Every town’s name has to come from somewhere. Plenty of places borrow their epithets from their founders, others from local landmarks. And some towns, well, some towns are a mystery. Like Frederick, Maryland.
Experts dispute the origins of the appellation. It seems there were a lot of noteworthy Fredericks populating the era’s history books when the town was founded unofficially in 1745 (and officially in 1748). There’s Frederick “The Great” of Prussia, an honored king who took the throne in 1740 and is remembered fondly for his support of the arts and championing battles against all odds. There’s also Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, another patron of the arts who was heir apparent to the British throne at the time of Frederick’s founding. And then there’s Frederick Calvert, 6th Baron of Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, and general ne’er-do-well. It’s this final figure of history to whom most historians believe the town owes its name.
At just twenty years old, the young aristocrat (who was in turn named for his godfather, Frederick Prince of Wales, so that reference does at least have merit) inherited the title Baron of Baltimore and proprietary governorship of the Province of Maryland from his father.
At the time, America was still decades from independence, and Maryland operated under essentially feudal control. The Baron of Baltimore collected taxes and rent from the residents of the state, so when Calvert inherited the title, he also inherited a powerful position in the colonies and a large sum of money. Ten thousand pounds a month, in fact, which equates by modern figures to nearly two million dollars. Quite the income for a young man of twenty.
The previous Barons of Baltimore submitted to at least some definitions of leadership; all of them visited the province from which they claimed such a hearty income and influenced politics of the state. Frederick, on the other hand, never set foot in Maryland. When political unrest grumbled across the distant ocean, Frederick Calvert turned a blind eye, instead focusing his attentions on his passion—namely, leisure.
The youthful baron spent his days and money traveling continental Europe, occasionally writing (which, when published, was ill-received), gambling, and canoodling with the locals. He used his “estate” of Maryland as his personal bank account, spending money frivolously on such projects as tearing down an entire wing of his grand estate to rebuild it in the style of a Turkish harem.
When Calvert died in middle age, Marylanders breathed a sigh of relief. There was some dispute among his family regarding his choice of an heir—his oldest illegitimate child (he had several children but none by his wife), Henry Harford, was just thirteen—but by the time Harford was old enough to attain his title, the Americas were in the thick of their war for independence.
Given the general discontent with Calvert’s government, it may seem strange that the city was named for him, but it does have traction. For one, the city was named and founded some six or nine years before he ascended to his political role in 1751, and he had not yet ruined his reputation. Out of respect for the 5th Baron of Baltimore, it’s not unlikely that his subjects would name a new town in his son’s (and their future leader’s) honor.
But hindsight is 20-20, and perhaps the citizens of Frederick regretted titling their town for the questionable baron. And perhaps that’s why the suggestions of other namesakes exist at all.
Regardless of Frederick’s appellational origins, it’s certain that the state still bears the mark of the family. The flag of Maryland is the only flag in the nation that derives its colors and designs from the coat of arms of a British family, the Calverts.
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