Traces of lost Colonial hamlet believed found near Annapolis

April 24, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Archaeologists in Anne Arundel County believe they have found the remains of the lost hamlet of Providence, which vanished nearly 300 years ago.

A Puritan enclave in a Catholic colony, the town flourished in 1649. It was known to have stood near the mouth of the Severn River, where its inhabitants briefly wrested power from the ruling Catholics in the 1655 Battle of the Severn.

After the Protestants finally triumphed and moved Maryland's capital from St. Mary's City to Annapolis in 1695, Providence rotted away in the new capital's shadow.

"It had almost disappeared from human consciousness," said Dr. Al Luckenbach, county archaeologist. "Historians tended to talk about it as if it was Annapolis."

Even its character had been forgotten. One 20th-century researcher mistakenly imagined it as a village with stores and shops.

That began to change in 1990 with the accidental discovery of a 17th-century homesite on the lower Broadneck near Whitehall Creek.

Running a race against developers' bulldozers, Dr. Luckenbach has since uncovered five more homesites and clues to the whereabouts of more on the peninsula south of Route 50.

He and his volunteers will not disclose exact locations to discourage looting.

Remarkable artifacts from the sites have shed light on the Puritans' everyday life in the 17th century, the most poorly documented years of the Colonial period. For example:

* Providence was not a "town" in the modern sense, but a collection of 5- or 10-acre plots called "town lands" around Whitehall Bay. Most owners of town lands also held much larger tobacco tracts between the South and Magothy rivers.

The pattern is unfamiliar to researchers but is assumed to have Old World origins.

* The settlers built wooden houses that were lost to termites in 20 or 30 years. "The mentality of these people wasn't that they were going to establish a mansion that would last," Dr. Luckenbach said. They intended to "get rich on furs or tobacco and go back to England."

* A 3-inch comb of bone, with fine and coarse teeth, was probably used to remove head lice.

"The 17th century was not a high moment in personal hygiene," Dr. Luckenbach said. That fact, combined with the remains of food that the archaeologists found outside the colonists' doors and windows, suggest that "it must have been a fairly odoriferous time."

* The settlers engaged in a far-flung trade that brought wares from England, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany. They appear to have traded most extensively with the Dutch. The Puritans decorated their hearths and covered their roofs with Dutch tiles, rare to the Chesapeake, and lined their fireplaces with yellow fire brick made in Holland. The materials resemble those from 17th-century Dutch settlements in New York.

"Providence provides us with a contemporary example of 17th-century life in Maryland outside of St. Mary's City," said Dr. Timothy Riordan, chief archaeologist at Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland's 17th-century capital.

Once Providence is fully explored, its artifacts will provide valuable comparisons between the material lives of Protestants and Catholics of the period, he said.

The promise of Providence is so high that Dr. Luckenbach has asked for help from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland.

"It's real clear that we're getting a tremendous amount of information, and it's rapidly outgrowing our ability to deal with it," he said.

Talks with landowners are pending, and new excavations are expected this year. Goals include finding the town's fort and meetinghouse.

The intention is not to stop development but to gather as many artifacts as possible. There is no plan to make a historic park from the widely scattered homesites.

Dr. Luckenbach will detail the Providence discoveries in an illustrated talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Chesapeake Room of the county's Heritage Office center, 2664 Riva Road, Annapolis.

The presentation is one of many lectures, exhibits and tours planned for Maryland Archaeology Week, which began yesterday and continues through May 1. (A partial calendar accompanies this article.)

Providence was founded in 1649 by 300 to 500 Puritans invited from Virginia by Maryland's proprietor, Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore.

The Catholic Calverts were struggling to stabilize their hold on the colony amid the religious and political chaos of the English Civil War. They believed that the presence of more Protestant settlers would calm the suspicions of the Protestants who had seized power in London.

The Puritan settlers allotted themselves 100 acres each, including 10 or 15 acres of "town lands."

The Catholics would regret their generosity. Providence soon became the colony's largest population center, and the Puritans challenged the Catholics for power. They briefly won it at the Battle of the Severn in 1655 -- the largest battle between Englishmen in North America in that century. Of the 500 or 600 who fought, 15 were killed.

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