The Bostwick House: Its History, Owners and Caretakers
Bladensburg, Maryland is a suburb of Washington, D.C. that holds its own when it comes to U.S. history. The town began as a shipping port for transatlantic trade in the 1740s, and its most enduring monuments pay tribute to that fact. Take, for instance, the Bostwick House: a Georgian-style mansion built in 1746 by immigrant and wealthy merchant Christopher Lowndes. This house tells two stories: that of the colonialist who anchored a corner of land from which future generations built; and the murkier, yet just as viable narrative of the African Americans who both enabled that legacy and suffered from it. Weave together these two perspectives, and the Bostwick Mansion represents an important slice of Route 1 history.
Bladensburg’s Inception and Slave Trade Industry
As one of the first communities in Prince George’s County, Bladensburg was officially established in 1742. Its location on the Anacostia River enabled robust commerce, supported by the nearby tobacco plantations and the enslaved persons who made that industry highly lucrative. For the Africans bought and sold at its shores, Bladensburg was a place of hard labor with little chance of escape. For the merchants who owned these enslaved persons, however, Bladensburg served as a nexus of prosperity and opportunity.
Christopher Lowndes, who built the Bostwick House, lived out this latter truth. His community knew him as a “wealthy merchant:” history’s catch-all term for Lowndes’ many business ventures. He owned and operated several farms and a shipyard and manufacturing business, which played a part in his trading ventures: namely, importing spices, building materials, and Africans.
Despite his involvement in the slave trade, Lowndes built his community reputation around his other business endeavors. The only public acknowledgment of his role in importing humans was a newspaper ad for a well-known ship that carried slaves and a second ad, placed in 1764, for a slave that had escaped from Lowndes’ possession. Still, Lowndes built a substantial portion of his livelihood around slave trading. From 1746 to 1770 alone, he worked alongside family members to invest in 37 different trans-Atlantic voyages that carried 9,637 enslaved persons from Africa to America, with 13.5% of those people dying in transit on average. A portion of that wealth—and the people it bought—contributed to the building and upkeep of the Bostwick House.
Lowndes and The Botswick House
Built in the center of a 3,000-acre estate, this two-and-a-half-story Georgian home made use of the elegant and expensive Flemish bond bricklaying technique for its foundation. The accents conveyed a similar aesthetic with detailed moldings and stonework created by a local stonemason whose handiwork was in vogue at that time. Behind the Botswick House sat several considerably smaller and simpler lodgings. They were for the enslaved persons who worked to keep Lowndes lucrative business running: in his tobacco and wheat fields, shipyard and ropewalk business, caring for his livestock and horses, and performing domestic chores in his home. At least 50 enslaved Africans lived at Bostwick during the Revolutionary War; those numbers represented a small portion of the African Americans who made possible the commerce from which Lowndes and his contemporaries prospered.
That commerce, to be more specific, was mainly tobacco. The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1747 helped boost this economy by requiring all tobacco grown in the colony of Maryland to be brought to a warehouse and examined for quality. This arrangement resulted in related businesses cropping up near the warehouses. Taverns opened, blacksmiths set up shop, and retail stores owned by British tobacco factories sold imported items like cloth and farm tools. While a lack of district records for quantifying the amount of tobacco produced, or the number of slaves imported to support the industry, it’s undeniable that the plant funded many colonialist’s pockets, and that it relied primarily on the labor of enslaved persons.
Lowndes, meanwhile, married and raised a family of nine children in the Bostwick House. When he passed away in 1785, his wife took over the estate until 1799, when their daughter Rebecca purchased the house. Together with her husband, Rebecca made the first of several structural changes to the house. She added a kitchen and a buttress before it again changed owners.
The Bostwick House and Future Generations
During the next generations of ownership, the home bore witness to more renovations and one of the most infamous battles in U.S. military history: the battle of Bladensburg in 1814, which was fought as part of the War of 1812. Outnumbered by British troops, American soldiers fled as the opposition burned the White House, pillaged the city, and nearly succeeded in taking President James Madison hostage. The nearby Riverdale House—also built by Lowndes—survived, and enslaved persons of the 740-acre estate helped bury the battle’s dead.
Both houses still standing, their legacy continued through the late 1800s, when the Bostwick House was taken over by an artist and his wife. The parlor gained landscape murals that still exist today; the next owners installed a collection of taxidermied elk heads in the same room, while also adding a new front porch, renovating the exterior, expanding the window treatments, and overhauling the staircase.
The house continued serving as a residential estate through the 1900s. In 1975, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1997—after being bought and resold several times over—the city of Bladensburg purchased it. Nowadays, graduate students at the University of Maryland use it as a study site-cum-restoration project. Some historical sources work to recall and present the building’s narrative through a lens that gives equal treatment to not just the house’s owners, but the nameless African Americans whose bodies and labor funded it, built it, and cared for it.