In this excerpt from the book Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva, a visit to Oxford, Maryland puts travelers in touch with stories about the slave trade there and the way some men found a way to freedom for them and their families by signing on to serve in the United States Colored Troops.
The little town of Oxford, Maryland on the Tred Avon River is chock full of history. There was a time back in the early 1700s when the colonial powers that be thought sure that Oxford was going to grow up to be the biggest trading center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. For a while, it looked like those prognostications would turn out to be true. By the mid-1700s, the town’s port was hosting as many as seven or eight large trading ships at a time, with cargo coming in from pretty much every corner of the world.
Alas, human cargo was part of the deal. On occasion, that cargo came into Oxford aboard large slave ships filled with enslaved West Africans from what we now know as the nation of Senegal. In 1770, the British ship Lancaster dropped off 124 slaves here after picking up 140 people in Senegal. The next year, Success Packet dropped off 104 slaves after picking up 134. The year after that, Success Packet returned, delivering 86 slaves after picking up 110.
The 70 souls who boarded those three ships in Senegal but didn’t make it to Oxford represent nearly 20 percent of the total. It’s possible that some of those souls were sold at ports along the way. It’s more likely that most died during a horrific, disease-laden voyage.
Human cargo arrived in Oxford by way of routine merchant ships, as opposed to the big slavers of Middle Passage infamy. These vessels would pick up a handful of slaves at a time while loading a variety of other goods from ports in the West Indies. For a while in this early period, there was apparently a trade in white indentured servants and convicts from Ireland and Scotland, too. Neither of those two categories ended up in anything like full bondage, however.
Oxford had a reputation early on as a reasonably cultured place, at least by the standards of the then-isolated Eastern Shore. But there are hints in the historical record of a darker side. In Talbot County: A History, Dickson J. Preston paraphrases and then quotes the words of ship captain Jeremiah Banning:
[Banning said that] it was not uncommon in those days for people “of the first class” to get together and boast of new and ingenious ways of whipping Negroes. “And I am sorry to say,” [he added], “that the ladies would too often mingle in the like conversation, and seem to enjoy it.”
Today, the port of Oxford is mainly a center for recreational boating. The town’s modern-day economy is built on tourism, with a steady stream of visitors drawn by one of the prettiest waterfronts on the Delmarva Peninsula, as well as an abundance of stately old buildings and trees. It’s a stroller’s paradise. Oxford is 12 miles from Easton by car, but in the warmer months it’s much more fun to find your way there from the Tred Avon River waterfront at Bellevue via a ferry crossing that ranks among the oldest such services in the country.
Right near where that ferry lands in Oxford, there is a historic marker that tells how the story of a day in which the story of slavery in Oxford made a dramatic turn toward emancipation.
A Road to Freedom: The United States Colored Troops
The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed slaves throughout the Confederate states but did not change the status of the slaves in Union states like Maryland where slavery was still legal. However, it did authorize the Union Army to recruit and enlist slaves into the United States Colored Troops. Those slaves received promises of bonus money, plus freedom upon discharge for themselves and their families.
Union General William Birney set up shop here in Oxford soon thereafter, recruiting slaves for the various colored regiments then being put together. One such mission unfolded on September 18, 1863 when the steamboat Champion departed Oxford loaded with new black recruits. A Quaker man named James Dixon was an observer that day:
The [slave] owners and others stood silent and thoughtful upon the wharf and beach, and as the steamer moved off, the colored people on board, waving their hats in good bye, broke out into one of their jubilant hymns, such as they were accustomed to sing in their religious meetings, for having no patriotic songs those hymns were converted into songs of deliverance from slavery.
A number of local slaves ended up serving in the 19th regiment of the United States Colored Troops. That unit participated in Civil War battles and skirmishes in Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia before ending up at Appomattox Court House for the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In a sense, the story of slavery and its aftermath in Oxford continues to unfold even today. The town is now home to the Water’s Edge Museum, which employs literature, paintings, lithographs, frescoes, and drawings to tell stories about what became of the descendants of men and women who were part of the human cargo that arrived in Oxford. The museum has a strong focus on the daily lives of working-class people–farmers, sailmakers, military figures, watermen, crab pickers, and countless other professions. The museum aims to present those lives as “an uplifting story of a people who tended to be relegated to the caste of the invisible.”
–posted by Jim Duffy on April 20, 2019 and updated in 2023 to note the opening of the Water’s Edge Museum.
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