“Who would do that?” asked Rachael Maddow in her lead story on The Rachel Maddow Show the day that Donald Rumsfeld died. She was referring to the myth that emerged following the purchase of the Mt. Misery estate in St. Michaels, Maryland, by Donald Rumsfeld in 2004 when he was Secretary of Defense. The myth has Frederick Douglass being leased to Edward Covey at Mt. Misery in 1834 where Covey beat him unmercifully until Douglass rose up and fought back to a draw. In an article published by The Baltimore Sun, a New York lawyer and pundit opines:
I can’t imagine a greater denial of our past than to have a defense secretary sitting in a lounge chair, savoring a drink and enjoying a sunset over the bay and then retiring for the night in a house of horrors built by a man whose occupation ended only by our great national catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died.
This myth has been perpetuated by several respected journals, but it is just that, a myth. An explanation of the reality of Mt. Misery can be found here in a story in The Talbot Spy. Entitled “Ending the Rachel Maddow-Muddled Misery of Mt. Misery” published on November 14, 2021, it provides an overview of how this narrative emerged and what the facts are. This post provides additional information regarding the source material used in that story.
In sum, the relevant facts are:
- Frederick Douglass was sent by his slaveholder, Thomas Auld, to a farm leased by Edward Covey on January 1, 1834, according to Douglass’s autobiographies.
- According to those autobiographies, the farm Covey leased was seven miles south of Wades Point on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The Mt. Misery farm is one mile from St. Michaels along a narrow branch of Broad Creek several miles from the Chesapeake Bay.
- Those same autobiographies describe how Frederick Douglass was savagely beaten by Edward Covey from January through August of 1834 when he rose up and fought back to a draw. Following that, Covey never touched him again, even when Douglass tried several times to goad him into fights as he describes in his autobiographies.
- Douglass returned to St. Michaels in December of 1834 at the beginning of Christmas and never returned to the Covey farm. His lease to Covey terminated at the end of December 1834 again according to his autobiographies.
- In June of 1836, Edward Covey acquired three parcels of land now known as Mt. Misery from the Harrison family as documented below. Therefore, Edward Covey did not own the property in question during the time Frederick Douglass was leased to him.
- The Mt. Misery name was attached to the property in October 1947 as documented below.
The property acquired by Edward Covey in June of 1836 from Samuel Harrison was three plots of land—Harrison’s Security, Harrison’s Partnership, and Prouse’s Point—which would later become known as Mt. Misery but did not carry that name at any point during the time Covey owned it. The title records for this transaction can be found here.
In February of 1841, Samuel Harrison’s estate further conveyed land called Haphazard to Edward Covey. The title record of this transaction can be found here.
Edward Covey sold these properties on 1867. The title records for this transaction can be found here.
Regarding the name Mt. Misery, the earliest title record of "Mount Misery" that we could find dates to 1717 (see this title record). It's not clear exactly which parcel of land this refers to, but this map suggests that the area known as Mount Misery (dated 1667) was in the vicinity of Church Neck but not where the Mt. Misery home is situated. That plot of land was known as Prouse's Point and later Harrison's Security as indicated in yellow.
At least one historian attributes the name Mount Misery to the 1600s when Lord Baltimore deeded various tracts of land around the Bay Hundred region. Many areas were named after Caribbean landmarks along trade routes of the time, including San Domingo, Jamaica Point, and Mount Misery.
The association of "Mount Misery" with this particular home appears to have been an invention of the 1940s, when it was fashionable to assign historical names to homes. An October 1947 deed which can be found here indicates that the property formerly known as Harrison's Security, Harrison's Partnership, Prow's Point, and Haphazard shall be "now known as 'Mt. Misery.'"
The primary source of the myth comes from an undated Maryland Historical Trust Application from the 1970s when its submitter, Manley Jenkins, owned the property. The application, which was not accepted by the Trust, includes obvious misstatements of fact, including that Edward Covey "bought this property in 1804" and "probably built the brick house which now stands there" even though Covey was not yet born at that time.
It is exceedingly unfortunate that the legacy of Frederick Douglass would be mischaracterized in order to create false narratives and score cheap political points, but from the day the Rumsfelds purchased this property, that is precisely what has gone on. For those seeking the truth, we would encourage reading the Talbot Spy story cited above and then reading Frederick Douglass’s accounts of his travels to the Covey farm and the time he spent there which can be found in his autobiographies.
One of the most eloquent passages Douglass wrote during his lifetime is found in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. It has him standing on the shore of the Chesapeake looking across its wide waters lamenting his horrifying situation:
Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully."
Why anyone would deny Douglass this vision by placing him far up a remote creek, miles from the Chesapeake Bay, is baffling. Who would do that?