Just between Saltpeter Creek and Dundee Creek on the eastern side of Baltimore County, Marshy Point Nature Center attracts bountiful wildlife to its Upper Chesapeake Bay wetlands. On any given visit a guest might encounter frogs and toads in its vernal pools, seasonal ponds that dry up in the summer, or see majestic eagles soaring above the creek. Kids love checking out the chickens, owls and vultures near the nature center.
But its sights aren’t limited to wildlife.
Just past a dry-docked boat in the parking lot sits a gray tombstone from more than 200 years ago. Few of the visitors to the county’s Marshy Point Nature Center even realize it’s there, much less stop to read its inscription:
“In Memory of CASSANDOR HAMILTON Who Departed this Life October 1 1794 Aged 42 Years.”
A few years ago, Parkville resident Daniel Dean became fascinated with the site and the mysteries it seemed to hold. His curiosity was sparked after reading a park booklet speculating that Hamilton, buried down below, could have been a soldier who fought in the French and Indian War.
Delving into centuries-worth of archives — and using some ground-penetrating radar — he and others began a quest that ultimately uncovered more than a dozen other graves nearby — and opened a can of worms on the park’s history.
In a past life, Marshy Point was home to an exclusive hunting club, whose visitors included a U.S. president, Babe Ruth and even sharpshooter Annie Oakley, according to a history on the park’s website.
That would have been long after Cassandor Hamilton ever walked these parts.
Through the generations, Hamilton’s tombstone became something of a park oddity, left undisturbed but also unexplored when Baltimore County purchased the land in 1982 and turned it into a public park.
“We think it’s the best park around,” said Dave Oshman, president of the Marshy Point Nature Center Council, who, like Dean, became curious about the provenance of the park’s 18th century headstone.
To find out more about Hamilton, Dean, an amateur historian who works full time for a coffee and tea supplier, researched genealogy websites and state land records and archives. He found a listing of a landowner named “Cassandra Hamilton, nee Bond.” She inherited the land from her father, William Bond.
Despite the difference in spelling — “Cassandor” versus “Cassandra” — and a slight discrepancy in the age at the time of death, Oshman and Dean are sure that it’s the same person buried at the site in Marshy Point. Given that so many people couldn’t read in the 18th century, Oshman says, “It wasn’t uncommon for misspellings to happen.”
“We’re 99.9% sure there’s no one else it could be,” Dean said.
Cassandor, who some assumed to be a man, was most likely a woman.
Beyond that, the records don’t tell much about who Hamilton was or what she was like. She was related to some powerful people. An uncle and his family helped settle Fells Point. She married James Hamilton, though some spellings list it “Hambleton.”
“We kind of know her birth date, her marriage date and the date she died and that’s about it,” Oshman said.
She and her family also were enslavers, according to 1783 tax records, which show that she and her mother counted five people among their property.
In addition to Hamilton’s tombstone, Dean and Oshman had noticed stone fragments nearby that they thought could be grave markers. Earlier this year, the Maryland Historical Trust used ground-penetrating radar to survey the surrounding area — running over the land with a device Dean compared to a “little lawn mower.” Preliminary results found “14 shaft anomalies suggestive of burials.”
For the most part, this 18th century gravesite is “forgotten in the woods,” said Dean, who now holds the title of research chair for Marshy Point Nature Center Council in Baltimore County. Together, he and Oshman put up signs to let visitors know that the area is a cemetery — so they should please be respectful.
Dean’s quest to unearth the park’s history isn’t finished. Together with a Towson professor and archaeological adviser, he’s planning an archaeological dig of Hamilton’s home. Someday they may exhume the graves and do DNA testing to learn more about the site — though there’s no guarantee that any fragments will have survived the centuries in the marshy ground below.
“You’ve got to have a tooth and a section of a bone,” he said.
It’s also an expensive process that raises ethical issues, Oshman added.
Could some of the enslaved people be lying in rest nearby?
“The records show that there weren’t that many family members that lived around there,” Oshman said.
Hamilton does not appear to have had any children. Any grave marked with a simple fieldstone, he thinks, could be the grave of an enslaved person.
Dean and Oshman also recently sent Hamilton’s headstone to a conservator in Pennsylvania who patched up pieces that had been broken over the years. For Middle River residents like Oshman, the stone is a connection to the past and to the people who first built homes here.