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Oxford, Maryland History

Jul 20, 2023

Learn about the fascinating history of Oxford, Maryland. We know Oxford made its first appearance on a European map way back in 1670. Discover Oxford's Amazing History Immerse yourself in the captivating past of Oxford, Maryland - a hidden gem steeped in rich history waiting to be explored. As you wander through the charming streets of this idyllic waterfront town, you'll uncover the fascinating tales that have shaped Oxford into the vibrant destination it is today. From its inception as a colonial port in the 17th century to its pivotal role during the War of 1812, Oxford showcases a tapestry of stories that will transport you back in time. Delve into the world of maritime heritage as you visit the renowned Robert Morris Inn, the oldest full-service inn in America, and witness the impressive Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, in operation for over three centuries. With each step you take, Oxford's history comes alive, inviting you to be a part of its extraordinary narrative.

     Oxford, Maryland, is a charming town that owes its rich history and vibrant culture to the beautiful water that embraces it from three sides. With a cozy size of approximately 250 acres and a close-knit community of around 700 residents, Oxford is a place where neighbors become friends, and everyone feels at home. In the eastern part, Oxford is hugged by Town Creek, a charming estuary with peaceful coves that are perfect for waterfront living and trades. To the north and west of Oxford, you'll find the Tred Avon River, a deep and protected waterway that connects to the larger Choptank river, eventually leading to the majestic Chesapeake Bay and the vast Atlantic Ocean. It was the Tred Avon River that played a key role in making Oxford a remarkable British colonial hub. 
 
     The Oxford peninsula is a wonderful place with moderate weather, lush forests, and stunning local waters. It has long been home to Native American tribes like the Choptank and Nanticoke people, who have lived here for generations. They would set up their camps seasonally, fish, grow crops, and even bury their loved ones on this land. When the first European explorers and settlers arrived, they were driven by the desire for profit and to establish trade. They set up their plantations and small communities in the region, relying on growing tobacco and maintaining reliable trade routes with Europe for their survival. 
 
     Did you know that the charming town of Oxford made its first appearance on a European map way back in 1670? It's fascinating to think about how the town has evolved over the centuries. The earliest plan for Oxford, dating back to 1683, gives us a glimpse into its original layout. And guess what? The streets and buildings haven't changed much since then! You can still find their preserved arrangement on a parchment map from 1707. One of the main avenues in Oxford, originally called High Street (now Morris Street), has been leading people into town from the Oxford Road for ages. It takes you past some beautiful residences and important businesses, straight to the heart of our community - the bustling Port of Oxford. It's amazing how these historical elements continue to shape our town today. Even though it took a couple of decades for a fully functioning village to be established, the harbor quickly became the bustling center of colonial activity. Isn't it amazing that a ferry service across the Tred Avon, which is still in operation today, was established way back in 1683? And guess what? In 1694, Oxford was chosen by the Maryland Legislature as one of only two official ports of entry! The other one was Annapolis for British and European vessels coming to the Maryland colony. This special designation meant that Oxford would always be a hub of commercial activity, and they even got to collect custom duties on both imported and exported goods. How cool is that? 
 
     In the first half of the 18th century, Oxford experienced a period of great prosperity. Trading companies from London, Liverpool, and Bristol set up "factors" to handle trade with Oxford. They facilitated the export of tobacco, lumber, and wheat from the surrounding plantations, bringing in wealth and opportunities. The most influential trader was Foster, Cunliffe & Co., based in Liverpool. Their local manager, Robert Morris, became Oxford's most successful merchant and is still remembered today for his achievements. During this time, Oxford became part of a thriving triangular trade network connecting Europe, the Caribbean, and the American colonies. Ships arrived regularly at our port with not only much-needed manufactured goods but also British convicts, rebels, indentured servants, and enslaved Africans who played vital roles in our plantation economy. Colonel Jeremy Banning, a customs officer at the time, vividly described the bustling scene in his journal from the 1750s. Our streets were filled with lively crowds welcoming commerce from all corners of the globe. It was not uncommon to see seven or eight large ships docked simultaneously. Overall, this era brought tremendous growth and excitement to Oxford as we became a hub for international trade. 
 
     The outbreak of the Revolutionary War brought a swift and devastating end to Oxford's prosperity, which was quite unfortunate. On September 11, 1775, the last British ship left the harbor, leaving behind a sense of loss. It took nearly 100 years for the community to fully recover from this setback. By the end of the century, Banning sadly observed that the once bustling streets had become overgrown with grass, except for a few tracks left by sheep and swine. It wasn't until after the Civil War that Oxford finally regained its vitality. This time, however, it found new sources of strength and markets closer to home. 
 
     The waters surrounding Oxford have always been teeming with a delightful array of oysters, clams, crabs, and fish. As the 19th century rolled around, advancements in harvesting, processing, and transportation brought about an incredible boom in marine industries. Gigantic fleets of tonging and dredging boats tirelessly hauled in tons upon tons of oysters. Hardworking laborers from all walks of life came together in packing houses located in every cove and harbor, skillfully processing the catch for consumption and distribution throughout the region. In 1823, steam ships made their grand entrance, ferrying goods to markets both up north and down south via waterways. And finally, the new railway that was established in 1871 swooped in to provide speedy transportation options for reaching markets far and wide across the regions.
 

     Oxford experienced a wonderful growth in population, businesses, community services, churches, and tourism. This was particularly true as people from bustling cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia sought out more refreshing and pleasant destinations. The cozy boarding houses and taverns along the river were transformed into charming guest houses and hotels. Riverview House (1875), Eastford Hall Hotel (1878), Sinclair House (1882), and numerous others provided their guests with beautiful water views, opportunities for bathing, refreshing breezes, and delicious fresh food. It was truly a delightful place to visit!

     Unfortunately, the second wave of prosperity in Oxford was also quite limited. By the time World War II broke out, disease and rampant overfishing had a devastating impact on the oystering population in the Bays. This led to a slow and painful decline of the industry, which was the main source of livelihood for the town. As a result, the packing houses gradually closed down one after another, leading to the closure of supporting businesses as well. This unfortunate turn of events greatly impacted the community once again.

     When America's postwar economic boom revived, Oxford's economy wasn't fueled by new industries or businesses. Instead, the residents and their elected commissioners made a conscious decision to build Oxford's future on its traditional culture. They lovingly preserved the working waterfront, tree-lined streets, charming brick sidewalks, and fenced-in yards that have always been a part of this town's appeal. Their efforts were recognized when Oxford was designated as a National Historic District in 2005, and to this day, it remains an attractive destination for tourists and sailors alike. It's not just a picturesque place; it's also a peaceful haven to call home.

 

Sources and additional informaton links for Oxford, MD history.

Oxford by The Oxford Museum - The Oxford Museum (oxfordmuseummd.org)

Oxford History | Town Of Oxford, Maryland (oxfordmd.net)


Tags: Oxford, history, Eastern-Shore-of-Maryland

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