Stoddert School, circa 1932. (Star Photo File)
On the day before Benjamin Stoddert Elementary School was dedicated (November 7, 1932), John Clagett Proctor, the Washington Star’s estimable historian, wrote a Sunday feature to acquaint his readers with Benjamin Stoddert, one of the founding fathers of the District of Columbia––and to regret that Stoddert’s august name had not been saved for a more important building. “Later on, when a more pretentious school building is erected in the West End, perhaps the name selected might be transferred to the new building, for really, after all, a school bearing the name “Stoddert” should be of the best, since this pioneer Georgetown merchant was held in very high esteem, even by President Washington, who frequently called upon him for advice and assistance in the difficult task of negotiating with the original proprietors, in order to locate here the Nation’s Capital.”
The usually well-informed Proctor also wrote that “the Stoddert School is undoubtedly on a part of” the tract called Friendship, patented in 1713 by James Stoddert, Benjamin’s grandfather. That this was not at all the case was clarified in 1943, by the students of Stoddert’s sixth grade, while writing a biography of their namesake.
(“Naming a Georgetown School Building”, Sunday Star Magazine, November 6, 1932, p.6; John W. F. Smith, Biographical Directory of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia (revised), District of Columbia Office of the Statistician, 1953)
Benjamin Stoddert Elementary School. (Photo by Mary and Vytas Bandziukas, 1994)
Benjamin Stoddert was among those who lobbied to bring the seat of federal government to the vicinity of Georgetown. George Washington, empowered by Congress to select the location of the site of the new capital city, wanted the same thing, but could not show his hand without driving up prices. So Washington enlisted people like Stoddert to quietly assemble town lots for federal reservations, and to pretend that they were for private use.
Besides buying up town lots in Washington City, the partnership of Benjamin Stoddert, Uriah Forrest, and William Deakins Jr. also invested in land that they calculated would be desirable for estates on the outskirts of the city. Between 1792 and 1795 they assembled 1200 acres north of Georgetown (and east of Wisconsin Avenue). To this tract Stoddert gave the name Pretty Prospects, which may have referred to his hopes for profit as much as it did to the fine views to be had there.
Benjamin Stoddert was born in Charles County, Maryland, in 1751. (The date of his father’s death is uncertain, but was probably 1758––i.e. after Benjamin Stoddert’s birth.
In the Revolution Stoddert held the rank of captain in Col. Thomas Hartley’s Continental Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line (eight companies from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, later designated the 11th Pennsylvania). Stoddert wore the green and buff uniform of the Bladensburg Militia. He was wounded at the battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777.
After his wounds healed he was involved in Col. Hartley’s 1778 expedition, against the Iroquois and Butler’s Loyalist Rangers of western Pennsylvania, in reprisal for the Wyoming Valley Raids. “All the party will acknowledge the greatest merit and Bravery of Capt. Stoddert, I cannot say enough in his favor, he deserves the Esteem of his Country.” (Col. Hartley’s “intemperance” is not mentioned in either his or other accounts of the expedition.)
Stoddert resigned his commission in April, 1779 when his regiment was reorganized (and newer officers were promoted ahead of him). When the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, Benjamin Stoddert was serving as secretary of the Continental Board of War, where his talents had come to the attention of the president of the War Board, John Adams.
Stoddert came home to Maryland and married Rebecca Lowndes, the daughter of the founder of Bladensburg. In 1786 Stoddert bought land for a house in Georgetown, and went into business with another former officer, Uriah Forrest, and with John Murdock. Stoddert chose Georgetown for its proximity to the wheat that had replaced tobacco as the dominant cash crop.
(For an account of Stoddert’s real estate speculations, and the role he played in the development of the District of Columbia, see Land Tracts.)
In 1798 John Adams appointed Benjamin Stoddert as the first Secretary of the Navy. Stoddert saw to it that a navy yard was built in Washington––280 miles from open sea––and presided over a string of victories in the undeclared war “Quasi War” with France, and “Stoddert’s Navy” came home covered in glory.
Benjamin Stoddert’s house, built circa 1786, at 3400 Prospect Street NW (as it appeared before extensive changes circa 1900).
Died at Bladensburg last Friday [December 23] Benjamin Stoddert, in the 62d year of his age. He was buried on Sunday evening by the side of the mother of his children, at Addison’s Chapel. Raised up under the unfavorable circumstances of a want of fortune arising from the death, before his birth, of his father, Captain Stoddert, of Maryland, who commanded and gave name to Fort Stoddert of the West, before the Revolution, he owed everything to the native strength of his mind. His course of reading in his youth, was controuled by his much honoured friend, the venerable Bishop Clagett, and this was scarcely finished before he engaged in the holy struggle for independence. He entered as a captain in the particular regiment officered by Gen. Washington and was in several encounters. At the battle of Brandywine he fought with heroism that could not be arrested, until he received two severe wounds.
After his recovery, he went with an expedition of 400 men against the Indians in the West of Pennsylvania. From the intemperance of the commanding officer, the command devolved upon him during an engagement, and notwithstanding the horror universally prevailing at that time, bout savage warfare, he conducted it in so masterly a manner with such astonishing presence of mind, that he not only saved the detachment which was despaired of––but pursued the enemy––as the accounts published at that time particularly show.
When the regiments of Gen. Washington were disbanded for incorporation among the other troops, Mr. Stoddert, with the rank of Major, resigned his commission for the purpose of occupying the post of first secretary to the board of way of Congress. He continued for a length of time in this office. As soon as he returned to his native State, its Legislature elected him in their council, in which he continued as long as he could be of real utility. When he resigned, he settled in Georgetown and engaged so extensively in commerce that he imported goods for most of the leading merchants in Baltimore.
As soon as the troubles with the French Government commenced, and it was determined by Congress to have a Navy, President Adams called on Mr. Stoddert to be its first secretary, in Philadelphia––carrying into office his energy, his candor, his patriotism and judgment, Mr. Adams became influenced by his views, and a Navy arose as if from secret contrivance. When the war was ended, he left his office to close his private affairs.
(Maryland Gazette, December 29, 1813)
Obituary: Biographical Notes from the “Maryland Gazette”, 1811-1821, Maryland Historical Magazine, December 1947, vol. XLII, no.4, p.277
Harriot Stoddert Turner, “Memoirs of Benjamin Stoddert, First Secretary of the United States Navy”, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol.20, 1916
John B. B. Trussell, Jr., “The Battle of Wyoming and Hartley’s Expedition”, Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet No.40, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1976
Col. Hartley’s 1778 report to Congress, in J. F. Meginness, Otzinachson: A History of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna, 1889, pp.552-8
Francis Bernard Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution, 1914, p.522
Harold Donaldson Eberlein, and Cortland Van Dyke Hubbard, Historic Houses of George-Town & Washington City, Richmond, The Dietz Press, 1958, p.24
Bob Arnebeck, Through A Fiery Trial, 1991; http://bobarnebeck.com/swamp1800.html
Priscilla W. McNeil, “Pretty Prospects: The History of a Land Grant”, Washington History, Fall/Winter 2002, pp.6-25
Pamela Scott, “Moving to the Seat of Government: ‘Temporary Inconveniences and Privations'”, Washington History, Spring-Summer 2000, pp.70-73
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