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Setting the Record Straight

The Real History of Emmitsburg's Founding

"Emmitsburg was founded in 1757 by Samuel Emmit a farseeing man, who sold off lots of land to incoming persons. Prior to being called Emmitsburg, it was called Silver Fancy, and before that Poplar Fields. It was changed to Emmitsburg at a public meeting held at Hockensmith's Tavern in honor of Samuel Emmit, one of the largest land-holders in the district. All persons threw up their hats, clapped their hands and hurrahed for Emmitsburg."

Editor's Note:  On August 7th, 2006, the Emmitsburg Town Council voted to remove 'Founded 1757' for its seal.  Henceforth the only date on seal will  carry will be "Incorporated 1825"

On December 6, 2011 the Emmitsburg Town Council voted to remove 'Incorporated 1925" on the town seal and replace it with "Established in 1785"

For generations of Emmitsburgians, being able to recite this mantra from memory has been a rite of passage. So much so, it has entered the popular lexicon as an undeniable fact. But, while romantic, it is nevertheless historically incorrect and doesn't even come close to capturing the events, or the people responsible for the founding of this wonderfully historic town.

While the error may seem harmless to many, it has had its implications. Some of these implications are minor, but one very major one exists: because of the error, the town missed celebrating its bicentennial in 1985--in spite of the efforts of many citizens who wished to correct the error even then.

Like a modern day computer virus, the error has been propagated so widely that it now infests almost every aspect of the town. From the official town seal and flag, to the billboards pronouncing Emmitsburg's placement on the National Register of Historic Places; from locally produced calendars to individual church histories. Everywhere one looks, "Founded in 1757" is prominently and erroneously proclaimed. Perpetuation of this mythical history is an affront to serious historical scholarship and to the well-documented histories of Emmitsburg's world renown institutions and personages.

It’s time to set the record straight, once and for all.

Fact:  Emmitsburg was founded in 1785, not in 1757

The first written mention of a town or the name of Emmitsburg is in a deed dated August 12th, 1785 conveying 35 acres from Samuel Emmit to his son William "... wherein the lots of a new town of Emmitsburg are laid out."

In 1786, in a subsequent deed expanding the amount of land given to William for the use of a town, Emmitsburg's founding in 1785 is alluded to: "Whereas Samuel Emmit in 1785 ... granted to William Emmit 35 acres lying in the tract of land called Carrollsburg ... for the use of a Town which was then begun thereon..."

While the above fact is important, it pales in comparison to the statement beginning at the bottom of the document and continued on the second page that says:

"... assign forever... all the other lots with their profits and ground rents being for, and to the only proper use and behalf of the said William Emmit ...provided he the said William Emmit  shall perform that part which the said Samuel Emmit was to perform according to Articles of Agreement made the fifth day of March last with Purchasers, ..."

This statement by Samuel Emmit clearly implies that an piece of paper was signed on March 5th, 1785, between Samuel Emmit and the subscribers for the lots, to form a town.  As such, March 5, 1785 is a more historical correct, and defensible date for the founding of Emmitsburg.

The 1785 deed founding Emmitsburg is also referred to in a 1787 deed from Samuel Emmit to his brother-in-law William Shield. In this deed, Samuel Emmit sold 106 acres in the shape of a long narrow strip of land to his brother-in-law, William Shields, which divided his Carrollsburg holdings in half. The description of the boundaries of Shield's land, which would later become known as "Shield's Addition," refers to ".. a  piece of land sold to William Emmit for the use of a town."

In each dead mentioned above, the wording is very exact and very clear: The land was for the founding of a town, not for the expansion of an existing town.

On December 5, 1785, less then two months after acquiring the land for his new town, William Emmit began to sell lots in it. Each lot cost the buyer two pounds, ten shillings, with the requirement that the buyer had to build a house on it within two years.

Again, based upon the date of every deed for every house in the original 35 acres deeded to Samuel by his father, one can safely conclude that nothing existed on the lots when sold.

And given the fact that the first lots where sold at the end of 1785 as winter was taking hold, one can safely assume that while the town of Emmitsburg was laid out on paper in 1785, actual construction of houses within the new town limits did not begin till the coming of spring in 1786.

Fact: Emmitsburg was never called Poplar Fields

Almost every history of Emmitsburg begins with the following paragraph:

"Prior to 1786, Emmitsburg was known as Poplar Field. It consisted of a few houses in and near the square. The first families were those of Adam Hoffman, Hatter; John Rodgers, tavern keeper; Michael Smith, blacksmith; Frederick Baird, carpenter; James Hughes, merchant."

This paragraph is often pointed to as proof that the town was formed and active long before it's name was changed to Emmitsburg. Official county land records, however, tell a completely different story. They show that each of these individuals received their deeds for from William Emmit after the town was called Emmitsburg.


  • The January 12th, 1786 entry from William Emmitt to Michael Smith
  • The January 12th, 1786 entry from William Emmitt to John Rodgers
  • The January 12th, 1786 entry from William Emmitt to Adam Hoffman
  • The May 30th, 1786 entry from William Emmitt to James Hughes
  • The July 7th, 1789 entry from William Emmitt to Frederick Baird

In addition, each deed required that a house be built on the lot purchased. Clearly, as these where the first deeds issued on each of these specific lots, and as they contained no houses, these individuals could not have been part of a preexisting community "near the square" known as Poplar Fields.

The 1785 deed by Samuel to his son William for the use of a town contains no reference to pre-existing houses or structures. The land was clearly undeveloped, and most likely an open field with poplars in it or a grove of poplars.

In a note dated June 21, 1821, Rev. Simon Gabriel Brute, who assisted Rev. John Dubois in establishing Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary, describes Emmitsburg in 1786 as "... a wood ..."  A more obvious origin for the name Poplar Field can be attributed to the tradition of the time of naming locations after easily recognizable physical characteristics. In this case, it would be a field containing poplar trees.

Rev. Simon Gabriel Brute notes states:

"Conversation with M. & Mrs. James Hughes.

Mrs. Hughes told me that she thinks it was about 1786 that she came on the spot of the present town then a complete wood cleared some ground and built the first house over built - on the place where the House of Mr. McCaffry stands opposite the tavern - there was indeed no street, no road to frederic or any other place - a mere wood - "I see yet as it were, she said, all the big trees that stood all here around that small house" -- which said house still exists being that small log house which is in the yard opposite the kitchen, in the back of the house they occupy, built by Mr. Hughes"

Poplars are a tree native to this area. Referred to as a pioneer species by horticulturists, poplars are often the first tree to grow in areas damaged by fire, or following the draining of lakes formed by beaver dams which had drowned existing growth.

Given the propensity of the area's original inhabitants in setting fires and the large number of steams and creeks in that area, the chances are pretty good that this was an open field with poplars growing in it when the first settlers stepped foot in the area back in 1730s.

The names chosen for the homesteads of the original settlers provided a unique glimpse into their hopes and dreams, not to mention what the area might have looked like. William Blair, the commander of the local Revolutionary War militia, the Game Cock Company, named his land ‘Knee Deep’, undoubtedly for the fact that Middle Creek, which meandered through his land, was (and still is) knee deep there.

In 1826, William Gilson aptly named his farm "Cedar Grove" for the large grove of cedars that grew there up until recent memory. And while there is no official record of a tract of land or a town called Poplar Fields, there is one for a "Poplar Ridge."  It was the name given to the northern tip of Carrollsburg that William Emmit purchased from his father in May 1793.

Given this, it’s not that hard to imagine that, if the unoccupied land given by William Emmit to his son contained a field of poplar trees, it may have indeed been called "Poplar Fields" by the settlers. But, they would be referring to a tract of land, not to a town.

Fact: Emmitsburg was never called Silver Fancy

Like many myths however, there is a semblance of truth in this part of the old Emmitsburg mantra. The northern half of Emmitsburg was in fact once called Silver Fancy, but that was when it was still an open field and no houses were upon it.

Silver Fancy, to the immediate north of the land deeded to William by his father Samuel, was the name given to 100 acres granted in 1742 to Daniel Delaney, the founder of Frederick.

In 1763, Delaney sold Silver Fancy to Daniel Yhieth, who in 1797--12 years after the founding of Emmitsburg--sold it to William Emmit. None of these deeds made reference to any pre-existing structures or homes and the price paid is comparable to prices paid by others at the time for surrounding undeveloped land of comparable size.

Upon assuming title to the land, Emmit proceeded to divide Silver Fancy into lots for re-sale. In the tradition of the time, each deed for these new lots referred to the current name for the land as well as its prior name, such as "lying in the town of Emmitsburg, formally know as Silver Fancy." In an effort to stem the confusion that resulted from this declaration, in 1808, the courts directed that any lot sold in what once was Silver Fancy drop the reference to Emmitsburg and simply have it noted that the lot was from Silver Fancy. This resulted in even more confusion.

Fact: "A public meeting was held at Hockensmith's Tavern to change the name of Emmitsburg ..."  Probably not.

"Prior to being called Emmitsburg, it was called Silver Fancy ... It was changed to Emmitsburg at a public meeting held at Hockensmith's Tavern ..."

Given that we know that the town was never called Silver Fancy, logic leads one to conclude that there could never then have been a meeting to change the town’s name, since there was no name to be changed.

Instead, a more obvious origin for the naming of the town can be attributed to another tradition of the time, that of including one’s name in the name of one’s tract of land.

For example, Carrollsburg, one of the earliest tracts of land deeded in the Emmitsburg area, was obviously named after its landowner, Charles Carroll. Robert and Mary Wilson, whose land now encompasses Silo Hill and Emmit Gardens, named their land "Wilson’s Fancy." 

Given this, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that it was the Emmit’s themselves, not a group of drinkers in a tavern, who chose the name Emmitsburg for the new town. 

That said, however, one might safely assume that since the town was already laid out on paper at the time of the 1785 deed, Samuel Emmit's plans for the town were probably known to all his friends and neighbors. As such, it's not hard to imagine that a group of interested parties did get together to discuss potential names. 

Taking the logic one step further, it is not unreasonable that assume that this meeting occurred on or about March 5, 1785, the date of the signing of the Letter of Agreement between Samuel Emmit and the purchasers of the lots in his town.

A meeting of this kind is referred to in Father Brute's letter of 1823, whereas: "The meeting for giving a name to the town was held at Hockersmith's farm. Some were for Carrolltown, others for Emmittsburg, which prevailed."

Unfortunately, we'll probably never be able to determine definitively how the name Emmitsburg was chosen for Samuel Emmit's new town. And while some think that the choice was made in jest, what we do know is that the name was chosen and in use before the very first brick or log was placed in what would become the town of Emmitsburg.

How the errors began ...

The roots of the errors in various oral and written accounts of Emmitsburg's founding can be traced to the first published history of Emmitsburg, written by Samuel Motter in November 1880, in his newspaper, the  Emmitsburg Chronicle.

It is in Motter's history where we first hear mentioned the notion that Emmitsburg was originally named "Poplar Fields," and later "Silver Fancy," and finally changed to "Emmitsburg" in Hockersmith's tavern. But, while Motter got these and several other facts wrong, he at least got the founding date of 1785-1786 correct--as have every subsequent, serious effort in documenting Emmitsburg's history.

Another wet towel on Motter's version of a Hockersmith's tavern meeting is his statement that John McGurgan, whom Motter credits for suggesting the name "Emmitsburg," did so in recognition of the Irish national hero Robert Emmet. Unfortunately for Motter, didn't become an Irish republican hero until 1803 when he was hung by the British--18 years after the name Emmitsburg is first mentioned in the deed for the town from Samuel to William Emmit.

Popular folklore also attributes to Motter the dubious distinction of being the individual who absently dropped the second "T" in Emmittsburg, changing it forever to its present spelling. Research, however, does not support this conclusion, for in both the deed from Samuel to his son for the town and in a 1797 map of Carrollsburg Emmitsburg is spelled with only one "T."

The first (and last) serious attempt at documenting the full breadth of Emmitsburg's history, History of Emmitsburg, was done in 1906 by James Helman. Like Samuel Motter, Helman did have the correct founding date for Emmitsburg, but his book’s focus on Samuel Emmit and his purchase of part of the Carrollsburg Tract from Charles Carroll in 1757 appears to have laid the ground work for error in the founding date. Few readers got beyond the bolded title: "Emmitsburg, 1757" to read the facts Helman had gone to great lengths to collect. Had they continued reading seriously, this article--with its resolve to correct those errors of the past--would never have needed to be written.

If one had to point to a given article where facts gave way to folklore, it would be the January 31, 1908 edition of the Emmitsburg Chronicle. It was in this edition that the current erroneous version of Emmitsburg's founding was first printed.

Like the old children's game in which one whispers into another's ear, who then whispers it to another (playing telephone), the story of Emmitsburg's founding got more and more convoluted as it was passed down from one generation to another. By February 1949,  the story had degenerated to the point where the 1785-1786 date no longer appeared in any short history of the town published in the Chronicle.

The errors reached their crescendo in the 1957 bicentennial special edition of the Chronicle, and--like the children's whisper game--the history printed in that edition bore little resemblance to the facts. The 1957 history is so chock-full of errors, that reading it makes anyone who is knowledgeable in Emmitsburg's history cringe. Historical homestead names--like

Single Delight, Buck Forest and Frenchman's Purchase--were identified as being in another part of the county or founded by citizens whose very birth would not occur for at least a hundred years after the real founding. Their locations and owners were well-documented in Helman's History of Emmitsburg.

Even the sections of the history that were taken almost word-for-word from Helman's 1906 History of Emmitsburg were edited to bring them into compliance with the fictionalized history. The most glaring example is the changing of the preamble to the resolution that was passed by areas residents reaffirming their rights as granted them by the Magna Carta from "Resolved by the inhabitants of Tom's Creek" to "Resolved by the inhabitants of Poplar Fields."

Sadly it is this version of Emmitsburg's history that most of the populace knows, not the real one.

Carrollsburg ...

The real roots of the town of Emmitsburg can be found in the history of six principle tracts of land: Samuel Emmit's Carrollsburg, Daniel Delaney's Silver Fancy, Alexander Makeen's Alexander's Prospect (aka Douthet's Chance), Michael Legett's Dam Head, Conrad Hockersmith's Low Mill and Long Mile, and Henry Williams's

 Fort Henry, the later of which has already been well documented.

Carrollsburg, a 5,000-acre tract of land, was originally surveyed for Charles Carroll on September 2, 1732. Carroll subsequently transferred ownership to his children: Charles, Daniel and Mary. Daniel’s portion of Carrollsburg was given to his sister upon his death. On May 6, 1757, Charles Carroll sold 2,750 acres of Carrollsburg, in today’s state of Pennsylvania, to William Cochran.

On May 13, 1759, Carroll sold the remainder of the original Carrollsburg grant to Samuel Emmit, the son of a disinterred miller, for 10# sterling. Emmit financed the purchase from the sale of his father's mill, which he had only a month earlier inherited.

Like many early tracts of land, the boundaries of Samuel Emmit’s portion of Carrollsburg was ripe with errors. It overlapped surrounding tracts of land owned by others--such as in the case of "Silver Fancy"--often by hundreds of yards. It wasn’t until 1795 that the boundaries of Samuel Emmit's portion of Carrollsburg was finally agreed to by all. By this time, Samuel had sold everything but the most valuable portion from a miller's viewpoint, at the convergence of Middle Creek and Flat Run where he had built his homestead and mill.

On September 13, 1759, Samuel Emmit sold 200 acres west of the present town of Emmitsburg, to his cousin Abraham Emmit. In 1763, Samuel sold 200 acres, to a John McMahon. On April 20, 1773, Samuel Emmit sold another 120 acres lying northwest of present-day Emmitsburg to a Charles Robinson. In June of 1777, Samuel sold 106 acres to the west of present-day Emmitsburg to Samuel Fleming. On September 29, 1787, he sold 106 acres to William Shield, which today comprises the western half of Emmitsburg and extends south to the present Scott road.

Shield expanded the new town of Emmitsburg with the inclusion of his tract of land called aptly enough, "Shield's Addition."

As noted in the beginning of this article, it wasn’t until 1785, 28 years after Samuel Emmit's purchase of the Carrollsburg tract, that the name Emmitsburg is first mentioned in any official record--in the deed for Samuel to his son for 35 acres "wherein the lots of a new town called Emmitsburg are laid out."

Samuel's 1785 deed to William of that land intended for the founding of Emmitsburg was revised twice. On May 29, 1786 upon discovery that "there is not fully that quantity of land within the course ... for the intended use and the said piece of land not beginning at the most convenient place ..." and again in June 16, 1787, when the amount of land deeded by Samuel to his son was expanded from 35 to 52 acres.

Much of the confusion over the name Silver Fancy can be traced to William Emmit’s purchase, in 1798, of Daniel Dulany's one hundred acre Silver Fancy tract of land to the immediate north of the then now 10 year old town of Emmitsburg. Emmit immediately began to sell lots from his new holdings under the name "Addition to Emmitsburg," and, in the tradition of the time, the deeds for each lot from this tract referred to both the original tract name "Silver Fancy," as well as the new town name--Emmitsburg.

1886 Centennial Celebration

Of the many 'facts' conveniently overlooked by the organizers of the 1957 'bi-centennial' celebration was the fact that Emmitsburg celebrated its centennial in 1886 - as noted in the the flyer to the right published every week during the month of June, 1886 in the Emmitsburg Chronicle. (To view a larger image of the flyer, simply click on it) 

The accounts of the centennial celebration, which was held in a field just outside of town on what is now North Seton Ave., was subsequently reported in numerous newspapers from around the state, such as the one below from the Gettysburg Compiler.

Gettysburg Compiler July 13, 1886

"Saturday week Emmitsburg celebrated its centennial is a lively manner. There was a firemen’s parade in the morning by the home company and similar organizations from Littlestown, Westminister and other places. There were half a dozen bands of music. In the afternoon a great multitude of people assembled in a grove near by and addresses were made by Capt. Joseph McSherry, of Frederick, and Eugene J. Rowe, Esq, of Emmitsburg. The festivities closed with a brilliant fireworks and a cotillion party in the evening. Many houses were beautifully decorated with bunting and evergreens."

To quote Frederick Wetly in his August 2nd, 1957 letter to the Frederick Post:

"Now that the last echoes of celebrating Emmitsburg have died away and the fiesta is beyond spoiling, a correspondent in Frederick County suggests it may be safe to raise an issue of "historical accuracy, ethics and propriety."

The reference is to a sudden addition — no explanation, apology, research or revelation—of roughly 30 years to the town's established age to make a bicentenary"

Fredrick Welty was right.  No effort was made by the organizers of the 1957 celebration to verify the accuracy of their claim the town was 200 years old. 

As late as 1951, the date of the last pictorial history of Emmitsburg, the founding date for the town was listed as 1786.  Which raises a simple question.  Why didn't the organizers of the 1957 celebration take the time to do what the historical Society has done and simply take the time to read the 1886 copies of the Emmitsburg Chronicle for a reference to a centennial celebration?  The copies were present in the town and available to anyone who wished to see them.

Had they, or had the defenders of the 1757 date during the 'founding date debate' of 2003 looked, they would have discovered numerous references in the June and July 1886 editions of the Emmitsburg Chronicle the planning efforts in support of the Centennial.  Any one of these editions would have proved that celebrating or supporting a 1757 founding date was dubious at best, a outright willful deception at worst.

A New History ...

Now that we've set the record straight, might we suggest the following for a new sound bite of Emmitsburg's history?

"By most accounts, Robert and Elizabeth Wilson were the first family to settle in the Emmitsburg area.

Sometime prior to 1733, they emigrated to the area, choosing for their homestead land that lay in a gently slopping valley on both sides of Flat Run, which today is known as the Emmitsburg communities of  Emmit's Gardens and Silo Hill. They called their homestead: "Wilson’s Fancy."

The soil was rich from years of seasonal flooding and, with Flat Run providing a reliable source of clean fresh water year round, the Wilson’s had all any frontier family could ever hope for.

In one of the ironies one can only appreciate through the hindsight history provides us, two religious sects--Catholics and Presbyterians--followed the Wilsons to the area and settled in close-knit communities. Back in their old countries, the two groups were engaged in bitter persecution and bloodshed. But, in this valley, these two groups--as well as other members of other religious groups--lived in peace and harmony, finding common cause in the daily battle to survive on this then remote edge of the frontier.

By the mid 1750s, most of the land in what was then called the Toms Creek Hundred, (of which the town of Emmitsburg as it is know today was only a fractional part of) had been sold by the royal trustee, Lord Baltimore, to the pioneers who first called the Emmitsburg area home. Each in turn, provided colorful names to their land, such as: Carrollsburg, Alexander's Prospect, Arnold’s Delight, Benjamin's Good Luck, Better Then I  Expected, Harris's Delight, and Settled in Peace, which provide us today a glimpse into their hopes and goals.

On March 5, 1785, Samual Emmit entered into a Letter of Agreement with his neighbors to sell lots in a new town to be know as Emmitsburg. Emmit's town attracted an industrious people and, with its plentiful supply of streams to power mills, it quickly became a major center of commerce and industry.

Selected and fortified by the Union in 1863 as the best location to stop General Lee's advance in the north, it then missed becoming the turning point in the civil war, which fell to its immediate neighbor to the North, Gettysburg.

Following the Civil War, Emmitsburg continued to grow and prosper. However, the decision in 1880 by the Western Maryland Railroad not to build its line through Emmitsburg marked the beginning of the end of independent prosperity. Like many small towns in America, beset with failing farms and the closures of local industries, the town's prognosis for survival seemed gloomy.

The development of the interstate highway system in the 1950's brought about an expansion of the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan commuting areas and, in doing so, reversed the decline of Emmitsburg's fortunes.

Today Emmitsburg is a growing bedroom community for these two great metropolitan areas. It is a Mecca for scholars, professionals, artists, craftsman, equestrians, and bicyclists seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life. It claims for its own the nationally ranked Mount St. Mary's College and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint.

It's roots of religious tolerance and piety still hold sway in almost every aspect of community life today and are manifested in the beautifully maintained homes and stately churches that dominate its breathtaking skyline."

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