During the 18th century, mid-Atlantic planters like Colonel Charles Ridgely and his son Captain Charles Ridgely, enjoyed a lucrative trading relationship with Europe. At the start of the American Revolution, the Ridgelys replaced their European clients with American ones, including the newly-formed Continental Army. Because Baltimore County experienced little direct combat, its fields, forges and furnaces remained intact and thus could continually supply the Continental Army with much-needed flour, cornmeal and iron goods. Meeting this supply required a large labor force and well-organized businesses. Although the Ridgelys owned numerous slaves and had contracts with many indentured servants, they still hired other servants, laborers, artisans and administrators.
By the mid-1750s, Maryland was the colonies’ leading exporter of iron products, thanks to its rich iron deposits and abundant timber.1 During this time large landowners, such as the Ridgelys, operated their own furnaces and forges. Building a furnace and forge required a great deal of start-up capital, as owners needed to invest in buildings, equipment and workers.2 Still the Ridgelys’ iron business developed relatively quickly. They purchased the land intended for furnace usage in 1760 and a year later had started production.3 Despite the initial start-up cost and the disruption in international trade brought upon by the Revolutionary War, their profits grew. The Ridgely family iron works, Northampton Forge and Furnace Company, became one of the early America’s most prosperous furnaces. Their success mainly resulted from the Ridgelys’ ability to satisfy the Continental Army’s demand for iron goods, such as camp kettle and musket balls. 4
Additionally, before the Revolutionary War, Maryland stood as a leading producer of cash crops, such as tobacco. Along with the Northampton Company, the Ridgelys’ vast agricultural fields and available work force made tobacco production very profitable.5 However, by the Revolutionary War, the tobacco plants had exhausted the soil and they needed to grow other crops. Instead of growing tobacco, they planted vast amounts of wheat and corn, which they refined into flour and corn in their gristmill. This change of crops proved very lucrative for the Ridgely family, who sold the refined crops to the Continental Army along with their finished iron products.
The Ridgelys relied on both paid and unpaid workers to maintain iron and grain production. While their slaves and indentured servants were not paid, the Ridgelys paid both servants and laborers goods and cash in exchange for their work. The most numerous group, indentured servants, worked alongside African-American slaves to complete the low-skilled jobs such as cutting timber and digging the ore. They also loaded the smelted pig iron upon wagons bound for the forge.6 Such work required physical strength and the ability to work long hours. Often the assigned tasks, such as mining the ore, proved to be dangerous.7 Also, these individuals would plant seed and transfer the harvested crops to the gristmill. Neither group of workers received wages or could legally marry; however, both groups received provisions from the Ridgelys including clothing, boarding and food. While indentured servants could negotiate terms of their contracts and sue the Ridgelys for breach of contract, slaves could not.
The third group, paid servants, entered into contracts with the Ridgelys in which they gave their services in exchange for a wage and an allowance of provisions. Some of these individuals had worked as indentured servants and chose to remain with the Ridgelys after their terms expired. The Ridgely businesses offered stable employment and these workers found it in their interest to stay. However, as servants, the Ridgely family often expected them to perform the same low-skilled tasks as indentured servants.
Paid laborers, the fourth group, worked for the Ridgelys on an “as-needed” basis. Local farmers would exchange their labor for goods purchased at the Ridgely company store. Wagoners, too, offered their services when the Ridgelys needed additional horse teams and vehicles for hauling materials.8 Sometimes, these laborers were actually tenants on the Ridgelys’ property. They worked to satisfy a partial rent payment or to repay the cost for trees used in building their personal homes. They often paid the remaining rent in cash or with a set amount of harvested crop.9
The task of monitoring these workers rested with a series of paid other workers, including clerks, stewards, “overlookers” and the overseer. All these positions required a level of literacy and skill. They commonly were paid with yearly contracts. Clerks maintained the accounting books of the plantation or farm, while stewards kept track of agricultural activities including the inventories of grains. “Overlookers” maintained the workers’ information and plantation equipment, while overseers handled the workers’ grievances and kept order. 10 Both paid and unpaid workers ultimately answered to the overseer, who spoke directly with the Ridgelys. The Ridgelys gave Hampton’s overseer better housing than most of their other paid workers, which emphasized his superiority over other employees.
The Ridgelys also employed paid artisans. In their iron business, artisans called moulders were paid per the amount of goods they cast. Other artisans worked in the blacksmith shop and wheelwright shop as well as in the flour and cornmeal mill. Still others made clothing, tanned horse hides and repaired iron products.11 Paid skilled workers, such as masons, millwrights, blacksmiths and bricklayers built Hampton’s gristmill, furnace and forge.12 Even for the construction of Hampton Mansion itself, the Ridgelys employed artisans to draft its design and to help build the mansion.13 Often during the summer months, these individuals may have given their services as day labors to help harvest crops.14 At the top of the employment hierarchy, stood the manager of the iron works. Instead of simply hiring someone with experience, Captain Ridgley preferred finding a young man whom he deemed would be good at the position and groomed him for the job.15 Despite the vast amount of jobs performed at Hampton, few workers enjoyed economic mobility or the benefits of negotiating contract terms as a group instead of as individual workers. Even though Hampton workers reaped few benefits from their hard work, their complex and integrated working relationships helped to make the Ridgely family prosperous and important during the Revolutionary War.
Bezis-Selfa, John. “A Tale of Two Ironworks: Slavery, Free Labor, Work and Resistance in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. 56, No. 4 (October 1999), 677-700.
Dakin, Lynne Hastings. Hampton National Historic Site. Towson, Maryland: E. John Schmitz and Sons, 1986.
Daniels, Christine. “WANTED: A Blacksmith who Understands Plantation Work,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4 (October 1993), 743-767.
Steffen, Charles G. From Gentlemen to Townsmen: The Gentry of Baltimore County, 1660-1776. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Steffen, Charles G. “The Pre-Industrial Iron Worker: Northampton Iron Works, 1780-1820,” Labor History Vol. 20 (1979), 89-110.
Russo, Jean B. “A Model Planter: Edward Lloyd IV of Maryland, 1770-1796,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. 49, No. 1 (January 1992), 62-88.