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A Short History of the
Greater Emmitsburg

First Settled 1733 - Town Founded 1785 - Town Incorporated 1825

The beginning of the recorded history of the northern Frederick County is closely tied to rivalry between England and France. When the first Europeans settled in the Emmitsburg area, in the early eighteenth century, the English government was casting a worried eye at French moves to claim the interior of the American continent. France's holdings there threatened to limit English influence to the coastal strip east of the Allegheny mountains, and, thereby, prevent English dominance of northern America.

To counter French encroachment, the English government began an active policy of promoting settlement of the wilderness. Settlers were organized into groups of hundreds. The first settlers, in the area under active research by the Greater Emmitsburg Area Historical Society, were collectively known as the Tom's Creek Hundred. Their settlement encompassed land from just north of present day Thurmont to the old Pennsylvania border, from the Monocacy to the Catoctin Mountains.

The Tom Indians, who occupied the Emmitsburg area, had by this time either moved westward or died from European diseases such as small pox. As a result, the land occupied by the Tom's Creek Hundred was nearly devoid of Indians and, therefore, ripe for settlement by the English.

While the Royal government opened the land to all settlers for a nominal fee, it favored a few select aristocrats by offering them large tracts of land in reward for their support of the Crown. One of the earliest land barons in the valley was John Diggs.

Diggs, a grandson of the Royal Governor of Virginia, was a wealthy Catholic who played a dominant role in the sometimes-bloody border dispute between the Maryland and Pennsylvania governments. With ownership of the Chesapeake and the mouth of the Susquehanna, Maryland pressed its claim of what is now middle Pennsylvania. This remained a dispute that was not settled until the Mason-Dixon line was laid out.

Diggs believed his right to land, based upon his aristocratic standing, entitled him to most of northern and western Maryland. In 1732, Diggs formally claimed, though without any authority, all the vacant land on the Monocacy and its many branches, which included all of present day Emmitsburg. In July 1743, Diggs managed to receive title to three tracts of land in the Emmitsburg area. Diggs' land grabbing was quickly mimicked by others, albeit in a smaller fashion.

Unfortunately for the land speculators and the settlers, the race between the French and English for the interior of the continent soon got out of hand. In 1754, the English were not only fighting the French, but their Indian allies as well. While little fighting occurred in the Emmitsburg area, Indian raiding parties periodically moved through the area. As a result, many settlers withdrew to the relative safety of coastal cities.

With the end of the Seven Years War in Europe, in which France ceded sovereignty of the interior of North America to the English, settlers once again cast their eyes toward the wilderness. Some fled from severe religious persecution, others from the oppression of civil tyranny, and still others were attracted by the hopes of liberty under the milder influence of English colonial rule. But for the greatest part, the settlers flocked to the American continent in the hopes of abandoning the crushing poverty of their homeland and for the chance to own land and prosper through their own efforts.

Situated just north of the Monocacy Road, the major transit route for Dutch and German immigrants heading from Lancaster to settlements in the Shenandoah, northern Frederick County was ripe for settlement. Full of streams and rolling hills, its picturesque countryside reminded many settlers of the homes they left in Europe. The beauty of the land was further enhanced by its availability and low cost, and many settlers saw little reason to travel further.

The rapid influx of settlers quickly raised the cost of productive land, and soon many restless colonists sold their land holdings and crossed the Appalachians to settled in the fertile Ohio Valley. From there families quickly spread down the Mississippi valley and westward towards the Pacific.

As tensions between the English and the American colonists began to deepen, the English, following traditional warfare tactics, began to systematically occupy the major cities and the surrounding countryside. For the Tom's Creek Hundred settlers, however, life continued on much the same as before, and the Revolutionarily War passed with minimal impact on the small, self-sufficient community.

On March 5, 1785, Samuel Emmit entered into an agreement with his neighbors to sell lots in a new new, which is now know as Emmitsburg. How Emmitsburg got its name has been lost in history. For many years, folklore had it that there was a pre-existing town prior to William laying out Emmitsburg in 1785 and that the name "Emmitsburg" was the result of a drunken public meeting in at tavern own by Conrad Hochensmith. However, research of original documents, including official land deeds and court records, clearly show as erroneous the folklore version of how the town of Emmitsburg came about.

Unfortunately for the residents of Emmitsburg, the failure of prior residents (as well as former historical societies) to conduct even a basic factual review of the town's history resulted in the town missing its opportunity to celebrate the town's 200th anniversary in 1985. To learn more about the true origins of the town of Emmitsburg, we suggest you read the article: Setting the Record Straight: The Real History of Emmitsburg's Founding.

The area's history in 19th century is in many ways a history of dichotomies. Early in the century, Emmitsburg was known as the most productive wheat-growing area in the nation. By the end of the century, however, poor farming practices had taken their toll. The rich soil of the Plains States and the development of interstate commerce squeezed the profitability of small family farms. By the beginning of the 20th century, bankruptcy sales of farms in this valley were unfortunately frequent.

At the opening of the 19th century, it was impossible to walk down a country road without seeing slaves toiling in the fields. By the midpoint of the century, the abolition movement had gained increasing influence, and the manumission of slaves was becoming more common. Like many Border States, Maryland experienced divided loyalties during the Civil War, and the Emmitsburg area was no exception. It was not uncommon for sons of neighbors to meet on opposite sides in battle. During the battle of Gettysburg, the Emmitsburg area served as a front line staging area and was fortified as a fall back position in case the tide of battle in Gettysburg turned against the Union. After the battle, many of the Union troops bivouacked in Emmitsburg, and many of the wounded were treated here.

Following the Civil War, the Emmitsburg area continued to grow and prosper as the home of many manufactures and mills. However, the decision in 1880 by the Western Maryland Railroad not to build its line through Emmitsburg marked the beginning of the end of independent prosperity. Life in 20th century Emmitsburg area was quaint by all standards, but it proved an excellent town in which to bring up a family. Nevertheless, it was beset with failing farms and the closures of several local industries. Unable to find jobs, many of the town's young people moved to greener pastures.

To learn more about Emmitsburg's History, please log into the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society web site.  Things to see while in Emmitsburg.