For road-trippers in the mid-Atlantic, January can bring plans to a screeching halt. We got lucky this year when we learned the Sotterley Mansion is open for special touring this month.
A 90-minute drive from Alexandria along Route 5 through southern Maryland, this place is special. It is the rare jewel with a 300th anniversary on its resume. By way of example, Carlyle House (1753) and Gunston Hall (1759) still have a ways to go to reach that milestone.
Like the Lee-Fendall House, Sotterly has been designated as a Distinctive Designation by National Trust for Historic Places. Spread out on 90 acres overlooking the wide waters of the Patuxent River, it is the only remaining tidewater Plantation in Maryland that is open to the public. As the HABS points out, Sotterley is “one of the few Maryland buildings that can be dated without question to the first quarter of the 18th century.” The oldest part of the mansion dates to 1707, rarified air for the Washington region.
Like most, if not all plantations, a visit to Sotterley comes with baggage. Enslaved humans were denied their freedoms while others became rich and prospered. Recent discoveries, however, provide a chapter that can uplift the soul.
Due to its location on the river, almost 50 enslaved men, women and children at Sotterley were able to escape to the British in 1814. In his groundbreaking work, “The Internal Enemy,” author Alan Taylor found that two slaves at Sotterley, Peregrine Young and Ignatius Seale escaped and returned with a British force in June of 1814. They guided the Marines on a raid that liberated 44 other enslaved men, women and children there. Another author notes that Lewis and Grace Munroe escaped and lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia. James Bowie served with the Colonial Marines and was given land in Trinidad.
Lara Lutz of The Bay Journal points out that researchers are learning more and more about this escape and others from Sotterley. Taylor told her the War of 1812 provided opportunities never before available. Frederick Douglass called the British ships “swift-winged angels.”
This aspect was not covered on our guided tour, but Jeanne Pirtle provided a thorough look at its multi-dimensional past. Visitors are fortunate, for she is the author of “Sotterely Plantation” (Images of America), and also serves as the chief docent and museum director. Challenges are huge, as she told us in her opening remarks, with a lack of funding, the age of the house and out properties, and the different eras to interpret.
If you are not able to make a guided tour, a handful of historical markers on the Sotterley grounds tells its stories. Additionally, several impressive panels can be found inside the Gift Shop, which serves as the starting point for all visits and tours.
All in all, a good trip. Rain, heavy at one point on the way home, tried to make things dreary, but the temps reached 64.
Who said January slows you down?