More on Bohemia Manor & The Labadie Tract

A brief history of Bohemia Manor and the Labadie Tract in Cecil County, MD.

Today, the C & D Canal spans the distance between Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River.  But the canal was not built until 1829.  From the middle 1600’s, communities of colonists sprang up along the shores of both the Chesapeake and the Delaware, but trade and communication between the Philadelphia and Baltimore was hampered by the need for ships to traverse all the way around Delmarva peninsula.

 A trader name Augustine Herman recognized the strategic value of facilitating overland transport between these two important waterways and centers of colonization.   Herman was born in Bohemia, but immigrated to New Amsterdam (New York) as a young man and became closely associated with the prominent Dutch families of that city.  Recognizing the potential for profit, he determined to establish a trans-shipment and trading center along the shortest portage between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays.  Herman succeeded in acquiring the rights to land along the Bohemia River (originally called Oppoquerimine River), which emptied into the Chesapeake Bay, and along Appoquinimink Creek, which fed the Delaware.  The distance between the end points of two waterways was only about 4 miles.  Herman built landings or docks near the sources of each branch, facilitating the transport of goods and people between the colonies along the Delaware and the Chesapeake.  Throughout the colonial period, nearly all the trade between the people living along the shores of the two bays was carried on by this route. 

On the Bohemia River side, Herman was granted 4,000 acres in 1662 by Lord Baltimore, the proprietor of Maryland.  The tract extended from the Bohemia River north to Long Creek (located where the C&D canal runs today), and from the Elk river in the west to a trail called The Choptank Road, which ran roughly down the middle of the Delmarva peninsula. 

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Herman called the tract Bohemia Manor, and set it up as an estate along the lines of an English manor.  As such, most of the people who lived on the manor were tenant farmers who leased, rather than purchased, their tracts from Herman.  The one exception to this was a tract called the Labadie Tract, which Hermann sold outright to a small group of religious colonists, followers of the French pietist Jean de Labadie.  The Labadists were a religious society that adhered strictly to the principles of asceticism and communalism.  They abhorred the worldly corruption of European society and practiced communal ownership of goods and property.   Moreover, they were suspicious, even contemptuous, of outside forms of authority.  Reserving their allegiance to God alone, they refused to take an oath of allegiance to any government, royal family or even to the established state churches.  This anti-authority bias put them in the bad graces of both Catholic and Protestant leaders, and the group was repeatedly forced to flee from one place to another until finding a tolerant home in Wieuwerd, Friesland (Netherlands).

In the late 1670’s, the Labadist leaders determined to establish a colony in the New World where their adherents could live and expand the community outside the influence and control of European society.  To this purpose, Jasper Dankaerts and Petrus Sluyter, two community leaders, traveled to America and visited several locations along the Eastern seaboard.  In New Amsterdam, they met Ephraim Herman, the son of Augustine Herman, and succeeded in converting him to the Labadist faith.  Ephraim recommended Bohemia Manor as a suitable place to establish the colony, in part because Maryland was more tolerant of religious freedom.  Perhaps more important was Augustine Herman’s close association with and loyalty to the Dutch.  As a largely self-regulated estate owned by Herman, Bohemia Manor became a refuge for Dutchmen, Germans, French Huguenots and other northern Europeans who sought a more familiar cultural environment and more equitable treatment than they typically received at the hands of the English.  Although he later regretted the decision, Augustine Herman agreed to sell Sluyter and Dankaert 3,750 acres of land, expressly, he reportedly said, because they were not English.  This land, called the Labadie Tract, was situated inland from the mouth of the Bohemia river, and was comprised of four necks of land separated by small creeks.

In 1684, a commune was established on the Labadie Tract, composed of some emigrants from the mother community at Wiewert and others who were converted in the Americas, mostly from the formerly Dutch colonies of New York and the Lower Delaware.  Led by Petrus Sluyter and Jasper Dankerts, the community also boasted several prominent local members, including Petrus Bayard, John Moll, and Arnoldus de la Grange, who helped finance the land purchase, subsequently transferring all their rights to Petrus Sluyter in accordance with the communal precepts of the sect.  The colony maintained itself for several decades, but the decline of the mother community in the Netherlands gradually led to a dissipation of the colony in Maryland, as well.  The mother community at Wiewert elected to discontinue the practice of communal property ownership in 1692, and the Maryland colony followed suit in 1698.  Petrus Sluyter retained one neck of the Labadie Tract for himself, but sold or bequeathed the other three necks to individual community members and descendants of the original investors.  Samuel Bayard (son of Petrus Bayard) and Henry Sluyter (cousin to Petrus Sluyter) acquired a large portion of this land for ₤470 paid to Petrus Sluyter, and both eventually settled on their section of the Labadie Tract.

There are some sources who claim that Samuel Bayard and Henry Sluyter served as the second generation leaders of the Labadist community in Maryland.  While they certainly were related to the founders of the commune, there is no reason to believe they themselves were adherents to the faith or active members of the community.  In fact, Samuel Bayard’s father, Petrus Bayard, became disillusioned with the Labadists after only a couple of years and returned to New York, where he eventually became Deacon of the Dutch Reformed church.  Samuel Bayard grew up in New York and did not move to his land on the Labadie Tract until 1698 or later.  Both Samuel Bayard and Henry Sluyter became prosperous plantation owners and traders, and there is no evidence that they adhered to the religious beliefs of the Labadists or that they participated in the affairs of the community.  In fact, the children of both Bayard and Sluyter were baptized at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, located a few miles south of the Bohemia River, providing further evidence that they were not closely associated with the Labadist sect.

The Labadie community in Maryland reportedly continued, albeit in much diminished form, until the death of their leader Petrus Sluyter in 1722.  Samuel Bownas, a Quaker traveling minister had visited the colony first in 1702, then returned again in 1726, reported that on his second visit the Labadist followers were all “scattered and gone, and nothing of them remaining of a religious community in that shape.”