Photo: Home in the Historic District, Oxford, MD. The District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Photographed by user: Acroterion (own work), 2012, [cc-by-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed July, 2023.
The Oxford Historic District [†] is significant for its association with the development of the Eastern Shore region of Maryland. Oxford is one of Maryland's earliest towns, with a fledgling village established on the edge of the Tred Avon River by the mid to late 1660s. During its first hundred years, Oxford developed into a principal port for the region, second only to Annapolis prior to the rise of Baltimore and Chestertown during the mid eighteenth century. While there are no surviving resources representative of the town's first century, the Tred Avon ferry has been in operation with various vessels since it was established by the Talbot County court in 1683.
The district is also significant for its architecture, an exceptionally cohesive and well-preserved collection of domestic, commercial, and ecclesiastical properties primarily dating from the town's principal period of growth, i.e., the last quarter of the 19th century through the World War I era. Integral to the district are a number of significant properties that predate that period, representing its late 18th century and early-to-mid 19th century history. The town's early 18th century grid plan, documented by a survey completed in 1707, remains essentially intact.
Although Oxford's position as a viable port and location for trade declined steadily after the Revolutionary war, the town resurfaced as an important site for shipbuilding and oyster and fruit processing during the mid to late nineteenth century, particularly with steamboat transportation and a railroad line across Oxford Neck by 1871. With new-found wealth derived from the water and the land, Oxford experienced economic prosperity and growth that were evident tangibly in a rebuilding of its housing stock and expansion of its town limits. Oxford developed into one of the three most populous and commercially active towns in Talbot County by the last decades of the nineteenth century. Unusual to the town as well is its historical association with the Maryland Military and Naval Academy, a preparatory school for young men, during the mid-to- late nineteenth century, which is represented by the architecturally prominent Academy House.
Oxford's housing stock is representative of the priorities and livelihoods of town residents for the past 230 years. The town's oldest structures, the Barnaby house and a portion of the Robert Morris Inn, reflect third quarter of the eighteenth-century frame building traditions and finishes. While only a handful of structures date to the early to mid nineteenth century, the town's collection of late nineteenth-century frame dwellings is especially extensive and reflects largely middle class aspirations in building facades characterized by modest levels of architectural elaboration. Also significant architecturally are the town's three historic churches.
Situated on a prominent hook of land jutting out into the protected harbor of the Tred Avon River (also known as Third Haven) with advantageous proximity to the Choptank River and the Chesapeake Bay, the town of Oxford was situated ideally for the water-borne trade and commerce of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Maryland. The exact point when a village was established on this peninsula is lost to history, but several primary sources indicate a date within a decade after the land was patented to Edward Lloyd in 1659. Called "Heir Dier Lloyd," the patent name translates as "Long land Belonging to Lloyd." Initially comprising thirty acres, the fledgling village of Oxford was established by a later owner of the water-front tract, William Stephens, Jr., who gifted the land in the mid to late 1660s to Lord Baltimore. The village was called out specifically in the 1668 will of William Parrott, who left to his son, William, Jr., "my share of house and land at Oxford." Within the following year, in April 1669, Cecilius Calvert revised an early proclamation in declaring eleven locations in the province as official ports of entry, one of which was identified as the "Town Land" on the Tred Avon. In 1670, when Augustine Herrman's map of Maryland was published, Oxford is clearly labeled on its peninsula jutting out into the "Treavon Creek." Lastly, and perhaps most provocatively, in 1671, John Pitt sold to Edward Roe, "two thirty-foot houses lying and being in the City of Oxford." The extent of development of early Oxford during the 1660s and 1670s is left largely to conjecture due to limited documentation, but its importance as a site for trade and commerce was stated clearly in a 1679 court order whereby the Talbot justices offered that the "city of Oxford is a fit place for an ordinary, it being convenient for shipping."
Oxford's position as a place of commerce was strengthened in 1683 with another provincial declaration, "An Act for the Advancement of Trade," along with a Talbot County decision to award Richard Royston the right to operate a ferry across the Tred Avon from Oxford to the opposite shore. As well it was Royston's duty to provide passage for anyone on board ship riding on anchor in the harbor. The provincial act of 1683 was an effort to legislate development and control trade with the establishment of thirty-three towns across the province. The act was designed to formally establish the towns with ambitious one-hundred acre plots to be dedicated for survey and laid out in lots, streets, lanes and alleys with set asides for public spaces including churches, market squares, and other public buildings. The act tried to force development by requiring the construction of a house at least twenty feet square within six months. The act also identified Oxford as the official port of entry for the mid Shore. Officials in Talbot County met the following July on the land of William Combs on the Tred Avon for the purpose of formally laying out the town of Oxford. Lots were quickly taken up by many of the county's most prosperous planters and officials, but like many forced actions driven by proprietary interests, the town's growth in the decade following 1683 did not match the ambitions expressed in the act.
As experienced elsewhere on the Chesapeake, sizable development within a town context was not common since trade was, for the most part, conducted from private plantations with river-front wharves. It was in the best interests of the Lords Baltimore, however, that trade be controlled and duties and/or taxes collected on imports or exported goods. Despite its tentative growth during its first decades, Oxford was an active port that grew in importance during the years surrounding the turn of the eighteenth century. In 1694 another legislative act was issued declaring that Oxford and a new town on the Western Shore called Ann Arundell were named as the sole ports of entry for the entire province. The town known as Ann Arundell was soon renamed Annapolis, the Williamstadt was substituted for Oxford to honor the recently crowned King William. Annapolis was intended to be the major port for the Western Shore and Williamstadt the same for the eastern side of the bay. The name Williamstadt lasted only a few years and was mostly used for legal purpose. After King William's death in 1702, the town was referred to almost exclusively as Oxford. Five years later, in 1707, an order was passed to resurvey the town once again to determine the exact amount of acreage contained within the town limits. As a result, surveyor William Turbutt redrew the town plat and included on the ! survey a profile of a sloop at sail on the waters of the Tred Avon. The town plan of 1707 more than likely followed that of the previous surveys due to the topography of the peninsula and the prior thirty-year history of ownership of some lots. High Street, later renamed Morris Street, was the principal north/south avenue that led to The Strand, initially known as Front Street, and the location of the ferry. When compared to the present grid of Oxford's streets, the principal avenues have not been altered aside from the introduction of a few cross streets. Also partially depicted on the 1707 plat is edge of a small uninhabited island situated off the northeast end of the peninsula, which is not known to have been inhabited until the mid to late nineteenth century.
A principal reason for the 1707 resurvey of Oxford was the concurrent movement to establish the Talbot County court in the town after the partition of Queen Anne's County in 1706. The location of the courthouse at a place called York was deemed too far north in the reduced and reconfigured Talbot County. Oxford, then being the only town, was established as the site of the relocated court where it met in temporary quarters between 1708 and 1710. Legislation was passed for a levy of tobacco to be applied to the cost of the new courthouse at Oxford. In spite of these definite plans for the construction of the new courthouse at Oxford, movements were afoot to counter that plan with a county seat at a more centrally located site, convenient for all Talbot countians. Principal among the local gentry opposing Oxford as the county seat was Edward Lloyd (1670-1718), who was a justice in Talbot County, a member and later president of the provincial council, and who also served as the unofficial governor of Maryland between 1709 and 1714. In the fall of 1710, Edward Lloyd signed legislation relocating the courthouse to a two-acre site at the head of the Tred Avon River at a place called Pitt's Bridge. For much of the eighteenth century, the site was known as Talbot Courthouse until it was renamed Easton.
Even though Oxford lost its bid to become the county seat, the town flourished during the following half century as the principal port on the mid Shore, and it remained the only town of any consequence in Talbot County until the late eighteenth century. Oxford's early eighteenth century rise in commercial importance is tied primarily to the activities of John and Samuel Chamberlaine, sons of prominent Liverpool merchant Thomas Chamberlaine, who surface in Talbot County by 1714. Both men were at times representatives, known as factors, for the Liverpool trading firms, Gildart & Company and Foster Cunliffe & Company, which used Oxford as a principal port in the lucrative trans-Atlantic trade between Great Britain, Africa, the West Indies and America. The receipt books of Samuel Chamberlaine, Sr. and Jr. cover the years between 1722 and 1771 and document merchant ships at Oxford from a diverse cross section of foreign and domestic Atlantic ports. In another line of investment, John Oldham, an early resident, received permission from the provincial legislature in 1717 to erect a windmill on Town Point.
By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, Oxford was firmly rooted in trans- Atlantic commerce, and according to former resident, Jeremiah Banning's opinion, "the leading o tobacco port of the first half of the century" Jeremiah Banning (1733-1793) a successful merchant in his own right, knew Oxford during these prosperous decades as a youth and described the place in his autobiography. He characterized Oxford at mid century with the statement, "whose Strands and streets were covered with busy, noisy crowds ushering in commerce from almost every quarter of the globe." Much of Oxford's prominence, during the late 1730s and 1740s, was due to the energies and entrepreneurial skills of Robert Morris, Sr. (1711-1750), who arrived in the Talbot County port in 1738 as a replacement factor for Foster Cunliffe & Company. At 27 years old with no known formal education, Robert Morris Sr. possessed a remarkable sense of determination, perseverance and intuition to refocus Cunliffe's investments from Virginia to Maryland and particularly Oxford. By the time of his accidental death in 1750, Oxford was the principal trading center on the mid Shore with satellite stores at Cambridge, Chestertown, Townside (Crumpton) and at the Head of Wye (probably Queenstown). Ledger books from Robert Morris's period of activity, dating from 1743 to 1750, survive as well as advertisements in the Maryland Gazette which document a trade in tobacco, rum, salt, sugar, molasses, wine, British manufacturers, and servants.
One of Cunliffe's chiefs exports to Oxford was salt, which was needed desperately by Chesapeake residents for safely curing meat. During the period between 1743 and 1749 the Cunliffe accounts document the shipment of close to 30,000 bushels of refined salt. 12 In addition to his position as factor for Foster Cunliffe & Company, Robert Morris amassed a considerable estate as a trading agent acting on his own behalf with dozens of other firms and individuals, particularly up and down the east coast of America. Robert Morris was a wealthy merchant with a promising future at age 39, however an accidental wound in August 1750 ended his life abruptly. The Maryland Gazette announced on July 18.
Within the years following Robert Morris's accidental death, Foster Cunliffe & Company realized the diminishing nature of their prospects on the Chesapeake and started to liquidate their assets, particularly following Foster Cunliffe's own passing in 1758. Despite Foster Cunliffe's abandonment of the region, Oxford continued to be an active port; shipping records in 1761 document that 71 vessels cleared the port that year.
Time, however, was not on Oxford's side with the rising importance of other Chesapeake ports, particularly Baltimore, during the third and fourth quarters of the eighteenth century. By the time of the Revolutionary War, trade within the mid Shore was increasingly focused on a cash crops in wheat and corn, and especially centered within upper bay ports like Baltimore, Chestertown and Head of Elk, later Elkton. At the close of the eighteenth century, Oxford had slipped into a dormancy that was summarized by its sixty-year old Oxford customs agent Jeremiah Banning.
While Jeremiah Banning commented on the lack of commerce and the overgrown nature of Oxford's streets in 1793, he did not leave an impression of Oxford's architecture at the close of the eighteenth century. However, by testimony of the Federal Direct Tax Assessment of 1798, the town's improvements are documented owner by owner, although the specific lot numbers were not designated. Fourteen of the fifteen dwellings recorded in Oxford were single-story or story-and-a-half timber frame structures, a couple of which were described as "old" at the time of the assessment. Most houses were of typical proportion for middle range town residences, either rectangular or squarish in dimension. Side hall/double pile plan dwellings, or two-room, hall/parlor plan houses were evidently common with overall measurements ranging around 32' by 24', like Richard Barnaby's side hall/double pile plan house, or 40' by 20' as in the case of Thomas Coward's house occupied by Edward Bromwell. There were no dwellings built entirely of brick, which was limited to foundations, a rare end wall, chimneys and two itemized meat houses listed in the assessment. Although not recorded by the assessors, stone, presumably reused ballast, was used in the construction of the Barnaby house, the Stewart house (owned by John Stoker in 1798) and the mid eighteenth-century portion of the Robert Morris Inn. There was only one two-story dwelling in the 1798 assessment of Oxford, located on the property owned by Margaret Johns, who owned ten contiguous %-acre lots. Her house measured 36' by 20' and was lighted generously by fourteen windows. The dwelling was accompanied on the lot by a detached kitchen, a fowl house, and a chaise house for her carriage. The smallest assessed house was that of free black Levin Cox, which was a 16' by 14' frame structure situated on two %-acre lots. The only indication of business activity was on the property of Edward Bromwell, Sr., who held 7 lots equaling 5 1A acres improved by 14' by 12' windmill.
The decades following the turn of the nineteenth century, although extremely prosperous for many Eastern Shore planters and professionals, did not revive commerce and trade in Oxford, even though the town maintained its port of entry status and custom's house, which remained in place until the 1860s. The growth of Baltimore, Annapolis, Chestertown, and closer to home, Easton, eclipsed any efforts in Oxford to improve and rebuild its former place in the commercial trading network on the Chesapeake. New and expensive brick and frame buildings were being erected in Easton, which had its own access to the Tred Avon. Easton's central location in the heart of Talbot County along the principal north/south road serving the mid Shore, cemented its place as the principal focus of commerce and source for professional services for the region.
By 1800 the population in Oxford had dwindled to around 90 residents; 70 white and 20 black. The town, in essence, had become home to a handful of families who remained for whatever reason. There was no appreciable increase in Oxford's population for the next fifty years, although there were some signs of political and economic improvement from time to time. The town was known for its healthy climate, and a few well-off families built second residences to which they would retreat during the hot, humid Chesapeake summers. When the huge estate of Oxford Neck planter and attorney John Leeds Kerr was advertised for sale in July 1844 an inducement to acquire the small island adjacent to the town.
Steamboat service on the Tred Avon with stops at Oxford had started as early as 1819, but it was not until the larger capacity vessels with regular schedules in the second half of the nineteenth century did steamboats become a reliable, heavy duty mode of transportation. Also during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the town government was reconstituted in 1825 and ferry service, which had been discontinued around the time of the Revolution, was restored in 1836. Another sign of progress was the establishment of a post office at Oxford in 1849 with three-times a week deliveries. Despite these distinct improvements during the first half of the nineteenth century, the town was still defined by a dispersed string of frame dwellings that stood on large lots along the town's principal streets. The only graphic representation of the town from this time period is the United States coastal survey chart dating from 1847, which distinguishes well the wide spacing of the dwellings with a small cluster at the intersection of High (Morris) Street and the Strand. Kerr's Island is boldly labeled as well. The town contained no more than a couple dozen buildings.
Probably the most promising event for Oxford in the late 1840s was the creation of the Maryland Military Academy, supported in large part by General Tench Tilghman of nearby Plimhimmon plantation. Tilghman brought in West Point graduates for instructors, and a complex of buildings was erected in the center of town overlooking the Tred Avon. The school was intended as a preparatory institution for the U.S. Naval Academy; its first superintendent was a classmate of Tilghman's, John H. Alien. The board of trustees was led by Talbot countian and former commandant of the Naval Academy, Commander Franklin Buchanan.20 In spite of much promise during its first years of operation, the complex caught fire in 1855, and the only surviving structure was the superintendent's residence, a bold two-story Greek Revival frame dwelling erected atop a raised brick foundation. Known later as the Bratt Mansion, or simply, the Academy House (T-238), the hip roofed dwelling is the most elaborate structure in Oxford dating from the mid nineteenth century.
Another of Tilghman's projects was the construction of an Episcopal church in town. In 1853 the stone walls of a Gothic Revival church were completed, however a failure to procure the balance of the funding resulted in an incomplete building with no roof or windows. The church walls were left standing during the balance of the nineteenth century. Construction was not restarted on Holy Trinity until the turn of the twentieth century. It was completed in 1903.
The local Methodist Episcopal congregation, on the other hand, was more successful in raising the money to build a sizable Greek Revival church at the intersection of High (Morris) Street and South Street in 1856. Named St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church, the gable-front frame structure was restyled during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with Gothic Revival alterations.
A second Methodist congregation was established at the close of the Civil War when a group of southern sympathizers physically left the St. Paul's congregation during a Sunday service on April 9, 1865 when Lee's surrender at Appomattox was announced.21 Another Greek Revival church was erected on part of the town square, and it was remodeled in 1892 in Gothic taste with a three-story tower and pointed arch windows across its principal fa9ade. The two congregations reunited in 1939, and nine years later built a Colonial Revival church in on the town square site.
The decade following the Civil War signaled a period of new prosperity for Oxford, with the restart of construction of the Maryland and Delaware Railroad, chartered originally in 1854 concurrent with the laying of the Delaware Railroad down the spine of the state. Financing and the laying of track progressed slowly, beginning in 1857 and continuing until 1859 when construction was halted at Greensboro, Maryland. The Civil War interrupted further progress until 1865. The railroad did not reach Oxford until 1871.22 When it did, the townspeople planned a huge celebration scheduled for July 4th.
The Delaware and Maryland Railroad lasted in name until 1877 when it was reorganized as the Delaware and Chesapeake Railroad Company.24 The railroad, stretched across Oxford Neck, intersecting the town at its south end with a wharf on the Tred Avon. Improvements were made gradually, particularly after the reorganization of the company.
Construction of the railroad infused Oxford with the same progressive, energetic boost that occurred at every other town and village along its path. The town's economic position had improved markedly by the time the town map was published in the 1877 Lake, Griffing, and Stevenson atlas. The town's boundaries were extended to provide new lots for houses between Benoni and Caroline streets, and a new generation of dwellings was being built for the white and black residents along Tilghman Street in the vicinity of the shipyard and steam saw mill on Town Creek. Located along Town Creek at the same time were two oyster shucking houses, a business that had been growing steadily prior to the Civil War.
The railroad link to the East Coast's urban markets catapulted the oyster export business across the Eastern Shore and turned small fishing villages into boom towns. Oxford was no exception. By 1884 there were 12 oyster packers and one fruit packer conducting business in Oxford.27 Between 1870 and 1890 the town's population quadrupled from 277 residents to 1,135 citizens. Land was further subdivided and new houses were rising in every direction. In 1882 a causeway was erected between mainland Oxford and Kerr's Island.
Many locals as well as new residents capitalized on Oxford's past as a resort with major improvements to provide new accommodations for summer visitors. Known as the River View House, the old eighteenth-century dwelling on the corner of Morris Street and the Strand was reworked by James Norris, a hotel owner from Easton, with additional rooms disguised by a stylish Second Empire mansard roof. For recreation, a bowling alley was located behind the hotel, according to the 1877 town map. In 1878, James Norris financed as well the construction of an ambitious three-story hotel, on Morris Street overlooking the Tred Avon just south of the town square. Named Eastford Hall, the long rangy complex was built to serve hundreds of guests arriving by boat or train.
In 1885, Eastford Hall was leased by the newly formed Maryland Military and Naval Academy, which operated as a preparatory school for both the Naval Academy in Annapolis and West Point. The first year the school opened, 170 cadets were enrolled. The school operated only a few years when mismanagement forced its closure in 1888.30 Six years later, on August 16,1894, the main building of the Eastford Hall complex caught fire and was completely destroyed.
Although the burning of the Eastford Hall complex left a gaping hole in the Morris Street landscape, the overall prosperity and growth of the town more than compensated for the loss. The decades spanning the turn of the twentieth century continued the upward swing for the town; the population exceeded 1,200 residents in 1900. With the prosperity associated with the oyster packing houses and other businesses, new construction throughout town was sponsored by a cross-section of Oxford residents. Improvements were made to schools and local churches. The Holy Trinity P. E. church was finally completed in 1903, and the St. Paul's M. E. congregation financed a remodeling of its building in 1906. Back in 1883, the black residents of Oxford organized their own Methodist congregation and made periodic additions and modifications to their church on Market Street in 1908 and 1917. As well, the black residents of Oxford had their own fraternal lodge and school, located on Tilghman Street.
Even though it was not particularly evident at the time, Oxford's business profile and economic strength were at their heights during the first decades of the twentieth century. By the time of the 1920 census, the population showed a distinct decline, owing largely to the diminishing seafood industry and competition from more accessible towns by truck and automobile. Nevertheless, the community of Oxford and its residents continued on despite the fall of its population once again. A handful of residents established the Tred Avon Yacht Club in 1931 under the moniker, the "Kap-Dun Club."34 The yacht club membership built a clubhouse facing the Tred Avon on land leased from the town. The following year, in 1932, the town commissioners financed the construction of a new municipal building on the comer of Morris and Market streets.
The second quarter of the twentieth century brought many positive and negative events for the town. A group of watermen families resettled in Oxford due to the severe erosion of Holland's Island. Jack's Point, on the east side of Town Creek, was where they settled, and the area was annexed into the town in 1931. In spite of the infusion of new families, the population was still in a downward slide, reaching 846 residents by 1940. The early 1930s, and particularly 1933, were especially difficult years. As a result of the stock market collapse and the ensuing Depression, the Oxford Bank, in operation since 1890 and housed in a relatively new brick structure since 1917, failed and closed its doors permanently. During August 1933, the Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane swept through the mouth of the bay and ravaged every waterfront town, village and farm. At the height of the storm, much of Oxford was underwater. Despite these devastating national and regional events, Oxford and its residents continued to pursue work on the water as well as in the town's boatyards. Oxford Boatyard, in particular, was awarded lucrative contracts during World War II.
The last fifty years (1955-2005) has witnessed new interest in Oxford as quiet residential community for retirees. The town's remote location and its beautiful setting surrounded on three sides by water views have long attracted old and new residents. With intensified pressures on town's historic housing stock with the influx of new residents during the last thirty years, Oxford's town commissioners passed legislation creating a historic district, confirmed by the town commissioners on April 18, 1974. Two-and-a-half years later, on September 8, 1976, a historic district commission was empowered to monitor and review changes to buildings within the historic area.
† Paul Baker Touart, Architectural Historian, Oxford Historic District, nomination document, 2005, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C., accessed July, 2023.
Bank Street • Benoni Street • Caroline Street • Factory Street • High Street • Jefferson Street • Market Street • Mill Street • Morris Street Nortj • Morris Street South • South Street • Stewart Street • Strand Street East • Strand Street East • Tilghman Street • Tred Avon Avenue • Truax Street • West Street • Wilson Street