Homebuilding site develops into an archaeological find

Cheney homestead from 1650s offers remnants, mystery

September 14, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

It doesn't look like much -- angular depressions knifed a foot deep into the hard clay in woods about 5 miles from Annapolis.

But archaeologists believe the location marks an important site -- the home of a well-known Anne Arundel and southern Maryland family, dating to about 1658.

An excavation begun last year has revealed the first known Chaney -- or Cheney, as the spelling varies -- homestead, called Cheney Hill.

The site, believed to have once held two wood-post buildings, each with a fireplace and chimney, was discovered during an archaeological check of acreage for a proposed residential development.

Working through 350 years of land records revealed that Richard and Charity Cheney bought 100 acres that included that site in 1658, and Cheney rapidly extended his holdings to 1,200 acres.

Through generations, the family settled largely in the Bristol-Lothian area of southern Anne Arundel County, but also moved into Calvert County. Chaneys, under various spellings, account for more than half a page in the Annapolis phone book.

What makes the find particularly significant is the information it might hold about life in an early period and the mystery of its location, said Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel County archaeologist, whose office is supervising the dig.

The dig has turned up shards of imported German pottery, beads for Indian trading, pipes, utensils, a finger-length iron key, glass, a brick and other common items. The soil points to frequent repair of rotted or termite-eaten posts sunk 2 1/2 feet in the ground.

"We never really knew where they landed, other than it was in Anne Arundel County," said descendant E. Steuart Chaney, whose interest in 19th century history is so intense that he is putting together a small village with buildings from that era at Herrington Harbour. "And now to have the house discovered. It is significant not only to the heritage of our family, but to the heritage of the county."

The structures would have been built about 24 years after the founding of Maryland colony, and their abandonment would have been just at the time London Town, to the south, was developing into a population and business center.

Fewer than a dozen sites from 1658 to the mid-1680s, when the Cheney buildings are believed to have been abandoned, have been found in Anne Arundel County, where Luckenbach is researching "lost towns" of that era.

But this site is perched on a steep knoll off Riva Road and the South River.

"One of the obvious questions is, Where are you growing your tobacco? He is sitting on top of this hill," Luckenbach said.

Tobacco was so lucrative that it inspired a gold rush-like stampede to grow the cash crop. It was similar to the fur-trapping and trading boom that was on its way out by the time Cheney bought the property.

"The way the story goes is that they lived on low areas and grew tobacco. He is not fitting the paradigm. There may be others [who] don't fit the paradigm, but this is the first one that we found," Luckenbach said.

With the house built so high up, someone would have had to carry water up from the river or creek for daily use.

Luckenbach speculated that the site may have been defensive -- protection from Indian raids, or perhaps from other settlers during a time of intense strife in England that also resulted in clashes in Maryland. The Cheney family is believed to have left England soon after King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, said descendant Bill Chaney, a Revolutionary and Civil wars buff who visited the site earlier this month.

Luckenbach speculated that Cheney might have feared Royalists. But Bill Chaney said yesterday that a 1955 genealogical paper referred to his ancestor as a Royalist. So maybe he worried about local Puritans or was security-minded in general.

Early work on the dig was paid for by CJF Joint Venure and Koch Associates, which still hopes to build a single-family development there. Since spring, when the developers' archaeological obligation ended, Luckenbach has taken it over. He wants to map at least the footprint of the main house.

The find has left more questions than answers. Why did Richard Cheney come to the New World? What did he do for money? Why are there two buildings with fireplaces? And why was his home lot on a steep hill?

What Bill Chaney knew from the 1955 genealogical paper on his family was that the family came from the Isle of Sheppey and that Richard Cheney financed his passage to America. Richard and Charity had four children. After Charity's death, Richard remarried and had seven more children.

But he had no idea where they lived.

"If I didn't know where it was, I'd never have found it," Chaney said.

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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