After the end of the American Revolution in 1783, Captain Charles Ridgely (1733-1790) started to build a new mansion on the grounds of his Northampton property. Taking seven years to complete, Hampton House reflected Ridgely’s conservative architectural taste and reaffirmed his family’s position in Maryland high society. After its completion in 1790, Hampton stood as the largest private home in America. Unlike other homes constructed at the time, Ridgely chose a Georgian style to better accommodate public events including large dinner parties. Unfortunately, he could not enjoy the home for very long, as he died the same year the construction finished.1
Charles Ridgely's father, Colonel Charles Ridgely (1702-1772), had made his fortune from the Northampton Furnace and Forge. His vast grounds contained the natural resources necessary for pig iron production, including wood, limestone and iron ore deposits. The lumber heated the furnace. The heated limestone removed the iron ore’s impurities. After the furnace melted the ore into pig iron, the forge molded the pig iron into bars, which the company exported to England. Like other Maryland planters, the family exported their tobacco crop too, although their chief export was overwhelmingly pig iron. Captain Ridgely, commanded the ship, Baltimore Town, which sent these goods to London.2 This father-son business arrangement lasted until Colonel Ridgely’s death in 1772.
Under Captain Ridgely’s ownership, the family took advantage of the Revolutionary War. The newly-formed American government required mass amounts of iron products such as camp kettles, musket balls and cannons. The government knew that the Ridgely family supported their cause and thus became eager to buy Ridgely’s materials. In addition, the Ridgelys saved money by only shipping products domestically. Prices also rose; in 1766, the Ridgelys collected five dollars per ton, while in 1782, they earned seven pounds per ton. With the extra revenue, Captain Ridgely purchased confiscated British lands.3 When Captain Ridgely inherited Hampton from his father, he took possession of about 14,000 acres. By 1783, Ridgely’s holdings had grown to over 24,000 acres, with much of the land providing timber for the ironworks.
Upon Captain Ridgely’s death in 1790, his will left ownership of Hampton to his nephew, Charles Carnan (1760-1829), if the young man took the Ridgley name. Captain Ridgely and his wife, Rebecca Dorsey Ridgely, had no children of their own. Under Charles Carnan Ridgely’s ownership, marble was discovered on his lands; coal began to be imported from the regional mines. These materials proved more efficient than lumber and limestone in refining iron ore. At the same time, the exhausted soil could no longer support tobacco, but the Ridgelys found that new crops, such as corn and wheat, could be grown instead. The grain was turned into flour at Hampton’s mill and then sold locally. With the land to grow more crops and a more effective means to produce pig iron, the Ridgelys' fortunes soared. Maintaining their wealth was not easy; occasional bad harvests, philanthropic demands, and plantation upkeep forced the Ridgelys to closely watch their finances. Charles Carnan Ridgely served in Maryland’s House of Delegates, in part, to maintain his social and financial position through the passage of favorable legislation. In addition to serving in the legislature, Ridgely was Governor of Maryland from 1815 to 1818.
Much of what we know about the Ridgleys’ personal lives during the colonial period is in their family papers. The papers show Rebecca Dorsey Ridgely's preference of prayer meetings to her husband’s drinking and gambling parties.4 Captain Ridgely’s poor handwriting and bad grammar reflect a man who left school early; his letters also reveal a dominant and strong-willed character.5 Charles Carnan Ridgely wrote about his uncle’s wrestling and boxing at county fairs, often winning these informal matches.6 Family letters also reveal Captain Ridgely’s bad habit of “borrowing” highly prized horses, which he bred and then avoided returning them to their owners.17 Exchanges between Hampton’s Dr. Randel Hulse and Captain Ridgely show the Captain to be more concerned about making money than his workers’ health, which was not uncommon during the time.8
Dakin, Lynne Hastings. Hampton National Historic Site. Towson, Maryland: E. John Schmitz and Sons, 1986.
“Extracts from the Carroll papers,” Maryland Historical Magazine, XIV (September 1919).
Marye, William B. “The Old Indian Road,” Maryland Historical Magazine, XV. (September 1920), 212-213.
Richardson, Hester Dorsey Richardson. Side-Lights on Maryland History with Sketches of Early Maryland Families. Baltimore, Maryland: Williams and Wilkins Company, 1913.
Ridgley, Helen West. “Seafaring in Time of War, 1756-1763,” Maryland Historical Magazine, X. (March 1915), 5-6.
Steffen, Charles G. From Gentlemen to Townsmen: The Gentry of Baltimore County, Maryland 1660-1776. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Stiles, Martha Bennett. In her pamphlet "History of Hampton Mansion Closely Linked with Horses" (Towson, Maryland: Society for the Preservation of Maryland Antiquities, n.d.).
Daniel Dulaney to Benjamin Nicholson, January 5, 1785, Ridgely Papers MS 692
Thomas Contee to Charles Ridgely, October 18, 1786, Ridgely family papers, MS 1127
Benjamin Griffith to Charles Ridgely, August 15, 1788, Ridgely Family Papers, MS 1127
Benjamin Griffith to Charles Ridgely, August 17, 1788, Ridgely Family Papers, MS 1127
Petition of Ann Chew, undated, Ridgely papers, MS 692.1.
Joseph Taylor to Charles Ridgely, May 31, 1784, Ridgely papers, MS. 692.
Benjamin Nicholson to Charles Ridgely, (1785), Ridgely Family Papers, MS. 1127
Memorandum of John Dennis to the Forge Co., March 7, 1786, Ridgely papers, MS. 692.
Randel Hulse to Charles Ridgely, February 22, 1777, Ridgely Papers, MS. 692.1.
Deposition of William Lux vs. Charles Ridgely, , Ridgely papers, MS 692.