Wherefore art thou Bladensburg? [Commentary]

An Ohio town was named after the Maryland battle, turning its failure to a success

September 09, 2014|By Christina Davidson

My father's Ohio hometown was named after a battle in Bladensburg, Md. Aug. 24, 1814, where my 4-times-great grandfather, Samuel Davidson, fought against the invading British. American cultural identity worships valor and victory, and my history teachers always skimmed the War of 1812, so I grew up assuming Bladensburg, Ohio commemorated a glorious triumph.

After moving to D.C. in my 20s, I finally learned Bladensburg was a humiliating disaster that scarcely impeded the British march to burn Washington. The media of the day mockingly branded the episode the "Bladensburg Races" because the invading military's aggressive advance into Maryland caused front lines of untrained American militias to crumble and scatter. Within 24 hours, the nation's capital lay in smoldering ruins. Ouch.

Learning the truth, I felt defensive and confused, wondering if my family should atone for false pride. Egregiously false pride. We Davidsons ridicule our failures among ourselves; we do not name towns after them.

I heard Samuel's story often during picnics of my childhood. How he'd moved his family from Maryland after the War of 1812 (which didn't end until 1815). How Bladensburg had been named for a battle he'd survived. How his heirs multiplied with such fecundity, most people in the tiny Ohio town were probably some kind of relation — by blood or by marriage or by both by now, as the joke went.

The recent 200th anniversary of the battle prompted me to research why Samuel would have commemorated such an inglorious catastrophe. Days spent in archives and libraries did not uncover definitive answers, but they did generate reasonable speculation.

Samuel migrated west with his wife and two small children around 1819, likely in a wagon train with an assortment of his wife's kin, the Rhines, plus one Davidson brother and family. Another Davidson brother followed after their mother died, walking 300-plus miles from Maryland to central Ohio, his life's possessions in one small cloth case.

The Davidsons lived at the Rhine homestead near Coshocton until 1831, when Samuel purchased land about a dozen miles away, near what soon became Bladensburg. But Samuel was a simple farmer and carpenter; the official town founders were merchants and mill owners. An early history book reports the founders wanted to establish Bladensburg as a market town to serve the influx of new arrivals coming from the East and beyond.

Starting with a sprinkle in the early 19th century and increasing to a flood in the post-war years, one particular pattern of internal migration was so great that an academic, Henry C. Peden, has compiled them into two volumes -- "Marylanders to Ohio and Indiana" and "More Marylanders to Ohio and Indiana" — documenting the thousands who moved prior to 1835. Many of those re-settling in Ohio during the 1820s and 1830s were, like Samuel, 1812 veterans. Census and pension records show that Samuel's company commander at the battle of Bladensburg lived near him in Ohio in the 1820s. Documentation confirms with near certainty that one of Samuel's brothers and one of his brothers-in-law also fought at the battle. Evidence further suggests a high probability that other brothers and in-laws served in the war as well.

With a population so rich in one shared experience, the name Bladensburg starts to make sense for shrewd 1830s entrepreneurs on the frontier. Marketing is essential to the DNA of America. Selecting a name appealing to a target audience represents the progenitor of advertising.

One town founder owned a gristmill with a healthy business from area distillers. Another founder opened a hotel, and there was presumably a tavern or gathering place where men could trade war stories over tumblers of whiskey while waiting for their corn to be ground into mash.

In addition to any battle trauma they'd suffered, Bladensburg vets carried heavy burdens of public shame from allowing British soldiers to occupy and burn their nation's seat of government. A new town named after that scar could feel like forgiveness and an invitation to communion, fellowship and healing for troubled souls. That's what a modern Madison Avenue exec might call good branding.

As for whether or not Samuel was among those who ran away from the British invasion like a yellow-bellied coward: All evidence suggests his unit fought fiercely long after the forward troops fled. (Not that it matters one bit, really.)

Cast upon the full scope of human history, valor and victory shrink in importance. For one adorably quirky little town in central Ohio and a Diaspora of Davidsons everywhere, the most important thing Samuel did on Aug. 24, 1814 was survive.

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, DC. Her email address is christina@christinadavidson.com; Twitter: @XtinaDavidson.


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