From the Revolutionary War to Boomtown – The Story of the Nelson Family

One reason why lower Somerset County Maryland is such a close-knit community is because the majority of its current citizens are descended from a few dozen families dating back centuries.

In the early 1660’s, the Maryland Colony began to establish itself on the lower Eastern Shore and to form a boundary with Virginia, Cecil Calvert awarded land grants along the shoreline of the Tangier Sound, out to Smith Island and up the northern banks of the Pocomoke Sound.  For 200 years, families grew around these original settlements and formed villages like Potato Neck, Quindocqua, Lawsonia and many others, making their living by farming, shipping and working the water.

There are many families who played important roles in our story, this story is about the Nelsons and two characters in particular, Sacker and Thomas King Nelson – the patriarchs of this very large family.  Many locals are offspring from these two people, and incidentally, Sacker is my 7th great grandfather, King Nelson my 6th.  The story of these two men is quite extraordinary, and this family’s impact on the area can not be overstated.

Colonial Period

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Excerpt form an 1849 Geological Survey Map with areas relevant to the story.

The Nelson name is quite popular in America – as it is in England – dating back almost a thousand years.  Nelsons came over as early as Jamestown, however, a definitive link between Sacker and his ancestors has not been found to our knowledge.  It is believed he was born in the 1730’s but some of the earliest documentation we have on him is from 1773, when 476 acres of land was surveyed for Sacker Nelson on Fox Island, VA. [a]

Located six miles south of Crisfield, Fox Island is now almost completely washed away, though in Sacker’s and King Nelson’s time it was much different.  Trees of all types, fertile ground and all the natural resources needed to sustain a high quality of life were found on the island.  A century before Sacker, Virginia has records of patents that amount to 1600 acres of farm land on the island.

When someone looks out over the marsh at Jenkins Creek, it can be hard to imagine what their lives were like centuries ago, and that this marsh was once a byway for people going from the Annemessex area, down to Fox Island and beyond.  Crisfield local, boatbuilder and well known captain, Clement Sterling (1806-1873), said, “he [King Nelson] could come all the way from Watts island to Annamessex (Crisfield) with a fence log, and jump across.”[b]  Watts Island is six miles south of Fox Island and twelve miles south of Crisfield.  It’s clearly documented that much of this land was washed away or transformed into marsh by the early 1800’s, though prior to this, the Nelson’s and others made their life in this now desolate area.

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Photo taken from Arch Bridge over Jenkins Creek looking southwest over the salt-marsh that was once used to walk from Jenkins Creek to Fox Island and beyond.

The Revolution

A few years after his land on Fox Island was surveyed in 1773, Sacker, his wife Betty and son “Tommy,” as King was called as a child, would experience  firsthand one of the most turbulent times in American history – the Revolutionary War.  This period is quite extraordinary due to many factors.  One was the uncertainty of the American Colonies’ chances of actually defeating the largest empire on earth – Britain.

Many formidable questions pressed on everyone during that time, including the question of who would revolt and who would stay loyal to the British crown.  A person who chose not to side with the colonial rebellion was called a “tory,” most of these people however, were often motivated only by self-interest, being loyal to themselves alone.  Many of the tories quickly turned to piracy, pillaging farms and destroying peoples lives for profit.  Picaroons, the Chesapeake Bay pirate, caused great angst to the Nelsons and countless other colonialists.

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British landing party Revolutionary War.

At the outset of the rebellion, it appears that life remained relatively normal for Sacker and his family, but as the war waged on the Chesapeake Bay increasingly grew into a hotbed of activity for the British Navy, tories and picaroons.  The islands and villages on the Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds became prime striking ground for the pillaging of farms where they also kidnapped men and boys into service for the British crown.  The British built five barges in the summer of 1781 in Portsmouth, VA for the specific purpose of raiding farms along the shores of the Chesapeake.[c]

Sacker Nelson’s farm sat right in the middle of the Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds, and I often wonder how many nights he lied awake with his mind racing.  Asking himself questions like, “should I fight?” and “what will become of Betty and Tommy?”  I doubt if he pondered if his farm would be raided – but asked himself when.  These justifiable concerns notwithstanding, Sacker had other reasons to feel apprehension besides the bounty of his farm.  Mainly, because of his reputation for being an experienced sailing captain.  If the British was to be successful in the Chesapeake, they needed a knowledgeable pilot, a captain who could navigate their fleet through the waters of the Bay.   The enemy required someone just like Sacker.

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British troops raiding a farmstead.

The apprehension that the Nelson family had on Fox Island was surely overwhelming when seeing the masts of vessels in the Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds.  Questioning if it was a friend approaching, or was it the British, pirates or a combination of the two coming to destroy their lives, or even end them.

One source states that as late as 1780 the Nelson’s were still keeping home on Fox Island, in spite of the fact that the British had moved into the area.  In the winter of this year the Nelsons were visited by a young man named Job Parks of Tangier Island, who had undergone a 30 mile journey across the frozen marsh and ice to reach Fox Island.   After a change of clothes, and while possibly eating a hot meal, Job certainly explained the circumstances that forced him to take such a perilous journey.[d]

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A frozen scene similar to what Sacker Nelson would’ve seen in the winter of 1780.

We can only imagine the fear that must’ve gripped the Nelson family when Job told them he’d escaped from a British regiment after being captured at Kedges Straights on the north end of Smith Island.   The first question Sacker most likely asked himself was how long would it be before the ice melted in the Tangier Sound, for when it thawed the British would be coming, and this they did.

In a sworn statement from King Nelson, the British came in the dead of night and raided his father’s farm not once, but twice and even burning their home along with all their belongings.[e]  William Nelson, son of Thomas King, testified under oath that his father had told him that his grand-dad Sacker and father escaped by “running into the bushes or rushes,” another source states they “hid in the bushes, or marshes.”[f]  The terror this father and son had while hiding in the reeds, trying not to make a sound must’ve been overwhelming.  I picture King, being a young man, ready to challenge these raiders.  His anger growing while watching the British burn the farmstead he grew up on but was held back by his father who knew what their fate would be if they fought back.

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Revolutionary War – American Militiamen.

The British and picaroons were terrorizing families all over the area, though as stated, they most certainly wanted Sacker because of his reputation as a captain and his knowledge of the bars and oyster reefs.  The British finally succeeded in capturing Sacker and forced him to take the helm, though Sacker defiantly refused.  In their frustration, the British threw him into the gangway, or the hold of the ship, breaking his thigh and crippling him for life.  It was under these circumstances that King and many others joined the local militias to prevent the marauders from continuing these horrible acts.

As the years passed the British campaign grew more desperate, as did the frequency of their raiding missions and acts of piracy.   It was because of this that King saw frequent action during the two years he fought in the militia.

Sackertown – Building a Family

A few years after the war King married Grace Sterling and had their first child, John who was born in 1788.  It was around this time that Sacker sold his land on Fox Island moving steadily north and by the early 1800’s, both he and King were purchasing land in the Jenkins Creek area.   Sacker must’ve been a vigorous fellow, as he was now in his 70’s, physically handicapped but was still doing business and dealing real estate.   King, now well into his fifties, was still having children with the previously mentioned William being just four years old when another conflict broke out, the War of 1812.

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Excerpt from an 1809 deed showing Ciker Nelson [Sacker] purchasing land from William Juett.

Sacker and King most certainly had flashbacks of the Revolution when the British began to raid local farms.  In April of 1814 the British came into the Little Annemessex, burning seven vessels along with stealing and destroying cannons.  A report of the size of the fleet was given as “twelve sail, including a seventy-four [ship with 74 guns].”[g]  There were accounts that the invaders were marching cattle off of farms, and the enemy set their sights on Jenkins Creek, right at the doorstep of Sacker and King’s land.  In the dark hours of the night, the British sent a detachment up Jenkins Creek.  As these men paddled their boats towards the shoreline, they were unaware of the small militia force listening to their approach.  When the splash from the oars got close, the locals opened fire.  The enemy returned fire but quickly withdrew, and the Nelson land was sparred.

1812
Early 19th Century British Naval vessel.

Sacker lived almost two decades after this war, well into his nineties enjoying his constantly expanding family, many of which stayed right in Sackertown. 

King lived a long fruitful life as well having over 170 offspring when he passed.[h]  King had eight children himself, his oldest boy John had eleven and four of John’s kids married into the family that lived on the south side of Jenkins Creek, the Lawson’s.  King’s other children married into other families that are prominent in the area like Sterling, Riggin, Ward, Somers and Tawes families.  Connections like this is why so many Crisfielders are distant relatives, and one reason why the town is such a close-knit community.

Two of King’s offspring that were mentioned above are John and William.  John passed in 1864, while the nation was stricken with war and two years prior to the railroad’s arrival.  William died in 1881 and lived to see the boom-town of Crisfield rise from the water and the influx of hardened sailors that harvested the bounty of the Bay to be shipped nationwide.

Preserving Our Story

One of the greatest assets Crisfield and all of lower Somerset County has is our history.  The stories date back well over 350 years and theses people’s struggles, accomplishments and aspirations are fascinating, and, equal to any being told.  The mission of The Crisfield Story Project is two-fold.  One, to raise awareness of our story with locals and to share our heritage with visitors.  The second is documenting and preserving our local historical assets.   We are doing this ourselves and by partnering with other groups and individuals.

One group we’re happy to be working with is Jennifer and Scott Smith, owners of the historic property called the Nelson Homestead.  This is the home of William Nelson, son of King.

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Lecture at the Nelson Homestead, September 2016.

Jen and Scott are taking effective measures to preserve and restore this home and when completed, planning to share the Nelson Homestead with others via educational activities and as a retreat for songwriters.  As of February 2017, soil tests are underway that are being done so the home can be lifted above the critical flood area and the construction of a new foundation. 

Their progress can be followed by visiting: Updates from the Nelson Homestead.

In September of 2016, Jen and Scott had us lead a restoration project of the William Nelson Family Cemetery.  In one weekend, students and staff from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – University Engagement and Lifelong Learning and other volunteers removed overgrowth, cleaned, re-erected and documented over twenty graves of William’s children and grandchildren.  This project was a tremendous success, one that brought attention to, and preserved this historical landmark.

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The Paden family with the marker of William Nelson, son of King.  Left to Right: Alex Paden (Joe’s son), Lorina (Linda’s daughter), Linda (maiden name Nelson) & Joe (Linda’s son).

On Saturday, March 26, 2017 we will be conducting a restoration of “Nelson’s Plot,” the cemetery for John Nelson and his family, and, believed by some to be the place King Nelson himself is buried.  Nelson’s Plot is located on the land Sacker and King lived over 200 years ago. Watch the short video for information on the condition of the cemetery.

To make this project a success we need volunteers to come spend a few hours that Saturday.  In addition, we are also requesting donations for the purchase of materials to restore the cemetery.

Please help us save this historic area.  We’re having local historians speak in the morning, and making the day a special event.  We are planning on not only saving history, but making it as well.  Click on the link below to donate to the cause.

GoFundMe – Nelson Plot

Please follow us on facebook to get updates, you may also email us at: TheCrisfieldStoryProject@gmail.com to get all the information needed.

Thank you for reading, please like and share.

[a]: Teackle, (1773) T. Register of Land Office.  Richmond, VA; Book 14, Page 196.
[b]: Walker, R.F., Superintendent of public printing. (1873) Final report of the Virginia commissioners on the Maryland and Virginia boundary to the governor of Virginia. Deposition of Clement Sterling.  Page 210.
[c]” Peterman D., & Kathryn H. (2015). The archaeology of engagement: Conflict and revolution in the United States.  Texas A&M University Press. Page 87.
[d]: Evans, J. (1997) Island Living Rough When Bay Freezes Over. Spring 1997 issue of the Crisfield & Smith Island newsletter.
[e]: Wilson, W. (1974) Thirty four families of old Somerset County, MD. Gateway Press. Page 517.
[f] Walker. (1873) Deposition of William Nelson. Page193
[g] April 11, 1814 edition of Republican Star. Easton MD.
[h] Wilson. Page 517.

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