Stately Beginnings

At Historic St. Mary's City, visitors can experience life in the 17th century and see where Maryland got its start.

March 12, 2000|By Charles W. Mitchell | Charles W. Mitchell,Special to the Sun

More than one visitor has arrived at Historic St. Mary's City and, scanning the horizon with hand to brow, asked, "So, where's the city?"

This short question has a long answer.

Maryland's first capital perished long ago in a conspiracy of politics, time and nature. But meticulous research and modern archaeology are restoring the city and its tale of 17th-century life in the Chesapeake area.

Visitors to the 840-acre site can see Maryland life as it was then. Costumed interpreters, exhibits and living history demonstrations allow you to immerse yourself in the Colonial experience.

During much of the 1600s, St. Mary's City was the bustling seat of Maryland government. When the legislature and courts were in session, the town teemed with tobacco planters, lawmakers and those who lived off them: innkeepers, lawyers, clerks, surveyors, court officials and shopkeepers. At its peak, as many as 300 people lived in St. Mary's.

Then the government moved to Annapolis in 1694, leaving a ghost town on the banks of the St. Mary's River. More than 250 years passed before work began to rediscover what lay buried in the soil eight inches below the surface.

Though some site testing was done in the 1930s, serious study and preservation efforts at St. Mary's didn't begin until the 1960s, when the Maryland legislature authorized acquisition of the land.

In 1969, archaeologists began uncovering what the earth had hidden: nails; oyster shells; building foundations; animal bones; and locations of paths, roads, fences, gardens and orchards. Today, labor-intensive soil sifting goes hand-in-hand with modern science.

Garbage dumps known as middens reveal doorway locations and help historians reconstruct buildings. Fragments of clay tobacco pipes lead researchers to the places where people gathered.

A walking tour reveals all the original town sites and reconstructed buildings. The path mostly follows Aldermanbury Street, the main road of the 1660's town.

Begin your trip at the Visitor Center Museum, which offers a panorama of Colonial Chesapeake life and a video narrated by Walter Cronkite. Exhibits interpret the St. Mary's story in engaging human, geographic and historical contexts. Stop in the gift shop and pick up a map as you leave.


We began our tour where the settlers first lived: the Woodland Indian Hamlet, a small Native American Yoacomaco village (the root word of today's Wicomico). Luck and timing blessed our English forebears. They were taken in by these peaceful people, who were preparing to abandon the area to flee the belligerent Susquehannocks of the northern Chesapeake.

The Yoacomaco taught the settlers how to survive in a landscape drastically different from the fenced grazing lands of England. This new land had thick forests and no fields. The English learned to purge a tree of its leaves by girdling it to prevent sap from rising. This allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor, which could then be planted with corn, beans and peas. Corn became a staple that provided half a settler's calories.

We warmed ourselves in a witchott, a thatch-and-wood hut reconstructed using replicated 17th-century tools. Smoke from its fire preserved dry goods, stacked on planks above, and kept the mice away. The Yoacomaco also showed our ancestors how to set fire rings to drive deer into the river, where they became easy prey.

We watched a Yoacomaco man making a dugout canoe. A small fire slowly burned out the log's center, which he hollowed by scraping out the charcoal debris. He applied clay to the sides to protect them from the fire.

Perched on a nearby log, a woman weaving a basket told of her five-month journey by ship and her new life at St. Mary's as an indentured house servant.

The woman would work for five years to pay off her passage, and could not marry until her term was up. (Slavery would not take root in the region until the latter part of the century.) She was a Protestant working for a Catholic master, as was often the case in Maryland.

Religious strife in England was a major force behind the establishment of Maryland. In the early 1600s, the Church of England was persecuting dissenting Protestants and Catholics.

In 1632, King Charles I granted Cecil Calvert -- Lord "Baltemore" -- title to 12,000 square miles of the northern Chesapeake. There Calvert, himself a Catholic, established a haven of religious toleration. Protestants and Catholics were welcomed, and proselytizing and criticizing the faith of others were forbidden. He named his new land Maryland, for the King's wife, Henrietta Maria.

Cecil's brother Leonard and about 140 Protestant and Catholic settlers set sail from England in November 1633 aboard the Ark and the Dove.

The ships arrived at St. Clement's Island, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, in March 1634. The intrepid settlers made their way up the St. Mary's River several weeks later to found the fourth permanent settlement in the New World.

Records in the ruins

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