Brunswick: How It All Began
Author’s note: This is the first of an ongoing series of stories on the continuing evolution of Brunswick. While we recognize that much of what you’ll read has already been covered, we hope to expand on what you know, and inform new residents of the history of our small, but consequential city that precedes and intersects with key junctures of American history.
From the time of Native Americans, who lived along the Potomac River banks, to the advent of European settlers, especially Germans, who migrated south from Pennsylvania Dutch country to find fertile farmland in Maryland and Virginia, the City of Brunswick has gone by many names. As James Castle asked in his 3rd segment of the Brunswick Heritage Museum’s “Brunswick 101” video series, “what’s in a name?”
Here’s an explanation, which is often complicated. The story also touches on the development of the southern edge of Frederick County that borders Virginia and West Virginia, and Frederick itself.
At the River’s Edge
It all begins with the river. The original town was built along the lowlands several generations before the B&O Railroad yard necessitated a move up along the hills.
Brunswick’s founding father, Leonard Smith shared a dream with an acquaintance named George Washington, that the Potomac River could become a navigable commercial waterway to the Chesapeake Bay. Because of the rapids, whirlpools, shallow waters, and extreme river drop at Great Falls, Washington envisioned a work around that would eventually become the C&O canal.
According to the 1990 Brunswick History Commission book, Brunswick: 100 Years of Memories, Washington didn’t sleep in town, but his horses did. “In one of his explorations, Washington left horses at the home of Captain John Smith, son of Leonard Smith. There are two theories as to where Smith’s farm was. One says it was in the vicinity of the lock house; another that it was East of 10th Ave possibly on what used to be the old B&O farm.”
In any case, it is apparent that Smith’s hopes for a trading port at the eastern base of the Potomac Water Gap led to his 1787 platting of Berlin, which eventually was renamed Brunswick. More to come on that.
In the Beginning
The area that was christened Brunswick for good in 1890 was originally home to the Susquehanna Native American tribe. When the first European immigrant settlement was built by Abraham Pennington in 1728, the region became known as “Eel Town” because the natives fished for eel in the shallow waters of the Potomac River.
In fact, “Eel Pot Flats” or “Eel Pot Fords” was an early name for settlements at the Potomac River crossing where the city limits of Brunswick begin. The water flats along the river on the Maryland side, which form the basis for the tree line on the northern side along with a honeycombed structure of low islands and multiple water channels between them, provided an ideal haven for eels. Native Americans in the area commonly set out basket traps, later called “eel pots” by European settlers, to catch them.
According to Pepper Scotto, who wrote on the Smoketown History Facebook page:
“Eels were trapped in the Potomac (before and during) colonial times. Also, Fish Pot Island in the Potomac, closer to Point of Rocks, was supposed to have been a Native American fishing spot. The island was rented out to 5 or 6 different families to have exclusive fishing rights for one day of the week. A few of the local older men, now gone, talked about going to the river in the morning to check the ‘eel pots’ before going to school.”
To those who doubt the existence of eels in the Potomac in recent times, Joyce Miller added her family’s experience in the mid-20th Century: “My father Charles Norris caught many eels from the Potomac and my great-grandmother loved them. This made a big hit with my mom’s family which made him a good “catch” for my mom.
Born in Cecil County sometime around 1670, Abraham Pennington was a trader attracted by Native Americans and the steady migration of German immigrants moving south. These immigrants gave Eel Pot its next two names: “German Crossing” and by the late 1700s, “Berlin”.
According to Chris Haugh In his HSP History Blog post titled “Smithtown: One Name Brunswick Hasn’t Had“: “Pennington’s tract was named ‘Coxson’s Rest’, near the location of today’s Lock 30 of the C&O canal. This was a narrow, riverfront property stretching nearly three miles along the Potomac and one mile inland. Other frontiersman and government officials simply called this place ‘Pennington’s’, as it was a lone beacon amidst a vast wilderness environ of marshy mud flats, not unlike the famed bayou country of Louisiana. In the preceding few decades, the shores from current day Brunswick to the Monocacy Aqueduct served as home to settlements of the Tuscarora and Piscataway native peoples. During this habitation, earlier place names for Pennington’s vicinity were based on memorable animals-in-residence—“Eel Pot Flats” and “Buffalo Wallows.”
In the early days, buffaloes grazed on the river bottom lands. The land has been mined for Buffalo bones along with Native American artifacts for generations.
Pepper Scotto added some more local color: “South of the mouth of Catoctin Creek, land was granted to John Magruder known as ‘Kittoctin Bottom’ for 250 acres, not all lying along the river, but diverted up Catoctin Creek on the east side, then up to the higher land toward Point of Rocks. Magruder was a businessman, with ferries, taverns, and land speculations. In 1740, he gave 150 acres to James Hook, who lived in that area for at least several years before. Hook immediately gave 50 acres to his younger brother John. Both built homes by 1740 in the area we call ‘Lander’ today.”
The origins of Brunswick Crossing
Getting back to ‘Coxson’s Rest’, Chris Haugh continued: “Pennington devised a water ferry at Coxson’s Rest. This would launch a long line of ferry operators, including a wealthy native southern Marylander by the name of John Hawkins, Sr. (1713-1758).
Hawkins took the reins from Pennington when he departed for Virginia, before moving to South Carolina where he died in 1756. This shallow, portage spot to the Virginia colony became the ‘Chesapeake Bay Bridge’ of its day. The importance of the place was recognized by adventurous early European settlers heading south and westward as ‘German Crossing’ and ‘Potomac Crossing.’”
A generation between the Pennington settlement and the American Revolution, King George II of England granted a 3,100-acre tract of land to John Hawkins, Sr. on August 10, 1753. The grant bore the name “Hawkins Merry-Peep-o-Day”. According to the Brunswick History Commission book, this expanse bordered “Merryland Tract” to the North, near present day Souder Road. South Mountain was to the West. To the east, was “Haw Bottom” in the Boss Arnold area.
For further perspective, Reuben Moss wrote in Smoketown History: “Hawkins’ Merry Peep O’Day covered, (the southern Middletown Valley section) from the mouth of the Catoctin River to the Sandy Hook/Harpers Ferry area, and maybe up to around Jefferson. Brunswick lies somewhere in the middle of the riverfront Merry Peep O’Day land.
Why was it called by that strange name and where exactly was it?
Chris Haugh wrote: “This land title is said to have derived from the romantic image of an early morning sunrise view looking eastward from this vantage point, with the sun gradually “peeping” over Catoctin Mountain.”
Talking about how Frederick County evolved as land was transferred from the English Crown to the landed gentry of the times, Moss explained: “Plots of the land grants, which made up what is now Frederick County, were relatively inexpensive. Those ‘prime’ lands had been granted to people like Benjamin Tasker, who received the land that is now Frederick and tried to get high prices, but couldn’t compete with the surrounding cheaper grants, such as Hawkins’ Merry Peep O’Day, which is now southern Frederick County.
Tasker sold much of his land (where the name of the sub-development behind the Frederick “Golden Mile” comes from) for almost nothing to a man, who called it “Tasker’s Chance” and founded Fredericktowne…and through that purchase, ended up making a fortune selling off farm plots to German farmers for much less than Tasker had been asking.”
Bad bet on Tasker’s part.
Getting back to the origins of Brunswick
Chris Haugh tells us: “John Hawkins, Sr. died in 1758 and his property was conveyed to his sons. The property sifted through multiple owners, as did the popular ferry. One of the interesting owners of this period was a man named Christian Slimmer, who operated from the Virginia shore on lands formerly owned by British Parliament member Charles Bennet, 3rd Earl of Tankerville (1716-1767). In 1778, Slimmer had received his license from the Virginia legislature to operate his aptly named “Tankerville Ferry” to the Maryland side. In the process, the area is said to have taken on the name of ‘Tankerville’ for a duration.”
The area now known as Brunswick started as a 200-acre section of the Hawkins ‘Merry Peep O’ Day’ property that was acquired by Leonard Smith in 1780. Smith, a slave owner and scion of an upper class Roman Catholic family, was born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in 1732, and became interested in investment opportunities in the fledgling Frederick County. He travelled in distinguished circles in the area, including Governor Thomas Johnson and First President of the Confederation Congress, John Hanson. Chris Haugh speculated that because of his lineage, Smith might have based his operations from Carrollton Manor, as his wife was related to the Carroll and Davis families.
Smith platted a small town of 96 lots along the river bottom in 1787 with the name of “Berlin,” to attract German immigrants passing through the area. Smith sold at least forty-seven of these lots before his death in 1794. His descendants eventually sold the remaining lots along the river bottom to the Wenner, George and Jordan families, among others.
An interesting fact is that before Berlin, Smith had established “New Town”, which, according to Haugh, “would eventually be known by the names of ‘Newtown Trap’, ‘Traptown’ and simply ‘Trappe’ because it earned the reputation of being a ‘very tough place,’ where travelers were often waylaid and assaulted and ‘sometimes foully put out of the way.’” In 1831-32, Newtown Trap was incorporated and received the new name of Jefferson.
The Canal and the Railroad
When in 1834, the C&O Canal was dug to Berlin, and the B&O Railroad came to town, these competing businesses routed directly through the first plat of Smith’s land. Berlin became a center of commerce that included a flouring mill and a trading center serving surrounding farms, the “German Settlement” across the river in Virginia, and Harpers Ferry, home to the United States Arsenal.
The growth of Berlin was slow until 1834. Due to the rights-of-way to the canal and railroad, a post office was established, but the name of the town was changed to “Barry” to avoid confusion with the town of Berlin on the Eastern Shore, near Ocean City. According to Chris Haugh, “The townspeople were not impressed and went on referring to their town as Berlin, but accepted Barry as the name for the post office.”
To facilitate trade in the then Maryland-Virginia area, a later owner of the Ferry was Jacob Waltman, Jr., who operated a “heavy ferry” between Berlin and Loudoun County starting in 1822. The boat was broad enough to carry a wagon with two horses and several people. Immediately after the Civil War, Eli Sanbower is mentioned as having owned a ferry service to Berlin. According to Yetive Weatherly in her book Lovettsville The German Settlement: “In 1888, there were two ferries which ran for about a decade before the new bridge was built in 1890 to replace the one burned by Confederate troops in 1861. One of these, the upper ferry, was owned by Sam Wenner. The other, the lower ferry, was owned by William Waltman Wenner, Sr. When the river was low, two men would pole the boats across. When the river was high, the ferries did not run.”
In 1890, the B&O railroad decided to move its extensive freight yard operation from Martinsburg, West Virginia, to Berlin. That’s when an act of the Maryland legislature on April 8, 1890 changed the town’s name yet again. This time it became Brunswick.
Stay tuned for more to come on what happened in the Civil War years and after 1890 when “Smoketown” became a common nickname.