By Rachel Lovett, Curator & Assistant Director
As this June marks the 100th year anniversary of women’s right to vote, it is appropriate to remember the development of female education in this country. In the years after the Revolution, education was available to young women of the elite class and designed to teach them to become model wives and mothers. Many female academies catered to this rising need; these academies encouraged the arts from their earliest days.
Upstairs in the North East Bedchamber of the Hammond-Harwood House hangs the only painting (fig 1) within the collection we can firmly attribute to a female artist. Acquired by purchase in 2006, this eye-pleasing landscape was painted by sixteen-year-old Mary Steele. A note on the back of the canvas (or verso) reads “Miss Mary Steele at Mrs. Keets Academy Annapolis 1805”
Looking at this painting one can imagine what it would it feel like to be in front of blank canvas. An unblemished canvas with endless possibilities. For the young painter, Miss Mary Steele, her life started out just that way.
Mary Steele was born October 16, 1789, most likely at Weston (fig 2), her parent’s estate in Vienna, Dorchester County, Maryland. Mary was the oldest child of Mary Nevett, who had grown up primarily in Annapolis (1769- 1836), and James Steele (1761-1816) of Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore. Her father James inherited more than 6,000 acres of land and approximately 76 enslaved individuals, after his father, Henry Steele, died in 1782. Mary’s grandfather, Henry Steele, an emigre from Cumberland County, England, had been one of the wealthiest men in Dorchester County and had served in several political roles during the American Revolution. He had built Handsell, a large and commodious house north of the town of Vienna, which was attacked by the British during the war. The Nanticoke Preservation Alliance is currently working to restore Handsell.
Mary’s father, James Steele, followed in his father’s political footsteps and was elected to the Maryland Assembly in 1784, where served intermittently until 1795. He was a justice in Dorchester County from 1784 until 1788 and again from 1798 until at least 1800. He was appointed a justice of the Orphan’s Court in 1788 but declined to serve. He held numerous other local posts and was elected to the vestry of Great Choptank Parish in 1793, 1799, 1801, and 1804.
In 1797 when Mary was seven, her family moved to “The Point” (fig 3) in Cambridge, Maryland. This large house was built in 1706 by John Kirke and later expanded by the Goldsborough and Steele families. She was the oldest of ten children and would have spent her time at The Point having the freedom to play with her siblings in the expansive rooms and grounds. The Point was also an active working farm so Mary would have been witness to a plantation-based economy that relied on enslaved labor. Without the use of enslaved laborers, the Steele family would have led vastly different lives, and it is unlikely Mary would have had the luxury to study at a private academy in Annapolis. While it is impossible to know Mary’s feelings on the institution of slavery as a child, it is certain she would have been well aware of this system as she grew into adulthood and assumed responsibilities for her own household. Conversation around the dinner table no doubt dealt with the topic of slavery in the heated years leading up to the American Civil War.
Hoping to secure a genteel future for sixteen-year-old Mary, her parents sent her to live with her maternal grandparents in 1805 so she could attend Mrs. Keets’ Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Her grandmother was Sarah Ennalls Maynadier Nevett Murray (1751-1837), the wife of Dr. James Murray of Annapolis, physician to Thomas Jefferson. Mary’s grandparents’ house was at 142-144 Prince George Street (fig 4) in Annapolis. Mary’s mother had grown up in this house.
Dr. Murray was 63 and her grandmother was 53 when Mary joined the bustling household filled with children and grandchildren. While in Annapolis, Mary was a day student at Mrs. Keets’ Academy. It is possible that Mary’s younger sister Anne, two years her junior, might have also came to Annapolis at the same time.
Mrs. Keets’ Academy accepted both day students and borders. An announcement in the Maryland Gazette described it: “[Students] could be instructed in reading, writing, orthography, grammar, arithmetic, geography, systems of the universe– with the use of maps and globes, ancient and modern history, with the application of chronological charts and ancient modern maps, French language, and needlework of all kind. Young ladies who wanted to cultivate their vocal music and piano forte would pay an additional $16 dollars per quarter. Boarders paid $50 per quarter and day students paid $12.50. There were also other optional add ons including drawing $15, dancing $15, and languages such as Italian $10, German$10, Spanish $5, Latin $5, and Greek $5.”
From this advertisement it can be deduced the Mary’s parents paid the additional $15 for her drawing lessons, which she may have asked for, given her natural skill. Her parents were patrons of the arts and likely encouraged her talents. Her mother had a portrait (fig 5) done by Robert Edge Pine a few years before Mary’s birth.
Mary’s 1805 painting is somewhat unusual and forward thinking for its time– when landscapes were just becoming popular in America. Since no stone bridges existed in Maryland in the early 19th century, the image is either fictional or taken from an English instructional book. Mary’s use of lighting prefigures the later Hudson River style, which depicted natural scenes with illuminating light.
While the painting is oil on canvas, the museum has chosen to display a watercolor set (fig 6) on the cabinet below. The set was owned by a young Miss Isby. Mary may have also used watercolor as a medium. The box is mahogany inlaid with satin wood. In the drawer are six of the original fifteen china mixing dishes, three drawing quills, a metal holder for chalk and crayon, and a white crayon pencil. In the top are spaces for twenty-four watercolors in cakes. The set is English by the Reeves brothers, dating to about 1795, just a few years prior to this painting. George Washington gave a similar Reeves set to his step granddaughter Nelly Curtis on her 15th birthday, March 3, 1793. Painting was becoming a popular way for young ladies of good standing to exhibit their skills.
Women’s secondary schools started to form in the 1800’s and were called “academies.” These female academies did not require a length of stay and offered a diverse curriculum. They led to the development of female seminaries or institutes in the 19th century that were more academically focused and comparable to the education young men were receiving. The Patapsco Female Institute (fig 7) chartered in 1834 in Ellicott City, Maryland, is one example.
Little is known about Mrs. Keets herself, although it is clear she was a highly educated and respected woman. It appears she first started the school in Centreville, Maryland before moving it to Annapolis. An October 1803 advertisement placed in the Maryland Gazette informed readers that Mrs. Keets, in collaboration with a Mr. Pairo, was running a boarding school in Centreville, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, a newly incorporated town less than a decade old. The advertisement notes that she planned to open a boarding school for 25 students in Annapolis beginning January 2, 1804.
At this new school Mrs. Keets would teach reading, writing, and needlework. She advised that she could provide letters of recommendation serving as “vouchers of her strict attention to the morals, improvement, and accommodations her young pupils.” Mr. Pairo joined her in the move from Centreville to Annapolis and promised to instruct students in French, Latin, German, geography, music, astronomy and the use of globes. The ad also described Mr. Pairo as a “German gentleman of French extraction” who had been teaching for eight years.
Mary was among very good company at Mrs. Keets’ Academy. Mrs. Keets taught the daughters and granddaughters of some of Maryland’s most elite families. Her classmates included the beautiful Caton sisters, who were granddaughters of Charles Carroll, Declaration of Independence signer. The girls were a focus for Charles Carroll who spent many hours planning for the education and acceptance into society of his vivacious granddaughters. Carroll urged his granddaughters in September of 1803 “to have propriety” at Mrs. Keets’ Academy or else he would send them home to their mother. His granddaughter Louisa (fig 8) proved a model student and was awarded the medal called the “Genius Award” at the academy when she left in 1807. However, her younger sister Emily was thought “frivolous and idle” when she left the academy in 1809.
While we do not know if Mary was more of a Louisa or an Emily, we can say she was an accomplished painter for a sixteen-year-old. Only a year or two after this painting was completed, she moved back to the Eastern Shore, saying goodbye to her grandparents bustling Murray household and the spirited Caton sisters at Mrs. Keets’ Academy.
Back on the Eastern Shore a new life awaited her.
In the spring of 1808, the 19-year-old Mary married 21-year-old John Campbell Henry (1787-1857) of Dorchester County, Maryland, the oldest son of Maryland Governor John Henry (1750-1798) and his wife, Margaret Campbell. The Henrys had an estate, Weston, on the Nanticoke River in Vienna, Maryland, next to the property where Mary was born. So, in this union she was marrying her next-door neighbor and perhaps a childhood playmate.
According to the 1810 census John and Mary had a profitable household. John C. Henry with Mary Nevett Steele Henry lived with two other females, maybe her younger sisters, and held 52 enslaved people. They were living on a portion of Handsell estate in Vienna, which belonged to Mary’s family. The couple welcomed their first child, a girl named Margaret, in the fall of 1811. Four years later the couple was blessed with a son, James Winfield Henry, in the spring of 1815.
The same year that Mary’s first son was born her father, James Steele, bought Ogle Hall (fig 9) in Annapolis, which the family used during the “social season.” It was very common for planters, especially ones from the Eastern Shore, to have a city house and a country plantation. No doubt Mary, her husband Henry, and their children were delighted to have another home to visit in Annapolis. But before long Mary was pregnant again, this time with her second son, Francis Jenkins Henry, who was born in August of 1816.
Her life was changing as her siblings began to marry and her parents spent more time in Annapolis. Her father was plagued by constant pain and in the summer of 1816 decided to go to the springs for a cure. That summer had been odd because a volcanic eruption the year before caused extreme temperatures and “backwards weather.” Thomas Jefferson, retired from the presidency and farming at Monticello in Virginia, sustained crop failures that sent him further into debt. On September 13, a Virginia newspaper reported that corn crops would be one half to two-thirds short, and lamented that “the cold as well as the drought has nipt the buds of hope.” A Norfolk, Virginia, newspaper complained: “It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer. Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past… the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat.”
In the midst of this odd summer Mary’s third child had been born, and she heard of her father’s unexpected death on his return from the springs; he had died in route in Boonsboro, Maryland. He was buried at St. Anne’s Church Cemetery in Annapolis.
Shortly after this odd and traumatic summer, Mary’s new family moved on to a new home– an estate known as Hambrooks on the Choptank River in Dorchester County. They bought the estate from Mary’s 16-year-old sister Catherine after she inherited it. The couple affectionately called their new home Northcliffe (fig 10). At Northcliffe Mary would have seven more children with John, whom she calls affectionately calls “Mr. Henry” in letters.
After her father’s death in 1816, her mother, then 47, moved to Annapolis full time and resided the Ogle house the remainder of her life. She most likely wanted to be close to her mother, step-father, and step-siblings in town. Mary may have felt somewhat abandoned on the Eastern Shore knowing her mother and younger siblings would spend most of their time in Annapolis.
Though Mary had many siblings she seems to have been ecspecially fond of Catherine, 12 years her junior. The pair corresponded quite frequently. It is possible later in life Catherine lived at the Hammond-Harwood House or Chase Home as a renter. She describes living with a Hester in large house that had a view of the Naval Academy. There were two Hesters –Hester Chase of Chase Lloyd House and her niece Hester Ann Loockerman Harwood who lived at Hammond-Harwood House.
Mary seems especially interested in the education of her children, siblings, and nieces. Perhaps her time at Mrs. Keets’ in Annapolis helped instill a love of learning.
Some examples of this can be found her letters:
On April 10, 1819 she writes from Hambrooks to her 18-year-old sister Catherine in Annapolis about her two youngest siblings’ education: “My affect’s love to Sallie & Nevett & tell them I hope they are very attentive to their studies & everything you tell them. My affect love to your Grandmamma & Pappa”
Mary continues to take an active interest in education, writing Catherine on December 8, 1821: “[If] you have any amusing new books, I wish you would lend them to me to read, when brother Henry comes over I will take care, and return them—John sends his love and begs me to enclose you a specimen of his writing, says he hopes before long to write you and Charles a letter”
In 1823 Mary’s husband John Campbell Henry became a trustee for her younger brother Isaac Nevett Steele (fig 11), then age 17. Isaac likely benefitted from his older sister’s attitude towards his education. He became one of Maryland’s leading lawyers of the 19th century.
 Sarah Maynadier Steele (b. 1805), daughter of Mary and James Steele.
 Isaac Nevett Steele, (1809-1891), son of Mary and James Steele, and owner of Handsell (1816-1837).
 Grandmamma is Sarah Maynadier Nevett Murray (1751-1837), married at the time of this letter to Dr. James Murray of Annapolis.
 Dr. James Murray.
Mary and her family had an exciting encounter in 1824 when the Marquis de Lafayette visited Annapolis in December for a few days. That next Monday “he received ladies during the afternoon and closed the day with a party at Ogle Hall, then the home of Mary Nevett Steele.” Mary and her sisters were likely in attendance.
Not too much is known of Mary’s mid-life or later years; however, we know she continued to push for the education of her siblings, children, and nieces, as seen her in the letter of October 16, 1843, to her sister about her nieces: “I need not say how glad I was to din you and family were well, and that your little Girls were again with you, no doubt they must have improved much, at so good a School, and should like to see them very much—Tell Kate I wish she could hear Charlotte sing my Harrison Songs, but I daresay your Girls have learnt some—”
Mary died November 20, 1873, in Dorchester County, Maryland. She is buried in Christ Church churchyard, Cambridge, Maryland. We do not know if Mary continued to paint beautiful scenes like this one after she married “Mr. Henry” but it is clear that Mary lived a full, interesting life amongst her children and husband, on the grounds of Northcliffe –which could have provided inspiration for more landscapes. We do know she continued to take an active interest in the education of the next generation, and it may have been in small part to the few years she spent in the active household of her grandparents attending Mrs. Keets’ Academy in Annapolis.
A special thank goes out to Margaret Ingersoll, Miriam Zijp-Koedijk, and Grover Hinds, Gurney Thompson, and B Powell Harrison for their collaboration and wonderful research. While many of the properties that Mary knew and lived in on the Eastern Shore have been demolished, the Nanticoke Preservation Alliance is working to preserve her family’s estate, Handsell. For more information please visit their website https://www.restorehandsell.org/
In the museums collecting goals for the future, we intend to acquire more works by female artists including the talented Peale sisters, who were trained by their uncle Charles Willson Peale, who grew up in Annapolis. If you have any interest in donating towards this effort you can contact us at 410-263-4683 extension 12 for the curatorial department.