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Subject of a well-known painting has York County roots

Thomas Sully ( 1783 – 1872), Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely, 1818.
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Eliza E. Ridgely was a beautiful young woman born into a prosperous Baltimore family. The Marquis de Lafayette was said to be charmed by her during his 1824 visit to Baltimore, and she played her harp for him when he was a dinner guest of her parents. Eliza’s letters at the Maryland Historical Society show that she and Lafayette carried on a friendly correspondence until he died in 1835.

She was 25 when she married John Ridgely, a distant cousin and son of former Maryland Governor Charles Carnan Ridgely. Her husband inherited the Hampton mansion and surrounding 4,000 acres of land a few years later.

You can tour Hampton, perhaps the largest house in America when it was built by John Ridgely’s great-grandfather in the 1780s. It is a National Historic Site in Towson, Maryland. Click here for the National Park Site and an overview of the mansion and other structures in the complex.

This link will take you to information on each of the seven generations of Ridgely’s, complete with portraits or photos of the family that built and occupied Hampton mansion from the 1780s through the 1930s. The York County connection comes in with Eliza E. Ridgely (1803-1867), the lovely young woman painted by Thomas Sully in 1818, when she was just 15 years old. The original painting can be seen at the National Gallery of Art, and a very good copy hangs in the hall at Hampton.

See below for my recent York Sunday News column on The Lady With a Harp and how Sully’s famous painting saved the mansion,  The column also explains that very deep York County connection:

The Lady With a Harp and her York County ties

 As a fifteen-year-old, she was immortalized by famous artist Thomas Sully as the Lady With a Harp, now at the National Gallery of Art. As a young woman she met the Marquis de Lafayette during his 1824-1825 visit to America, probably when the famous Frenchman dined at her father’s Baltimore home. They carried on a correspondence until he died. At 25 she became mistress of one of the grandest mansions in America. The rediscovery of her Sully portrait in the 1940s led to the preservation of an important landmark when many were being lost to development or neglect.

Why am I writing about a Marylander? Even though this beautiful heiress, Eliza E. Ridgely (1803-1867), was from Baltimore, her York County roots go very deep, at least back to the 1730s. She was the daughter of Nicholas Ridgely (1774-1829) and his wife Eliza. Her young mother died shortly after her birth, but the baby’s maternal grandparents were neighbors on Hanover Street in downtown Baltimore, on hand to help raise her. Both families were successful, able to provide well for Eliza. The harp in her Sully portrait was not just a prop. Her father’s bills, among the Ridgely family papers at the Maryland Historical Society, show payment for at least 96 music lessons as well as charges for harp strings and repairs.

Her story, one of wealth and privilege is tainted, especially after her marriage, as it intertwines with family slaveholding on a massive scale. Eliza Ridgely married a distant cousin, John Ridgely, 13 years her senior, in January 1828. Both of their fathers died the next year. John inherited the Hampton mansion along with 4,000 acres from his father Charles Carnan Ridgely, former governor of Maryland. Only child Eliza’s inheritance from her merchant father provided the means to improve Hampton plantation and purchase slaves. Eliza’s and John’s two surviving children were Eliza (1828-1894) and Charles (1830-1872).

As Eliza’s mother and daughter were also called Eliza, John’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all named Charles, as were his brother and son. Colonel Charles Ridgley (1700-1772) was a Baltimore merchant who amassed 10,000 acres in Baltimore County by 1757. His wealth included Northampton Iron Works (now under Loch Raven reservoir). Slaves were first mentioned in 1746 Hampton records, perhaps workers at the iron furnace. The next Charles (1733-1790) prospered with his merchant fleet and by supplying patriots with iron products during the Revolutionary War. He built Hampton mansion in the 1780s, probably the largest house in America at the time, larger than Mt. Vernon and Monticello combined.

Childless, the second Charles’s chief heir was his sister’s son Charles Ridgely Carnan (1760-1829), with the condition that he change his name to Charles Carnan Ridgely.  At the time of his death in 1829, former governor Charles Carnan Ridgely owned 300 slaves. His will manumitted his slaves, but under complicated conditions that meant many of them would not be free for years, continuing to serve Ridgely’s heirs. His son John inherited Hampton and 4,000 acres. As Eliza’s husband, he had use of her inheritance to purchase slaves to replace some that his father had manumitted. Records show that over time, John added 77 enslaved people to the roll of Hampton workers. Only one slave, rumored to be John’s son, was freed under John’s tenure. The rest continued to be enslaved until Maryland’s new 1864 constitution abolished slavery.

Stories vary as to the treatment of Hampton’s enslaved people during John and Eliza’s time. There were quite a few runaways, evidenced by newspaper ads, and Ridgely pursued their return. Whether escape was inspired by harsh treatment or by opportunity is not clear. John did punish at least one runaway by selling him after his return. Eliza’s accounts and a diary of their teenage daughter Eliza tell of giving Christmas presents to the slaves. The elder Eliza is said to have authorized church services for them in the attic of the carriage house with a white minister and oversaw wedding and funerals in the mansion. Accounts show those working in the house were better clothed. A grandson later said Eliza dreaded the thought of a slave uprising and violence.

The Ridgely’s were sympathetic to the Confederacy during the Civil War, with friends and relatives fighting for the south. After being freed, however, many of those formerly enslaved seem to have stayed on at Hampton as wage earners.

Now, those York County roots: the E. in Eliza E. Ridgely Ridgely’s name stands for Eichelberger, her mother’s maiden name. Eliza Eichelberger (1783-1803) was the daughter of Martin Eichelberger (Jr.) and Elizabeth Welsh. This Martin Eichelberger (1759-1840) was from York. According to his Revolutionary War pension papers, Eichelberger first marched in Captain Michael Doudel’s company to Boston at the beginning of the war. He later was commissioned lieutenant in Colonel Thomas Hartley’s Pennsylvania Regiment, serving for nearly three years and participating in battles of Brandywine, Paoli and Germantown and in the Wyoming campaign. Afterward he became a successful businessman in Baltimore. Eliza E.R. Ridgely, the lady with the harp, was thus the great-granddaughter of the senior Martin Eichelberger (c.1716-c.1781) and his wife, Anna Maria Swope. The elder Martin immigrated with other family members in 1728. He was living in York by 1741. As far as we know, it was he who built the Golden Plough Tavern in the 1740s, the rare example of Germanic half-timbering that is part of the York County History Center and can be toured much of the year.

Through a twist of fate, we can tour the preserved Hampton today because of the well-known painting of Eliza E. R. Ridgely and her harp. The Depression and taxes had taken a toll on the Ridgely family’s ability to maintain Hampton. John Ridgely, Jr. (1882-1959), Eliza’s great-grandson, had managed to hang on to the mansion and 43 acres by developing the rest of the land. In 1947 David Finley, first director of the National Gallery of Art, visited Hampton, saw the painting and wanted to purchase it for NGA. John, Jr. agreed to sell it if funds for restoration of the house were included. The Mellon family, who had funded the NGA and a substantial portion of its collections, arranged through a foundation to purchase the painting and also donate $90,000 to the National Park Service to buy the mansion, remaining land and furnishings. Further partnerships funded needed renovations and acquisition of the Home Farm, the family cemetery and stables, for a total 62 acres today. The Hampton National Historic Site at Towson, only 45 minutes from York, is now fully part of the National Park Service and is currently open for tours Thursday through Sunday.