The History of Pemberton Park in Wicomico County
THE LOWER EASTERN SHORES' "ROOTS" AND BRANCHES - ISAAC HANDY'S 1741 PEMBERTON HALL
A few years ago we were all spellbound as author Alex Haley lead us on a journey back to his "Roots", where it all began for his family. For hundreds of families and tens of thousands of individuals their family roots are planted in the soils of the Lower Eastern Shore. This was what is known today as "Old Somerset County". In the 17th, 18th, and into the 19th century Somerset County was composed of what is now Wicomico, Somerset, Worcester Counties Maryland and 25 miles into what is Lower Sussex County Delaware (until the 1750s and the Mason Dixon Line). The original Somerset County Court and Land records, going back to first settlement in the 1660s are, according to scholars, the most complete colonial records in the United States, "Old Somerset" is considered a "cultural hearth" for the people of The United States. The Handy Family, with its many branches now spread all over this country, is a prime example of this cultural phenomenon. The Handy family's roots go deep into this early cultural soil. Samuel Handy came to Somerset County in the 1670s as an indentured servant. As a Redemptioner he owned nothing including his own labor until his release from servitude after seven to ten years. Yet, at his death in 1721, he would own over 2000 acres and ships plying the coastal trade. He and his wife Mary Sewell raised 15 children. The 13th child, Isaac, was taken to live with his older brother in Bermuda at age 13. He was trained as a mariner and ship master of the sloop Samuel and Mary. He was to later inherit half interest in this sloop at his father's death.
When Isaac reached his majority in 1726 he returned to join his older brothers in Somerset County along the banks of the Wicomico River (then known as the "Rockawalkin River"). He married Anne Dashiell, and acquired 960 acres of undeveloped land from Joseph Pemberton. At the time of his purchase, opposite his new holdings, on the southern bank of the river, was "Tondotank Indian Town" part of a reservation established by the Provincial Assembly.
He became a planter and a ships' Master. Through hard work, industry and his advantageous marriage (Anne was also the sister to the wives of two of his older brothers) he began to rise in society and to become very prominent in the community of the Lower Eastern Shore. In addition to owning interests in 3 ships, he was appointed a Justice of the Peace (combination of judge and commissioner), colonel in the Somerset militia, and a member of the Provincial Assembly in Annapolis. He was one of the founders of the City of Salisbury, as well. Isaac, along with four others, was appointed to purchase the land and to lay out "Salisbury Town" in 1732. Historians today rank him in the upper 5-6% of wealth in Somerset County at the time of death in 1762. This includes ownership of sixteen enslaved Africans and over 1500 acres of land. In 1741 Isaac completed construction of his new brick, plantation house, to be named Pemberton Hall. It was built to be an expression of his perceived prominence in the community. All of the components utilized in the building, except for the window glass and iron hardware, were created on the Plantation including the thousands of bricks needed for laying the walls. Building Pemberton Hall was a way to show off the status and wealth that he had achieved and it was a major undertaking for this period in time and place. The Hall or Great room in Pemberton Hall would have been twice the size of the entire house for 90-95% of the people of the Chesapeake Bay region of the early to mid eighteenth century. Indeed, the first house that he and Anne occupied 9 built in 1726) at Pemberton plantation measured no more than 16 by 20 feet with a 10 foot separate kitchen structure. Isaac and Anne would raise 9 of their 11 children in that (by today's standard) small structure before constructing Pemberton Hall eighteen years after the original patent.
Two hundred and fifty years later, in the mid 1960s Pemberton Hall was an abandoned derelict and very close to being bulldozed into the cellar hole. To save it from eminent destruction and to undertake careful and full restoration, The Pemberton Hall Foundation Inc. was formed, it is a private, nonprofit organization governed by a Board of Directors. Today this ancient gem stands fully restored to its eighteenth century appearance. It is the only original eighteenth century plantation house open to the public on Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore. Pemberton Hall is unique in its completeness. The extensive documentary research carried out to insure accurate restoration includes five probate inventories, (including three from the 18th century). These probate inventories are court documents taken at Handy family members deaths. They have enabled the Pemberton Hall Foundation to restore to the original setting the accurate eighteenth century interior furnishings and objects. An example of the in depth, ongoing research being conducted includes a state of the art spectral and chemical analysis of the interior and exterior paint layers. This was completed in order to restore to Pemberton Hall the original bright paint hues utilized at the time of Pemberton Hall's construction in 1741. This includes a vibrant "Prussian Blue" in the Great room. Utilizing this hue at the time would have been a very expensive undertaking. It was designed to impress his visitors and it would immediately indicate his status to his peers. Currently being built (to be in place in early summer 2008), is a reproduction of the "sawn log" "Milk House" with compound dovetailed corners, to be erected on its original foundation. The information to reproduce this structure is derived from the 18th century plantation tax records, archeological investigations and extensive architectural research. This structure joins the split rail "snake fences" the wooden lined well with well sweep and other plantation features restored to their original locations. Eventually all of the original "dependency" structures and features of the 18th century plantation will be reproduced and interpreted. This includes the 16 foot log "slave quarter". Underwater archeology and Dendrocronology (tree ring dating) have revealed a part of Isaac Handy's plantation known as "Mulberry Landing" wharf. This unique wharf structure is still in place under the silted in river mud. The huge, still existing, 200 foot long timbers of this bulkhead wharf were laid down in spring of 1747. The State of Maryland's underwater archeologist, Dr. Susan Langley, states in her published report on this excavation, that the remains of Mulberry Landing are "the oldest documented wharf of its kind in the United States".
The Pemberton Hall Foundation conducts hands on educational programs for over 700 school students annually. These students come to learn about and to experience "Growing up on a colonial Eastern Shore plantation". They also learn of their responsibility to preserve our shared common legacy. In addition, each year large numbers of "heritage tourist" visit Pemberton Hall from all across the United States and several foreign countries to learn about eighteenth century life as experienced on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. These numbers are growing steadily each year. It is very interesting to note that a few of the visitors in 2007 came from five separate branches of the Handy Family. They came at different times, from different parts the United States to visit and experience Pemberton Hall and to discover their "Roots". None of these various named branches of Isaac and Anne's family tree knew of the others. Pemberton Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated by the National Park Service as one of their key "Chesapeake Gateway Sites." In addition to guided tours of Pemberton Hall, Interpretive panels spaced throughout the core of the historic Plantation and an interpretative fold out map brochure gives visitors a glimpse of eighteenth century life at Pemberton Hall Plantation.
The Wicomico County Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism created 260 acre Pemberton Historical Park in the 1980s to surround the Pemberton Hall Foundation property and Pemberton Hall. Pemberton Historical Park contains a five mile Nature trail system with a Naturalist on site and preserves three of the original 1750 boundaries of Isaac Handy's Pemberton Hall Plantation. This trail system exhibits every habitat present within the lower Eastern Shore except a salt marsh. The Park mission is to provide a setting that blends together history and the natural environment. So, why not plan a visit back in time this spring or summer to Isaac Handy's Pemberton Hall. Maybe you too will discover your historic Lower Eastern Shore "Roots". Open hours for Pemberton Hall are May through October 3 days a week and by appointment. It is best to phone ahead for directions or pick up one of the rack cards at the tourism office. To schedule an appointment for a special tour please phone: 410-742-1741 or 410 -742-4182. There is a small admission charge and donations are encouraged.