“At this period political discussions partook of much personal rancor and vituperation …” Those words are meant as a description of America in the 1820s, though it seems to me that they might just as well have been written about the current political environment.

James Stewart of Dorchester County, Maryland

James Stewart

… Mr. Stewart’s views at this time on the national issues impressed him that the principles of the Democratic party were best for the country; he therefore allied himself with the [Andrew] Jackson party. At this period political discussions partook much of personal rancor and vituperation. Professional standing and success depended greatly upon partisan sentiment and rivalry.

… As an incident of the times, the following “affair of honor,” in which he became involved with the Hon. Henry Page, may be mentioned: Mr. Page was then a member of the same Bar, a leading politician of the [John Quincy] Adams party. … Mr. Stewart took exception to certain conduct of Mr. Page, which was not sufficiently explained. Consequently, he sent him the usual invitation for a hostile meeting according to the code, which was accepted, and the parties met on the selected ground the next morning.

They drew lots and at the distance of ten paces exchanged shots without serious effect. The previous difficulty was [then] amicably adjusted and friendly relations resumed.

My reaction to that last sentence was this: “Wait, what?!!?” But alas, there is no further explanation offered. The quote is from the New Revised History of Dorchester County Maryland, a 1925 book by Elias Jones.

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The “Mr. Stewart” here is James Stewart. A young man at the time of this duel, he would later serve as a circuit court judge and then a Congressman. The Stewarts were a Dorchester County powerhouse in the years before the Civil War. They had big-time forestry and shipbuilding operations going in the Church Creek area.

All of which is leading up to the strange & fascinating little footnote that I want to leave you with here. It goes like this:

• In her time as a slave, Harriet Tubman worked in the Church Creek area for another member of the Stewart family, John. So did Tubman’s father, Ben Ross.

• Later, after Tubman helped her three brothers escape in 1854, the three of them settled in Canada.

• Fearing recapture, escaped slaves often gave themselves new names upon winning their freedom.

• Here are the names Harriet’s three brothers took on—Robert become “John Stewart,” Ben became “James Stewart,” and Henry became “William H. Stewart.”

• I have never come across a plausible theory in my reading as to why Harriet’s three brothers might decide, after escaping to freedom, to re-name themselves after members of a family whose ranks included prominent slaveholders back in Dorchester County.

It’s a crazy mystery to think about, isn’t it?

—research & writing by Jim Duffy




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