Feature Image: Hynson-Ringgold House front façade from the garden gate across South Water Street. Source: Washington College.

This Week’s Kent County History Quiz: What historic Chestertown structure was known as “The Abbey”?

A. Buck-Bacchus House

B. Geddes-Piper House

C. Hynson-Ringgold House

D. None of the above

The Answer: C. Hynson-Ringgold House.

The Hynson-Ringgold House, with its spectacular setting, nestled high over the Chester River at Cannon and Water Streets, is full of history.

Its name, Hynson-Ringgold, both familiar Eastern Shore early settlers’ names, stands for Nathaniel Hynson, who purchased the land that the house is on in 1735, and Thomas Ringgold Senior (IV), who purchased the house in 1767 from Dr. William Murray, a physician who had built it to serve as his home and office.

Why isn’t the Murray name in the home’s formal title? He purchased the land from Nathaniel Hynson in 1743 and built the first section on the corner of South Water and Cannon Streets in about the same configuration as it is today, which is big, bold and beautiful. The parcel he purchased from Hynson was actually half of the original parcel. In 1759, Murray was able to purchase the other half, doubling the size of the property and reuniting the parcels.

After Thomas Ringgold Senior (IV) purchased the house from Dr. Murray, it was occupied by his son, Thomas Ringgold V, and his wife. Records are not precise about which Ringgold was the designer of the sizable new additions. But according to the Maryland Historic Trust, “The extension and remodeling of the house was responsible for tripling its original size and subsequently creating a mansion more impressive than any other dwelling of its day in Chestertown.”

A view of the two later additions built by the Thomas Ringgolds. The back addition was built to house the owner’s house servants, including enslaved persons. Source: Washington College.

It is unclear when or how Hynson-Ringgold received its sobriquet of “The Abbey.” The original Murray building had a mansard roof and chimneys in unusual places. The updating and additions brought new configurations along with the later walled garden. These attributes could certainly evoke the idea of a self-sustaining sanctuary.

Some clarification was found when a learned history friend said she had discovered a letter written on April 19th, 1845, by James E. Barroll, the owner of the Hynson-Ringgold House from 1835 until 1853. In that letter, he referred to his home as looking like an abbey.

Barroll, a prominent Chestertown lawyer and Washington College alumnus, was writing the letter to General Tench Tilghman, a grandson and namesake of the famous aide-de-camp and friend of George Washington, about some mysterious family papers that Tilghman was searching for. Mr. Barroll warmly invited Tilghman to come and look through his house.

“Besides, it will add to the interest of my venerable domicile which looks much like an old abbey,” Barroll wrote.

It is of note that Dr. Murray was the only owner of the property up until Emancipation of enslaved persons who was not actually a slave owner. Research published by Washington College states that 25 enslaved persons served the home’s owners up until 1863. Thomas Ringgold, IV was a local businessman and slave trader and expanded the building to accommodate house servants. The original structure and additions were likely built by enslaved persons.

The house had fallen into disrepair by the early 20th century. It was purchased and gifted to Washington College in 1944 and has served as the official residence of the college president. Once in the hands of the college, the moniker “Hynson-Ringgold” was adopted.

Thanks as always to the diggers and savers–lifelines to the past.

The Kent County History Quiz is a weekly local brainteaser sponsored by The Peoples Bank. Our goal is to create an opportunity for local learning and discussion.

Do you have a Kent County history question? Send it to steve@kentpilot.org.