Maryland: Frederick

Frederick was named the capital of Frederick County in 1748; its downtown area was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1973. Monacacy Battlefield is found three miles outside the city limits.

Site Office

Historical Society of Frederick County

24 East Church Street

Frederick, MD 21701

ph.: (301) 663-1188

fax: (301) 663-0526

Web site:

If Annapolis is a showcase of excellently preserved eighteenth century upper-class mansions, then nearby Frederick is renowned for its down-to-earth, middle-class nineteenth century architecture. As the capital of Maryland, Annapolis was a magnet for nearby gentry in the two decades prior to the Revolutionary War. These wealthy planters built themselves luxurious town homes with spacious gardens. At the same time, Frederick, the county seat for Frederick County, was a magnet primarily for German immigrants from nearby Pennsylvania. As late as the first third of the nineteenth century, German was spoken as much as English in the streets and surrounding farms of Frederick. The first Frederick newspaper in 1786 had both English and German editions. When General Edward Braddock’s forces stopped in Frederick during the French and Indian War in 1755 for provisions, the aristocratic British officer was dismayed that the inhabitants of the town, who were far from starving, nonetheless had few wagons or luxuries of any kind to spare his troops. The slaveholding family was rare, and a large proportion of the blacks in Frederick County were free. Consequently, during the Civil War, the city of Frederick was strongly pro-Union, in contrast to genteel pro-Confederate Annapolis.

Because city leaders after the Civil War intended to preserve Frederick’s pleasant, small-town character, industry and manufacturing were discouraged and development was sporadic. While this led after World War I to an exodus of youth and the city’s slow growth–the population was only fourteen thousand in 1914–most of the city’s architectural heritage remained intact. After World War II, there emerged a strong grassroots movement to preserve the downtown district as an official historic area. In 1970, the Maryland Assembly passed an Enabling Act permitting cities to designate such areas. This was followed three years later by the downtown area’s being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Early History

The origins of Frederick, or as it was known until the 1820’s, Fredericktown, are well documented. The area was thinly populated by Europeans prior to the town’s founding in 1745. German farmers, attracted to the low price of land, made their way from Pennsylvania, and other German immigrants came directly from the old country via the port of Annapolis. These thrifty, hardworking men and women quickly tackled the Maryland wilderness in the 1730’s, erecting log houses, barns, and log churches. They leased their land at first from the English, with whom the German settlers had had little contact prior to their arrival in America. The average tract was two hundred acres, and the lease was payable after three years. These were irresistible lures for the steady stream of German settlers and also for the English-speaking settlers from nearby Montgomery County. There were also Indians in the area surrounding Frederick. Prior to the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1755, there was no record of open conflict between European and native Americans.

In 1744 an American-born lawyer, Daniel Dulany, bought a seven thousand-acre tract of land called “Tasker’s Chance” from Benjamin Tasker. Aware of the attractiveness of the area to settlers, Dulany quickly designed a town, with streets running east-west and north-south at right angles, and began selling lots. He called the town Fredericktown, but to this day there is only conjecture surrounding the name, which may have derived from the first name of the last (and sixth) Lord Baltimore, the English Catholic founding family of Maryland. Three years after the town officially was founded in 1745, the Maryland Assembly in nearby Annapolis created Frederick County; as the sole city in the county at the time, Fredericktown became the de facto county seat. By 1755, only ten years after its founding, the city boasted at least two hundred homes, owned mostly by Germans, and two churches.

German Influences

The pervasiveness of German culture was noted by all outsiders. These settlers introduced the custom of dyeing eggs for Easter; they also introduced their own foods, dress, and style of architecture (with unusually thick walls, even in that era of heavy walls). They were known for using animal fertilizer on their farm land, and they disdained raising tobacco (which exhausted the soil) in favor of grains and corn. They did not own slaves, although some of the English settlers did.

From the beginning, Frederick was a prosperous town. The agricultural area was rich, the railroad would come early to Frederick, in 1831, and until then, local canals and toll roads conveyed produce to distant markets in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Streets in eighteenth century Frederick were unpaved; there was no street lighting and no sewers or system of drainage. Dead animals rotted in the streets, and the water often was unsafe, leading to periodic cholera outbreaks, typical for cities in that era. Frederick did boast some fine buildings, such as the elegant Court House–erected soon after the city became a county seat in 1748–churches, and private homes.

Anti-British Feeling in Frederick

Because the majority of Frederick residents in the colonial period (and for at least half a century after independence) were non-English, there was little loyalty among inhabitants for the British Crown. British authority was identified with arbitrariness and taxes. In the spring of 1755, the townsmen were incensed that General Edward Braddock, heading a regiment of fourteen hundred men bound for Fort Duquesne in Pennsylvania, requisitioned all the wagons in and about the city, and worse, ordered town residents to feed and house his troops for the duration of his army’s stay. One interesting footnote to this experience was that the young colonel George Washington joined up with Braddock’s forces in Frederick. For nearly two centuries, the house in which Washington stayed during his Frederick sojourn stood intact, until it was torn down in the twentieth century to make way for “development.”

After the French and Indian War, when the British Parliament sought ways of paying the exorbitant costs of that conflict, Fredericktonians were outraged at the new taxes imposed upon all the colonies. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the last straw. It occasioned widespread rioting until its repeal in 1766. In Frederick, the stamp distributor had been burned in effigy; even more noteworthy was the repudiation of the Stamp Act by twelve justices of the Frederick Court, the first official action against British authority in the colonies.

The Revolutionary War

The American Revolution brought many notables to Frederick, including George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. While battles raged outside the Frederick area, the city was little affected. Revolutionary sentiment was universal in the city–a barracks went up to house prisoners of war, many of whom were Germans from the state of Hesse who had hired themselves out to the British army as mercenaries, a common practice in those days. With little loyalty to the British side, many of these prisoners opted to work for area farmers, the majority of whom were German, and many of them also deserted, a serious problem for the British as the war dragged on.

After the Revolutionary War ended, and despite the problems occasioned by a weak and ineffective central government, Frederick flourished. There were by then over two thousand inhabitants. Agriculture carried out by a free and efficient German American farming community yielded bumper crops of grains and fruits in season. The town had gristmills to grind the grain into flour as well as iron furnaces, forges, and hundreds of liquor stills. In 1784, a German immigrant, Johann Friedrich Amelung, arrived in Frederick County and set up Bremen Glass Works a few miles outside of town. He brought with him from the old country one hundred glassmakers and eventually hired several hundred more. They lived in a German village setting on his 2,100-acre tract, a baronial estate by Old World standards. Eventually he went out of business, and the Amelung works disappeared.

The town had by then a distinguished physician, Dr. John Tyler (the first town doctor had arrived in 1769), whose fame as an oculist spread even to Europe. He went down in medical history as the first doctor to perform successful cataract surgery in the United States. Frederick also had its first newspaper, the Maryland Chronicle or the Universal Advertiser, which for decades contained only national or international news. Because Frederick was such a small city, everyone knew what was happening locally. By 1850, competition arose with big city papers, and Frederick newspapers began to shift to local news.

Frederick was the scene of much coming and going of troops during the War of 1812, which actually touched all Marylanders directly when a British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake Bay in September, 1814, and bombarded the port of Baltimore. There were tremendous celebrations in Frederick after the defeat of the mighty British Navy at Fort McHenry. After the war, Frederick prospered again and made civic improvements–adding street lighting, pavement, and a water system. Cholera decimated the town in 1832, with smaller outbreaks occurring periodically afterward, alternating with diphtheria. Not until 1886 was a Public Health Department formed, which held men and women accountable for hygiene and waste disposal.

The Civil War

The small city did not escape the sectional conflicts that led to the Civil War. The number of slaves in the city by then had increased to the point where 10 percent of the inhabitants were blacks in bondage. Nonetheless, the male voters of Frederick County were in the majority opposed to secession; however, because of the existence of slavery in the state, especially the southern counties, abolitionists everywhere in Maryland were a tiny and despised minority. There were no votes for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and states’ rights advocates in the Maryland assembly decried his election as president. Anti-Lincoln sentiment was never as vehement in Frederick as in Baltimore, where the president-elect’s life was endangered by a mob when his train traveled through the city to Washington, D.C.

While Frederick escaped the fighting in other wars, this would not be the case during the Civil War. By the end of 1861, the small city of a few thousand inhabitants (which shrank during the war years) was occupied by a huge Union force of fifteen thousand. Frederick would be battered by both sides during the war: canals and railroads would be destroyed, crops burned or otherwise damaged, and the city held ransom by Confederate general Jubal T. Early and looted more than once.

Two bloody battles took place outside Frederick, at Antietam Creek in 1862 and at the Monacacy River in 1864. While the Battle of Antietam was a dubious Union success, it nonetheless drew President Lincoln to Frederick on October 1, 1862, to view the battlefield and to visit the wounded, over twenty thousand of them, crowded into twenty makeshift city hospitals. This memorable visit is commemorated on a plaque affixed to the house where Lincoln lived during his brief stay in Frederick. Two years later, when the Southern cause was all but lost, General Jubal T. Early’s forces ravaged the city and attacked Union forces protecting the road to Washington, D.C., in a last-ditch attempt to relieve the pressure on General Robert E. Lee in Richmond. While the brief, bloody encounter on the Monacacy River barely merits a footnote in Civil War histories, General Early’s stay was long remembered by Fredericktonians because of the $200,000 ransom he demanded and received from them in return for sparing their town from destruction by fire.

Visitors to Frederick gravitate to the Barbara Fritchie Home, reconstructed as it appeared in 1862, when Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s force occupied the city briefly. Union sentiment was strong in Frederick, and few welcomed the Confederates. According to legend, ninety-five-year-old Fritchie brazenly displayed a Union flag outside her home, knowing that Stonewall Jackson’s troops would be marching by on their way out of the city. When a shot rang out and tore a hole through the flag, she leaned out of her window and challenged the troops to shoot her, rather than their country’s flag. According to John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem memorializing the incident, Jackson lowered his eyes in shame at her words and ordered his troops to cease their fire. Several months later, Barbara Fritchie died of old age.

Post-Civil War Recovery

There was jubilation in the city when the war ended, so great was the desire to return to normal life. The town quickly rebuilt itself, repairing damaged roads, telegraph wires, and railroad tracks and replanting crops. The industrial growth of America passed Frederick by, however, largely because city leaders were afraid that industrialization and unhindered growth would lead to a deterioration in the city’s quality of life. Much of historical Frederick–the churches, private homes, the Court House–was preserved, but the town’s growth was hindered. Interestingly, the city remained prosperous, with agriculture still the dominant element of its economy. While agriculture suffered in many parts of the country in the late nineteenth century, Frederick farmers had switched from grain farming to much more lucrative and secure dairy farming, and they suffered no adversity. The city, however, would not be spared the ill effects of the Great Depression. The lack of business and industry meant that recovery from the economic disaster took longer there than in other parts of Maryland, and the town did not recover until the onset of World War II.

During the war and until the 1970’s, Fort Detrick in Frederick became a major center of biological weapons manufacturing; after the war, new industries arrived in the city, and growth finally led to a population explosion. Frederick became the second-largest city in Maryland in 1990, with a population of forty thousand (overtaken recently by the city of Rockville).

Historic Buildings

Today one can enter the small city of Frederick and visit the Court House and the same five churches that John Greenleaf Whittier visited in the 1860’s. Court House Square boasts not only the old Court House but also the house on 119 Record Street that Lincoln visited in October, 1862. At 103 Council Street stands the building where Lafayette resided when he returned in 1824 to visit the town. Away from the square one comes upon the Roger Brooke Taney House/Francis Scott Key Museum, housed in the original building completed in 1799. This was for many years the home and office of Supreme Court Justice Taney (of Dred Scott fame), who practiced law in Frederick; for a few years, his partner was Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On display are items that belonged both to the Taney and Key families.

On West Patrick Street downtown stands the Barbara Fritchie House and Museum. Her home had been demolished in 1867, five years after her death, but was restored to its original appearance in the 1920’s. She is buried, along with Key and nearly one thousand Confederate dead from the Battles of Antietam and Monacacy, at Mount Olivet Cemetery, in the southern end of Frederick. Antietam Battlefield, like Gettysburg in nearby Pennsylvania, is a national landmark and lies approximately forty miles outside of the Frederick city limits. The Monacacy Battlefield is a few miles outside the city.

For Further Information

  • Ashbury, John W. And All Our Yesterdays: A Chronicle of Frederick County, Maryland. Frederick, Md.: Diversions, 1997. A history of Frederick with a chronology.
  • Huffman, Amy Lee. In and out of Frederick Town: Colonial Occupations. Frederick, Md.: Reed, 1985. A book with a narrower focus than Whitmore and Cannon’s below, but just as interesting and well illustrated.
  • Whitmore, Nancy F., and Timothy L. Cannon. Frederick: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1981. The best book on Frederick. A fascinating read, it is loaded with rare photographs (including many of buildings long since demolished) and interesting anecdotes about the city from its foundation to the late 1970’s.