Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dolly Barber's Tree

Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarled bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"

                                    -- From “Mariana,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Every so often, Quondam Washington comes across a bit of history that she cannot explain.

This time the author is completely stymied and is forced to call upon her readership to see whether her research is faulty—or whether the facts are simply lost to history.

At issue is the legend of the “Dolly Barber Tree”, an ancient popular which once stood along what is now Reservoir Road in the vicinity of Foxhall Village and was once the trysting place of the 18th Century girl after whom it is named.

There is no doubt that the tree existed; from earliest times it was an important reference point for surveyors and is mentioned in old land surveys. It apparently marked the convergence of three important properties west of Georgetown, belonging to William Murdock, Henry Threlkeld and Henry Foxhall, all famous old names in West Georgetown history:

• Henry Threlkeld (1716-1781) was an early settler who bought "Alliance," an estate of 1,000 acres bordering on the Potomac River. This tract, part of which came to be known as Berlieth (the spelling has changed over the years), extended north from the river to include the grounds of what is now Georgetown University, Visitation Convent and farther north to the present-day Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the neighborhood now called Burleith.

• Henry Foxhall was an Englishman, said to be a friend of Thomas Jefferson's. Prior to coming to Washington, he had been a partner in an iron works firm in Philadephia. Arriving in Washington around 1799, he built a foundry at what is now Glover-Archbold Park. He lived at a expansive estate called “Springhill” in the vicinity of what are today 44th and P streets.

• Finally, William Murdock the Older, was a prominent early landowner in lower Frederick County, which in those days encompassed the entire Foxhall area. He was the son of Rev. George Murdock, a Marylander ordained in London's St. Paul's Cathedral in 1724, and the first rector of Rock Creek Parish (from 1726 until his death in 1761).

William’s first wife was the daughter of Col. Thomas Addision, and his father-in-law gave Murdock a portion of land at “Friendship”, a famous old estate which sat about a mile north of Georgetown where American University is now.

His son Col. John Murdock (b. 1734, d. 1791) was a partner in a lucrative tobacco export business with Uriah Forrest and Benjamin Stoddart, formed in 1783. John, in turn, had a son named William whom I believe plays some role in the Dolly Barber mystery.

The “Dolly Barber” tree has had brief mention in old newspapers:

On August 2, 1899, a huge summer storm hit Washington and took down an old local landmark called the “Dolly Barber Tree”, an event which at the time was so newsworthy that it was reported by the New York Times three days later.

Two years later, District surveyor Henry B. Looker submitted his annual report to Commissioners, in which he commented on the significant increase in the number of requests for land surveys—this, as citizens began spreading into the suburbs and formerly large tracts of land were divided and subdivided to accommodate them (Post, Aug. 2, 1901). Incidental to the report, Looker referred to a the “Dolly Barber Tree,” which he acknowledged as the cornerstone of several original Georgetown tracts. In order to preserve its exact site, “south side of the New Cut road west of Foundry Branch,” Looker’s office placed a permanent monument at the exact spot where the tree once stood, which carefully recorded auxiliary points for future land surveys. (Report of the Operations of the Engineer Department of the District of Columbia for the Year Ending June 30, 1900, Washington: GPO, 1900).

Developers of Foxhall Village in the 1930s, in promoting their new development, cited the romance of the site and made reference to the Dolly Barber Tree.

So, the tree existed—but where, exactly--and who, then, was Dolly?

References insist she was the daughter of “William Murdock”—which could be either the father of Col. John Murdock or his son, also named William. Regardless of which Murdock was her father, why did she carry a different surname?

The possibilities are interesting—but before QW and the reader get too carried away with theories, let us examine one or two clues that bear consideration:

• A Dorothy Barber is listed in the 22 August 1776 census of Frederick County’s Lower Potomack Hundred (the same general “neighborhood” as the Murdock family and the tree. She is described as being 11 years old, thus, born in 1765.

• Col. John Murdock, before his death in ca. 1791, writes a will in which he goes to some length to ensure that Dorothy Barber and her three teenaged children are provided for:

-->Fifthly  it is my will and desire not withstanding anything herein before contained and I do expressly desire unto Dorothy Barber one hundred acres of land to be paid off for her by my said trustees immediately after my death to include the plantation where James Collins now lives and the house where the said Dorothy Barber now dwells to be bounded to the eastward by the Mill Branch and the southward by the east line of Whitehaven and to the westward and northward by such lines ... and to hold during her natural life the said premises and after her decease & will and desire the said land to John the son of the said Dorothy and his heirs forever provided nevertheless if the said John shall die before the age of twenty one years a without issue of his body living at the time of his death...His will states that Dorothy has three children: John, under age 21; Elizabeth, under age 18; and Mary, also under age 18.

• Consider another tantalizing clue: John’s son William is clearly a ne’er do well, implied in this segment of John’s will:

In the Name of God Amen. I John Murdock of George Town in Montgomery County and state of Maryland do make and ordain this my last will and testament. Whereas to my great uneasiness I have discovered that my son, William, does not possess care and prudence sufficient to qualify him for the management of our estate…[it is my will and desire to] pay and satisfy all such debts as may be justly due and owing from my son William …
•  Box 40, folder 2 in the Jesuit Archives for Maryland at Georgetown University contains a number of warrants of resurvey and/or indentures between 1791 and 1824.  Among them is an indenture (1822) between John Murdock alias John Barber. Could this be Dorothy’s son John, using both names?

As a final note, A. Boschke’s Topographical map of the District of Columbia, surveyed in the years 1856 '57 '58 and '59, shows an “M. Barber” as the owner of a land just northwest of Georgetown.

What, dear readers, does this all mean?

Can anyone help me identify dear Dolly?

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