What’s In A Name?

One of the side effects of historical research over a period of years is that minor characters in history keep reappearing as if on their own volition, as if to say, “don’t forget about me!” In my multi-year study of the historic stones around my hometown of Leesburg Virginia, one name keeps popping up and that name is Samuel Clapham.

With his father, Colonel Josias Clapham, his wife, Elizabeth and niece, Elizabeth Clapham Price Mason, the family seems to have been quite active in the life and development of Loudoun County in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Their family estate, Chestnut Hill still stands on the west side of Route 15 a few miles north of Leesburg. Josias Clapham (the father) purchased the property during the Revolutionary War. Upon his death, his son Samuel Clapham inherited the property and greatly enlarged the mansion. When he died in 1826 his wife Elizabeth ran the estate until 1833. She was succeeded by her niece Elisabeth who had married Thomas Francis Mason, the grandson of Founding Father George Mason. The couple enlarged Chestnut Hill again and owned it until her death in 1873, though they seldom occupied the old house, preferring to live in Alexandria where Thomas, her husband, was a lawyer and politician.

It should be noted that not only the house passed down from grandfather to son to wife but a considerable number of enslaved persons as well.

There are two interesting historical stories told about the house. One is that the original copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted in 1776 by George Mason was stored at the estate by the family until it was sold to the National Archive in 1930. The other story is that during the Civil War, despite orders that the manse be burned down, the union officer refused out of respect for George Mason and the Mason family name.

The first time I encountered this family was in Robert Kapsch’s wonderful book, “The Potomac Canal: George Washington and the Waterway West,” and it is a rather inauspicious encounter. On page 208 the author tells us that after the formation of the Potomac Company by George Washington and his collaborators in May 1785, their great project to make the Potomac River navigable was slowed by various factors. “The company was having trouble hiring laborers, coping with the disorderly behavior of the workmen, and dealing with work delays caused by unseasonably heavy rains. Sickness caused further delays—in particular, the sickness of Colonel Clapham, who was to construct the boats.” Happily, we find out in the footnotes that Colonel Clapham recovered and was paid $143 for two boats on October 27, 1785.

The next time “Clapham” appeared on my radar is thirty years later after the August 1814 burning of the Capital by the British. For the rebuild, Congress appointed Benjamin Latrobe, the man who with Thomas Jefferson had designed the much admired first iteration of the House and Senate Chambers. Implicitly his orders from Congress and President Monroe were to build something which was beautiful and would last longer than the Parthenon in Athens. For the critical columns of both chambers, critical because they hold up the ceiling, he selected Potomac Marble. As is documented in my book “Potomac Marble: The History of the Search for the Ideal Stone,” this stone was not selected without a significant political battle.

Latrobe understood that there were three qualifications which had to be met by the stone selected; it had to be beautiful, accessible and transportable. On August 8, 1814 Latrobe wrote in a letter that he had found the ideal stone:

“The largest Mass of this Kind of Rock (Potomac Marble) is situated on the Maryland side of the Patowmac on land the property of Samuel Clapham, Esqr. It overhangs the River, and would furnish without any land carriage all the Columns of the Capitol of one block each if required, and of beauty not exceeded in any modern or ancient building.”

In fact, on June 1816, the federal government contracted to quarry Clapham’s Potomac marble and twenty-two Corinthian columns, each 26.6 feet tall, for the Hall of Representatives were extracted. We find out later that on July 21, 1818, Samuel Clapham was paid $1,500 for “use of his Marble Quarry upon the River Potomac.” 

It seems that Samuel was also recruited along with other shakers and movers of Loudoun, Montgomery and Frederick counties to help recruit workers for the quarry. The April 8th, 1817, issue of the Leesburg newspaper “Genius of Liberty,” (what a great name for a newspaper!) ran the following advertisement.

Wanted Immediately.

At the Marble Quarry, Montgomery County, Maryland, on the Potomac,

ONE HUNDRED STRONG, HEALTHY,

Laboring Men

To whom liberal wages will be given, and for strong and healthy negro men

Ninety Dollars from the first of April until the first of January next; or

in proportion for such time as they shall remain at the Quarry.

By order of the President of the U. States.

SAMUEL LANE, Commissioner of the public buildings

APPLY TO

John Nelson, esq. Frederick Town,

John Littlejohn, esq Leesburg,

John Hartnett at the Quarry,

Joshua Shelton, near Conrad’s ferry,

Major Noland, at Aldie (Loudoun)

Samuel Clapham, esq

The printer of the paper, Alexandria

And the Commissioner of the public buildings at Washington

March 28th

Samuel Clapham is again mentioned in what turns out to be a partially apocryphal story told by Latrobe’s son, John Latrobe on page 64 of his biography, “John H.B. Latrobe and His times 1803-1891.” We are told, “A memorable incident in this part of my life was a journey on horseback that I made…with my father to Loudoun County, Virginia, where we were the guests of Mr. Samuel Clapham.” John reports that it was at Mr. Clapham’s that his father Benjamin first saw Potomac Marble and, “I remember his breaking off a piece from a protruding rock in one of Mr. Clapham’s fields and holding it to a grindstone turned by a negro boy until a flat surface was obtained, which, wetted, showed what the appearance would be when polished.” John concludes, falsely, that it was from this experience that his father decided to use Potomac Marble for the columns of the rebuilt Capitol. For the true story…read my book!

I thought I was finished with the Clapham clan until I recently started looking at the history of the Goose Creek canal. The canal’s primary purpose was to bring wheat down from the many mills along Goose Creek to the Potomac River. Once at the river, the canal boats were to cross over to the Maryland shore and enter the C&O Canal and head for the Georgetown port where ocean going vessels waited to bring that wheat to international ports, in particular the sugar islands, to feed the enslaved.

As Goose Creek nears the Potomac River its downriver side borders Elizabeth Mills River Front Park once the site of a flour mill. And who is this Elizabeth after whom the 1807 mill (and later park) is named you ask? Well, it turns out to be Elizabeth Clapham the wife of Samuel Clapham!

But the drama doesn’t end there. In February of 2022 the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors renamed Elizabeth Mills Riverfront Park because of her family’s association with slavery. The new name, Bazil Newman Riverfront Park, honors Mr. Newman who as described by the Loudoun Times Mirror was, “a free Black man who owned and operated a ferry and warehouse service in the early to mid-1800s at the place close to where Goose Creek meets the Potomac River. He was one of the few free Black entrepreneurs in the area at the time and was successful and well-regarded.”

So, what’s in a name? One’s past can certainly cast doubt on current honors, and it is difficult to honor slavers unless they have extraordinary achievements like George Washington. Perhaps it is sufficient to do what I have just done, indicate any benefit they may have done for mankind and let God sort out the rest.

-End-

Benjamin Latrobe’s sketch: “The largest Mass of this Kind of Rock is situated on the Maryland side of the Patowmac on land the property of Samuel Clapham, Esqr. It overhangs the River, and would furnish without any land carriage all the Columns of the Capitol of one block each if required, and of beauty not exceeded in any modern or ancient building.”
John Latrobe: “I remember his breaking off a piece from a protruding rock in one of Mr. Clapham’s fields and holding it to a grindstone turned by a negro boy until a flat surface was obtained, which, wetted, showed what the appearance would be when polished.”
The Goose Creek Canal ruins.

The inlet which would allow boats to enter the C&O Canal from the Goose Creek canal across the river.
Where the C&O welcomes boats from the Potomac River.
Now Bazil Newman Riverfront Park

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