Skip to main content

Cecil County Life

Cecil County history

Oct 28, 2021 01:49PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Gene Pisasale
Contributing Writer

Located in the northeastern corner of Maryland, Cecil County’s heritage dates back many centuries. The Piscataway Indians traded with the Susquehannocks near present day Conowingo and the Nanticoke tribe near the Elk River. Captain John Smith visited the area in 1608. An important trading center, the region currently known as Cecil County was previously part of Baltimore County. It was formally organized in 1674, named for Cecil Calvert, the second Baron Baltimore. The St. Francis Xavier Church in Warwick began as a Jesuit mission in 1704 and is one of Maryland’s oldest churches, today a museum. Principio Furnace begun in 1719 was an important provider of pig iron for the colonies. West Nottingham Academy, formed by the Reverend Samuel Finley in 1744 is one of the oldest schools in the nation; two signers of the Declaration of Independence- Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton- were educated there. Situated strategically between Philadelphia and Baltimore, Cecil County has been a crossroads over the years. Both General George Washington’s and British General William Howe’s armies passed through during the Revolutionary War.

Bordering Pennsylvania and Delaware, Cecil County lies at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. In the canal era, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal crossed its territory when it was completed in 1829, later to become a thriving thoroughfare. The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad started service in 1831. The Frenchtown portion was abandoned in 1859, but other sections are now run by Norfolk Southern. A different type of transportation also came through the region. The Underground Railroad ran through Cecil County; Frederick Douglas is reported to have come into the area on his escape to freedom. During the Civil War, Perryville was a critical staging ground for Union troops. Over the subsequent decades, Cecil County’s economic future was shaped by its proximity to major cities in the mid-Atlantic region like Washington, D.C. As highways were developed, the county was part of the heavily traveled northeast corridor. In June 1941, the final portion of Route 40 was completed; it was later dedicated as the Pulaski Highway, after the Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy dedicated and opened the Northeastern Expressway (Interstate 95), which brought an ongoing flow of traffic that benefited local businesses.

Charlestown’s history goes back almost 270 years to 1742, when the town was named after Charles Calvert, 5th Lord Baron of Baltimore. Originally the county seat, Charlestown was a busy port and supply depot for the Continental Army. Benjamin Franklin and the artist Charles Willson Peale are known to have visited. The Charlestown Historic District has approximately 150 buildings dating back to the mid-18th century, including the Red Lyon Tavern, the Paca House, the Indian Queen Tavern and the Hamilton House.

Chesapeake City is known to boating enthusiasts as a great place to take a scenic cruise; it is situated on the southern bank of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Its beginnings date to October 17, 1829, when the hand-dug canal opened for traffic. Ten years later, the town got its name. The canal allows passage of nearly 40% of the ship traffic between Philadelphia and Baltimore and is the third busiest canal in the world, after the Panama and Suez Canals. Visitors enjoy the seafood and other specialties at the Chesapeake Inn, Schaeffer’s Canal House as well as the quaint 19th century homes; history buffs will appreciate the C&D Canal Museum.

Elkton today is known as the county seat, but its colorful history is linked to its place as a staging point for British General William Howe’s forces, who landed at what was called Head of Elk before marching north to confront George Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine. It was also famous as being a place for couples to get hitched. When many states passed restrictive marriage laws in the early 20th century, Maryland did not- and Elkton’s proximity to major cities prompted thousands of people to flock there to be married. Famous names who were betrothed in Elkton include Cornel Wilde, Joan Fontaine, Debbie Reynolds, Willie Mays and Pat Robertson.

When Captain John Smith sailed up Chesapeake Bay, he cruised up the Susquehanna River to the present location of Port Deposit. Its roots go back so far, the entire town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The Gerry House was built in 1812, hosting the Marquis de Lafayette on his tour of America in 1824. Locally mined Port Deposit granite (actually gneiss) has been used in building numerous homes in the region, including portions of well-known structures: the U.S. Naval Academy, Haverford College, Fort McHenry, Fort Delaware, the Boston Public Library and the U.S. Treasury Building.

Notable people who spent time in Cecil County include statesman William Paca, who signed the Declaration of Independence and was later the Governor of Maryland. George Read was a contemporary of Paca, who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, was later a U.S. Senator and Delaware State Chief Justice. Robert Somers Brookings is known today as the founder of the think-tank Brookings Institution. David Davis, a lawyer colleague of President Abraham Lincoln later served as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.

Cecil County today looks back on a rich heritage, one linked to the creation of the United States, the early republic and our nation’s economic history with its canal. With 51 properties listed on the National Register, it offers numerous places for people to explore as well as fun spots nearby to have leisure activities. If you love seafood, sailing or history, Cecil County is a place you’ll want to put on your “Must See” list.


Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His ten books focus mostly on American history, including the Chester County and Philadelphia area. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” His books are available on his website at www.GenePisasale.com and on www.Amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected]

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Cecil County's free newsletter to catch every headline