City of Opportunity?

Baltimore's rapid growth and prosperity depended on many types of work, not only from businessmen like the Cohens, but also from laborers with diverse backgrounds. Many workers profited from new opportunities. Opportunists profited from the work of others.

Slaves, Forced Labor

At private homes such as Hampton Mansion, slaves performed a variety of duties and often endured terrible punishments. Nancy Davis (1833-1908) was born into slavery and worked as a nursemaid to Eliza Ridgely, the daughter of Hampton’s owners Charles and Margaretta Howard Ridgely. Freed in 1858, Davis later returned as a paid employee and is the only African American buried in the family cemetery.

(left) In the 1820s, with over 300 slaves, Hampton Mansion was one of Maryland's largest slaveholding estates.  Courtesy of Marcus Dilano Photography.

(right) Eliza Ridgely with house slave Nancy Davis, who after being freed returned and worked as a paid laborer until her death. Courtesy National Park Service.

Freed Blacks and other paid Employees


Baltimore housed a vibrant and growing free black community in the early 19th century. They and other free workers were an essential part of both the rural and urban work force.

Free black oyster gatherers from Maryland. Courtesy Alice Austen Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.

Indentured Servants


Many European immigrants were indentured servants—people who worked for a set period of time without pay in exchange for passage to the U.S. Henry Thompson, owner of Clifton Mansion and an immigrant himself, paid 30 guineas (about $127) for John Conrad and Regina Berthaun from Germany on March 15, 1805. In exchange, the Berthauns were to work for Thompson for three years and three months. '

In his journal, Thompson noted that “they both have good countenance and seem well disposed, but cannot speak English.” Freed blacks and other paid employees Baltimore housed a vibrant and growing free black community in the early 19th century. They and other free workers were an essential part of both the rural and urban work force.

Indentured Servant Contract Courtesy of Mark Still, Monrovia Historical Museum


Maryland’s thriving industries offered jobs for many European immigrants. Jewish immigrants, mostly from central Europe, tended to work at familiar trades and often became tailors and peddlers. Around 1812, John Maximillian Dyer brought his family from Mainz, Germany, and opened one of Baltimore’s largest meat packing firms. Dyer was an observant Jew and joined the first minyan (quorum of ten Jewish male adults required for organized prayer). This minyan became Nidchei Israel, later known as Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Dyer was the congregation’s first president. He also headed the butchers’ association which ultimately propelled him into city politics.

In an 1822 City Directory, Dyer’s occupation is listed as a victualler, a supplier of food, beverages and other provisions for sea vessels.

Baltimore from Federal Hill. Painted & engraved by W.J. Bennett, c. 1831. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen was created by:

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Special thanks to: 

The David Berg Foundation; The David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation; Maryland Heritage Area Authority; Homer and Martha Gudelsky Foundation; The Richard and Rosalee C. Davison Foundation; Morris Schapiro + Family Foundation, Barbara P. Katz; The Eliasberg Family Foundation; Members of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Minotaur Mazes.