Iron Plantations: the Manufacture of Iron in the Province of Maryland


Principio FurnaceIn the Assembly Proceedings, May 14-June 6, 1719, the Maryland Assembly was quite clear about why they thought the government should support the establishment of iron furnaces and forges: “to the Increase of our Trade and Navigation, the Peopling of this Province, and to the Advantage of his Lordship, by the Encouraging the Taking-up such remote and barren Lands as are now entirely useless and uncultivated.”  They were trying to insure the economic health and viability of the colony.  The first furnace in Maryland to go into blast was located in present-day Cecil County. In 1725, an English stock company, Principio, brought its furnace and produced its first pig iron.  Marylanders began accruing wealth from iron when the Baltimore Company, a partnership of five leading Maryland men, began producing pig iron in 1734 on the Patapsco River near Mount Clare.  As Maryland expanded westward, iron manufacturing also moved westward.  Today Maryland is dotted with the remains of iron furnaces and forges from its iron heyday.

The production of pig iron was seen as perfect fit within the mercantile system which governed the relationships of the colonies with England.  Raw materials in England were becoming depleted.  English producers of pig iron could not satisfy the demands of British manufactures of finished iron products.  To meet their needs, these companies imported pig iron from Sweden which was considered one of the premier manufactures of pig iron.  However, relations between the two countries would vacillate between strained and hostile.  Colonial sources of iron were seen as a much safer source if the quality of colonial iron was equal to that of Sweden. Maryland with its dispersed population and no local market needed a market such as Britain in order to succeed.

The distance between the market and its source, colonial manufactures needed to keep their manufacturing costs as low as possible; otherwise, they risked losing money when the pig iron finally sold in England.  For that reason, many iron works in Maryland used slave, indentured, and convict labor.  They were able to keep the cost of procuring iron ore low because many of the deposits along the western shore were close to the surface.  On the eastern shore iron formed in bogs.  With an abundance of forested land, charcoal production costs were kept to a minimum.  The bay provided lime in the form of seashells.  The rivers and Chesapeake Bay provided easy transportation of raw materials and the finished product.  Operating an iron works was a risky proposition.  The success of these ventures depended on the expertise of its founder, skillful management by its iron master, and the vagaries of an international market. 

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 2Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)

Standard 3How the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas

Standard 3AThe student understands colonial economic life and labor systems in the Americas.
7-12:  Explain mercantilism and evaluate how it influenced patterns of economic activity. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]
5-12:  Identify the major economic regions in the Americas and explain how labor systems shaped them. [Utilize visual and mathematical data]
9-12:  Explain the development of an Atlantic economy in the colonial period. [Reconstruct patterns of historical succession and duration]

Standard 3B: The student understands economic life and the development of labor systems in the English colonies.
5-12:  Explain how environmental and human factors accounted for differences in the economies that developed in the colonies of New England, mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake, and lower South. [Compare and contrast different sets of ideas]
7-12:  Compare the characteristics of free labor, indentured servitude, and chattel slavery. [Compare and contrast differing labor systems]

Standard 3C:  The student understands African life under slavery.
9-12:  Assess the contribution of enslaved and free Africans to economic development in different regions of the American colonies. [Interrogate historical data]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: An Act for the Encouragement of an Iron Manufacture, within this Province.
    NOTES:  Initial act allowing prospective iron masters to gain access to land
    SOURCE:   Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 1717-April, 1720, Vol 33, Page 467
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: An Explanatory Act of the Act Entituled An Act to encourage Adventurers in Iron Works.
    NOTES: Workers at Iron works are excused from road building and maintenance.
    SOURCE:  Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 1733-1736, Volume 39, Page 486
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  3. DESCRIPTION: An Act to prevent injuring the Navigation to Baltimore-Town, and to the Inspecting House at Elk-Ridge Landing, on Patapsco River
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:   November 15, 1753
    NOTES:  Since navigation was crucial to iron works, ensuring that those waterways remain open to water traffic.
    SOURCE:   Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 1752-1754, Volume 50, Page 374-375.
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: Governor Samuel Ogle complies with the Act of Parliament regarding the manufacture of iron.
    NOTES:  In response to an Act of Parliament, Governor Ogle surveys the state of iron production in Maryland.
    SOURCE:   Proceedings of the Council of Maryland, 1732:1753, Volume 28, Page 484-485
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: Reason against a general Prohibition of The Iron Manufacture in his Majesty's Plantations (ca.1750) [British argument concerning a proposed Parliamentary Act]
    NOTES:  British arguments offered to Parliament for continuation of iron production in the colonies.
    SOURCE: From Revolution to Reconstruction.  Department of Humanities Computing, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

  6. DESCRIPTION: Petition: Reasons for making bar, as well as Pig or Sow-Iron in his Majesty's Plantation (ca. 1750)
    NOTES:  British arguments offered to Parliament to halt iron production in the colonies.
    SOURCE: From Revolution to Reconstruction.  Department of Humanities Computing, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

  7. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Principio Furnace, Port Road (State Route 7), Perryville vicinity, Cecil County, MD
    PHOTOGRAPHER: E.H. Pickering
    REPRODUCTIONS: Rights and Reproductions
    SOURCE: Built in America
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  8. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Principio Furnace, Port Road (State Route 7), Perryville vicinity, Cecil County, MD
    PHOTOGRAPHER: E.H. Pickering
    REPRODUCTIONS: Rights and Reproductions
    SOURCE: Built in America
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C

  9. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Catoctin Furnace, Stack No. 2, U. S. Route 15, Catoctin Furnace vicinity, Frederick County, MD
    PHOTOGRAPHER: E. H. Pickering
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: Documentation compiled after 1933
    REPRODUCTIONS: Rights and Reproductions
    SOURCE: Built in America
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C

  10. DESCRIPTION: Nassawango Iron Furnace, Furnace Road, 1.2 miles west of Maryland Route 12, Snow Hill vicinity, Worcester County, MD
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: Documentation compiled after 1968.
    NOTES: Includes measured drawings and photographs
    REPRODUCTIONS: Rights and Reproductions
    SOURCE: Built in America
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C

Additional Media Resources

Mount Clare Museum House . From Mount Clare Museum.

Principio Iron Works. From Maryland Historical Trust, Inventory of Historic Properties

Catoctin Mountain Park: Historic Resource Study (Chapter 1)

Cultural History: Catoctin Iron Furnace.

Nassawango Iron Furnace . From the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

History of Nassawnago Iron Furnace

Bog Iron formation in the Nassawango Watershed,

The Origin of the Iron Industry in Maryland

A Blast from the Past: Cornwall Iron Furnace. From the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 

Cornwall Iron Furnace: 1742-1883

Hopewell Village National Historic Site: The Technique of Colonial Iron Manufacture

Additional Instructional Resources

Hopewell Teacher’s Guide. See also useful PDF files on Hopewell’s website:  Educational Publication List

Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

African Iron Workers

Secondary Resources

Bezís-Selfa, John.  “A Tale of Two Ironworks: Slavery, Free Labor, Work, and Resistance in the Early Republic.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 56, no. 4 (October, 1999), 677-700.

________, John. Forging America : Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 2004.

Bining, Arthur Cecil.  British Regulation of the Colonial Iron Industry.  (Clifton, New Jersey: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1973; reprint, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933.

Bradford, S. Sydney.  “The Negro Ironworker in Ante Bellum Virginia.” The Journal of Southern History.  25, no. 2 (May, 1959), 194-206.

Bruce, Kathleen.  Virginia Iron Manufacture in the Slave Era.  (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968); reprint, New York: The Century Company, 1930.

Finn, M.W.  “Revisions in Economic History:  XVII, The Growth of the English Iron Industry 1660-1760.”  The Economic History Review, 11, no. 1 (1958), 144-153.

Johnson, Keach.  “The Baltimore Company seeks English Markets: A Study of the Anglo-American Iron Trade, 1731-1755. The William and Mary Quarterly, 16, no. 1 (January, 1959), 37-60.

________.  “The Genesis of the Baltimore Ironworks.”  The Journal of Southern History.  19, no. 2 (May, 1953), 157-179.

Lewis, Ronald L.  “Slavery on Chesapeake Iron Plantations Before the American Revolution.”  The Journal of Negro History.” 59, no. 3 (July, 1974), 242-254.

Paskoff, Paul F.  “Colonial Merchant-Manufacturers and Iron: A Study in Capital Transformation, 1725-1775.” The Journal of Economic History. 37, no. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (March, 1977), 261-263.

________.  Industrial Evolution : Organization, Structure, and Growth of the Pennsylvania Iron Industry, 1750-1860.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Travers Paul J. The Patapsco : Baltimore's River of History. Centreville, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers, 1990.

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Marie C. Hughes.


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