Revolution costly for Henry Harford

October 22, 2006|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Special to The Sun

He fought to overcome the legal obstacles of his illegitimate birth. As a teen he inherited a fortune from his "hedonistic" father but lost much of it in a war. He would spend three decades trying to recoup his losses.

The life of Henry Harford, for whom Harford County was named, was one of fortune and misfortune.

Harford, who lived from 1758 to 1834, was the last in a line of proprietors -- essentially the British owner and leader of the Maryland colony -- from the Calvert family. The Calverts founded Maryland as a place for religious tolerance in the 17th century.

Harford inherited the proprietorship of Maryland when he was a young teenager, five years before the American Revolution. By that time, some of the family's political and financial capital had been spent by his "hedonistic" father, Frederick Calvert, according to Vera F. Rollo's book, Henry Harford: Last Proprietor of Maryland.

Frederick Calvert, sixth Lord Baltimore, was given to bad poetry, reckless living and inattentive or poor management of Maryland's affairs, Rollo said. He appointed others to oversee Maryland but never visited himself.

Maryland State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said, "Harford's father was a complex personality, who had a complex love life which got him into considerable difficulty."

Calvert's personal life, along with English law regarding children born outside marriage, affected young Harford, who was born in 1758 in London to Frederick Calvert and an Irish woman, Hester Rhelan (also spelled Whalen), who used the name "Mrs. Harford." Calvert was married to Lady Diana Egerton at the time, according to Rollo. Harford was Calvert's first child and only son. He would have several daughters by three mistresses but marry none of them.

Calvert wanted to give Harford the proprietorship in his will, but he had to initiate some complex legal maneuvers to do so because of Harford's illegitimacy. "Theoretically under English law, illegitimate children had virtually no legal existence nor was it possible to legally adopt a child," although in practice the law could be circumvented, according to Rollo.

"Primogeniture was still the rule as far as Britain was concerned, and the firstborn son was supposed to be legitimate," Papenfuse said. "Harford did have to fight with a whole host of lawyers to inherit property his father had specifically left him."

Before he died in 1771, Calvert installed his brother-in-law, Robert Eden, to govern Maryland for him. One of Eden's duties, Rollo wrote, was to promote Harford's cause in the colony. At the time, Harford County had not been divided from Baltimore County. That would change. Residents of the Bush River and Chesapeake Bay area grew tired of the long trip to the Baltimore County seat in Baltimore Town, according to Counties of Northern Maryland by Elaine Bunting and Patricia D'Amario. They asked the state General Assembly to divide the county, and in 1773 they got their wish, according to that history.

Eden saw that the new county was named Harford to honor the young proprietor and advance his cause, according to Rollo's history.

Harford Town (now called Bush) became the county seat, although it would be moved later.

In his will, Calvert made Harford very wealthy. He left him all his "landed estates" in Maryland -- tens of thousands of acres -- including a 5,600-acre tract on the Gunpowder River, according to C. Milton Wright's Our Harford Heritage. Harford also inherited deposits and investments from his father's estate, according to the Archives of Maryland Biographical Series.

The legal wrangling soon began. One of Calvert's sisters challenged the will because, according to the terms of their father's will, the proprietorship was supposed to go to her if Calvert did not have children born in wedlock. Harford eventually settled the challenge with an agreement and payments to his paternal aunts.

But the American Revolution had intervened. Harford County was among those leading the charge for revolution, Papenfuse said.

The legislature passed a law prohibiting British citizens from owning land, which cost Harford his considerable holdings in Maryland, according to several histories.

He would spend several decades trying to get paid for those losses. In 1783, he and Eden set sail for Maryland, where Harford would ask the General Assembly for compensation.

Harford received an amicable reception upon his first and only visit to Maryland. "There was no personal instinctive dislike of Henry Harford, and he was accepted graciously when he came here," Papenfuse said.

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