A family’s American journey

Melva Shipley traces family back 10 generations

Created date

May 4th, 2020
DeWitte and Melva Shipley share treasured family artifacts she uncovered researching the Shipley’s American story. Celebrating Black History Month, staff at Maris Grove helped the Shipleys turn an open apartment into a temporary museum.

DeWitte and Melva Shipley share treasured family artifacts she uncovered researching the Shipley’s American story. Celebrating Black History Month, staff at Maris Grove helped the Shipleys turn an open apartment into a temporary museum.

Maris Grove resident Melva Shipley is a dedicated and voracious student of history. The amateur genealogist has traced husband DeWitte’s family for 10 generations, back to 1692. That was the year his seventh great-grandmother, Lucie, was purchased by the Carroll family from another plantation owner.

While little is known about Lucie, information about the Carrolls is abundant. They emigrated from Ireland to Maryland in 1660 and became one of the richest families in colonial America. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, grandson of the first Charles Carroll, signed the Declaration of Independence. A devout Catholic, he could not practice law, hold public office, or vote, yet his wealth helped to fund the Revolutionary War. Because of his vociferous support of the break from Britain, he was appointed to Maryland’s delegations to the Annapolis Convention and the Continental Congress.  

Like many of the Founding Fathers, Carroll’s writings indicate that he favored the gradual abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, he was a slave owner who at one time had more than 1,000 enslaved people working on his plantations. Many of those people shared the surname “Shipley” and gave Melva a starting place for her exploration of the family’s fascinating history. 

Piecing it together

DeWitte had written notes, a copy of his father’s family tree going back six generations, and a video of the family “griot,” a storyteller who keeps alive family history through oral tradition and song. 

“She said, ‘Charles Carroll of Carrollton is your relative. That’s what I’ve been taught and what I believe,’” recalls Melva. “I started researching based on that testimony and the other documents DeWitte had.”

Because the Carrolls had such vast assets, they kept detailed records, all of which are stored at the Maryland state archives in Annapolis and the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. “I found Lucie’s ‘indenture,’ or purchase papers, from 1707. I have a copy of the original and a modern transliteration, so everyone can understand what the papers reveal,” Melva says. 

She discovered a slave list from Carroll’s plantation dated 1832, the year he died, that named several Shipleys. Melva combed through records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the agency established by Congress in 1865 to help four million freed blacks and other refugees after the Civil War. There, she found a reference to Moses Shipley, who was connected to DeWitte’s father’s grandfather. 

Digging deeper, she uncovered more than 100 slave lists, which enabled her to connect DeWitte’s family to all the Carroll properties: Homewood House, now the Johns Hopkins University campus; Carrollton Manor in Frederick County, Md., long-since sold in parcels, although the manor house still stands; Brooklandwood, home to St. Paul’s School for Boys in Baltimore County; and Doughoregan Manor in Howard County, the family seat where Charles Carroll lived and is buried. 

Through painstaking research, Melva also discovered that three of DeWitte’s uncles fought for the Union in the Civil war. She has copies of their enlistment papers, pay stubs, and testimony about experiences with canon fire. She learned how family groups from different plantations earned their freedom and what happened to them after the war.

“DeWitte’s second great-grandfather and his wife were emancipated by President Lincoln, and I have those papers. They married on the plantation, and again in the Catholic church in Baltimore after they were freed; I have that marriage certificate,” she says. “Carroll made a point of instructing his slaves in Catholicism, and most of them remained in the faith. Even the last generation of slaves is buried in New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore.” 

A lasting legacy

Melva views this project as much more than one family’s personal saga. “It’s a universal story,” she says. “The message is, ‘in spite of,’ you’re alive, and you can make it through the struggles. 

“My teacher used to say, ‘if there ain’t no way, make a way.’ The Shipleys survived a most horrible chapter in American history and accomplished so much. That, to me, is what this research is all about.” 

The Shipleys have reached out to Carroll’s descendants, but they have declined to meet. “We hoped to replicate what Sally Hemings’ family did with Thomas Jefferson’s descendants, after DNA tests proved their shared lineage,” says Melva. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s their choice. We believe that we understand the truth about what happened, because the documents prove it.”

Melva’s current focus is on Folly Quarter, a parcel of Doughoregan Manor given to Carroll’s granddaughter Emily Caton McTavish when she married. Over the years the property changed hands multiple times, and was sold to the Franciscan Friars in 1928. They maintain a shrine to St. Anthony of Padua on the grounds. Melva would like to turn it into a museum.

“The friars are amenable to the idea,” she says, “and I hope that we can secure funding to make it happen. This could be an important addition to our understanding of that period of American history, from all points of view,” she says. “I’d like to help tell that story.”

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