History of Hagerstown

Jonathan Hager was the first American of German birth to occupy a seat in the Maryland Colonial Legislature; he was in fact the first naturalized citizen in that legislative body. As an American patriot, Hager also took a leading role in the events leading up to America’s independence. Earlier he had laid out the Maryland town that carries his name, although he called it Elisabeth-Stadt after his wife.

A street named Jonathan still bears witness to the founder of Hagerstown, the seat of Washington County. Jonathan Hager’s home in Hagerstown, about 75 miles northwest of Washington, D. C., has been preserved as an historical shrine.

In the adjacent Hager Museum, the visitor may see memorabilia associated with the German-American pioneer as well as German books, glass and other artifacts.

In 1739, the 25-year-old German immigrant Jonathan Hager built his house on the American frontier on a 200-acre tract of land he called “Hager’s Fancy.” The Hager House brochure by the Washington County Historical Society describes it as follows:

Situated in Hagerstown’s City Park, the Hager House is built of uncut fieldstone carefully fitted by the young German immigrant who had traveled to the wilderness of Western Maryland in search of adventure and possible fortune. Jonathan Hager had arrived on the shores of the new colonies in 1736, debarking at the Port of Philadelphia. Eventually, he chose to make his home in Maryland, where Charles Calvert, proprietor of the colony, was offering cheap land to those willing to settle in the western frontier…. In 1740 Hager married a German neighbor, Elisabeth Kershner, and presented her with the new house… Structurally impregnable, with protected water supply, Hager’s home would have served as a frontier fort in case of Indian attack.

The 3-1/2-story Hager house is constructed of solid stone walls nearly 2 feet thick. It is built in the German style around a single chimney in the middle of the house that radiated heat throughout the building. According to the Historical Society, “the large central chimney added warmth to the stone structure, while a fill of rye straw and mud between floors and partitions served as insulation against the cruel winters”.

Two natural springs in the cellar assured a dependable, indoor supply of fresh water. Since the temperature of the springs is always 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they provided a convenient place to chill and preserve food. The basement area receives sunlight through splayed windows and is accessible from ground level through a Dutch door placed beneath the front porch. This door was wide enough to bring in cattle for slaughter. A room in this area with a large hearth served as the principal kitchen. The water emerging from the twin springs near the kitchen and flowing via a stone channel out of the house provided natural air-conditioning in the summer.

Hager was a prominent fur trader, and his house served as an Indian trading post. The hides remind the visitor that mountain buffaloes roamed Maryland in Hager’s days. The visitor is also shown samples of wampum-Indian money that Jonathan exchanged with the natives for furs. Hager and his family also farmed the land, and it appears that they relied on themselves alone, because there is no evidence that they had slaves. Hager also ran a sawmill on nearby Antietam Creek. His chief source of income, however, was from his real estate business; he would own more than 10,000 acres of land.

Jonathan Hager was born in 1714 in Germany, but his place of birth has not yet been determined. A letter on exhibit at the Hager Museum is addressed to him from Berleburg (now Bad Berleburg) in the Rothaargebirge, northeast of Siegen. It was written in 1773, 37 years after Hager’s emigration; a former fellow apprentice tells him the news from home, including the death of their erstwhile master. There is a good possibility that Hager was born in or near Berleburg.

We do know from her baptismal certificate that Jonathan’s wife, Elisabeth Kirschner – as her name was spelled in German – was born in Hessen, specifically in Langenselbold, just outside Hanau (near Frankfurt-am- Main).

On 1 September 1736, at the age of 22 Jonathan Hager arrived in Philadelphia on board the Harle. Soon after, he moved to western Maryland, which was then frontier territory with readily available land. The Hager House brochure describes him as follows:

Evincing leadership from the moment of his arrival in Western Maryland, Hager quickly became a leading citizen. He was involved in many activities; farmer, cattleman, even a gunsmith. Hager was a volunteer Captain of Scouts during the French and Indian War. In 1762 he founded Hagerstown, and in 1771 and 1773 he was elected to the General Assembly at Annapolis….

“Captain Hager led a company of 40 frontiersmen in the French and Indian War from 1756 to 1758. “When in 1762 George Washington presented his plan for making the Potomac navigable, Jonathan Hager and Thomas Cresap were elected as the Maryland representatives on the board of directors for the project,” wrote Dieter Cunz. In the same year, he staked out the town that would become the principal population center of Hagerstown Valley , which is a continuation of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. “Ten years after the city was laid out on paper, more than a hundred dwellings had been erected and an independent and vigorous community life had begun to develop,” declared Cunz.

When Hager was first elected a Delegate to the General Assembly of the Province of Maryland, his fellow Delegates discovered that British law prohibited his assuming his post, since he was neither British nor American born and had been naturalized in 1747. The Delegates promptly voted to change the law so that he could assume his seat. The new law gave full political rights to Jonathan Hager and with him to all “foreign Protestants who have already settled in this province.” Hager was reelected in 1773.

In the period leading up to the American Revolution, Hager served on various patriotic committees championing U.S. independence. On 2 July 1774, 800 men assembled in Hagerstown and elected him a member of the Non-Importation Association that organized a boycott of British goods, especially tea, opened subscriptions for the relief of the Port of Boston and hung and burned British Prime Minister Lord North in effigy. On 18 November 1774, Hager was named a member of the Committee of Correspondence and part of a group that represented the county in carrying out the resolutions of the Continental Congress. On 24 January 1775, Hager was elected to the Committee of Safety and Observation whose task it was to carry out the reserves of the Continental Congress and the Maryland Provincial Convention. Hager’s specific task was to collect money in Salisbury Hundred for the purchase of arms and ammunition.

Hager, who had begun to play an important role in the struggle for U.S. independence, died unfortunately just before the outbreak of the American Revolution. His life ended tragically on 6 November 1775 at the age of 61; he was crushed to death by a wooden roof beam while supervising the construction of the First German (now Zion) Reformed Church. He is believed to have donated the land for this church, and the timber for the building was cut at his sawmill. Hager is buried in the graveyard behind this house of worship at North Potomac and Church Streets where a stone obelisk has been erected in his memory. Except for his untimely death, he would no doubt have played a prominent role in the struggle for American independence.

Hager’s wife Elisabeth had proceeded him in death by nearly 10 years, having died in 1765, after 25 years of marriage. “We lived happily together until the 16th of April, 1765,” he wrote in his Bible in German, “then it pleased the Lord to call her, after severe suffering, out of this world. ” His love for her is evident from the fact that he named in her honor the town that he had founded in 1762 and that he never remarried after her death. Elisabeth Kirschner Hager is buried alongside her husband.

Their only son Jonathan Hager, Jr., who was born in 1755, was able to continue his father’s patriotic tradition and participate in the American Revolutionary War. Hager’s only daughter, Rosanna (1752 – 1810), married General Daniel Heister, Jr. (1747-1804).

Jonathan Hager, Jr. was captured, along with General John Sullivan, and transported to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here he was imprisoned in a dungeon under the ramparts of the fort.

General Heister, who was also of German descent, took part in the American Revolution and was elected three times to the U.S. Congress beginning in 1798. He died in Washington, D. C., in 1804 and is buried alongside his wife in the same cemetery as his father-in-law.