Friday, January 29, 2021

John Beale Bordley 1727-1804, Attorney, Author, Agriculturist

John Beale Bordley (1726/27-1804)  by Charles Willson Peale 1790

Article from The Salisbury Times (now called The Delmarva Times), Salisbury, Maryland - May 22, 1958 from the Delmarva Heritage Series, by Dr. William H. Wroten, Jr.

John Beale Bordley was born in February, 1727, four months after his father's death. His mother remarried for the third time & the young boy did not have a pleasant home life. So at the age to ten, he went to live with his uncle in Chestertown. He received his early education under the direction of schoolmaster, Charles Peale, the father of the famous American painter, Charles Willson Peale. In his later life, John Beale Bordley arranged for the artist Peale to study in England under the famous American expatriate artist Benjamin West. Bordley, with the aid of others, saw to it that Peale had enough money for at least two years of study. Peale later painted four portraits of John Bordley, & also a picture of his two sons, Thomas & Matthias. 

At seventeen, John went back to Annapolis to live with & study under his attorney half-brother, Stephen Bordley. Before practicing law, however, he spent more time in studying history, philosophy, mathematics, surveying, & other fields of the arts & sciences. 

Shortly after his marriage to Margaret Chew in 1750, John felt it necessary to break away from the luxurious & fashionable society of his brother's world in Annapolis. He & his young wife went to live at Joppa, then in the "wilderness" of Baltimore County. For the next 12 or 13 years he worked his plantation & at the same time held a most lucrative clerkship, for Joppa at the time was the county seat. Later he moved to Baltimore City, where he was appointed a judge of the Provincial Court in 1776, & in the following year, a judge of the British Admiralty Court. In 1768, he had been one of the commissioners to help determine the boundary between Maryland & Delaware (some say Pennsylvania), & also served as a member of Governor Sharpe's & Governor Eden's Councils. 

The year 1770 was of great importance in the life of John Beale Bordley for his wife inherited from the Chew family half of Wye Island - the other half going to his sister-in-law, Mary, wife of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence & a governor of Maryland. Although the Bordleys maintained their winter residence in Annapolis, they moved to his beautiful estate on Wye Island in Queen Anne's County. For many years he was able to devote much of his time & wealth to agrarian experiments. From time to time he added to his holdings with the purchase of Poole's Island & farms on the mainland in Kent, Harford, & Cecil Counties. He farmed on a large scale & endeavored to improve practices of agriculture with the aid of imported machinery, seeds, & books on husbandry. It was because of his farming practice on Wye Island & on his other farms that Bordley became widely influential in the field of agriculture in this period of American history. Bordley personally conducted what amounted to an agricultural experiment station on Wye Island.

Although tobacco had long been the basis of the Maryland economy, Bordley experimented with wheat & flax; which he proved to the other farmers could be grown successfully. He also condemned the two & three field rotation system in favor of an eight field system, which included three fields of clover in the rotation plan. Thus, even without the aid of chemistry, he had hit upon the contribution of legumes to the soil. He also experimented with hemp, cotton, fruits, many kinds of vegetables, & animal husbandry. Before long, the wharves that he had built at his plantation were busy for he had established a profitable wheat trade with England & Spain. However, despite the fact he had made a small fortune from this trade when the Townsend Duties were passed by England against the colonies, Bordley showed his patriotism by abiding with the policy of non-importation.

Historian Scharf, quoting from memoirs of the Bordley family says, "When his foreign beers, wines, porters, ales, etc., began to diminish in his cellars, he started a brewery of his own, & planted a vineyard. He ground his own flour in his own windmills; made his own brick in his own brickyard & kiln; clothed his own servants in kersey & linsey woolsey, manufactured by his own looms from led, spun & wove his own flax; rotted & twisted hemp grown on his far in his won rope-walk; did his own carpentering & blacksmithing, & had his own private granary for the ships. When this independent Maryland farmer's beer was fermented, he put it away in casks made by his own carpenters, from timber cut down out of his own woods, & he even manufactured his own salt, from the Chesapeake Bay water, rather than be dependent upon Great Britain for anything." 

And when the Revolutionary War broke out, Bordley continued his personal fight with Great Britain. Poole's Island early became an important base for sending supplies to General Washington's army & other military units. And although he had gone to Annapolis at the beginning of the war, because of the danger of British raids on the Eastern Shore, he returned to Wye Island in 1778 to raise provisions for the American army. Shortly thereafter the British Tories & army stragglers attacked his plantation, but luckily they were driven off by the militia before much damage was done. 

In the meantime Bordley's first wife died; & in 1777, he married Mrs. John Miffin, a widow of Philadelphia. From that time on the Bordley family wintered in Philadelphia instead of Annapolis. He soon became a member of the American Philosophical Society. In, 1785 he made probably his greatest contribution to development of American agriculture by encouraging the formation of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, of which he was vice president & actively interested until his death. Although this society was not the first of its kind, (the South Carolina Agricultural Society specializing in rice culture was organized in 1784), it was by far the most influential in promoting general agriculture. The Society's voluminous Transactions presented the results of the members' experimentation in agriculture. 

Bordley himself made important contributions with his writings about agriculture. At first the results of his farming operations & studies were published on cards, then on handbills, & as essays, before coming out in book form. Some of these works are A Summary View of The Courses of Crops, In The Husbandry of England & Maryland (1784) & Sketches on Rotations of Crops & Other Rural Matters (1797). His famous book Essays & Notes on Husbandry & Rural Affairs, published in 1799, with additions in 1801, contains 566 pages describing a system of farming based on rotation of crops & deals with the several kinds of crops, fruits, & animals grown on England & Maryland farms, manures, farm buildings, dairy products, food, & even the diet for farm people. Although the style of writing is clear & practical, some of the advice would seem strange to us today - "threshing wheat by driving 24 horses in four ranks around a large threshing floor until they traveled 25 miles." 

Bordley also had the time & knowledge to write on such other subjects as yellow fever, manufacturing, national credit, money, weights & measures, the last three topics being published in 1789 with a supplement coming out in 1790. Bordley, who died in 1804 & was buried in St. Peter's Churchyard in Philadelphia.