Joan Bittner Fry

Thomas was born near St. Leonard’s Creek in Calvert County, Maryland. He was an American Revolutionary War leader and associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He studied law in Annapolis, Maryland, and entered the provincial assembly in 1761 for the first time.

Thomas represented Maryland at the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774. At the Second Congress, it fell to him to nominate George Washington as commander-in-chief. He supported conciliation with Great Britain, but once persuaded that the effort was fruitless, voted for the Declaration of Independence, helped frame the Constitution of the State of Maryland, and, as the first brigadier general of the state militia, recruited 1,800 men to join Washington.

By now you may know that Thomas was Thomas Johnson, lawyer, politician, and justice, the fifth child of Thomas Johnson, Sr. and his wife Dorcas Sedgwick, who was the daughter of Joshua Sedgwick. Johnson had two older and five younger brothers and two older and two younger sisters; one brother died in infancy. Both his parents were Maryland natives of English descent; his paternal grandfather emigrated from Yarmouth, England. Thomas Johnson, Sr. arrived in Maryland in 1690.

Thomas and his siblings were educated at home (homeschooled). As a young man, he was attracted to the law, studied it with an established firm, and was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1753.

By 1760, he had moved his practice to Frederick County, and in 1761, he was elected to the Maryland Provincial Assembly for the first time.

Thomas then moved to Annapolis, where he obtained employment with the Land Office under the Register, Thomas Jennings. He left this position to study law with noted attorney, Stephen Bordley. He was first admitted to practice in the Annapolis Mayor’s Court and subsequently gained admittance to various county courts and, by 1767, to the Provincial and Chancery Courts. Thomas married Ann Jennings, the daughter of his former employer, Thomas Jennings. The couple had seven children, three sons and four daughters.

In addition to his law practice, Johnson was a partner with Annapolis merchant Lancelot Jacques in a western Maryland iron furnace. In 1774, he formed a partnership with three of his brothers Baker, Roger, and James in an ironworks that included several furnaces, forges, glassworks, and mills; principally, the Catoctin Furnace in Mechanicstown (Thurmont) to produce pig iron from locally mined hematite. A good grade of hematite ore was discovered in the Catoctin Mountains by Thomas Johnson. Catoctin Furnace was constructed to produce pig iron, which began in 1776. The furnace provided ammunition (cannonballs) for the American Revolutionary War. The fuel for the furnace was initially charcoal. The Catoctin forest provided this fuel until 1873. Then, the furnace was converted from charcoal to coal.

Iron from this furnace was used in the manufacture of car wheels and for foundry rolling mill purposes. Also produced during the beginning of the nineteenth century were the “Catoctin Stove,” also known as the “Ten-Plate Stove,” and the “Franklin Stove.” It is reported that during the Revolutionary War, cannons and cannonballs were cast at the furnace for George Washington’s Army when the Johnsons owned the furnace. Simple machinery for James Rumsey’s steamboat was made at the Catoctin Furnace Iron Works in the 1780s. Robert Fulton is credited with building the first successful steamboat, but he was not the first to apply steam power to boats. Rumsey began his invention before 1785. Iron produced at the Catoctin Furnace during Jacob Kunkel’s ownership was used to make the plates on the famous Civil War vessel, the Monitor.

It’s hard to imagine that the mountain was bare some one hundred years ago! It took a whole acre of trees just to power the furnace for one day, using more than 11,000 acres of forest to produce charcoal. After the furnace closed in 1903, the land was purchased by the Federal government.  During the Great Depression, many people were put to work by transforming the area into a park.

The “Isabella” furnace that remains today is the second of three furnaces that were built. The first furnace was built by the four Johnson brothers, including Thomas. The furnace was built here because all the required resources were available. Forests provided wood for charcoal that powered the furnace, the stream powered the bellows of the first furnace, and local mines provided iron ore and limestone. The furnace was in use during the Civil War and until 1903 when it was closed.

Johnson’s public career began with election as the Anne Arundel County Representative to the Lower House of the Maryland General Assembly. He also participated in committees to guide the Stamp Act Congress to resolve the constitutional rights of freemen, and to supervise the building of a new State House. He was then elected to represent Maryland in the Continental Congress, and during the Second Continental Congress, he had the honor of nominating George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Thomas was a senior brigadier general in the Maryland Militia and commanded troops sent to aid George Washington during his retreat through New Jersey in that winter.

In 1777, the legislature elected Thomas Johnson as the first governor of the State of Maryland. His inauguration was held in the State House, which he helped to create. Johnson was re-elected unanimously the next two years (the statutory limit for consecutive terms at that time). As governor during the Revolutionary War, Johnson prepared for possible invasion by British forces and secured provisions for Washington’s troops.

Upon leaving office, Johnson settled at “Richfield,” his Frederick County estate. Although elected to represent Maryland in Congress in December, in both 1779 and 1780, he declined to serve. Instead, he accepted a seat from Frederick County in the House of Delegates, where he encouraged a vote in favor of the Articles of Confederation. He resigned this post in 1781 and resumed the practice of law; however, he returned to the House in 1787 and 1788 to shepherd the Federal Constitution through the ratification process and to support George Washington in his bid for the President of the United States. In 1790, Johnson accepted an appointment as chief judge of the General Court, serving until the next year when Washington appointed him to the United States Supreme Court. Thomas Johnson also headed the Board of Commissioners of Federal City, helping to choose a site and a name for the new national capital.

Thomas Johnson, Jr. died on October 26, 1819, at “Rose Hill.” He was buried in the family vault in All Saints’ Parish Cemetery, but in 1913, his body was removed to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick where a monument was erected in his honor.

*See Suggested Day Trip On page 23.

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