“About one mile from the village of Sykesville stands the Springfield Presbyterian Church and parsonage, and through skeleton branches of trees at the back of the church, the wintry gleam of white marble above the frozen snow marks where lie George Patterson and his descendants. Within the enclosed grave-lot there are several costly monuments and a newly-made grave where, January 12th, 1883, was buried Prudence Ann, widow of George Patterson.”

The Continent, 1883

Patterson family plot, Springfield Cemetery, Sykesville MD

The Death of a Noble Boy

It was December, just short of Christmas in 1849. It was cold outside, of course, but it was cold inside, too, in Springfield Presbyterian Church. And for George and Prudence Patterson, it was also bitter and painful, the worst Christmas of their lives, and the culminating moment of a nightmare that had taken too long to unfold.

America was still a young nation. Zachary Taylor had recently succeeded James Polk as President. (Both would be dead within a year.) The United States had defeated Mexico in war. Texas had joined the union, and thousands rushed to California in search of gold. The country was expanding and bitterly divided between North and South over the spread and very existence of slavery.

Over three million slaves labored, mostly under white overseers, throughout the South. There were more than 90,000 in Maryland, and in little over a decade, half a million Americans would die in a terrible war.

But at the moment, inside Springfield Presbyterian, none of this mattered. There was a small box and, outside, a hole in the ground. A minister prepared to speak. His name was Thomas James Shepherd.

He spoke without notes.

“I can imagine no affliction more crushing to parental hearts than that of the death of a noble boy. It interrupts so many plans; it darkens so many prospects; it blights so many hopes. It flings such heavy gloom upon one's home and over the sky of one's life; that its intensity of sorrow must surely be extreme.”

The boy’s name was also George Patterson. He had lived five years, three months, and 12 days, before dying of a long unidentified illness four days short of Christmas.

At the time of his son’s death, George Patterson was 53. He was a contemporary of the town’s namesake, James Sykes, and one of the most important characters in the history and early development of what would become Sykesville, Maryland. And although it’s never written about or mentioned in town lore, the death of his son was an important event that would, perhaps, radically alter the town’s destiny.

An unsmiling George PattersonGeorge Patterson had never been an outwardly friendly man, and in his later years he was even less so, walking his vast estate with two large dogs, and seldom speaking with anyone. In an article written by Mary Imlay in The Continent, a magazine published in Philadelphia in 1883, he’s described as “a man of marked character— more English than American in type. He had a short, heavy figure, a face stern yet handsome, and lighted by keen blue eyes under bushy brows. He showed strong intellect, much general knowledge and dogmatic views.

“Of strict probity, he was yet brusque in speech, dictatorial in manner, and cared not a whit for the pomps of rank...”

He was also successful, innovative, and driven. He’d built a thriving plantation from rough and inhospitable soil, eventually converting it, as Patterson himself would describe it, into “one extended sheet of living green.”

Patterson had run the estate for his father, then inherited it. And, for a short time, as he’d walked its fields, an eager and interested young boy had walked along with him. But those days were behind him now. Today they buried the boy, gathering around the open grave as The Reverend Thomas James Shepherd prayed.

“O God, we lay this body in the grave that, as Thou ordainest, the dust may return to the Earth as it was. Let thine eye of love be on it; let thy hand of power keep it…”

Soon after the funeral, the Pattersons asked Shepherd for a copy of the service, and it’s here we learn that young George was “the companion of his father from the time he could speak and walk…”

And that “…the last word caught by those who weeping bent over him, was the sweet word Father, which he repeated until his lips grew motionless in death and, from his manner, evidently addressed to God.”

The grave of George Patterson Jr. at Springfield Cemetery, Sykesville MDAnd that a few days before dying, he told his father, “You are not my only father: I have a Father in Heaven.”

And those words are inscribed at the bottom of the stone above his grave.

Born Into Wealth

George was the sixth son of William Patterson, one of the wealthiest men of Revolutionary-era America and a vital supplier of General Washington’s impoverished army during the early days of the war for independence. There were 12 children in all.

One would become famous. That was the fourth, George’s sister, Betsy, who on another traumatic Patterson Christmas in 1803, overcame her father’s objections and married Jerome Bonaparte in a Catholic church in Baltimore.

At the time, Thomas Jefferson was President. George Patterson was seven, his sister 18, and Jerome, who had lied to the Pattersons about his age, barely 19. He was also the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, who would soon declare himself Emperor of France and set out to conquer the world. As part of that plan, he intended to marry his young brother into royalty.

But in 1849, this was old news. The American Revolution had ended 60 years earlier. All the founders of America – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison – were dead. Napoleon had long ago destroyed the marriage between his young brother and the beautiful American sister of George Patterson and died in exile of stomach cancer in 1815.

Betsy was 64 now, no longer the “belle of Baltimore,” and apparently living in London or somewhere else in Europe at the time of her nephew’s funeral. She had broken ties with the rest of the family, and would outlive them all, but she remained friendly with George and Prudence and would come often by train from Baltimore to visit them. George had been kind to her and generous.

In those days, a husband controlled his wife’s wealth, and William Patterson’s wife, Dorcas, had inherited quite a bit from her father.

In her 2010 book, Betsy Bonaparte, Helen Jean Burn writes of Betsy’s mother that “on her deathbed she asked him [William] to divide her money equally among their children. Patterson refused. He gave it all to his sons and none to his sole surviving daughter, Betsy. One of her brothers, George, felt this injustice so keenly that he gave her his share.”

And also, after their father’s death in 1835, when Betsy disputed his will and considered taking legal action to increase her share, George, alone among her brothers, refused to turn against her.

Bring Out Your Dead

William Patterson was born in Ireland and arrived unaccompanied in Philadelphia at 14 in 1766. Smart, hard-working, and resourceful, by 21 he owned two ships and his own maritime business. When the British set out to prevent arms and powder from reaching the colonies at the beginning of the revolution, Patterson invested everything he owned and took off with his ships for France in hopes of arming the rebellion at a time when Washington claimed he hadn’t enough powder to fire a salute.

First he supplied Washington’s forces from the Dutch island of Saint-Eustache and then from the French possession of Martinique. He returned to America in 1778 with over a hundred thousand dollars, married 17-year-old Dorcas Spear, settled in Baltimore, bought property, and built ships. He became one of the wealthiest men in Maryland, second only to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Carroll County namesake and the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. (Patterson’s son Robert would one day marry Charles Carroll’s granddaughter, Mary Caton.)

Eventually, Patterson acquired the 3,000 acres west of Baltimore that he would call Springfield Estate. Over time, the family built a mansion there described in The Continent as “a roomy country home, having a frontage of one hundred and seventy-five feet, adorned by two-story pillared porches…flanked by an extensive park, and …a velvety lawn sloping down the hill to the front entrance.”

But that description was written in 1883. In the late eighteenth century it was a rough and secluded place, where each year Patterson brought his family to escape Baltimore’s hot, filthy summers. And although it was the scene of a burial that day in 1849, Patterson’s many acres had once served as the family sanctuary from death in a time of rampant disease, when doctors were more likely to kill than cure.

Both Baltimore and Philadelphia – crowded, dirty, humid port towns – were at times afflicted with summer outbreaks of yellow fever, a deadly illness that drove both Presidents George Washington and John Adams from the capital in Philadelphia on separate occasions.

In his book John Adams, David McCullough described the 1793 epidemic (three years before George Patterson’s birth) this way.

“By the last weeks of August people were dying in Philadelphia at a rate of more than twenty a day. In September, as the death toll rose rapidly, Benjamin Rush and other physicians, helpless to stop the plague, advised all who could leave the city to do so without delay. The federal government and most businesses shut down. Bush Hill, where the Adamses had lived, was converted to an emergency hospital. To avoid contamination people stopped shaking hands and walked in the middle of the streets.”

Ron Chernow’s book on George Washington (Washington: A Life) provides another vivid account.

“As August progressed, the yellow fever scourge spread from the wharves to the city’s interior: victims ran high fevers, spewed black vomit, hemorrhaged blood from every orifice, and developed jaundice before they expired. By late August the sights and smells of death saturated the city, especially the groaning carts, stacked high with corpses that trundled through the streets as their drivers intoned, ‘Bring out your dead.’ ”

People blamed the foul summer air of these unsanitary eighteenth century cities. Part of the "state-of-the-art treatment" recommended and practiced by the few doctors, including Benjamin Rush, who had not fled the city, was to cut victims and drain their blood, which did little but weaken the sick and accelerate their deaths. It would be a hundred years before anyone understood what really spread the fever.


After ravaging Philadelphia in 1793, the fever hit Baltimore in ’94. Baltimore denied the presence of the disease; Philadelphia accused Baltimore of hiding it and considered quarantining goods from the rival port.

Illustration: yellow fever victims

Bob Arnebeck’s online book on yellow fever quotes a letter from a Dr. Drysdale in Maryland to Dr. Rush in Philadelphia:

“Fell's Point was now becoming very unhealthy... Before the close of September, a panic spread through the town, and drove a great number of families to seek refuge in the country…The streets were no longer crowded and noisy with business or festivity. The eye would scarcely meet a dozen persons in its longest street…The whole day resembled in silence the hours of night.”

The fever killed doctors. It killed clergy. It killed weak, strong, young, and old. Fortunately, the wealthy Pattersons were among those able to “seek refuge in the country.”

They would remain at Springfield till the cooling weather stopped the epidemic (by killing the mosquitoes) and it was safe to return to the city, where by mid-October of 1774, for instance, “…the citizens returned to their homes and business; and in very short time, a person passing through the Point itself, would be reminded of its late situation only by observing in some alleys the bodies of a number of dead cats.”

And so at Springfield, the Pattersons were spared at least the yellow fever. But there were other dangers, and despite the great wealth and watchful eye of the stern and protective William Patterson, half his children died young, including every daughter but Betsy.

As Burn writes, “Mothers counseled their daughters not to love the little one too much until they were sure he or she would survive.”

Hard advice to follow, and no doubt by 1849, George and Prudence Patterson had come to love their young boy too much and suffered greatly when he did not survive.

The Son Takes Over

By the time William Patterson died, George had already taken over at Springfield and would run the huge plantation, dependent on the labor of some 40 slaves, for five decades. A letter published years later describes his plantation as “one of the finest in the State…twenty-six hundred acres… His slaves were the finest specimen of physical manhood of any slaves…in the South. His horses, cattle, hogs and chickens were not excelled by any in the United States...”

A born farmer, he became, as described in The Continent, “one of the first agriculturists in the country— a deep student of the principles of scientific farming and a splendid exponent of their practical results. He expended large sums in lime, principally, and other fertilizers, and forced poor soil into realizing richness. He devoted himself, also, to the raising of stock…to make of his property a great grazing farm…His Devon herd was, probably, one of the finest in the world, and beyond compare the finest in America…and could be seen grazing in luxuriant clover-fields at Springfield, their fat sides glistening in the sunshine like polished mahogany.”

He also kept a large number of Maltese cats, not out of love for cats, but to control the rat population.

Stern but loyal, Patterson was also stubborn, physically brave, and determined to defend Springfield at any cost. An 1871 account by Brantz Mayer in Baltimore: Past and Present describes an encounter with the Union army during the Civil War. (As a slave holder in a state divided over the war, the aging Patterson may have sided with the Confederacy.)

“A party of Federal soldiers invaded his premises, marched up to his house, and sought, in opposition to his remonstrance, to enter. Mr. Patterson, who, with the exception of the presence of his wife, was alone, with great coolness and with equal determination placed himself within his doorway, and confronting the officer in command, demanded on what authority his house was to be entered. The officer, putting his hand on the hilt of his sword, replied, ‘My authority is here.’ ‘Then,’ said Mr. Patterson, raising his left hand and grasping his revolver with his right, ‘cross that threshold and I will kill you!’ The officer and party retired.”

In another account, Patterson is depicted as perhaps a bit of a cheapskate by Isaac Van Bibber, who in 1844 visited Sykesville seeking donations to build a church in Westminster. (Young George was born in September of that year.)

“…I arrived at Sykesville. Here I met with Mr. Warfield, who very pressingly invited me to come to see him. At the same time I met Mr. Sykes, who gave me permission to put his name down on my subscription list for 10 dollars. Leaving Sykesville I rode immediately to Mr. Patterson's, whom I found at some distance from his house, sitting on a log reading a newspaper.

“He asked me what it was all about. I told him it related to the building of an Episcopal Church in Westminster, at which he shook his head, saying that he would have nothing more to do with the building of Churches, as he looked upon them as causes of contention in the neighborhood.

“I…told him that I would most gratefully receive anything that was offered. To this he made no reply, pretending to be deeply engrossed with an exquisite representation of some steam cars at the head of one of the columns of the newspaper.”

Bible presented to Springfield after George Patterson Jr.'s deathPatterson had been involved with building Springfield Presbyterian Church, the oldest in Sykesville. It opened in 1836 on land he donated. This must have been the church he referred to when saying he "would have nothing more to do with the building of churches.”

And it’s in the graveyard of this church that he and his family lie buried today.

While dying, young George had asked his parents to purchase a bible for his funeral. They did not have the bible the day he was buried, but soon after, they donated a bible to Springfield Presbyterian on their son’s behalf. The bible was used during the 100th anniversary of the church in 1936 and again in 1986, and is still kept in the church library.

After donating the bible, Patterson lived another 20 years with his wife, his daughter, and the memory of his son. When his own death approached in November of 1869, The Continent says, “He met death with composure, and truly, without fear and without reproach, he went down to the tomb. The whole neighborhood came forth to his funeral.”

He was 74 when he died, and although he had lost his son, he would at least be spared the added sorrow of losing his only daughter. Prudence would go through that alone.

Prudence Patterson Alone

Prudence Patterson was 21 years younger than the man she married, and only 32 when they buried her son. She was a member of the locally prominent Brown family, and aunt to Frank Brown, who would later become the only person from Carroll County elected governor of Maryland.

George Patterson was over 40 when he finally decided to marry, and Prudence was not his first choice. That honor went to her cousin, the beautiful Ann Elizabeth Warfield, whose wealthy father owned the nearby Groveland estate. But Ann Warfield refused George’s proposal, so he turned to Prudence, and after a brief courtship they were married.

Prudence Brown was a kind and generous person, who offset her husband’s rough nature and brought a new charm and hospitality to Springfield. And it seems both children inherited her good nature. Her daughter is described as loving, friendly, and laughing, and young George was considerate beyond his years. He so worried he might have hurt his mother in some way during his brief life, that shortly before dying, he threw his arms around her and asked forgiveness for any pain he might ever have caused her.

By 1850, of course, he was gone, leaving the still young mother with only a two-year-old daughter to love. This must have been some comfort but, undoubtedly, a great worry, as well. The daughter’s name was Florence, and The Continent article describes her favorably at her famous aunt’s expense.

“Florence, heiress of George Patterson, had not the brilliant wit of her aunt, but a far more loving and lovable disposition. She, too, was petite in figure, with clear blue eyes and a lovely complexion. Her hands and arms were as perfectly molded as those of Madame Bonaparte, and her laugh was sweetly musical. No unwise ambition or struggle after the unattainable marred her life, for Florence Patterson loved her home, her kindred and her country as heartily as the imperious elder woman despised them.

“She was married September 1877, to Mr. James Carroll, of Baltimore. There was a gay and festive scene at the old manor house to celebrate the union, but in a few fleeting months the friends who met at the bridal gathered around her bier!”

Less than a year after the marriage, at the age of 31, Florence Patterson died while giving birth.

Florence Patterson's grave, Springfield Church Cemetery in Sykesville, MD

Back side of Florence Patterson's grave, Sykesville, MDChildbirth was a dangerous business in those days. Many died during labor, but many more died soon afterward. As Helen Burn points out, “There was no remedy for the postpartum infections known as ‘fevers’ beyond strewing straw on the cobbled streets to quiet the sound of wagon wheels while the patient lay dying.”

The killing fevers were actually infections of the uterus spread by doctors and midwives, who by merely washing their hands could have prevented hundreds of thousands of 19th century deaths. But since the fevers typically took days to kill, it’s more likely Florence died of other complications, most likely at home, most likely tended to by a midwife or doctor, possibly with chloroform or ether to ease her pain, and certainly with her mother nearby.

(Some Christians opposed the use of pain medication on religious grounds, claiming that in Genesis, God condemns the children of Eve to suffer during childbirth as punishment for her sins.)

Whatever the cause of death, her baby died with her, and is buried with her, too, in the Springfield Cemetery, under a stone that says, “Resting on her breast, the body of her infant son,” words probably chosen by her mother.

“I have a father in heaven.”

“Resting on her breast, the body of her infant son.”

These stones tell stories.

A Legacy Lost and Found

Florence’s Aunt, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, would outlive all but Prudence. She never remarried after her brief marriage to Napoleon’s brother. They had a son, born in England, not long after Jerome and Betsy parted for the last time in Lisbon, hoping for a reunion that never took place. Their son would wed and have two sons of his own.

Jerome would eventually remarry at his brother’s command and become a king. Betsy would raise their son well, live many years in Europe, and die in Baltimore in 1879 at the age of 94. She despised her American home, calling it a “dirty little commercial hole,” but she’s buried there in Greenmount Cemetery. Her father is also buried in Greenmount Cemetery, and Patterson Park is named in his honor.

Cameo portraits of Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson Bonaparte Jerome and Catherina Bonaparte

The land where William Patterson built his family’s summer home and George Patterson developed and ran one of Maryland’s great plantations would play a long and important role in the history of Sykesville. Florence inherited the Springfield Estate on her father’s passing, and after she died, Prudence and her son-in-law sold the land to Frank Brown in 1880.

Brown in turn, sold 1000 acres for $50,000 to the state for the building of the Springfield Hospital. The hospital still operates, although on a greatly diminished scale, but once it had been at the heart of a thriving local economy and one of the most advanced mental institutions in the nation.

The Patterson mansion burned in 1912, to be replaced in 1913 by this building, which is named “The Patterson House” and still used by the hospital today.

The Patterson House, Sykesville, MD, Spring 2011

The church George Patterson helped build still stands, the oldest in town, sturdy, rudimentary in appearance, and gray as a battleship.

Springfield Church in Sykesville, MD, June 2011.

The angel of Springfield Cemetery

You can visit George Patterson's grave there behind a black fence in the vicinity of Sykesville’s watchful guardian angel.

You can visit the boy who walked briefly among the pigs and chickens, the horses, shiny Devon cattle, and slaves with his father and their dogs.

You can visit the young woman with her baby lying on her breast, and the mother, Prudence, who buried them all, then sold off the family lands.

She had lost a husband, a five-year-old son, and recently buried a daughter and a grandson on the same day, possibly after witnessing their deaths. She had once lived on a vast estate and owned thousands of acres, but in the end, Prudence had nothing. She died in Baltimore at the age of 65.

The tombstones of George and Prudence Patterson

What Might Have Been

The death of George Patterson, Jr. certainly affected the future of Sykesville and the entire area. If he had lived, he would most likely have survived into the twentieth century. And the Patterson family might be with us today, sending their kids to our schools, playing on our soccer fields, sharing the roads and shopping in our stores, tying modern Sykesville to a man who supplied Washington’s army and to a woman who married into the family of an emperor.

On the other hand, if he had survived, he would have inherited Springfield and most likely his father's pride in the place. He would not have sold it to Frank Brown, and there might never have been a Springfield Hospital, a Warfield Complex, the Dinky Train tracks running over Spout Hill, a gatehouse to turn into a museum. And Sykesville itself might have died long ago without Springfield to sustain its economy through much of the twentieth century.

But young George Patterson died. Springfield Hospital exists. And all that remains of Sykesville’s oldest and once most famous family is here beside the gray church – crooked, crumbling a bit, covered in moss, and nearly forgotten behind a black fence.

In the day care across the street, another generation of Sykesville preschoolers laughs and tumbles and crawls over plastic toys, unaware in their fun of the intensity of sorrow, of the ghosts and the bones, of the buried dreams and blighted hopes in the plot of ground just across the way.

Patterson, Brown families burial site


Sermon for George Patterson Jr. Stepping Stones Preschool playground at Springfield Church


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