The table has several distinctive early features including turning profiles, drop leaves with tongue and groove joints, side-hung drawers, and drawbar leaf supports. The front and back stretchers with repeated ball turnings relate to MESDA’s late 17th century Virginia gate-leg table while the reverse inverted baluster turnings on the legs and the medial stretcher relate to a 1700-1720 New York example illustrated in Peter Kenny’s 1994 American Furniture article on Dutch draw-bar tables.
Tongue and groove joints between table leaves and side-hung drawers are features rarely seen after the middle of the 18th century. Though the drawers themselves are later replacements, they ride on the original yellow pine rails. This table is MESDA’s only example of a drop leaf table supported by drawbars. According to Kenny, there are only seventeen American drawbar tables known, all from the Dutch-settled regions of New York and New Jersey. Though the drawbars have been replaced, this table represents only the eighteenth American drawbar table known, and the only one from the South.
A handwritten note from Mrs. Dewitt Chatham Hanes (1899-1990) accompanies the table and notes that it was acquired in the early 20th century by her aunt, Mrs. Dewitt Thurmond Chatham of Charlotte, from members of the Hezekiah Alexander family of Mecklenburg County. Descendants had described it as among the original furnishings of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander House, and the very table on which the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed. While these apocryphal stories may or may not be true, they add to the table’s mystique and embody the Colonial Revival’s capacity for creating a patriotic mythology around historic furniture objects. Mrs. Hanes’s mother, Dewitt Thurmond Chatham, and her aunts, Martha Thurmond Chatham and Margaret Thurmond Kavanaugh, were among the earliest collectors of Southern decorative arts. Residents of Charlotte and Winston-Salem, their efforts to collect and preserve southern material culture influenced others, including Ralph and Dewitt Hanes, through whom this table descended, and Frank Horton, the founder of MESDA.
Frank Horton was the first to suggest that the table pre-dated the Alexander family’s migration to Mecklenburg County in the 1750s and that it must have been made in the Tidewater, presumably in Virginia or North Carolina. A careful examination of the Alexander family’s early history in Cecil County, Maryland, places the table in its proper context and helps to explain its Dutch-related features.
Cecil County, Maryland, was as an early outpost of Dutch colonial culture in the Chesapeake. In 1660, the Dutch West India Company merchant and surveyor, Augustine Herrman (1605-1686), moved from New Amsterdam to Bohemia Manor, a 20,000-acre estate located at the mouth of the Elk River in present-day Cecil County. There, he completed the most important and highly detailed map of 17th-century Maryland and Virginia, which included the location of his property, Bohemia Manor. Herrman and his descendants were among the county’s most prominent early settlers. The family’s combination of Dutch and French Huguenot origins included Hermann’s son-in-law, Matthias Vander Heyden (1658-1729), and his grandson-in-law, Peter Bouchelle (1691-1737). In the 1680s, Herman offered several thousand acres of his estate to a Dutch Protestant sect, the Labadists, and roughly a hundred settlers arrived in Cecil County from New York and the Netherlands bringing with them the Dutch and French surnames of Bayard, de la Montaigne, Sluyter, Van Burkelo, and Van Bibber.
The Scotch-Irish Alexanders lived in and amongst these continental European settlers. Hezekiah Alexander’s maternal grandfather, John McKnitt (d. 1715), lived on the north side of Back Creek, directly opposite Bohemia Manor, and his Cecil County estate account records economic transactions with Henry Valkerburg, Isaac Van Bibber, and Matthias Vander Heyden. Hezekiah’s father, James Alexander lived at the New Munster settlement, located a bit father north at the head of the Elk River, straddling the Mason-Dixon line. A 1722 petition from New Munster residents to the Maryland legislature included two New York-born brothers, Cornelius and George Vansant, living alongside members of the Alexander family. In 1734, James was one of the appraisers of Cornelius Vansant’s estate, which included carpenters and joiners tools.
In the 1750s and 60s, Hezekiah Alexander (1728-1801) joined his brothers Ezekiel and John McKnitt Alexander, his sister Jemima Alexander Sharpe, and numerous cousins in a mass migration down the Great Wagon Road to present-day Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. There, they helped to establish numerous Presbyterian churches and became the political leaders of the region’s Scotch-Irish community. In 1774, Hezekiah Alexander built the two-story stone house that survives today. In May of 1775, as the American Revolution came to a boil, Hezekiah and his family led the effort to adopt the Mecklenburg Resolves, and possibly the controversial Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which was said to have pre-dated Thomas Jefferson’s Philadelphia version by several months. While this event may or may not have happened, the Alexander family table survives as a pre-Revolutionary artifact imbued with the historical significance of this Piedmont North Carolina Scotch-Irish family, and the multiethnic complexities of the Upper Chesapeake region from which they came.
DESCRIPTION: Semi-circular drop leaves; turned legs and H stretchers; drawers. Tongue and groove joint at leaves; top pegged through; legs protrude above frame by about 1/8″ and top notched out to receive leg (see photo); drawers originally side hung, the supports mortised into upper leg.