Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm

History

HISTORY & CULTURE

For hundreds of years, the land that today is Oxon Cove Park, has attracted men and women who have recognized its agricultural potential. Beginning in the early 19th century, Oxon Cove Park witnessed changing land patterns typical of the southern Maryland region. These changes began with the Debutts family who bought the property and established the Mount Welby Plantation.

The Mount Welby period represents only one layer of the park's deep and diverse history. The park has been home for many generations of human habitation during the past 10,000 years--beginning with the Native American peoples who have hunted for wild game and gathered plants up until the 17th century.

Forty-eight years after the Debutts sold the property, the land was acquired by the United States Government to establish a therapeutic farm for St. Elizabeths Hospital known as Godding Croft.

The property was entrusted to the National Park Service in 1959 to protect its natural and cultural resources from the threat of increased urban development, and to continue to tell the story of the land and how it has changed overtime.

Jacob Shaw and the Underground Railroad

In 2005, Oxon Cove Park was accepted as a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom for the discovery of the Jacob Shaw story. Jacob Shaw was enslaved on the Berry Plantation, which today comprises the southern most part of the park. Although there are no structures left from this period, there is a compelling story to be told. Programs about Jacob Shaw and his struggle for freedom will be presented by park staff in the coming year.

Thomas Berry owned a sizable slave labor force for much of the Ante-bellum Era. With other slaves toiling close to the Berry Plantation, particularly those on Dr. John Bayne's Salubria Plantation, cross-plantation communities among the enslaved peoples developed. These connections were important in escape attempts because blacks from neighboring plantations often sought freedom together. Indeed, when Bayne's slave Sam Tyler fled Salubria in December 1840, his owner suspected that he had run off with one of Berry's slave, a man named Jacob Shaw. Because Washington, D.C., a city that promised slaves who served in the army freedom, was close by, runaway slaves from these nearby plantations faced fewer obstacles than others from more distant areas.

Dr. and Mrs. Debutts

Samuel Debutts was born in Ireland in 1756. He began his career as a doctor in England and there he met and married his wife, Mary Welby, in 1785. Samuel's practice was difficult, unprofitable, and kept the couple apart for weeks. Like hundreds of thousands of other European families, Samuel and Mary decided to immigrate to the United States to make a better life for their family.

Twenty years after the DeButts family arrived in America, Samuel signed a deed for a 206 acre land that is known today as Oxon Hill Farm. Samuel, however, named the new family home Mount Welby, in honor of his wife's family, and spent the rest of his days there. Samuel's grandchildren sold the property in 1843.

Eugene Shegogue

One day in the of fall 2001, a visitor came to the park and mentioned that she was the daughter of Eugene Shegogue, caretaker of Oxon Hill Farm property from 1950 to 1962. The visitor, Ms. Beverly Shegogue, came back to the park several years later, with a memory book filled with stories and pictures of Eugene's tenure as the Godding Croft caretaker. The following is an except from this book:

“In 1950, we moved into the farm house. I was so excited because we now had a telephone, something we never had before. The house was two stories including a basement. We lived upstairs where there was a kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a living room. The living room had such a
wonderful view, overlooking the Potomac River to Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Downstairs there was a huge room with a small bathroom, a spare bedroom, and an
office which my father’s boss, Jack Zanders (who was in total charge of running the farm) conducted the daily business and kept the records. In the basement was a huge
eating room, a shower room and a large old stove that was used for cooking. My father
told me that the old stove was used to cook meals for the slaves that the original owners
used to work the farm. My father also told me that some of the patients from St. Elizabeths Hospital, who worked the fields, lived and slept in the huge room downstairs with the small bath. When we moved into the house the patients were no longer allowed to live at the house. But, they were still bussed in daily to work the farm from St Elizabeths Hospital. 

My father loved farming. I remember my dad working the fields all day in the heat.
He would ride up and down the rows on his tractor,stopping only for lunch. Often
when not in school, I would ride with him. I loved being with my dad. He would get
so tan from being in the sun and he never got tired of his job."

 

The Native Peoples

The Chesapeake watershed began to take its present form some 15,000 years ago as glaciers covered much of North America slowly retreated. Some three thousand years after that, the first people setting foot in Maryland were the the nomadic American Indians. People and the Chesapeake Bay have been interacting ever since.

12,000 years ago when the first nomadic people passed through the park property you might have seen a spruce forest and open grasslands then. The climate was colder and wetter. Shorelines were hundreds of feet below today's levels. The Chesapeake Bay was a narrow river, and the Potomac may have been a babbling brook. Herds of elk, musk, ox, bison, and even woolly mammoths, roamed the property.

Two or three thousand years ago, the spruce forest and grasslands were gone, replaced by hemlocks, pines, oaks, and other trees. The large land mammals had moved north or vanished entirely. The climate had grown warmer and drier, and the Potomac River was a wide river, filler with water once frozen in glaciers. A village of American Indians probably stood nearby--if not within the boundaries of the park then somewhere close along the banks of the Potomac or Anacostia rivers. Oysters, clams, crabs, and fish made up a crucial part of the native peoples' diet. They also gathered walnuts, acorns, fruit, and berries and hunted deer, turkeys, rabbits, ducks, and geese.

If you were among the first European and African settlers in Maryland in the 1600s, you would have found fields of corn, beans, pumpkins, tobacco, and other crops cultivated by local Indians. They would have spoken Easter Algonquian, a language shaved by many native peoples of Maryland. Any you have met would likely offered you food and goods to trade and warned you about enemies to the north, Susquehannocks.

As more and more Europeans began to inhabit the area, the Indians were either forced from the land or died due to exposure to new diseases.

Godding Croft, A Hospital Farm

For nearly 70 years, the land that is now Oxon Cove Park, was a hospital farm. St. Elizabeths Hospital bought the property in 1891 to produce food for its ever-growing number of patients. The hospital was founded in 1855 to care for the mentally ill people of Washington, D.C. and the U.S. military.

St. Elizabeths was a bold project for its time. It was originally designed to hold 250 patients in the world's most modern hospital for the mentally ill. But, before the first building was completed, the outbreak of the Civil War forced the government to use much of the new hospital for wounded soldiers.

Dr. William Godding, superintendent of St. Elizabeths, established Godding Croft for patients with less severe disabilities to receive therapy from farm work. In turn, these patients produced food for the main institution at St. Elizabeths.

FYI: "Croft" is a Scottish term for a small farm.

A Voice Unheard - A Story of Enslavement

From the late 1600s to the early 1800s tobacco, wheat and other crops helped bring prosperity to the slaveholders that owned property that is now Oxon Cove Park. This prosperity came at huge price—bondage, hard labor, and broken families for the enslaved African Americans. No information about the lives of the enslaved people who lived on the Mount Welby plantation survives in their own words. Their voice is still unheard and their stories untold. The wills, letters, and records of the Debutts family tells part of the story, but only from the slaveholders' point of view. African Americans named George, Edward, Hamilton, Minta, Patsy, and Matilda, among others, lived in bondage on the land. Most able-bodied bondspeople—men, women, and older children—worked in the fields. One or two probably worked as cooks or servants in the main house. Enslaved African Americans considered property by law, and were far the most valuable property after the land itself. A few enslaved people were freed by their owners, usually after years of forced service. Along with their labor, African Americans— free and enslaved—brought their language, skills, food, music, stories, and history to the property, Maryland and the nation.

War Comes to Mount Welby

During the War of 1812, British troops fought a battle with American Soldiers near Bladensburg, Maryland. The battleground was about ten miles from Mount Welby, the 19th century name of the Oxon Hill Farm property, just east of the current boundaries of Washington D.C.

The British routed the American defenders and marched into the city. By 9 p.m. the U.S. Capitol was ablaze. Two hours later, British soldiers reached the White House and set it afire, along with the Treasury Building next door. Even closer, the Navy Yard in southwest Washington was put to the torch about 8 p.m. to keep ships, ammunition, sails, rope, and other supplies from the British. President James Madison, First Lady Dolly Madison, and many Washingtonians has fled the city only a few hours before.

In 1815, Mrs. Debutts related in a letter to her brother, Richard, her fears of being so close to the scene of the battle.

"The termination of the war has cheered the Hearts of thousands but its bitter consequences will long be severely felt. I cannot express to you the distress it has occasioned at the Battle of Bladensburg. We heard every fire (that place being not more than 5 or 6 miles from us). Our house was shook repeatedly by the firing upon forts & bridges, & illuminated by the fires in our Capital."