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Margeret Mercer

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  Belmont Chapel. Click for larger version

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Margaret Mercer purchased the Belmont Plantation from the Ludwell Lee estate in 1836 in order to create a progressive Christian school for women. A staunch opponent of slavery (and co-founder of the African resettlement movement), she was blessed with a keen and inquiring mind which led her to pursue extensive studies in medicine, agriculture, public health, and theology, all in a period when such pursuits were deemed wholly unsuitable for women.

Prior to acquiring Belmont, Miss Mercer had operated two female academies, one at her home, Cedar Park, near Annapolis and another near Baltimore. She purchased Belmont with the intention of providing a broad-based education for those who could afford it as well as providing the same opportunities for those who could not. Scroll down this page to learn more about Margaret Mercer.

Ashburn In 1840

The Ashburn of 1840 (known then as "Farmwell" to the south and "Frankville" to the north of present-day Route 7) was populated primarily by persons residing on or employed by the two great plantations of Belmont and Coton. There were also a relatively large number of exceedingly poor sharecroppers and small tenant farmers. In addition, there appear to have been a number of former slaves who continued to work on the plantations or as day laborers on local farms.

The area was described at the time as "pestilential," having many bogs and low places, which together with poor sanitary practices and shallow wells led to frequent outbreaks of disease and an unusually low life expectancy, even for that era. All of this Miss Mercer immediately set out to correct.

Margaret Mercer's School

Her first students came primarily from the "better" families but very soon she attracted other students, often accepting them at a much reduced tuition. All students received comprehensive instruction in the usual subjects, and in addition to these, Miss Mercer insisted her pupils become familiar with mathematics and sciences, astronomy, the natural sciences, philosophy, and, of course, religion.

Recognizing the local situation, she also included practical courses in the latest agricultural techniques, hygiene and sanitation. At first suspicious of Miss Mercer, her politics and her religion (she was an ardent Episcopalian in an area where her faith had only a handful of adherents and was still viewed as "the King's religion"), the local community soon came to appreciate the enormous benefits she, her school and the chapel were imparting on the area.

While gentle and soft spoken, she could be also very persuasive. Under her influence and guidance, Farmwell/Frankville soon began to prosper beyond the expectations of its population. She caused swamp tracts to be drained and turned over to agriculture. She insisted that wells be moved or deepened when she perceived them to be the cause of illness. And she urged and prodded that all local children attend the Sunday School which she conducted, first in the plantation house and later in the Belmont Chapel.

Margaret Mercer and Slavery

As noted earlier, Miss Mercer was solidly opposed to slavery in an age and in an area where the "peculiar institution" was solidly entrenched and almost universally accepted. Despite it being against Virginia law, Miss Mercer saw to it that all black persons in her employ (or working on her own and neighboring lands as sharecroppers) were taught to read and write and were welcomed at worship services at the plantation. Needless to say, this did not immediately endear her to most in the area.

More than this, she raised funds for the education of promising young blacks with a view toward sending them to the newly founded nation of Liberia as missionaries and settlers. Despite her almost never solvent economic situation, she personally underwrote the education of several young black men, even sending one to Baltimore to receive a medical degree.

She also contributed liberally to several similar projects involving the Liberian experiment. She was a prolific writer on this subject and her articles appeared in numerous prestigious publications, North and South. A ship, built for the purpose of transporting black American settlers to Liberia, was named the Margaret Mercer in her honor as was the Mercer School in Monrovia.

Belmont Chapel

Margaret had the first Belmont Chapel built in 1841, using profits from a collective farm and the proceeds of craft sales by the pupils of her school. Jump to a page with more detail about Belmont Chapel.

Death of Margaret Mercer

Miss Mercer herself died, most probably of tuberculosis, in 1846. She was mourned throughout the nation, but nowhere more than at her beloved Belmont. At her expressed wish, she was buried beneath the chancel of the Chapel. Soon after her death, her students erected a simple but striking stone plinth monument to her memory in the courtyard in front of the Chapel. (Click the image at the right to see a larger version ~13K.)

Mercer Plinth. Click for larger view

The monument bears the following inscription: Sacred to the Memory of Margaret Mercer, Born July 1, 1791, Died September 17, 1846. Her remains repose beneath the chancel of this chapel built by her own self-denying labors. This monument is erected by her pupils as a testimony of their admiration of her elevated Christian character, and of their gratitude for her invaluable instructions. (Click the image at the right to see a larger version ~15K.)

Mercer Inscription. Click for larger view

Miss Mercer's body was removed to Cedar Park at some later date and several legends exist as to why this was done. The most popular has it that in 1864, fearing the depredations of Union Major General Philip Sheridan and his Army of the Shenandoah, which was then devastating the area, her body was removed by night and at great risk, smuggled across the Potomac by Ashburn citizens and taken to Cedar Park, her birthplace.

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