Martha Ellicott Tyson was born in 1795 at the home of her parents, George and
Elizabeth Ellicott, at Ellicott Mills (now called Ellicott City), several miles west of
Baltimore, Maryland. She was born into the Ellicott family and married into the Tyson
family, both prominent Baltimore Quaker families. Martha and her family played significant roles in the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Baltimore. Their life stories give us insights into their concerns for education, eldering and ministry, African Americans, and Native Americans.
Martha’s grandfather Andrew Ellicott and his brothers Joseph and John founded the town of Ellicott Mills. They came to the Patapsco River (which forms the bay of Baltimore) from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where they had a successful grist mill. In the Patapsco River, they found a powerful source of water and access to a major port. Some of their flour was used locally to bake bread, but they exported most of it to England.
The Ellicotts and other Quaker millers helped to change the economy of Maryland from a tobacco economy to a wheat economy. This was important in two ways: Tobacco drastically depleted the soil while wheat did not, and wheat used fewer slaves because wheat cultivation had fewer steps. In the 1800s, the city of Baltimore had the highest number of free African Americans in the country and a vibrant and active black culture.
The Ellicott brothers bought over 700 acres of land and owned considerable property on both sides of the Patapsco River for four miles. They began construction of Ellicott’s Lower Mills in 1771. It eventually included a saw mill, flour mill, boardinghouse, homes, and the Ellicott and Company store.
Concerns for education
The Ellicotts valued and encouraged learning in their family and community. In 1783, they started a school for local children. They hired the best teachers available, paid them well, and determined the curriculum. Enrollment increased every year. Neighborhood children were welcome irrespective of the means of their parents. Both girls and boys attended the school and shared a common curriculum, which was unusual in that time and era. The Ellicott family had amicable relationships with the Native Americans; two sons of Chickasaw chiefs attended the school.
Martha Ellicott Tyson attended this school and continued her education in many ways throughout her life. The family was very interested in books and reading, and they exchanged ideas when they met or wrote letters to one another. For example, when Martha was in her late teens, she wrote that her family was reading the French philosopher Voltaire in the evenings. She also learned to speak French fluently.
Martha married her husband Nathan Tyson in 1815. They had twelve children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. She and her family had a life-long interest in education and intellectual growth. She and Nathan were involved in the founding of a public library in Fallston, Maryland, when they lived in that area and with the Friends Library Association of Lombard Street Meeting in Baltimore Monthly Meeting. Martha believed that God has given us many gifts and that the cultivation of our intellectual powers makes us more useful to each other. She felt that it was important to cultivate our intellectual powers together with our moral powers. She encouraged Baltimore Yearly Meeting to form a committee on education in 1850. The committee was concerned with the higher education of Quaker children and the preparation of teachers.
In 1860, Martha invited thirty concerned Friends from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York Yearly Meetings to her home at 1208 Madison Avenue in Baltimore after the sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. At this meeting, they decided to establish Swarthmore College by raising money by subscription, purchasing land near Philadelphia, and obtaining a charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Money was raised from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and the Washington D.C. area. Swarthmore College opened in 1869. It was the second co-educational college founded in America, an important consideration for Martha. She served on the Board of Managers of Swarthmore and wrote a letter to the President of Vassar College in 1863 to encourage the hiring of women professors at the new college.
Elder and minister
Martha was an acknowledged elder and minister of Baltimore Monthly Meeting. She was appointed elder when she was thirty-five years old, even though she felt that her large family of children required her solicitude and attention. Her memorial minute summarizes her “purity of heart, Christian virtue, and earnest devotion to her Divine Master’s will. . . . Especially was she fitted for such missions as required the extension of the hand of sympathy, combined with gentle admonition, her presence carrying with it such power that few could resist its most persuasive influence.”
She appeared frequently in the ministry and was appointed a minister at the age of sixty-six. Her ministry is described in the 1874 Minutes of Baltimore Yearly Meeting:
Her countenance bore the impress of devotion while engaged in vocal or silent prayer. . . . Her communications, though usually short, were impressive, acceptable and convincing; were generally of a practical character, seldom doctrinal, and always pervaded with the deepest reverence for the Divine Father, and Christian charity towards all His children; recognizing the great fact that all who seek to know the Father’s will, and do it, will be accepted by Him, without regard to sect or creed. She frequently quoted the Psalmist: ”Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (40)
Martha was also clerk of Baltimore Yearly Meeting and Monthly Meeting for many years.
Friends and Biographer of Benjamin Banneker, First African American Scientist
The Ellicott family were good friends of Benjamin Banneker, a free African American neighbor who owned considerable property—about 100 acres. A farmer, he grew tobacco, had a large orchard, and raised vegetables, livestock, chickens, and bees. He also had an insatiable curiosity and interest in learning, which the Ellicotts shared.
The Ellicott women wanted to preserve the memory of this remarkable and brilliant man by writing his biography, which Martha’s mother Elizabeth encouraged her to write. To prepare, Martha talked with many people who had known him, including members of both their families. She was among the first of his biographers, and she wrote two. Banneker, the Afric-American Astronomer, published posthumously in 1884 and edited by her daughter Anne, is considered the most authoritative and extensive of all of the published sources on this extraordinary man.
Martha herself remembered Banneker, although he was sixty-four when she was born, and he died in 1806, when she was eleven. She recalled how he frequently came to worship at the Elkridge Meetinghouse, which the Ellicotts had built in Ellicott Mills. Benjamin was very sympathetic to Friends and to Friends testimonies and ways. He wore the plain dress of the Quaker men of those times—a buff-colored, plain suit and a broad-brimmed hat. He had a very dignified and reverent appearance, with a broad forehead and fine, white hair.
Always a curious person and fascinated by construction, mechanics, and the use of tools, Benjamin Banneker was drawn to watch the construction of Ellicott Mills. Among the first clients of the Ellicotts’ store, he and his mother Mary would come to the store and bring vegetables, fruit, and eggs from their farm to the Ellicotts’ boardinghouse. Unusually intelligent and knowledgeable, especially about the early settlement of Maryland and its problems and successes, Banneker shared his knowledge of local lore and what he had learned from reading in the lively discussions that took place at the store, even though he was a somewhat reserved person. Interested in current issues, Benjamin avidly read the newspapers and the British magazines in the store and occasionally bought books for his own library .
Though Benjamin was forty-seven and George only eighteen when they met, Banneker and George Ellicott, Martha’s father, became close friends. They shared an interest in mathematics and a love for English literature, and both enjoyed making up mathematical puzzles and solving them.
Ellicott encouraged Benjamin to become an amateur astronomer by loaning him several instructional books on astronomy, including An Easy Introduction to Astronomy by James Ferguson. (George had given this book to Elizabeth when they were courting.) He also loaned Banneker instruments for observations, including a pedestal telescope, a set of drafting instruments, a sector, and materials for recording observations of the stars, as well as a table, a candlestick, and a candle mold. Ellicott had originally intended to teach Banneker himself but was often away on business, so Benjamin taught himself astronomy using these books and instruments.
Banneker calculated an eclipse of the sun and sent his work in a letter to George, who was astounded by his accomplishment and encouraged him to do the calculations for an almanac. In many farm areas, an almanac was the only printed book available other than the Bible. An almanac contained the calculations for an ephemeris, a table of values that gives the positions of the sun, moon, and planets at a given time or times. It could also contain astrology, chronological tables of scientific data, historical facts, literary items, and sometimes poetry.
Banneker wrote seven almanacs and published six of them beginning in 1792. These were published with the assistance of Elias Ellicott and Andrew Ellicott through connections with the Quaker-founded Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes and Others Unlawfully Held in Bondage. (Elias was George Ellicott’s brother, and Andrew was
Elias Ellicott and Elisha Tyson were members of the Acting Committee of this Society, which was founded in 1789. The committee sought out cases requiring the Society’s intervention, filed petitions for freedom on behalf of individuals held in bondage illegally, and encouraged the arrest of kidnappers of free African Americans. The Committee also submitted to the grand jury of the county any known cases of outrageous misconduct of masters in the handling of enslaved persons. Elisha Tyson was known for his dramatic rescues of kidnapped people. More than 10,000 African Americans attended his funeral procession in appreciation of his many acts of assistance to them.
Banneker’s second almanac, published in 1793, contained a copy of his letter to Thomas Jefferson asking him to consider that African Americans were also created equal (appealing to the Declaration of Independence) and had the same intellectual capabilities as whites. The almanacs were used in the antislavery movement in both England and America.
Benjamin made a clock that chimed on the hour and was the wonder of the neighborhood in a time when few had clocks. To make the clock, he borrowed a pocket watch and took it apart to see how it worked. He then scaled-up the inner workings of the watch to construct a full-size clock made mostly of wooden parts. When Elizabeth and her friends visited Benjamin to see the clock, he was so busy with his studies and calculations that he did not notice their presence. Finally, when he realized they were there, he greeted and welcomed them in his usual kindly manner.
George Ellicott arranged for Benjamin Banneker to participate in the surveying of Washington D.C., which was supervised by George’s cousin Andrew Ellicott, who had been commissioned in 1791 to undertake the survey. Andrew hired Benjamin as his scientific assistant. Concerned about Banneker’s safety when traveling out of his territory, Elizabeth arranged for one of Benjamin’s sisters to make a suit of clothes for the journey, so he would look like a colonial gentleman. He was well-known in his own area, but black travelers could be mistaken for escaped slaves and sold into slavery by slave catchers. Free blacks were required to carry freedom papers.
For the surveying team, Banneker maintained notes of observations, made calculations as required, and used the astronomical instruments for establishing base points. He assisted Ellicott in the observatory tent and possibly participated in making observations in the field as well. His most important responsibility was the maintenance of the regulator clock. Banneker wound the clock, checked its rate by means of equal altitudes taken of the sun at periodic intervals, and kept the temperature in its vicinity constant.
Other concerns for African Americans
The Maryland constitution of 1864 freed the slaves in Maryland. Friends from Baltimore Monthly Meeting (Lombard Street) formed the Friends Association in Aid to Freedom, and Martha Ellicott Tyson was on the founding committee. They raised money and provided clothing for freed people, formed a law committee to assist in legal matters and to advocate for them, and helped them find homes in Washington D.C. They assisted and advised about 2,000 freed people.
The same meeting earlier had formed the Lombard Street Benevolent and Sewing and Reading Society to aid the poor; nearly half of its members were African American. Martha and her children were active in this Society.
Concern for Native Americans
Baltimore Yearly Meeting had started an Indian Affairs committee in 1795 because of their concern about the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers and the continuing forced migration westward. For many years, Martha served on this committee.
Martha’s father George Ellicott had traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1804 with Gerard Hopkins and others under the direction of the Yearly Meeting Indian Affairs Committee to visit with and encourage the Native Americans. They traveled with a farmer, a carpenter, and a blacksmith to help the Indians learn farming methods. Martha later wrote an appendix to the account of this journey.
Nine of the chiefs of the tribes that George Ellicott had visited came to visit the family in 1807 on their way to Washington D.C. Martha wrote an account of this visit and especially remembered Little Turtle, one of the chiefs of the Miami nation. He and the other chiefs were dressed in colonial dress of blue coats, gilt buttons, blue pantaloons, and buff waistcoats but also leggings, moccasins, and large gold earrings. Little Turtle was very dignified, with a graceful appearance and agreeable manners. Her mother had prepared a dish of hominy to make them feel at home. George Ellicott had also petitioned Congress to pass a law preventing the sale of spirituous liquors to Native Americans. This law was passed.