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Remembering Old Baltimore when it was near Aberdeen

In today's news, we read of the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's historical Fort McHenry and the origin of our "Star Spangled Banner."

We wonder, how many of us remember that before Baltimore on the Patapsco existed, there was a Baltimore Town right her in our part of Harford County, the Aberdeen Proving Ground to be exact. Old Baltimore was actually the county seat of Baltimore County for a few years, when Harford County was part of Baltimore County.

On the eastern shore at the present Chilbury Point, Baltimore Town was a tiny, but bustling tobacco port in 1680. At the edge of the frontier, Baltimore Town artifacts indicated that people enjoyed many of the fine possessions from Europe.

Old Baltimore Town lasted barely 40 years. It was a ferry landing and its tobacco port served the best tobacco-growing land in the upper bay. It was also a gateway to the wilderness. Authorities ordered a courthouse built there in 1674. Life centered around the "ordinary," a tavern established by a John Phillips, who had arrived in the 1650s. According to C. Milton Wright, the Old Baltimore was founded on land owned by William Osborne, who operated a ferry to cross Bush River at that point.

In 1678, Phillips married a cooper's widow and acquired her Baltimore Town property. He was very prosperous, and when he died in 1689 he owned a bit of land, five slaves, an indentured English woman, livestock, damask napkins, a violin and several guns. Debtors owned him 71,000 pounds, a great deal for those times.

Within a decade after his death, the county seat was moved from Old Baltimore Town to Joppa, and the Old Baltimore Town faded back into the wilderness.

The chronology from the "Atlas of Baltimore County of 1877" gives the events starting with John Smith's exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. Part of the listings is the 1660 formation of Baltimore County, presumably by the Lord Proprietary. By 1683, the Town of Baltimore was on the Bush River.

In 1729, Baltimore City was founded, and in 1774, Harford County was divided from Baltimore County. In 1812, the site of Fort McHenry, at Whetstone Point, was made famous by the writing of the "Star Spangled Banner."

So, what has been done over the years after the county seat was moved from Old Baltimore? We know that tobacco was being raised and there was a settlement of early Europeans, but we also know that the site was not just known for tobacco and taxes. The first settlers were Church of England parishioners. They worshipped and were schooled at St. George's Church. In 1773, the first Old Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church was formed. This is well recorded in my family journal, published by Drew University Library, "American Methodist Pioneer, Freeborn Garrettson." Credited as the first American Methodist circuit rider, Garrettson was born near Old Baltimore and was early schooled at St. George's.

In 1889, George W. Archer made a trip to Old Baltimore, and delivered to the Harford Historical Society a "running account of what he saw. "The only tombstones are those of James Phillips, his wife and three of their seven children. A fine slab of marble marks the graves of the parents. The other three have each a neat head and foot stone of marble."

Boat owners frequently stopped opposite the site for many years, for bathing from their boats. Some remembered visiting the grounds prior to 1918, after the site became part of the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In 1976, after so many years of near oblivion, Old Baltimore came back into its own with a ceremony on May 12, which we attended. A 182-year-old walnut tree dominated the Phillips Family graveyard at Old Baltimore, the only tangible evidence of the community that flourished there.

According to the "Baltimore Sun" of Dec. 22, 1998, archaeologists with R. Christopher Goodwin & Assoc. found traces of the first Baltimore at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

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