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Looking In Past For A Family Link


It began as a personal search for a possible ancestor, a chance sally into the foggy fields of genealogy. At the end of the quest, I found George Washington.

Never a dedicated burrower in the dusty halls of records or a rummager in the hidden archives of browned brittle volumes, I am occasionally enticed into taking a look at places that might have some connection to my family.

There's no grand family tree to fill in, no lineage on a scroll that stretches back to Edward the Confessor. Just a page of paper that goes back four generations or so with some familiar last names and mostly unknown individuals, reconstructed from some scattered papers in a drawer but mostly from the memory of my mother.

Her mother's name was Sutton, and though I knew of no ancestral linkage to Maryland. I was intrigued when I heard offhand of a Revolutionary-era tavern that was once called Sutton's in northern Harford.

That former hostelry along Md. 23, or the Big Road as it was called in the yesteryear, was better known as the Black Horse Tavern. The appellation endures in the name of the village four miles north of Jarrettsville, where a historical marker marks the site of the hotel.

The establishment that once stood there was more a hotel and restaurant than a drinking establishment, with a row of stables out back for the horses (and for unlucky travelers who found no room at the inn). In fact, the Black Horse at one time was distinguished as a "temperance tavern," one that did not dispense strong drink.

The nearby farms were populated by various members of the Henderson family, who acquired the acreage at the crossroads and the tavern in the early 1800s. The larger area, known as the Barrens for its thin soil and scrubby appearance, was once a part of the Jarrett lands.

Robert Henderson, the purchaser, was known to own a strong team of black horses. But the name Black Horse Tavern was chosen by an unknown former owner, who painted the steed on the roadside sign.

The green and white house that stands there today was never a tavern. The Rev. Thomas Henderson, an educator and surveyor as well as a preacher, built the residence in 1849 on the site of the Black Horse. Parson Henderson, reputed to be the most educated man in the county, also built a boys' boarding school on the property and achieved modest renown by publishing grammar and algebra textbooks.

Later, he converted the school to a general store, with post office. His son added a veterinary office.

The name Black Horse has endured for nearly 150 years after the tavern's demise, though it no longer has a post office. The original inn sign was taken long ago. About 1970, historical researchers found it stored in the basement of the house and restored it. Travelers along Route 23 can now see the tavern sign on the corner of Troyer Road.

The trip was a reminder of the role taverns played in the past centuries, as outposts of civilization along the highway. At least four hostelries were located along the six miles of Route 23 between Black Horse and Norrisville, near the Pennsylvania line.

It was an important trade road between York, Lancaster and Baltimore. The inns did a thriving business with frequent travelers and traders carrying wagons loaded with tobacco, grain and flaxseed.

Because of the wayside inn, Black Horse became a rural trade center. The venerable Harford historian C. Milton Wright pointed out that it had, a school and church and blacksmith and wheelwright shops, in addition to the general store.

I never did find out who this fellow Sutton was, the one whose name had been linked to the tavern at one time. A vague brief reference, repeated but never elaborated on, was all that I could discover. A common name, perhaps. Or another lost thread in the complex weaving of my family?

George Washington? Well, three years before the War of Independence, Squire Washington slept at the Black Horse en route to his Mount Vernon estate from Columbia College in New York, where he left his stepson. Jackie Custis. That is the reason for the historical marker on the road.

And no, I couldn't find any genealogical connection to General George, either.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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