Booth on the shores of Nanjemoy Creek

“As I was in the act of shoving the boat off Booth exclaimed, “Wait a minute, old fellow.” He then offered me some money. I took eighteen dollars, the price of the boat I knew I would never see again. He wanted me to take more, but I said no, what I had done was not for money. In a voice choked with emotion he said, “God bless you, my dear friend, for all you have done for me. Good-bye, old fellow.” I pushed the boat off and it glided out of sight into the darkness. I stood on the shore and listened till the sound of the oars died away in the distance and then climbed the hill and took my way home.”

These are the words written by Thomas A. Jones as he recounted the night he put John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold onto the Potomac River. For days, Jones had tended to the fugitives as they remained hidden from Union troops in a pine thicket. Finally, on the night of April 20th, 1865, Jones brought them to a boat on the bank of the Potomac and directed them to the Virginian shore. However, Booth and Herold did not greet the morning sun of April 21st on Virginian land. Rather, they found themselves making landfall in Maryland, further away from their intended destination than before.

When it comes to the escape route of John Wilkes Booth, millions of people visit Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. every year. Ten thousand visit the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, MD. Thousands visit the Dr. Mudd House, and a few hundred participate in the John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Bus Tours put on by the Surratt House. The B.E.R.T. (Booth escape route tour)provides you with the most bang for your buck, but still has the limitations of fitting the entire route (and return trip) into a 12 hour tour. Due to this, some of the minor places in the escape are left unseen. The place where John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold found themselves on the morning of April 21s and where they stayed until dusk of April 22nd, is one of these unseen places. Today, I wanted to rectify this and see if I could at least get close to this forgotten stop during the escape.

After Booth and Herold left Thomas Jones and ventured into the Potomac, something occurred to steer the men off course. Thomas Jones attributed the flood tide and unfriendly currents as to the reason why Booth and Herold did not keep to their course. Booth dramatically wrote in his diary, “After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair.” Booth may be exaggerating the reason for their return to Maryland, but something, manmade or otherwise, kept the pair from making it to Mrs. Quesenberry’s. Instead, Booth and Herold arrived northwest from their departure point and landed in Nanjemoy Creek. Crossing the Potomac map The exact point the two men made landfall in Nanjemoy Creek is unknown. On the map above you will see two creeks on the eastern side of Nanjemoy Creek. They are Burgess Creek (with Gumtree Cove at its mouth) to the north and King’s Creek to the south. Booth and Herold rowed into one of these creeks and hid their boat among the marshy shores. I’m of the opinion that the pair entered King’s Creek,but, again, there is no documentation one way or the other. Eastern side of Nanjemoy Creek According to reporter George Alfred Townsend (GATH) in 1884, it was after beaching the boat that, Booth and Herold, “discovered a house nearby, to which Herold made his way, the latter saw something familiar about the place, he knowing all that country well.” The pair had inadvertently reached the farm of Peregrine Davis, a verbose character in Charles County who was described by General Hooker as, “one of the noisiest” rebels in the area. The land was called Indiantown Farm, and it was tended by Davis’ son-in-law, John J. Hughes, who lived on the property with his family. Booth and Herold would spend about 36 hours on Indiantown property.

The exact details of this 36 hour layover are very much lacking. As author William Tidwell wrote, after the death of Booth, “It became common knowledge in Charles County, Maryland that Booth had visited Indiantown, occupied by Peregrine Davis’ son-in-law, John J. Hughes. Unfortunately there is no contemporary documentation of the visit.” What we know about Booth and Herold and their inadvertent return to the Maryland is largely based on three sources: David Herold’s statement after his arrest, GATH’s 1884 account of Booth crossing the Potomac, and family lore from the Hughes family.

David Herold’s Account:

Herold 1 After Davy Herold was arrested at the Garrett Farm, he gave a lengthy statement while imprisoned. Davy is evasive and cunning in what he tells the investigators, mixing a tale of truth and lies. Nevertheless, Davy does provide period documentation that he and Booth did not cross the river the first time and made land at Nanjemoy:

“…We started to cross the Potomac. It was very foggy. We got along the Maryland shore to Nanjemoy Creek, and went to a man’s house and wanted to buy some bread. He said he hadn’t baked, and would not bake any. He said he had nothing to drink either. I said we were wet and would like to have something to drink. I had a bottle, and asked if he would sell me some whiskey. He said he would not do it. Booth gave the man’s little boy a quarter of a dollar for filling the bottle with milk…”

Taking Davy Herold at his word would imply that John Hughes provided no aid to the fugitives at all. According to Davy, Hughes refused to give them, literally, bread and water. However, we cannot take David Herold at his word. This is the same man who claimed not to have known about the assassination until later and was then forcibly coerced by Booth to accompany him. While not trustworthy, Davy does provide evidence that there was some interaction between Hughes and the fugitives.

GATH’s article:

How Wilkes Booth Crossed the Potomac In April 1884, Century Magazine ran George Alfred Townsend’s article, “How Wilkes Booth Crossed the Potomac“. The article was mostly about Thomas Jones and the assistance he gave Booth and Herold in the pines and then, sending them across. GATH interviewed Jones and got the story from him. GATH was also a successful reporter who had a long history reporting on the assassination. In addition to the piece I quote before, GATH wrote the following regarding Booth and Herold on the Nanjemoy Creek shores:

“It was the residence of Col. John J. Hughes, near Nanjemoy Stores, in Maryland, directly west of Pope’s Creek, about eight or nine miles. The Potomac is here so wide, and has so many broad inlets, that in the darkness the Virginia shore and the Maryland shore seem the same. Herold went up to the house and asked for food, and said that Booth was in the marsh nearby, where they had pulled up the boat out of observation. The good man of the house was much disturbed, but gave Herold food…The keeper of the house at Nanjemoy became frightened after they left, and rode into Port Tobacco and told his lawyer of the circumstance, who took him at once before a Federal officer.”

In GATH’s account, Hughes provided food to the pair. GATH also mentions that John J. Hughes later went to Port Tobacco to report the men. While there is no documentation to support that Hughes talked to officials about the men at his house, there was a letter that the provost marshal of Washington received from a man named William R. Wilmer of Port Tobacco. In the letter, Mr. Wilmer recalled that on Friday, April 21st, he saw two men in Nanjemoy Creek, one of whom answered to the description of John Wilkes Booth. By the time the letter got to the provost marshal, Booth had already been cornered and killed, so the matter was not investigated further. However, it is possible that this report from Mr. Wilmer is the one that GATH is recalling. John J. Hughes had studied law and passed the bar himself, so it unlikely that he would have needed to consult a lawyer as GATH claims.

3. Family Lore of the Hughes family:

John J. Hughes

John J. Hughes

In 1975, assassination researcher James O. Hall interviewed one of John J. Hughes’ grandsons. According to the family story given to him, Booth and Herold did not make their presence known to the family members in the house, but somehow made contact with John J. Hughes. Hughes, uncomfortable with having the men stay at his house, allowed the pair to stay in a nearby slave cabin near the water’s edge. Hughes proceeded to take food out to the pair without the rest of the family knowing it.

By putting these different pieces together, it is possible to make a probable accounting of Booth and Herold’s time at Indiantown farm. After coming ashore and pulling up their boat, Booth had Herold make his way towards the nearest house, while the former stayed at the boat with his broken leg. Herold recognized the farm from his hunting days and somehow, secretively or otherwise, made contact with John J. Hughes. Hughes did not want the men at his house but allowed them to stay nearby in the slave quarters. During the course of the two days and one night Booth and Herold stayed there, Hughes brought the pair food and water. The fugitives may have had interactions with Hughes’ children or former slaves, as presented in Davy’s statement, or they were completely hidden from the family. After dusk on April 22nd, Booth and Herold pushed off from the Nanjemoy Creek shores, leaving John J. Hughes and Indiantown Farm behind.

With this history in my head today, I made my way down the peninsula created by Nanjemoy Creek and the Potomac River. From looking at a map, I noticed that “Blossom Point Rd.” would take me all the way down the peninsula. I planned to drive to the end of the road, hop out of my car, and take a few pictures of the shore where the Potomac meets Nanjemoy Creek. It wouldn’t be exactly where Booth and Herold landed, but it would be as close to the water as I could get. On my way back north, I planned on taking a picture of the sign for Indiantown Farms, which, like it was in 1865, is privately owned. The entrance to the farm is about a mile and a half from the water, so I knew I wouldn’t see anything except for the sign.

Though the map showed a clear road straight down to the point of the peninsula and, in truth, it probably goes there, the map did not warn me that three miles from the end of the peninsula northward is the property of the U.S. Army and is used for ordinance testing and the like. When I was presented with a fancy looking gate bearing signs stating, “Restricted Access”, I quickly turned around. I was going to have to settle for just pictures of the Indiantown Farm sign.

As I pulled my car off the road and walked towards the sign to take a picture I made eye contact with, a very kind woman who had just finished her laborious work of weed whacking a long stretch of perfectly manicured white fence, and her granddaughter. I walked up and introduced myself, asking them if I was indeed on the same property John Wilkes Booth was said to have temporarily stayed on. They replied that it was and, with their own generosity of spirit shining through, they offered to give this stranger before them a tour of the property. I was ecstatic by the offer and graciously took them up on it.

As I got in their truck and we proceeded to drive the mile and half to the water’s edge, I was struck by how much nature was around me. I saw countless deer, eagles, ospreys, kestrels, rabbits, and songbirds among the hay fields. My host was very generous in sharing what she knew about the history of the place. When we got to the water’s edge, she pointed out to me the house that is believed to have been where John J. Hughes and his family would have been living when Booth showed up. She was not certain that it was the same house, but recounted that they believed it was. While there have obviously been several additions made to the house, the chimney looks to old enough to me.

Hughes House 2

Hughes House 3

The assumed former home of John J. Hughes on the Indiantown property.  The entrance to Burgess Creek by way of Gumtree Cove is to the left of the house.  Burgess Creek is one of the two possible creeks that Booth and Herold could have landed at.

The assumed former home of John J. Hughes on the Indiantown property. The entrance to Burgess Creek by way of Gumtree Cove is to the left of the house. Burgess Creek is one of the two possible creeks that Booth and Herold could have landed at.

From the main home (which, by the way, has one of the most splendid view of the water I have ever seen) we proceeded to a place that I had seen a picture of once, but could not believe still existed: the slave cabin where Booth and Herold are said to have slept and spent time in.

The slave cabin that Booth and Herold are said to have slept in.

The slave cabin that Booth and Herold are said to have slept in.

In the June, 1990 issue of Blue & Gray Magazine, author Michael Kauffman included this picture of the inside of the cabin: Hughes Cabin Kauffman 1990 Since that time, the exterior of the cabin has been restored. The following are some of the pictures and a short video I took of the interior of this cabin:

Inside Hughes Booth Cabin 1

View of Nanjemoy Creek from one of the cabin's windows.

View of Nanjemoy Creek from one of the cabin’s windows.

Inside Hughes Booth Cabin 3

After departing the cabin, my host took me to where King’s Creek border’s the property. The marshy landscape of the creek and its relatively close distance to the main house and slave cabin, makes me think this was the place where Booth and Herold would have hidden their boat. My host stated that she often goes kayaking here and that Booth and Herold could have easily rowed their boat into King’s Creek and hidden it among the marshy shores. Once on land and beyond the few trees around the shore, John Hughes’ house would have been easily visible to them.

The entrance to King's Creek from Nanjemoy Creek.  King's Creek is south of Indiantown and the supposed Booth cabin.

The entrance to King’s Creek from Nanjemoy Creek. King’s Creek is south of Indiantown and the supposed Booth cabin.

King's Creek

King’s Creek

Indiantown Farm is a quiet and tranquil place (at least when the nearby military facility isn’t blasting, my host told me). With a roof over his head and some time to rest, it seems logical that the John Wilkes Booth would take out his pocket diary and write. His last entry was dated as “Friday, 21” and, if he was being true in his dating, that would have placed his writing at Indiantown.

The Booth cabin with the Hughes house in the background.

The Booth cabin with the Hughes house in the background.

As I departed Indiantown Farm, I thanked my generous host immensely. She was hoping to learn more about the role Indiantown Farm had in John Wilkes Booth’s escape, and so I gave her my website’s name and told her that I would be blogging about my trip later that day. I hope that I have done a decent enough job here of presenting what little is known about Booth and Herold’s largely unknown layover at Indiantown.

Indiantown Farms

Indiantown Farm will continue to be one of the unseen places of John Wilkes Booth’s escape. However, today we were able to see that the history that still exists, thanks to the kindness and openness of those who live there. Hughes Booth Cabin on the Shore

On the Way to Garrett’s Barn: John Wilkes Booth & David E. Herold in the Northern Neck of Virginia April 22 – 26, 1865 by James O. Hall
How Wilkes Booth Crossed the Potomac by George Alfred Townsend
Abstracts from the Port Tobacco Times by Roberta Wearmouth
Come Retribution by William Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Gaddy
J. Wilkes Booth by Thomas A. Jones
American Brutus by Michael Kauffman
In the Footsteps of an Assassin by Michael Kauffman
Booth’s Escape Route: Lincoln’s Assassin on the Run by Michael Kauffman (Blue & Gray Magazine, June 1990)
Booth Crosses the Potomac: An Exercise in Historical Research by William Tidwell (Civil War History, 1990)
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29 thoughts on “Booth on the shores of Nanjemoy Creek

  1. Wow what an amazing post. What an adventure. Recently Vicki and I stood in the same bedroom used by Judah Benjamin during his escape, and there is a definite “feeling” when one stands in these places. I cannot imagine what you must have felt. I have a copy of the Mike Kauffman article you cited, so prior to your post, the photo Mike had taken was all that was in my brain regarding the cabin. Kudos, Dave, you have outdone yourself!

  2. Astounding as always, Dave! Your research is impeccable and the visit to the cabin gives one a wonderful “You are There” feeling. Congratulations on a wonderful experience –

    • Thank you, Betty, for putting this up on Roger’s forum. You’re my best advertising, and you’re free!

      It was very cool to just be someplace associated with the escape route that not many people have seen.

  3. Gene C

    For those of us who do not live near southern MD and eastern VA, I appreciate all your posts regarding theses locations. It’s the next best thing to being there. How were the mosquito’s

    • There were no mosquitoes around when I was there. There were some ticks, though. I doubt Booth and Herold would have wanted to stay by the boat with those buggers.

  4. Another home run!!!

    Good job, Dave!


  5. Joe Banning

    Roger is right. That is an amazing post. Thank you for shedding light on an area of Booth’s escape route that has always been nebulous to me.

    • This spot on Booth’s escape was always a mystery to me, too. I had never been there before yesterday.

      I’m just so glad I was able to share the experience with everyone.

  6. Hearh

    Fantastic work as always, Dave. Your host shows that southern hospitality is still alive and well. It is amazing that the slave cabin still exists. Was it preserved by the family because of it’s association with the assasination? Also, I seem to recall a photo of the cabin that showed it from the outside and overgrown with vegetation. I don’t recall if it was taken by Mike for his article that you reference or by Olroyd. Can you set me straight?


    • Hearh

      I should say rather, was the cabin preserved because of ITS association…

      As a quiet member of the grammar police, I hate making such errors. Err.

      Heath (aka “Hearh” as yet another typing error of mine here reveals.)

      • Unfortunately, I can’t answer your question regarding why the cabin was restored and preserved. I’m just happy that it was and that it continues to be in good hands.

    • Hearh [sic]

      You are thinking of the picture of the Hughes/Booth cabin in Kauffman’s new book, In the Footsteps of an Assassin. While there is a considerable amount of growth in Kauffman’s photograph, you can see the windows and the slope of the roof. They match perfectly with the cabin I visited yesterday:

  7. Laurie Verge

    This is a fantastic posting, and I am so envious of you. I have made it as far as the sign on the “land side” of the farm several times, and we made numerous requests in the early years of our Booth Tours (late-1970s) to gain access to the property – no success. The owners were probably smart not to let me in; with that view, they might not have gotten me out! On second thought, it might not be pleasant living with Blossom Point so close.

    It was especially nice to see that the cabin has been preserved. I loved the one interior shot with numerous duck decoys lurking in an adjacent room. I had been told recently that Indiantown Farm had been sold to the State of Maryland. Did you hear any word of that? The person who told me this may have it confused with another Indiantown Farm that is not too far away in St. Mary’s County.

    Again, thanks for this work.

    • Laurie,

      I was told by my host that the former owner who passed away in May had owned the property for about the last 25 – 30 years. During that time he did not allow people to come onto the land as he preferred his quiet solitude.

      Part of the farm *may* have been sold to the state. According to this Maryland DNR site, land adjoining Indiantown Farm was sold to the state in 2009 by the Roman Catholic Clergymen. It is now called Cedar Ridge Wildlife Management Area and you can see a map of it here: Indiantown is located west of the road on the map and north of the yellow border touching King’s Creek. Some of this land may have belonged to Peregrine Davis/John Hughes back in 1865. The cabin and probable house are still located on the farm, however, which has not been sold to the state.

      Thank you for the compliments, Laurie.


  8. Art Loux

    Dave, you had one of those days where everything goes right. I hope you bought a lottery ticket on the way home. This is the best summary of the Nanjemoy Creek visit I have seen. Many thanks.

    • Thank you very much, Art. I felt extremely lucky at visiting the cabin and, due to your suggestion, I actually bought a lottery ticket tonight on my way home. I doubt lightning will strike me twice though. 🙂

  9. Steve Dixon

    Fantastic! How lucky we all are that there was some weed-whacking that needed to be done just as Dave happened by. THANK YOU to Dave’s hosts!!

    • Fate works in mysterious ways sometimes, Steve. It’s a day later and I’m still so excited over the opportunity I had. And yes, a huge THANK YOU to the owners of Indiantown Farm for letting a stranger like me onto their property.

  10. Jim Garrett

    As usual Dave, you have done an excellent job and at the ripe old age of ???? turning into a gifted story teller.

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  12. Richard Sloan

    This is fantastic, Dave! What a stroke of good fortune. I am amazed that the interior of the cabin was fixed up so well, and yet some of the wood planks in Mike’s photo are still there in your photo! I wonder, though, if you and Mike got the sense that this is the original structure from 1865 or if it’s one built on the same spot perhaps in the early 1900’s.. By the way, some of those wood elements in the Kauffman and Taylor pic can be matched up easily due to dark spots on them. Especially the far right ceiling beam and the little strip of wood running horizontal and adjacent to it, not to mention that the hardware on the hinges of what appears to be a closet door at the top of the three steps could be the same two hinges!

  13. Rich smyth

    I am just back from vacation and getting to read this fantastic blog! You are like a bird dog let loose on the Lincoln assassination. Keep it up.

  14. Steve Holley

    Fabulous post!!! Having access to Booth and Herold’s point of departure from Maryland must have been tremendously exciting for you, as it was for me to read it. Thanks for your hard work and willingness to share the results with your readers. I assume you’ll be headed to the Virginia side soon to travel the assassins last leg of the trip.

    • Thank you for the support, Steve. With the start of the school year, I won’t be doing any more treks until next summer.

      Being on the shores of the Nanjemoy firsthand was absolutely amazing. It was truly a unique experience for me.

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  16. Nathan C

    Great post, I’m envious of you being able to secure a private tour of this location. Tho I’ll likely never be able to see it for myself in person, I was able to do it through this post… thanks for that.

    PS- I sure love seeing historic locations and buildings preserved, sometimes private hands do a better job of this than governments.

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