112 – Bel Air Becomes a Town 1781-1785

Bel Air, Belle Air, Belle Aire, Bell Air, and once, enchantingly, Belleaire, but never, never Belair.

Bel Air: The Town Through its Buildings

It had been Scott’s Old Fields, a played-out crop field. In 1780 there were four houses. James and Elizabeth Jervis and their children lived in one of them.

Scott’s Old Fields – Bel Air

Aquilla Scott formed the town of Belle Aire in 1780 from his family’s Old Fields. The Scotts were wealthy planters who had been in the area since the early 1700s. They controlled many other land parcels.

James (6G) and Elizabeth Jervis

James and Elizabeth had been living in a stone house in Scott’s Old Fields for eight or nine years, probably renting it from Aquilla Scott.

They had a subsistence garden and operated an inn and tavern.

Now, in 1780, their children were Joseph, age 8, Thomas, age 6, and Mary, age 4.

James’ son William, 20, married Margaret Thompson, 18, on August 24, 1780. William and Margaret were living in James and Elizabeth’s household.

Jervis v Hays – September 1780

Various court citations give us some context about life in Harford County in 1780. For example, James Jervis and Aquilla Scott are bonded to pay Archer Hays if they don’t return a cow.

Hmmm. Now how did that cow get into James’s barn?

And as a bonus, we get a James Jervis signature.

Bel Air becomes the county seat

The county seat of Harford County had moved frequently, whenever and wherever local power was able to lobby for a move.

County Seats of Harford County

In 1782, an election voted to move the county seat inland to Bel Air. It’s not clear why Bel Air would be favored over a tidewater town. Why an inland town with four houses?

Other towns demanded a new election in 1787, but surprisingly Bel Air won again. And today it’s still the county seat of Harford County.

Bel Air throws a party

Bel Air got off to a rousing start with a grand party in May 1783 to celebrate news of the peace treaty with England. Many people from Harford County attended, gathering on the lot where the courthouse was to be built, across the Main Street from James and Elizabeth Jervis’ inn. Their inn probably had full capacity, and likely served plenty of food and libations.

They fired their firearms in a “Feu-de-joye” (a fusillade of shots into the air), and attended a banquet with “barbecued ox, wine, punch, etc.” There were thirteen toasts, starting with one to General Washington and the victorious Continental Army.

Bel Air – An Architectural and Cultural History

A town plan

As a county seat, Bel Air would need a courthouse and jail. Aquilla Scott laid out a town plan for Bel Air, and specified lots for those two public buildings.

Bel Air – An Architectural and Cultural History

Scott laid out a Main Street and 42 lots. We can see the four existing houses in 1783 with the town lots superimposed. James Jarvis’ Inn is on Lot 24.

James buys houses and lots

On April 15, 1783, James and Elizabeth bought their house and four lots 21-24 in the new town of Bel Air from Aquilla Scott. The price was £35.

Here James and Elizabeth operated their inn. There may have been another house on the lots, because James’ brother John and his family were living here too.

The 1783 tax records show James and John, and their valuations.

Harford County Tax List – 1783

James had a house & lots in Scotts Fields, 2 acres worth £50. He had 5 horses and 5 cattle, and a total valuation of £121 9s.

There were 7 white people in his home – James, Elizabeth, Joseph age 11, Thomas age 9, Mary age 7, and son William and his wife Margaret. I think this means that James’ mother Esther (7G) has died. Recall that in the 1776 census she was age 78. In 1783 when this tax list was made, she would have been age 83. Let’s estimate that she died around 1780 at age 80.

John’s enumeration doesn’t show property, as he was staying on James’ property and perhaps house. John had 5 horses and 5 cows, and a total valuation of £56 9s. There were 6 white people in his household.

What were the houses like?

If we peek ahead at the 1798 tax record, we get a description of the buildings on Lots 21-24. By then, James and Elizabeth didn’t own the lots. Their nephew James Jervis Jr. had just sold the lots in 1798. But the descriptions are probably similar to their years on the property.

Tax Description – Lots 23 and 24 – 1798
Tax Description – Lots 21 and 22 – 1798

James and Elizabeth are innkeepers

James and Elizabeth had operated an inn and tavern for years. What a boon to have Bel Air named the county seat, and to have the courthouse to be built across the street from their inn.

Unfortunately, the courthouse construction dragged on, and wasn’t finished until 1791.

In the meantime, James was in court every year or two on liquor infractions.

James Jervis – liquor infractions – 1784, 1785

Notice that the 1784 infraction above censures James for “selling Liquor above the Rates affixed by the Court.” The Court regulated inn and tavern prices. Here are dining rates for 1783.

William and Margaret Jarvis (5G)

William and Margaret Jarvis (5G) were living in his father’s household. On December 20, 1785, their first child, a daughter Sarah, was born.

Tough economic times

Times were bad after the war. The state treasury was bare, and planters and merchants large and small were burdened with debt. Rich and poor called for debt relief. State-issued paper money wasn’t well circulated, and taxes were impossible to collect.

Bel Air – An Architectural and Cultural History

Debts and more debts

In 1784, a bill was passed to retire state paper money by 1790. The money wasn’t worth anything. Everyone owed everyone else money or crops. James owed debts, and others owed James.

In this 1785 court citation, John Antle owes James six bushels of wheat, six barrels of corn, and five hundred garden peals.

I have no idea what a garden peal is. Maybe it’s a vegetable peel, for fertilizer or animal feed or…

Court – John Angle debt to James Jervis – 1785

Joshua Jervis couldn’t pay his debts

James’ brother Joshua was unfortunate in that he couldn’t pay his debts to John Hays. In 1785 the sheriff sold all his goods. Joshua was insolvent.

This same fate befell many, including several more Jervis siblings.

Court – Sheriff sells goods and chattels of Joshua Jervis – 1785

Nibbles Extra Credit

Jervis to Jarvis

Another debt citation provides an interesting fact. In this case, William and James Jervis, son and father, sign an IOU in 1784 to Buckler Bond for thirty-eight bushels and a peck of wheat.

On this citation we have original signatures of son and father, William and James. Notice that William signs his name as Jarvis instead of Jervis. This is the first time we’ve seen one of our grandparents sign as Jarvis instead of Jervis.

James deals with his name as Jervis. William treats his name as Jarvis. So starting with William, I’m going to change the official spelling from Jervis to Jarvis.

I had hoped to find the circumstance for the name change, but I didn’t think it would come in such a tidy package.

More Nibbles Extra Credit

Bel Air Lots 21-24

James and Elizabeth’s lots 21, 22, 23, and 24 were next to the jail, and across the street from the courthouse.

Here are the lots overlaid on a current map of downtown Bel Air. It’s interesting that the Jarvis house stuck out into the middle of Main Street, because it pre-dated the town plan.

Today the courthouse and jail are there, but James’ lots are unrecognizable, having been converted over the years into a parking lot and commercial downtown buildings.

James and Elizabeth’s Lot 24

Use your imagination to envision the Jervis house sticking out into Main Street in 1783, with the stable behind.

Main Street north – Lots 21, 22, 23

Looking north on Main Street – Lots 21, 22, and 23 – today
Looking north on Main Street – Lots 21, 22, 23 – around 1900

The Courthouse

Harford County Courthouse – today
Harford County Courthouse – 1790



  • Quotation about spellings of Bel Air – Bel Air: The Town Through its Buildings – Marilyn M. Larew – 1981
  • Quotations about Bel Air – Bel Air – An Architectural and Cultural History 1782-1945 – Marilyn M. Larew – 1995
  • Image of tavern interior – Jenn’s Mini Worlds: A Dollhouse Miniaturist’s Bloghttps://jennsminis.wordpress.com/2018/09/06/older-projects-colonial-tavern/
  • Image of tavern interior – Passion for the Past blog – http://passionforthepast.blogspot.com/2015/07/colonial-travel-taverns-pulse-of-18th.html
  • Court citation – Jervis v Hays – September 1780 – Harford County Historical Society – Bel Air, Maryland
  • Map of County Seats of Harford County – Our Harford Heritage – C. Milton Wright – 1967
  • Image of Feu de Joie – Henricus Citie Militia – Henricus Historical Park Virginia – http://henricusmilitia.com/cm/tag/rva/
  • Court Citations – James Jervis – Liquor infractions – 1784, 1785 – Harford County Historical Society – Bel Air, Maryland
  • Tavern Rates – Bel Air – An Architectural and Cultural History 1782-1945 – Marilyn M. Larew – 1995
  • Image of tavern food – Foodways at Colonial London Town – http://che.umbc.edu/londontown/cookbook/cookbook_home.html
  • Map of Scott’s Old Fields town plan for Bel Air – Bel Air: The Town Through its Buildings – Marilyn M. Larew – 1981
  • Court citation – William and James Jervis v Buckler Bond – February 1784 – Harford County Historical Society – Bel Air, Maryland
  • Scott’s Old Field / Bel Air artwork – Mark Jarvis
  • Old Bel Air photos – Bel Air: The Town Through its Buildings – Marilyn M. Larew – 1981
  • Bel Air photos of Lot 24 – Google Maps Street View – September 2020
  • Misc. Bel Air photos – Mark Jarvis – May 2017

2 thoughts on “112 – Bel Air Becomes a Town 1781-1785

  1. Louise Longworth October 3, 2020 / 9:54 am

    Hi Mark,
    I’m so enjoying following your Jervis to Jarvis story unfold, and I love the way you have superimposed James and Elizabeth’s property on to the modern photograph !
    More more !


  2. Mark Jarvis October 3, 2020 / 10:31 am

    You’re a peach Louise! Make up our room in case Trump wins.


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