This week’s subject is Matilda Shawbaker. In the early 1920’s up to her death in 1924, she held the distinction of being the oldest woman in Frederick County, and “oldest-living war widow.” Then for many years following, she would be the eldest female laid to rest in Mount Olivet. Maybe not the most flattering of accomplishments, but her extended age brought along with it plenty of notoriety.
Matilda Shawbaker was a German immigrant, and married the son of an earlier German immigrant to the area. Her father-in-law was, however, an “accidental tourist” to Frederick, not coming here of his own volition. You could say the army brought him here, both literally and figuratively—just another one of several military ties in the storied life of Matilda Shawbaker.
Mrs. Shawbaker’s name jumped out at me, as I had once interviewed her great-grandson back in 1994 for a historical video documentary called Frederick Town. The gentleman was Mr. William E. Main, and he made mention of his “great-grandmother Shawbaker” on more than a few occasions within the course of our on-camera discussion. I had forgotten all about this “history connection” until recently preparing notes for a “Frederick in the 1700’s” course I was hired to teach based on the documentary I had produced 20 + years back.
In this course we covered the genesis of Frederick-Town, the brainchild of Annapolis businessman/politician/land speculator Daniel Dulany. We also explored the area’s subsequent growth and rise in importance thanks to hearty, industrious settlers who melded cultures to create the special place we call home today. Among these early residents were “Old-Line” English and Scots-Irish families from southern Maryland, Dutch colonists from the area of Kingston, New York, and Germans from the southeastern part of William Penn’s colony.
We also had several German immigrants who came directly from the “Vaterland” without original intent to settle in a town (and county) named for the German-born prince, Frederick , a man who would never get his chance to wear the bejeweled crown as monarch of Great Britain. Yes, Frederick is named for Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, son of King George II, and father of King George III. The latter was the same guy our 12 immortal Frederick County justices defied with their November 23rd, 1765 Repudiation of the Stamp Act. Eight years later, George III would be incensed by an infamous “tea party” in Boston, and then a major “declaration” in Philadelphia in 1776. These three events centered on the fundamental problem of taxation without representation.
In my assessment, I can think of a handful of things worse than taxation that our early settlers and immigrants had to deal with during the 1700’s. Old World situations such as political tyranny, oppression of the masses, depressed economies, religious persecution, starvation and enemy attacks served as fodder for folks to leave their ancestral homes and brave crossing the Atlantic. Once here, they had to embrace a plethora of other hardships–but apparently “the juice was worth the squeeze,” a favorite proverb often quipped by a beloved former boss of mine. Germans would continue to come to America in the 1800’s for several of the same reasons they came in the previous century. One of these was Matilda Kiefer (Shawbaker).
Matilda Kiefer (also spelled Keefer) was born in Bavaria on September 7th, 1820. According to a newspaper interview in 1922, she never knew where actually in Bavaria she was actually from. After the death of her mother in Germany, Matilda’s father, Adam Kiefer, brought his children to the United States around 1831 and settled in Frederick County in the Buckeystown District. He likely could have come to live amongst relatives already here in the area, as the Keifer/Keefer family operated a mill at a location in between present day Ballenger Creek Pike, and New Design Road—on the Ballenger Creek itself (east of Tuscarora High School).
Adam Kiefer promptly remarried and young Matilda became well-versed in home endeavors and excelled as a seamstress. From Jacob Engelbrecht’s diary, I found that the Kiefer’s lived in the vicinity of St. Josephs-on-Carrollton Manor Church. On March 10, 1837, Matilda’s stepmother, Adelia Kiefer, died. Three days later, Matilda’s father Adam died. (I found an online record in the Frederick Equity records showing that neighbor George Thomas became guardian for Matilda’s step-sisters (Adelia) Margaret and Sophia).
On Christmas Eve, 1844, Matilda married George Shawbaker, a man 15 years her elder. Shawbaker was a native-born American, but the son of a former German mercenary soldier who did not come to the country with the purpose of staying. To tell the truth, he was even less keen on becoming a member of the military in the first place. He wasn’t alone as there were countless countrymen just like him who were forced to enter into mercenary fighting, an unfortunate dilemma which beset many native German people in Europe at the time of the American Revolution.
A mercenary is a person who takes part in an armed conflict who is not a national, or party to the conflict and is "motivated to take part in the hostilities by desire for private gain.” Mercenaries generally fight for money or other recompense instead of fighting for ideological interests, whether they agree with or are against the existing government. The taxes levied on the 13 colonies in the years preceding the American Revolution were a result of Great Britain desiring compensation for their role in protection (of the colonies) during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). In this supposed “seven-year” affair, the bulk of the leaders were British subjects, however, the majority of front-line soldiers were from Ireland and Scotland—mercenary soldiers.
The British government found that it was easier to borrow money and hire an army from elsewhere than recruit and raise it themselves from their own loyal populous. The situation would be repeated just over a decade later in the American Revolution and brings to mind a well-versed term in Frederick lore and history—“Hessian.” The strange noun turned adjective has adorned our colonial-era Frederick Barracks (located on the grounds of the Maryland School for the Deaf) since the early 1780’s. This was the time when Hessians began populating the prison garrison, as well as Frederick, but certainly not by desire and design at first.
The term "Hessians" refers to the approximately 30,000 German troops hired by the British to help fight during the American Revolution. They were principally drawn from the German state of Hesse-Cassel, although soldiers from other German states also saw action in America. King George II, son Frederick (Prince of Wales) and grandson George III hailed from the House of Hanover, a German royal dynasty that ruled the Electorate and then the Kingdom of Hanover. This powerful bloodline provided the ruling monarchs of Great Britain, Ireland and the United Kingdom until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
The Hessians made up one-quarter of the troops the British sent to America. They usually entered the British service as entire units, and fought under their own German flags, commanded by their usual officers, and wearing their existing uniforms. The largest contingent came from the state of Hesse, which supplied about 40% of the German troops who fought for the British. The large number of troops from Hesse-Kassel led to the use of the term Hessians to refer to all German troops fighting on the British side. The others were rented from other small German states.
Many of these men were pressed into Hessian service. Deserters were summarily executed or beaten by an entire company. Traditionally, the Hessian prisoners of war were put to work on local farms, as was the case with many who would be marched to Frederick for captivity after the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown. They were oftentimes loosely guarded and worked on local farms (owned by German immigrants or the children of German immigrants). German culture and tradition abounded, as did the language which is said to have been more commonly spoken in the streets of Frederick than English into the early 1800’s. There was also an abundance of attractive German farmer’s daughters and German craftsmen’s daughters as well. Couple this with crappy conditions back home and the real possibility of being sold back into military service by royal forces, and Frederick, Maryland looked like a very inviting prospect for a new lease on life.
One of these Hessians was Adam Shawbaker (aka Schabaker, Schawacker, Showacre, Showbaker, Shouhoker, Shawacker). Adam was born around 1749 in Hesse-Kasssel. He fought for the Hessian forces under the British and was captured at the Battle of Yorktown in the fall of 1781. Adam would be brought to Frederick and imprisoned in the barracks here. He was released in April, 1783 by paying 83 Spanish dollars which allowed him to remain in America. Much of the money to do this came from local German families as a means of building the labor force, and/or keeping daughters happy. Adam met Anna Barbara Schnautiegel and married her on February 7th, 1787. Adam settled in Frederick Town, but appears to have moved to the Middletown area as some of his children were baptized at the Lutheran church there. He would have three sons (Adam, Jacob and George) and a daughter (Maria Barbara).
Private George Shawbaker served in the 3rd Regiment, Maryland Militia, under Captain George W. Ent from August 24th to September 30th, 1814. It would be 30 years before he married Matilda. The couple had seven children:
George William Shawbaker (1846 - 1869)
Jacob Michael Shawbaker (1848 - 1924)
Mary Matilda Shawbaker (1850-1853)
Margaret Elizabeth (Shawbaker) Meyer (1853 - 1928)
Ann Matilda ("Alice") Shawbaker (1859-1918)
The family resided for some time in the same place that George’s father called home when he was brought to Frederick in the fall of 1781—the Hessian Barracks. This was sometime in the 1850s through 1860s when the barracks grounds also served home to the Frederick County Cattle Show and Agricultural Exhibition, known today as the Great Frederick Fair. The county-wide livestock gala and craft fair was the brainchild of the Farmers Club, soon to change its name to the Frederick County Agricultural Society. The first edition of this annual event commenced in October of 1853.
The Shawbakers may likely have been caretakers of the grounds during this period. In the 1860 census, George is listed as a plasterer, and it is a good bet that he performed restorations on the barracks originally built to quarter enemy soldiers—such as his own father nearly 75 years earlier. Matilda stuck to her household duties and child rearing, all the while making time for her favorite pastime of knitting, needlework and crocheting.
On one occasion, she was approached by the Agricultural Exhibition’s Board of Managers to make a large US flag to fly above the barracks during the next year’s event. She obliged and was paid in the form of getting to keep the surplus material. With this, she made her own flag. Matilda’s great-grandson recounted a story of this flag to me back in 1994. He said that Matilda and her family prized the flag, especially in the years immediately after it was made. The Agricultural Exhibition was put on hold from 1862-1867 due to the American Civil War. The Shawbakers were ardent Unionists and Matilda and George’s son George W, followed in his father’s steps by fighting to preserve the Union. He was only 17, when he joined Company E of the 7th Maryland Regiment.
Matilda’s flag had to be hidden on more than one occasion as large contingents of the Confederate Army overtook Frederick in September of 1862 (battles of South Mountain and Antietam), and again in July 1864 (Battle of Monocacy). Matilda secured her flag in the ashes of her “ten plate” stove during one of these events. Another time, she buried the standard in her garden plot where she marveled as soldiers practically walked over top of it.
Son George W. Shawbaker made it through the war, although he was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864. Complications from these injuries led to an early death in 1869, at the age of 22.
Matilda’s brother Nicholas Kiefer also fought for the Union, but died while in captivity at Libby Prison in Richmond. Another brother, George Kiefer, actually fought for the Confederacy.
The flag Matilda had made would be handed down in the family to future generations. Its special importance was renewed in 1917 when the United States went to war against Matilda’s native country of Germany. She would have five grandsons participating in this heartbreaking “world war.”
Matilda passed on March 7th, 1924, having reached the age of 103 years and 6 months. She was buried next to her husband and her first four children in the family lot at Mount Olivet (Area L/Lot 152).
Many Fredericktonians claim descendancy from this unique wave of German immigrants that chose to stay in Frederick after their imprisonment during the American Revolution. It’s a great story, and one that brought Independence and freedom to more than just American colonists. It’s also amazing trace a family like George and Matilda Shawbaker’s that were so eager to fight in future conflicts to keep and preserve that independence for the “land of the free.” All the while, these individuals had the knowledge that their ancestor, Adam Schabacker, was forced to fight in a war that offered him nothing more than a paycheck.
Mr. William E. Main continued the legacy through distinguished service in World War II, followed by a career with the Army. He enlisted in Company "A," 115th Infantry, in November 1940 and in April 1942 entered the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. After being commissioned in July 1942, he served in the 309th Infantry, 78th Division, at Camp Butner, North Carolina, until ordered overseas in 1943, where he served in the China-Burma-India Theater, on the staff of Gen. Joseph Stillwell, and as a Liaison Officer to the Chinese Army until the end of World War II. He participated in the release and repatriation of American, British and Dutch P.O.W.s from the Japanese Prison Camp at Mukden Manchuria.
Mr. Main was employed by the Department of the Army as a Nuclear Weapons Effects Analyst and Strategic Planner from 1950 until his retirement in 1974. He served from 1951 until 1965 with the 163rd Military Police Battalion of the District of Columbia National Guard, as a Company Commander, Battalion Operations Officer and Battalion Executive Officer. William E. Main also donated Matilda’s flag to the City of Frederick, where it is displayed on the second floor of City Hall.
I want to conclude with an interesting finding. The laws of Germany today say that it is an offense "to recruit" German citizens "for military duty in a military or military-like facility in support of a foreign power.” Furthermore, a German who enlists in an armed force of a state that he or she is not a citizen, risks the loss of his or her citizenship.
George Washington gave this message to his Continental Army soldiers before the first major engagement of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Long Island:
“Remember, officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen … Remember how your Courage and Spirit have been despised, and traduced by your cruel invaders, though they have found by dear experience at Boston, Charlestown and other places, what a few brave men contending in their own land, and in best of causes can do, against base hirelings and mercenaries.”