Nick Montanari of Dundalk suggested I look into a recollection of his that Sparrows Point was once called Sparrows Nest. At first I didn’t relish the idea. It was really hot outside, and I wasn’t enthusiastic about walking the block from my office to the ever-helpful archives of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical society, wherein I felt certain Mr. Montanari’s answer would lie. But, upon reflection, I realized that the question would allow me to address a subject that I have danced around or obliquely referenced in several prior columns. So, with some reluctance, I dragged my pale, free-perspiring Irish self down to the museum to get the answers.
And I discovered something of the story of a family who gave a lot to our region. Well, all they really gave was their name, but I’m trying to sound dramatic, so bear with me.
In the early colonial period, there was lots of land to go around (from the European perspective), but very few people. In Virginia, as in other colonies, this problem was addressed by trading land for people. An aspiring landowner could get 50 acres for each free person he transported to the colony. In 1635, James Knott got 1,200 acres for bringing over 23 people, including a young Puritan fleeing religious persecution in England. His name was Thomas Sparrow.
Sparrow did all right for himself in Virginia. He received his own grant of 300 acres in 1640 and became a lieutenant in the colonial militia in 1642. He also got married to Elizabeth Marsh, who had come to the colony in 1637.
But then things went sour. In 1644, the governor of Virginia forbade the practice of Puritanism in the colony. After an Indian massacre in which half the colony’s population was killed, he confiscated the Puritans’ gunpowder and ammunition.
In the meantime, another colony, just to the north and hungry for people, was starting to get to business. But the Virginia Puritans hesitated before running off to settle in infant Maryland because it was ruled by the one group the Puritans hated worse than the Anglicans. But then the Catholic Lord Baltimore appointed a Protestant governor and issued in 1649 the Act of Toleration, the first legislation promising religious freedom (for Christians only, mind you) in the New World.
These actions were, apparently, good enough for the Virginia Puritans because, in the same year, over 300 of them, including Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow, moved lock, stock and Bible to Maryland.
Most of them settled in Anne Arundel County. Thomas Sparrow prospered there, acquiring a substantial farm. In 1652, when land grants along the Patapsco were being given out, Thomas Sparrow picked up 600 acres between between Old Roads Bay and Broad (later Bear) Creek.
As the number of their possessions spread, the Sparrows had to invent creative names for the properties for recording with the land surveyor. So they christened their central farm in Anne Arundel County where they lived “Sparrows Rest.” They then named the additional tract on the Patapsco “Sparrows Nest.”
Thomas and Elizabeth had two sons, Thomas and Solomon. After the elder Thomas’ death in the 1650s, Sparrows Rest passed to Solomon.
In the late 1650s, it seems that most of the Sparrows, including Solomon, converted to Quakerism, perhaps because Puritans weren’t being oppressed to the Sparrows’ level of satisfaction anymore (it’s all about suffering with some people) . The Quakers, on the other hand, were getting into all sorts of trouble by refusing to serve in the colonial militia.
Solomon expanded the property he inherited. In 1672, he patented 45 acres adjacent to Sparrows Nest as “Sparrows Addition.’’ He married Sarah Smith in 1690.
But, while the Sparrows left the legacy of their name behind -- a name eventually synonymous with steelmaking and shipbuilding — there is no evidence that any Sparrow ever actually lived on what would come to be called Sparrows Point. Solomon and Sarah lived in Anne Arundel County at a farm called “The Angles” on Road River. Solomon rented his land on the Point to other farmers, principally Charles Gorsuch.
Solomon died shortly after writing his will in 1718. He left his lands to his wife and, if she should die, to his brother’s grandson (also named Solomon) and to his friend Richard Galloway. This probably seemed like a roundabout way of inheriting to Mr. Galloway, because he cut out a few steps by marrying the widowed Sarah and buying out grand-nephew Solomon. By 1729, all of the Sparrow property on Sparrows Point had passed out of the family.
But the name stuck, even after the property passed into the hands of Maryland Steel and then Bethlehem Steel. And the rest, as they say, is history.
(first published 2003)