For all the arresting folklore and history connected with Elkton’s past two brothers who lived here 200-years-ago provide one of our best sources for gleaning insights about the high drama that took place 0n the winding Elk River when a British raiding party attacked in 1813. The sons of Captain John Sample, a veteran of the war and the Battle of Baltimore, spent their boyhood years growing up in Elkton, while playing along the Big and Little Elk creeks.
The father, a carpenter, moved the family out west, settling in Indiana around 1819. Both became judges and pursued high profile public service careers. In their dwindling years, the one brother, in particular, enjoyed reliving the memory of the many unforgettable scenes and incidents of their early life.
The elder son, The Hon. Samuel Caldwell Sample, was born in Elkton on August 15, 1796, and served in the militia at Fort Hollingsworth (Elk Landing). Once the family settled in Connersville, Indiana, he read law, passed the bar exam, and commenced practicing in South Bend. Over time the lawyer held a number of public offices and was sent to Congress in 1843 as a Whig. He died on December 2, 1855.
Thomas Jefferson Sample, the prolific writer, recalled many scenes and incidents about “how the red-coats beat up our quarters so often in Elkton.” He was born in the town on November 4, 1800, and also became a judge. Although the aging man never returned to the place of his youth, he displayed an interest in the old town throughout his long life. “Days of my boyhood are long vanished and gone” but “I often go back in memory to old Elkton and visit the places once so familiar” he told the Cecil Whig as the paper brought back memories of former names and spots he knew very well. He died in New Albany, Indiana on July 7, 1882.
British warships sailed into the Chesapeake in early 1813 as England wanted to bring the heavy hand of war to vulnerable towns, ports, and plantations in the region. When the fleet dropped anchor near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, the entire area was thrown into a state of alarm as residents living near the waterways knew they were in for trouble.
Thomas wrote about sixteen letters, portions of them recalling this time when the Chesapeake was infested with “marauding parties” and accessible villages were in danger. “I was too young when the War of 1812 occurred to perform military duty, but I contributed to aid and comfort our brave boys who served. . . . Elk River came in for a full share; also Sassafras and all other accessible rivers and streams.. They burnt Havre de Grace. I saw distinctly the smoke ascending from the burning. . . . Elkton would have been burnt, only for the measures taken by our authorities to prevent it. They had early in the war erected at the Landing an earthen-work just below the two story-story stone house standing yet. . .”
The enemy’s first major expedition in Cecil took the invaders up the Elk River. On the morning of April 29, about 150 marines and five artillerymen rowed toward Frenchtown. As the county seat had to fend for itself, the citizens erected defenses at strategic points, incuding Frenchtown and Elk Landing. At a spot on the west side of the river, about a mile below Elkton, a fortificaiton called Fort Defiance was thrown up.
The old man, reflecting on incidents that took place nearly seventy years earlier as the enemy rowed up the river, described the defense of Elkton. There was, he said, an earthen fort with six cannons and a barrier thrown across the river at Thomas Point. “They were cowardly dogs and that barrier and that battery saved Elkton from the fate of Havre de Grace,” he noted. “I remember doing one day’s work for my country at Frenchtown, helping to build a log battery on the wharf. The piratical bands . . . burnt several of Mr. Henderson’s line of packets at Frenchtown.”
Fort Hollingsworth, the Elk Landing fortification, was often part of those unforgettable memories deeply impressed on a youngster’s mind. The redoubt was near the stone house, where a tavern was kept in the early days, he said. When a cannon blew-up during the celebration of peace, a large piece of the gun was “thrown into one of the windows of the stone house which stood near-by.”
In the Dead of Night
The brothers weren’t going to forget the terrifying experience of fleeing the enemy in the dead of the night as the hue and cry rang out that the British were coming. It created a big scare in Elkton, as a letter penned a generation earlier, possibly by Samuel, explained. “The roads leading north were filled with people, principally women and children . . . carrying bundles of every description. . . . Our sanctuary was usually at Mr. John Thompsons’ near Newark. . . . These British troops act the part of freebooters or pirates. They used to land on gentlemen’s estate and rob and ravage and burn stacks of grain and farm houses, and they called this civilized warfare.”
After overrunning Frenchtown, the Royal Marines tried to approach Elkton by way of the river and land. The defenses they met forced the advancing unit to the abandon the attempt. Ending their effort to conquer this territory, the British sailed away from Fort Defiance, Cedar Point and Fort Hollingsworth and rounded Turkey Point.
“I have no good feeling for the English nation and never can have, for I remember with feelings, amounting almost to wrath, how we suffered the depredations of the English and can not to this day determine why they were warring with us. I wish I could, at this distant day, understand why.” Samuel concluded months before his death.
Consisting of about eighteen letters in total, these old pieces penned so long ago by eyewitnesses, provide one more fascinating sources, allowing us to attempt to understand the most stirring events that occurred on the Elk River, a time when the enemy was on our shores. As we look for evidence based conclusions about one of the biggest historic events in the local sources, they provide one more source for us to consider. They’re also very helpful for understanding Elkton during the first two decades of the 1800s, as they are richly detailed with information and remembrances about the town and the people. The letters are found in the newspaper files at the Historical Society of Cecil County.
Editor’s Note: The map of Elk Landing is a 19th century deed showing the Landing, including the lower wharf and the old stone-house. Source: Cecil County Land Records.