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John Upshur Dennis papers

Identifier: MS 2677


This collection contains the law school notes and incoming correspondence of Baltimore attorney, John Upshur Dennis (1846-1916). Letters discuss legal cases, leisurely activities, and news of family members in Richmond, Virginia and Somerset County, Maryland. Also included in the collection are materials such as business papers and incoming correspondence of his father, George Robertson Dennis (1822-1882), a United States Senator.


  • 1851-1888


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Conditions Governing Use

The reproduction of materials in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine and satisfy copyright clearances or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections. For more information visit the MCHC’s Rights and Permissions page.

Biographical Note

John Upshur Dennis (1846-1916) was born on the family estate at Kingston, Somerset County, Maryland, the son of lawyer and United States Senator George Robertson Dennis (1822-1882). He was educated at the Washington Academy in Somerset County from 1858 to 1862; Princeton University, 1863-1865; and studied law at the University of Virginia, 1865-1868. After being admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1868, he settled to practice in Baltimore, forming a partnership with John Scott.

For nine years John Upshur Dennis served as a director of the Maryland Penitentiary (circa 1880s). In 1887 he was appointed judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore, a position he was later elected to as a Democratic candidate and held until his retirement in 1908.

Dennis married Frances Murdoch of Mississippi in 1881. They had three children, two of which lived past infancy.


3.3 Linear Feet (8 boxes; 1 oversized folder)

Language of Materials


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of James F. Schneider, Historian and Archivist of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City.

Scope and Contents

The collection spans the years 1865 to 1888, and can be divided into three parts: 1) the law school notes (1865-1868) of John Upshur Dennis; 2) accounts and incoming correspondence (1866-1882) of George Robertson Dennis; and 3) incoming correspondence (1881-1888) of John Upshur Dennis. Part three forms the bulk of the collection and covers John Upshur Dennis' years as a lawyer in Baltimore.

The law school notes (9 vols.) from the University of Virginia span the years 1865 to 1868, and include topics such as Blackstone's Common Law, the practice of law, pleading, international law, and the German language.

The papers of George Robertson Dennis date from 1866 to 1882, and include guardianship account books (1866-1868; 1872-1876); an account book, receipts, cancelled checks, and a check register of Johnston Bros. & Co. (1867-1877), a Baltimore stock brokerage; miscellaneous bills and receipts (1868-1882); George Robertson Dennis' life insurance policy (1872); and incoming correspondence (1860-1882). Letters concern family news, legal cases, the Eastern Shore Railroad, and George Robertson Dennis' election to the Senate (1873).

The incoming correspondence (1881-1888) of John Upshur Dennis forms the bulk of this collection. Correspondents include colleagues and clients, friends and relatives, and merchants. Letters are arranged alphabetically by correspondent within one-to-four-year time periods. Most letters are from 1881 to 1886, before John Upshur Dennis was named to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore.

Letters from colleagues and clients throughout Maryland and Virginia commonly discuss matters of family law such as estate settlements and divorce. Considerable, albeit scattered, letters also mention cases against railroads, damages to and by schooners, patent disputes, murder, and insanity. Other professional letters concern his position as a director of the Maryland State Penitentiary (November 1882-January 1887). These mention job requests and express concern over the conditions of inmates. John Upshur Dennis' political interests are also reflected in letters from his uncle James Upshur Dennis and colleagues Samuel King Dennis, James Pearch, and George Upshur, usually discussing judicial elections on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Business-related papers include two types: assorted bills and receipts for the shipment of goods and the purchase of everyday items such as oysters, fruit, and wine; and letters on the long-distance management of the family's Somerset County estate, "Cedar Grove." Farm employee William Bailey and others regularly write about the sale and purchase of hay, seed potatoes, corn, quano, geese, mules, etc., as well as the rental of houses owned by John Upshur Dennis, and attempts at selling the estate.

Leisure activities are identified through invitations to hunt and fish and through detailed descriptions of hunting conditions in the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. This interest is also expressed in letters on John Upshur Dennis' invention of a gun-safety trigger. He enjoyed raising terrapins, too, as shown in letters from strangers throughout the East seeking advice and trading terrapin tales.

The most cohesive part of the collection is John Upshur Dennis' family correspondence. Stepmother Ellen Rebecca Dennis, sister Charlotte Joynes Dennis, sister Belle [Dennis] Moore and her husband William Moore, brother William and his wife Kate [Wakeman] Dennis, and cousin George Pitts are the most frequent writers. Ellen writes of health and financial problems, and of raising children. Charlotte, a single woman living in Norfolk, writes of other family members and of finding acceptable work. Belle describes marriage, motherhood, and travels to Virginia and South Carolina where William Moore worked as a canal surveyor. After a mysterious incident involving a murder in South Carolina, Mr. Moore escaped to sea. For two years he sought permanent employment, forced to stay apart from the Southeast and from Belle. Their letters tell of frustration over unemployment, lack of money, and loneliness.

Letters from William and Kate Dennis in San Francisco, Norfolk, and Princess Anne, Maryland are also intriguing. William, an alcoholic, writes John Upshur Dennis regularly requesting money to cover his many debts and to treat various health problems. During most of this time he holds a precarious position as a clerk with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Kate also struggles with finances, even living apart from William "to live more cheaply." After his death in 1884 (at 27 years of age), Kate moves in with Ellen Dennis in Princess Anne. From here she writes of her hatred of dependency and a search for employment despite limited skills. Cousin George Pitts, also a C & O Railway employee in Norfolk, is more explicit in his details of William's alcoholism. He also writes of an unidentified relative (known as "Jim") who murdered a man in Accomac County, Virginia apparently while addicted to opium, and discusses "Jim's" legal options with John Upshur Dennis.

Letters from family members not mentioned here serve well to fill in the scene of a prominent Eastern Shore family facing financial and personal difficulties in the 1880s.

Guide to the John Upshur Dennis papers
Under Revision
Susan Weinandy
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Revision Statements

  • 2020-03-17: Manually entered into ArchivesSpace by Sandra Glascock

Repository Details

Part of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library Repository

H. Furlong Baldwin Library
Maryland Center for History and Culture
610 Park Avenue
Baltimore MD 21201 United States