Salisbury’s Beginnings

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Hear about the early colonial days of Salisbury and Wicomico County.

Unless you lived there you might not think of Salisbury as a port city. But it is. Salisbury is connected to the Chesapeake Bay by the Wicomico River, and you can regularly see tug boats and other sizeable ships that are produced or refurbished at Chesapeake Shipbuilding, lumbering along the small river.

Since the early days when Delmarva was a British colony, land owning sea captains like Samuel Somers, Tom White, and Levin Gale used their plantations along the Wicomico River as a home base for their merchant vessels. They traveled to the Caribbean to purchase sugar, molasses, and rum. Up and down the Atlantic coast they traded their inventory. Meanwhile back at home their plantations produced tobacco, and corn. All that they did not use was sold for profit.

These enterprising individuals and other settlers had arrived here with little or no financial resources. Some were indentured servants who had completed their contracts. Some were the early recipients of land grants from the Lord of Baltimore. Some were simply entrepenuers who had been given fifty acres of land for each person they brought into the colony. This included servants and slaves. A landowner in England whose estates could no longer support all the people living on it was happy to make such a generous offer to help ease their own burden.

The colonies were set up much the way the shires in England were. These precursors to our system of counties were divided into sections of one hundred acres. Within them church parishes served as the center of community and commerce. In 1692 Stepney Parish was established combining the Wicomico and Nanticoke Hundreds of what was then Somerset County.

"Green Hill" was a property there that lay at the head of the Wicomico River. This may have been a traditional gathering place for the earlier native peoples in the region. This is where Isaac Handy settled. He also was a sea captain and plantation owner. The area became known as Handy's Landing until Salisbury Towne was created by an act of assembly August 8, 1732. It is believed to have been named for Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, which is just eight miles from Stonehenge. Many believe that it was called Salisbury because some of the local landowners or their ancestors had emigrated from that area in their mother country. Another theory is that Lord Baltimore wanted this name in honor of his friendship with James Cecil, 6th Earl of Salisbury. Like the Baltimore's the Cecil's were devout Catholics.

Isaac Handy, along with John Caldwell, Ebeneezer Handy, Thomas Gillys, and John Disharoon were named commissioners to oversee the purchase of 15 acres of the property called "Pemberton's Good Will" from the child heir of John Winder, for the purpose of building a town. Handy had already started building a wharf there and the town was intended to be a port and center of trade for the region.

The town grew at a measured pace for the next decade. In 1742 Worcester County was carved out of Old Somerset County and the town was essentially cleaved in two. For over one hundred years this did not sit well with the local residents.

When the Civil War broke out a railroad was being built in Salisbury. But the crisis brought construction to a halt. After the war was over construction was completed. As the town continued to grow, a logistical problem developed. If you lived east of Division Street you went to Snow Hill to attend to legal matters such as deeds of transfer, civil and criminal court matters. Those that lived on the west side had to go to Princess Anne. Both towns were an inconvenient trip. So four prominent families: the Grahams, Jacksons, Leonards, Todds, and Toadvines led the campaign to have their own county. It took some legislative wrangling but Wicomico County was created by an act of the Constitutional Convention of 1867 and was ratified later that fall by Maryland voters.

Salisbury was made its seat of government and the location of its district court and it continued to thrive. Within two decades Maryland elected Salisbury resident Elihu Emory Jackson to be its Governor. He served one four year term beginning January 11, 1888. Since then this city has become known as the "Crossroads of Delmarva" and it is the epicenter of the peninsula's culture and economy with the development of Salisbury University and big employers like Perdue Poultry.


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