I Philemon Hemsley of Queen Anne’s County, the Unprofitable Servant of God

February 15, 2018


With this Biblical reference from the Book of Luke, a humble-sounding Philemon Hemsley (1670-1719) begins his 1719 will.   While there is no cause to question the builder of Cloverfield’s service to the Almighty, at least by traditional financial metrics, there is ample reason to challenge the characterization of his life as "unprofitable." Hemsley died at age 49, a wealthy planter and successful merchant with property in at least four counties and new, fashionable brick home on the Wye River.  An inventory of belongings taken by the Probate Court soon after his death records an array imported luxury items well beyond the means of most of his contemporaries. 

Philemon was one of five children born to William and Judith Hemsley (1634-1685 and c. 1633-c. 1686), who emigrated from England in 1658. The Hemsleys were Catholics and quite possibly came to Maryland, then a proprietary colony owned by the fellow Catholic, Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron of Baltimore Catholic, to escape the violent religious persecution and discrimination in Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan England. William trained as a “chirurgeon” (surgeon) in England but in Maryland had a varied occupation as merchant, tobacco planter, real estate speculator and public office holder.

Philemon Hemsley benefited from the advantages that came with being born to a family with wealth and status, but as a younger son he would have grown up with the expectation of eventually having to make his own way in the world. In 1686, Philemon’s aging widowed mother divided the family’s substantial real estate holdings among her surviving children. In keeping with the custom of the time, the bulk of the estate went to her eldest son, William, with Philemon receiving title to the 200-acre “old plantation” on Wye Island. 

In colonial Maryland, wealth and status derived almost exclusively from tobacco. That soil-exhausting and labor-intensive crop required both lots of land and labor. Philemon required more than 200 acres to maintain the standard of living to which he had become accustomed. As a young man he worked as a surveyor, and in 1700 acquired the first of seven contiguous parcels of land along the Wye River that in 1730 his son would name Cloverfields. In addition to tobacco farming, Hemsley represented Queen Anne’s County in the Lower House of the General Assembly of Maryland and held several local offices, including sheriff. In 1710, the Justices of Talbot County awarded him the contract to build a brick courthouse in present-day Easton.

Philemon Hemsley married twice. His first wife and the mother of his two children, William and Ann, was the former Frances Noble. There is no record of where the young family first resided when William was born in 1703, but that winter carefully selected tulip poplars were felled and subsequently hewn into massive rafters that still support Cloverfield’s roof. Unfortunately, the Hemsley’s had only a brief time to enjoy their new home as Frances died in 1709, less than five years after the estimated completion of the house.

Two years later Philemon married Sarah Townley Contee, the wealthy widow of Col. John Contee of Charles County.  Period documents describe Sarah as the “favorite cousin” of Maryland’s Royal Governor, John Seymour.  She emigrated with the Seymour family to Maryland.  Contemporaries attributed Col. Contee’s military advancement and business success to his wife’s family connection. Indeed, Sarah must have agreed with popular sentiment and felt some entitlement, as she was found guilty of forging the signature on her late husband's Will.  

At the time of his second marriage, Philemon left the “home plantation” (presumably Cloverfields) and his children in the care of his late wife’s brother, Robert Noble. The newlyweds moved to Port Tobacco in Charles County, and then to the rapidly growing capital and commercial center of Annapolis.  It remains unknown how much time Philemon spent at Cloverfields after his second marriage, or how much time his children spent with him in Annapolis. The 1720 inventory of goods at the home plantation indicates the house remained furnished and staffed by five enslaved and indentured servants. (Included among the working plantation’s livestock was a horse with the ominous name of “Murderer.”)

Philemon Hemsley’s so-called unprofitable life came to an end in Annapolis in 1719. He left behind an estate valued at £3,034.19 “current money.” That amount may seem modest, but it was far above average for the period. By way of comparison, Philemon’s property valuation exceeded his elder brother’s by more than four times and was more than double the assessment of his wife’s first husband. In addition to Cloverfields, Philemon owned a house on State Circle in Annapolis and more than 1000 acres of land. William received almost all the Eastern Shore real estate, while Sarah inherited the Western Shore property.  

Philemon’s estate also included human capital, which consisted of 44 slaves and 7 indentured servants.  Eleven “negros and mulattoes,” identified by name and described as living in Charles County, went to William and Ann. The 33 remaining unnamed slaves became the property of Sarah. Perhaps due to continued legal troubles, including a new accusation of embezzlement, Sarah declined her inheritance in favor of her stepson, William. At age 16 William Hemsley (1703-1736) became the owner of property and slaves on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay, and most notably, a large tobacco plantation and house on the Wye River, both of which he would expand and name Cloverfields.

By: Sherri Marsh Johns, for the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation