Sometimes governments make mistakes. And once in a great while, historians get it wrong.
Some errors become embedded, part of local folklore, no longer even embarrassing. More than 100 years ago, somebody in the made a mistake, and it is a wonder that the John A. Wilson Building is not haunted by a tall, redheaded ghost with a claymore in his bloody hand.
The error, now in D.C. books, maps and guides and in the names of several historic places and hundreds of Georgetown references, involves a long-dead Scot named Ninian Beall.
In September 1650, Beall (pronounced “bell”) was a junior officer in the Scottish army that was crushed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the hilly land near the coastal town of Dunbar. Most of the Scottish prisoners were penned up in the huge cathedral at Dunbar, where they died by the hundreds. No burial place had been found until a few months ago, but it is likely that many of the bodies were tossed in a river.
In the spring, the survivors, some 1,400 ragged and starving men, were marched to the coast, where they were sold as indentured workers. In Barbados, a Maryland planter bought Beall’s contract, and Beall, a big man (several sources say he was 6-foot-7 ), now a widower with sons at home, spent five years toiling for one Richard Hall of Calvert County. In 1657, after serving his time, he was given 50 acres of land as part of his “freedom dues.” He was 32 and started a new life, a crowded one that would last 60 more years.
Beall soon became involved in the tangle of Maryland’s quasi-religious politics. He was responsible for bringing scores of settlers to the colony, for which he was awarded more land. By the time Prince George’s County was created in 1696, Beall owned some 7,000 acres and had built a substantial home called Bacon Hall just south of Upper Marlboro. At 42, he married 16-year-old Ruth Moore, with whom he had a dozen children. He died in 1717 and probably was buried at his home.
In what is now the District, Beall acquired huge grants of land, many of them 500 acres or more, called the Nock, Meurs, Barbadoe, Inclosure and Beall’s Levels east of Rock Creek and, to the west, the Rock of Dunbar-ton, which he surely named, as a sort of joke, to commemorate the battle site where he was captured. The land grant’s 795 acres included most of what is now Georgetown, which may be named in part for one of his sons.
This is the nub of contention: The Georgetown land grant was called “Rock of Dunbar-ton.” It was Beall’s jesting nudge at the event that brought him to the New World, where he became through dint of good luck and hard work a rich man.
He knew how to spell.
In 1910, to honor him, a bronze plaque was installed on half a bolder in Georgetown at an O Street corner. On it “Dunbarton” is spelled correctly.
For many years, there was a Dunbarton Street in Georgetown. Since 1878 or so, it has been called Dumbarton Street. Who changed it and when and why are unknown, but it may have been through an act of Congress, which generally ran the capital like a tenant farm. Perhaps some local governmental functionary decided that old Ninian could not spell.
And there is the fine, Federal-period house, now the headquarters of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, who acquired it and misnamed it Dumbarton in 1928 after the house had been moved to make room for the Q Street bridge. It was the home to which Dolley Madison fled when the British arrived to burn the White House. The Dames know their home is misnamed but claim that the D.C. Historic Preservation Office is the only one that can change it.
And, of course, there proudly stands Dumbarton Oaks. That is so deeply embedded in history that it probably can’t be changed. In fact, the error is so solidified that if you Google “Rock of Dunbarton,” you get Dumbarton.
The Historic Preservation Office is, evidently, determined to preserve errors, not history. It’s easier. Let it go. Who cares?
Let’s right the wrong and correct the error. Ninian Beall deserves that. And so do we. Alba gu bráth.
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