The Beall-Dawson House is an historic house museum, but with a bit of a twist. The House is furnished to tell the story of the many people – old and young, enslaved and free – who lived and worked there for over 150 years; but we are the County Historical Society, after all, and some of the artifacts on display tell a broader story.
Take, for example, this fine couple, who can be seen in the Dining Room, above. Major A. Price* and his wife Mary Ann Harding Price are not related to the House residents** in any appreciable way, but (unlike some of our furnishings) they are not merely period-appropriate decorations. Mary Ann’s story helps us talk a little bit about Montgomery County in the early 19th century.
Mary Ann Harding (1805-1825) was born in Montgomery County, Maryland, daughter of Elias and Ellen Harding. (Her parents were distant cousins; both were descended from John Harding, who died in Rockville in 1753.) In 1810, they and several other branches of the Harding family moved to Logan County, Kentucky. Mary Ann grew up in Russellville, and married a neighboring gentleman named Major A. Price in September 1823; she died two years later. It’s thought she died in childbirth, or perhaps due to later complications; in the Hardin-Harding family cemetery in Kentucky, there’s a grave near Mary Ann’s stone inscribed “Mary Ann Price, stillborn dau. of Major & Mary A. Price, Aug. 27, 1824.”
These two portraits were donated to the Montgomery County Historical Society in 1985 by Mary Hardin Bernard, Mary Ann’s great-great-niece. (Mary Ann’s sister Margery Harding married a man named Thompson Hardin, hence the missing “g”.) The Hardin family was certain that the young woman was Mary Ann Harding Price; it is believed, though not really proven, that the gentleman was her husband. Your man Major is something of a conundrum at present; he may or may not have: been born in Virginia in 1800, had three wives, first married Mary Ann’s step-sister . . . several afternoons spent playing “Let’s Find Major’s Wives!” only added to the confusing history, and if I launch into that now this post will devolve into a series of “but wait, then there’s this record. . .” statements, which isn’t really the point. Suffice it to say that so far as we know, the dapper young man giving our Dining Room windows the side-eye is likely the Major A. Price noted as Mary Ann’s “consort” on her gravestone. (Marriage records also confirm Major’s name.)
Anyway, if these portraits were painted in Kentucky, why are they hanging in the Beall-Dawson House in Rockville, Maryland? At the time of their donation, MCHS touted it as a matter of the portraits “coming home,” though whether that’s how the donor herself would have phrased it, I’m not sure. We were very excited about this donation, as the portraits were unique (they’re still our earliest examples), in poor condition (thus offering us a chance to do some fundraising outreach, which was highly successful as you can tell from their current attractive state), and mysterious. Who was Mary Ann? Who’s the guy? Why did they have their portraits painted – and by whom?
In the early decades of the 19th century, many Maryland farmers left the state to find a more prosperous life. Both wheat and tobacco prices dropped significantly in the late 1810s, and over-farming had depleted our local farmland; to put it briefly, times were tough. (For a more thorough discussion of this economic depression, and how we got out of it, check out Chapter 7 of MacMaster and Hiebert’s A Grateful Remembrance, 1976.) The Harding family’s decision to move west in 1810 predated the major wave of emigration in the 1820s. Their reasons may have been related to economic hardship, to general restlessness, or even to the fact that Ellen Harding’s father was forced to leave the state (by his son, no less). A 1937 article by Mary Hardin Bernard says only that the various Harding families “traveled the wilderness road together, moving slowly westward, searching for the most beautiful and most fertile part of Kentucky in which to build their homes. . . bringing with them their personal belongings, their slaves, and their high ideals of Christian living.” And yes, it’s important to remember that Elias Harding was a slave owner; the 1810 Montgomery County census tells us that Mr. Harding’s property included 12 enslaved people, who most likely also made the trip to Kentucky. The 1820 census for Logan County shows 15 enslaved people under Mr. Harding’s name. (The censuses do not name the enslaved individuals.) The experience of these people is an entirely different story, one which Mary Ann’s portrait doesn’t quite tell.
Whatever the circumstances of their life in Maryland, the Harding family flourished in Kentucky. The portraits show Mary Ann and Major in fashionable, expensive attire and elaborately styled hair. (Please note that the top level of Mary Ann’s hairdo is in fact a large, rectangular tortoiseshell comb; see below.) Presuming the gentleman is Major, these portraits were likely painted to celebrate their marriage or engagement, around 1823 or 1824. Clearly, the Hardings and/or the Prices could afford a certain level of fashion, and wanted that status recorded in oils.
An aside: MCHS catalog records include the idea that the sitters’ outfits and hair styles were either imaginary or aspirational – that is, the painter gave them fashionable clothing they didn’t actually own – but that is up for debate. Since our research in the 1980s, new theories about itinerant portraiture and regionalism have been developed; Mary Ann and Major will benefit from a new round of research. And after all, who doesn’t dress their best to have their portrait taken, whether painted or photographic? (Disclaimer: I am not an art historian.)
Soon after the portraits arrived, Historical Society staff and volunteers began searching for possible artists. The paintings are unsigned, and the Hardin family had little information for us other than a tradition that they were painted by an itinerant painter who boarded with Elias Harding for a short time. Based on several criteria – including dates, location, and artistic style – my predecessors at MCHS concluded that Alexander Bradford (1791-1827) was our man. Please take that with a grain or two of salt, as it is a possible, but far from an absolute, attribution. Again, I feel that our portraits would benefit from another close look; perhaps some day soon I can post a follow-up, with new information.
Continuing to emphasize that I am not an art historian, I need to spend a few sentences talking about how great these portraits are. Though as art the paintings may lack depth, as likenesses they are very expressive. Mary Ann is looking right at you, with perhaps a tinge of skepticism in her eyes (or maybe she’s just trying to balance her hairdo); Major’s attention seems to be drawn away, like he’s too cool to be bothered with the whole process. . . . Which is kind of sad, for an engagement or wedding portrait pair; these paired portraits were meant to be hung side by side, as we have them, and he’s looking away from Mary Ann. Was he a dreamy*** guy, or simply bored? Maybe that’s why Mary Ann looks just a little dubious.
Back to less speculative history. Much as I love these portraits (after all, Mary Ann is the blog avatar), there’s a different piece of family memorabilia that better speaks to the consequences of the Harding family’s move, and the Montgomery County connections that were maintained and severed. In an 1820 letter to his mother Mary Harding Sprigg, who was still living in Montgomery County near Barnesville, Elias Harding wrote news of his children, including one Mrs. Sprigg had never met: Elias and his second wife Lucy “have a lovely little daughter Margaret Sheppard [Harding],” while “Mary Ann and Margery is [sic] women grown.” Poignantly, Elias clearly does not expect to see his mother again. Although he knows he’s lucky to have found “one of the best of women” for his second wife, and considers Kentucky to be “the land of plenty,” he goes on to lament, “to see you once more this side of eternity would be one of the greatest gratifications . . . I often think of you and wish you was [sic] with us.” To us today, moving from Maryland to Kentucky might not seem like a big deal; two hundred years ago, it was a major separation, and not one that would be undertaken lightly.
Special thanks are due to photographer Tom Meeks, who so kindly took the fabulous photos of Mary Ann and Major.
* Yes, his first name was Major.
** In one of those “Montgomery County was a very small place in its way” coincidences, Mary Ann’s father, Elias Harding, was the second cousin of Jane Robb Beall’s sister Catherine’s husband Henry Harding. (Jane Robb Beall was the wife of Upton Beall, first owner of the Beall-Dawson House.) Got that?
*** I mean that as “daydreamer,” but take it the other way if ruffled cravats are your thing.