Escapes: Breathing in history at Maryland’s Sotterley Plantation
By James F. Lee,
It’s a small structure, just one room and a loft, built around 1830. There’s a small fireplace in one wall. The floor is now just hard-packed dirt, although at one time there was rough wooden flooring. Long ago, an entire family of slaves might have lived here; perhaps 10 or more people, given the large families of antebellum days. I looked out the window up to Sotterley plantation house, set at the top of a rise offering a commanding view of the fields and of this slave house, and it occurred to me that the Sotterley story is a tale of two houses.
Sotterley plantation in Hollywood, Md., is a National Historic Landmark, a stately home of 15 rooms overlooking the Patuxent River. Throughout its centuries-long history, only four families have owned the estate, once a successful tobacco plantation that depended on slave labor. Sotterley today is run by a private foundation and is the only Maryland Tidewater plantation open to the public. The slave cabin on the grounds is the only one still standing.
On a recent trip to the plantation, guide Bob Aldridge greeted my wife and me at the back of the house — the side facing away from the river. “The river was the road,” said Bob, so the front would face the water. He had to make himself heard above the preparations for a wedding that would be held in the garden later that day.
In 1703, John Bowles built a two-room house here using post-in-ground construction; 309 years later, several of those original posts are still there. After Bowles’s death, four generations of the Plater family owned Sotterley between 1729 and 1822. They named the house after their ancestral home in Suffolk, England. As their wealth increased, successive Platers added to the original rooms, creating a long, narrow, stately brick-and-clapboard house with a steeply pitched roof that today sits on 100 acres of rolling hay fields.
The plantation reached its pinnacle during the time of George Plater III, a prominent politician who served as Maryland governor in the early 1790s. He added acreage and transformed the house into an elegant mansion. One stunning example of his vision is the drawing room at the north end of the house. The entire room, with the exception of the plaster ceiling, is carved in pine and poplar and painted a pale yellow. Above the mantel hangs a painting depicting the original house. Most notable are two recessed half-shell alcoves, showing the intricate woodcarving skills of 18th-century artisans, many of them slaves. An unusual Chinese Chippendale banister in the hallway was also added during this period.
Only five rooms are on display to the public; the others include a small parlor painted a startling blood red, a formal dining room with palm tree motif wallpaper, a library in the 1715 addition, and a small larder. Most of the furnishings and wall decorations in these rooms are from the 20th-century occupants.
But the plantation’s story isn’t just about the owners. “If you visit Sotterley, you learn about the estate’s wealthy owners, as well as the lives of slaves, tenant farmers, craftsmen, and domestic workers from the 1700s until the 1950s. Sotterley is uniquely valuable for the breadth of life it covers,” said Kenneth Cohen, an assistant professor of history at nearby St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who has worked as a consultant for Sotterley.
Bob told us just such a story about Peregrine Young, the doorman and the highest-valued slave on the plantation. From the hallway where I was standing, at the front door of Sotterley, Young couldn’t have missed the British ships coming up the Patuxent in 1814, in pursuit of the American flotilla, during the War of 1812. When British troops later landed at Sotterley looking for provisions, he took advantage of their offer of freedom, and with three other slaves went over to the British side. In an act of great courage and at the risk of their freedom, Young and the others returned to Sotterley with the British and freed more than 40 other slaves.
This summer, Sotterley is offering a living history presentation called “The Choice,” depicting the wrenching decisions Maryland slaves such as Peregrine Young made during the War of 1812.
Sotterley had fallen into disrepair when it was purchased in 1910 as a vacation retreat by lawyer and businessman Herbert Satterlee and his wife, Louisa, the daughter of financier J.P. Morgan. They were determined to re-create it as they envisioned it looking around the time of the American Revolution. The Satterlees were devotees of the Colonial Revival tradition and furnished the house in that style. Most of the furnishings date from their ownership, although there are also some original Plater pieces. The Satterlees also designed a Colonial Revival garden, divided into symmetrical sections for vegetables, perennials, flowers and herbs. During our visit, the peony hedge was a riot of pink and white.
The Satterlees’ daughter, Mabel Ingalls, bought the estate in 1947 after her parents died. She conferred ownership to a private foundation in 1960 to preserve the plantation for the public.
At the end of the tour, we’d worked our way over to the entranceway on the river side of the house. Below us, the fields of grass rippled in the breeze, creating undulating waves interrupted only by pretty clumps of trees. The river glittered in the background. For more than 300 years, Sotterley’s owners might have stood here, looking over their property; Peregrine Young, standing here at his station, would have watched British and American ships battling in 1814 and weighed the chances of gaining his freedom. Standing there myself, I looked down to the “rolling road,” leading to an old dock. It was the path along which tobacco barrels were rolled down to the dock and slaves were led up to Sotterley to work the plantation or were led off to be sold in the market.
From that vantage point, I could barely make out the roof of the slave cabin.
Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.