The Columbiad

Most people around Ellicott City know Oella as the charming historic district with corkscrew roads winding around granite mill workers’ homes.

But first, Oella was the name of an Incan goddess-queen, renowned as the first woman to spin cotton in the Americas.

This section of Joel Barlow’s epic-length poem, “The Columbiad,” describes the goddess-queen as busily spinning and weaving cotton waiting for her husband, the Incan king Capac, to return from war. Capac and Oella founded the Incan city Cuzco, which became the capital of Peru.

Barlow first wrote his poem, a didactic nine volumes imagining the future of the Americas, as the vision of an imprisoned Columbus visited by an angel. In his preface, Barlow wrote that the poem “is to inculcate the love of rational liberty.”

The poem was popular when it was published as “The Vision of Columbus” in 1787; George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XVI subscribed to its publication. The work grew even more renowned when Barlow expanded the poem and published it in 1807.

In 1808, the Union Manufacturing Company purchased 458 acres from the Ellicott family just north of lower Ellicott Mills. They began building cotton mills and housing for workers, and named their new company town Oella “in commemoration of the first woman who applied herself to the spinning of cotton on the Continent of America.”

The Union Company built a dam with a nearly two-mile-long mill race that could power a whole series of milling production.A five-story brick factory started operating in May of 1810, with many workers who were children and poverty-stricken. On Dec. 15, 1815, the first cotton mill burned to the ground. The mills were rebuilt, then flooded in 1866 and 1868, and rebuilt again. After the textile industry crashed, the mill was auctioned to the William Dickey company, which wove woolens. That textile, too, fell into disfavor when synthetic fabrics began being manufactured.

In 1976, the town named after a Peruvian goddess weaver was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Columbiad
by Joel Barlow

Gay wreaths of flowers her pensive brows adorn,
And her white raiment mocks the light of morn.
Her busy hand sustains a bending bough,
Where cotton clusters spread their robes of snow,
From opening pods unbinds the fleecy store,
And culls her labors for the evening bower.
For she, the first in all Hesperia, fed
The turning spindle with the twisting thread;
The woof, the shuttle follow’d her command,
Till various garments grew beneath her hand.
And now, while all her thoughts with Capac rove
Thro former scenes of innocence and love,
In distant fight his fancied dangers share,
Or wait him glorious from the finish’d war;
Blest with the ardent hope, her sprightly mind
A vesture white had for the prince design’d;
And here she seeks the wool to web the fleece,
The sacred emblem of returning peace.

An excerpt from The Columbiad, Joel Barlow’s epic poem, The Vision of Columbus: A Poem in Nine Books, 1787, which was then expanded in 1807 to The Columbiad. This poem is in the public domain.

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