Lots of Land laid out by virtue of the said Act, for Towns, for the Public Use, shall be, and is hereby declared to be and remain, to and for the same Uses and Intents the same was at first laid out for.” 15th Nov. 1712: General Assembly Proceedings, Oct. 28-Nov. 15, 1712. Lib. LL. N° 4. fol. 52

[12] The Petition of the Inhabitants of Baltimore County praying that a “Town may be laid Out where the County Court house now stands” was read and Ordered that Col. James Maxwell have Notice thereof that if he thinks fit he may appear next Sessions and make his objections if any thereto. Oct the 18th 1722: Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, October 1720-1723.

[13] The Will of Ann Felks reads in part as  follows: “I, Ann Felks of Baltimore County, widow, being weak of body but of perfect memory, praise be to God for it, do make this my last will and testament in the manner and form following, that is to say, my body to the ground to be decently buried and my soul to God that gave it and for what temparal estate it hath pleased God to bless me with, I give and bequeathe as is hereafter expressed: I give and bequeathe to my loving kinswoman (Daughter), Ann Maxwell and her husband, James Maxwell, my former dwelling plantation situated at the head of the Gunpawder River in Baltimore County, commonly known by the name of Taylor’s Choice and surveyed for three hundred acres of land, during their natural lives and after their decease to Asaele Maxwell, the eldest son of my loving kinswoman, Ann Maxwell, and to his heirs forever.” Probated 11 Mar 1720, Calendar of Wills, Baltimore County, Maryland. 

[14] “Whereas the Inhabitants of Baltemore County, have made appear to this Assembly, That a Publick Court-House and Prison have been erected at Joppa, in the said County, at their Expence; and that the Right of the Land is in a Minor under the Age of Twenty One Years, who (altho’ his Father Col. James Maxwell hath received full Satisfaction for the said Land) cannot convey the same..” An Act for Erecting a Town at Joppa, in Baltemore County; and for Securing the’ Land whereon the Court-House and Prisons are built, to the Use of the said County. 1724: Chap. XVI [Wm Parks compilation, 1727, p. 270; supplemented by 1737, ch. N].

[15] Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 1766-1768 (Assembly Proceedings, May 24-June 22, 1768): An Act for erecting a Court House and Publick Prison for Baltimore County in the Town of Baltimore and for making Sale of the old Court House and Prison.

[16] (MD Archives, XVI, 279-80.): On June 6, 1777, the Council of Safety addressed a letter to Benjamin Rumsey, Esq., of Joppa, concerning certain war vessels called “Row Galley’s,” one of which was laid up at Joppa. The Council deplored the fact that it was unable to get either cordage or hands for these vessels, and advised Mr. Rumsey to see to it that upper works of the one at Joppa be kept wet. This ship may have been built at Joppa, at Sewell’s shipyard.

[17] The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) Monday, 08 Jan 1900, Page 7.

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