A paper trail of history

Exhibit: Starting Tuesday, Howard County Historical Society is to display Ellicott family documents that were found in the attic of a New Jersey house.

October 25, 2002|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

New light is being thrown on the human side of the early history of Ellicott City thanks to a happy discovery in a Quakertown, N.J., attic.

Found in the attic were papers belonging to three generations of the Ellicott family - from Bucks County, Pa., in 1755 to businesses owned 100 years later in Baltimore.

They include wills, business records and a sale agreement for the lower Ellicott Mills with the signatures and wax seals of Andrew Ellicott, the founder of the city, and three of his sons. The documents span the early history of the mill town, which was renamed Ellicott City in 1867.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Howard County edition of The Sun on Friday about an exhibit of newly discovered Ellicott family papers incorrectly identified the relationship of Andrew Ellicott, the founder of Ellicott City, and Maj. Andrew Ellicott, surveyor of Washington, D.C. Major Ellicott was the nephew of the Ellicott City founder. The Sun regrets the error.

The Quakertown family, which wishes to remain anonymous, donated the treasure to the Howard County Historical Society in May, and a sampling of it is being presented for public display, beginning Tuesday. The exhibit is titled The Ellicott Papers -A Glimpse into the Past of Ellicott's Mills.

"Because it's primary source material and it deals with the Ellicotts, it's just a gem for the county to have it," said Hank Griffith, the group's president.

It is hard to put a value on a gift such as this, said Michael Walczak, the society's executive director. "It's kind of priceless stuff considering we have the namesake of the town," he said.

The papers arrived in May at the organization's offices on Court Street in Ellicott City in pretty much the same condition in which they had been saved - wrapped in circa 1850s newspapers and bundled with string or red ribbons. Society volunteers have cataloged the papers and placed them in acid-free folders and boxes to protect them from further deterioration.

Although a lot of research has been conducted on the Ellicotts, historians have not had an opportunity to carefully examine the new material.

"It's the kind of collection that takes a lot of time if you're going to get anything out of it," said Joetta Cramm, a Howard County historian and author of Howard County: A Pictorial History.

"We don't have a lot of personal history on the Ellicott family," Cramm said. "When you get into the personal papers, you find out a lot more about them as people."

For example, an inventory lists the contents of a home sold by Benjamin Ellicott, grandson of the founder of Ellicott City. The owner of a Baltimore ironworks had the furnishings of the house auctioned in the 1840s.

Those items, if they had survived today, would be worth quite a lot, said Grover Hinds, 59, a Historical Society volunteer who worked with the papers extensively.

"Of course, we're about 160 years too late for the sale," he said.

Some of the papers confirm theories about the family and its properties. Among its holdings, the society had a print of a large gristmill, although researchers were unsure of its location.

But the recent gift includes an insurance record that lists the value of that building, Walczak said.

"We at least know it existed," he said.

But the Ellicotts' predilection for the name Andrew has not made it easy to determine whose signature is on each document. Each generation has at least one male named Andrew, including Ellicott Mills' founder, who died in 1809, and his grandson, famous for surveying Washington.

"Sometimes there's two if a child died young," Walczak said.

The exhibit begins with the marriage license of founder Andrew Ellicott and Elizabeth Brown in Bucks County, Pa., on New Year's Eve 1755.

Listed as witnesses are Andrew's brothers: John, who, like Andrew, was associated with the lower mills; Joseph, who worked on the upper mills; and Nathaniel and Thomas, who remained in Bucks County.

Next to it is the birth certificate of Andrew and Elizabeth Ellicott's son Jonathan.

Both certificates are written on rag paper, which ages better than documents printed more recently because advances in processing methods resulted in less durable paper.

Still, Jonathan's certificate is too delicate to open, Hinds said.

"The problem you have are the folds," he said. "The folds are 200 years old."

Although the exhibit will be on display through the end of the year, some documents may be removed from the exhibit earlier because of their delicate condition.

"We don't want to keep them out too long," Walczak said.

The Howard County Historical Society's museum, at 3828 Court Ave., Ellicott City, is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays, or by appointment. The exhibit's closing date has not been announced. Information: 410- 750-0370.

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