On the Day When the British Came to Loot Elkton, A Slave Leads the Invaders into an Ambush

Maryland’s War of 1812 history isn’t just about major battles,
military commanders, political leaders and the powerful. It’s also about a
time of great fright on the shores of the Chesapeake for everyday people as
enemy soldiers terrorized the region, “firing private property and robbing hen
houses.” With the 200th anniversary of this conflict approaching we’re
fortunate that many unpublished accounts by regular citizens have been passed
down in diaries, letters, and journals. These firsthand, eyewitness tales,
while filling in gaps in our understanding of the past, also give us a
different vantage point for viewing the trying events of 200 years ago when
cries of the British are coming rang out in the middle of the night.  Since the Chesapeake region is getting ready for the Bicentennial, we are periodically sharing the stories of some of these ordinary people.

Here’s an updated post about how a slave-woman, Hetty Boulden, helped the local militia turn the British back during the April 1813 incursion on the Elk River.  The narrative for the event is taken from Hetty’s telling of the story to a newspaper reporter.  We’ve been aware of the account for years, but recently located her obituary so we’re updating the Dec. 2009 piece with
that added information.


When a British raiding party stormed Frenchtown during the War of 1812 an African-American woman, as brave as any man in the Cecil Militia, exhibited a great deal of gumption as hundreds of Royal Marines plundered the hamlet.  Hetty Boulden, near twenty-years old, the slave who risked her life shielding Elkton, was the property of Frisby Henderson.  She, along with five other
servants, lived with the master’s family at White Hall, a fine mansion on the
banks of the river just north of the village.
Frenchtown was a place of some importance during this time for it was
the transfer point on the great travel and freight route between Philadelphia
and Baltimore.

Hetty gave an account of the pillaging of the upper Elk to a reporter from the Cecil Whig when she was 70 years old.  On a morning in April 1813 the lookouts at a small fortification protecting the area shouted “they’re coming, they’re coming” as the Royal Marines rowed into view.  Easily overrunning the small battery on the shoreline, the enemy proceeded to plunder and burn the wharf, fishery, warehouses, goods and vessels lying at anchor.

One company was ordered to advance to Elkton, a distance of about three miles.  Passing up the shoreline they stopped at the door of White Hall, where Mr. Henderson told them that the barges wouldn’t be able to reach the place by way of the creek. So an officer ordered Hetty to show the Royal Marines the way by land. Although she was terribly frightened, the enemy commander assured her that she wouldn’t be hurt. For her assistance in escorting them to the town they intended to loot, the military man said he would give her “more money than she could carry.”

The approaching invaders created a big scare in Elkton. Roads to the north were filled with women and children carrying bundles of every description while the men rallied to the nation’s defense and Hetty escorted the English through unfamiliar territory.  She could have easily and more safely marched
the enemy up the direct road to town but instead she fooled the contingent,
taking them to Cedar Point, opposite Fort Hollingsworth.

As they stood at the edge of the Big Elk Creek, directly in front of the garrison protection the county seat, the Militia responded with shot at the approaching enemy.  That was about noon and Hetty recalled that they took no cannon with them, only their muskets. The swearing soldiers, having been caused to blunder into range of local defenses, concluded they had better go back.  But they said they would torch everything.  Built about 1800, the Frenchtown Tavern survived the attack, but was destroyed by fire in the 1960s  Returning to White
Hall she heard them threaten to hang Mr. Henderson before his own door for
deceiving them.  Several of the barges approached Elkton by another route, going up the river. Militia there also fired upon the British and obstacles in the water halted the advance. The enemy, having neither grape nor canister shot with them, could do no harm so they rowed back down the river, the Americans firing away at them all the time.

Their primary objective achieved, the destruction of the military stores, warehouses, and vessels, they sailed back down the river. It was now the turn for Havre de Grace. Hetty recalled seeing the smoke from the burning town. She lived well into the second half of the 19th century.  When the aging African-American granted the interview she was residing with Dr. R. C. Carter of Cherry Hill.

Another paper, the Cecil Democrat, wrote about her passing in 1873, when she was between 90 and 100 years of age.  The weekly recalled that “she belonged to Captain Henderson, of Frenchtown, when that place was burned by the English Army . . . and was compelled by the commander to act as a guide to Elkton.”  Freed at some point, she worked in the household of Dr. R. C. Carter of Cherry Hill for 23 years, before becoming disabled by age.

Coastal Survey Map from the 1840s shows the waters of the Upper Chesapeake; Source NOAA


2 responses to “On the Day When the British Came to Loot Elkton, A Slave Leads the Invaders into an Ambush

  1. Thanks for the update, Mike. My students performed their little play today for the other 4th grade classes. They were a sight with their Goodwill store costumes & dollar store hats. The little girl who played Hetty Boulden really played it up… screaming “Let me go!! I’m not helping you!” I wish I had taken pictures, but I doubt they would have been able to stand still for the camera this time of year! I’ll bring you a copy of their play and the not-so-fancy playbill too.

  2. Beth what a informative thing you did with your class on acting out a play interpreting those events. Thanks

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