Rhode River life unearthed

Archaeologists soon to begin third year of exploration at site of colonial manse, ancient human habitat

March 16, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN REPORTER

At the crest of a rural hill south of Annapolis stands a ruin that appears to have spilled from the pages of a novel. What's left of one of the grandest brick homes of the colonial era are two towering chimneys and a few failing sections of low walls, all enrobed in vines and weeds but offering a breathtaking view of the Rhode River.

"Had it survived, it would be one of the gems of the region," Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel County archaeologist, said of what once was a 130-foot-long, five-section Palladian mansion whose main section was built around 1747. Adding to the creepy aura: the rotting stump of what once was a Maryland and national champion black walnut tree.

These remains stand on a sloping acreage that supported people since 500 B.C.

Archaeologists believe the hills hold a rich past - from the prehistoric native tools and pottery and 19th-century commercial wharf at the waterfront to the colonial-era, slave-worked plantation and ensuing farms.

Teams have been working on the site - which comprises several hundred acres - for nearly two years. With the property's past shrouded in mystery and legend, the archaeological groups soon will begin a third year of digging in the ground and through historical records, making this one of two sites along the Rhode selected for increasingly intense study funded by the Maryland Historical Trust.

"You are literally able to stand here and see sites that have seen thousands of years of human occupation," said C. Jane Cox, cultural resources planner who serves as assistant county archaeologist.

Artifacts such as broken tools and bits of pottery collected down by the water suggest that early native populations enjoyed oysters. The broken shells are stacked several feet deep.

Much later, in the 1650s, Quaker settler Thomas Sparrow laid claim to 590 acres. He named his land Sparrow's Rest - to which he soon added land he called Squirrel Neck. He also grew tobacco, the gold crop of his time. Historical records from 1712 say Sparrow had a house on the property, but nobody knows where.

The mansion was built about 35 years later by Annapolis merchant Nicholas Macubbin, and it had the first known giant pilasters in the area. Descriptions and photos of the collapsing home some 50 years ago show a striking resemblance to Mount Clare on the Patapsco River, the house built by Charles Carroll, Macubbin's brother-in-law, Luckenbach said. Macubbin later diversified his crops to include wheat. Records from 1798 describe eight small dwellings and one huge manor home.

Current owner Betsy Kirkpatrick-Howat recalled the house as a place that she heard was poorly rebuilt from a fire in the late 1800s. By her childhood in the mid-20th-century, it was an uninhabitable, off-limits structure that came into her family when her grandmother bought what was a truck farm around 1915. The surrounding fields have hay operations, and Kirkpatrick-Howat said there are easements to preserve the open character of the land.

By 1820, John Contee, a lieutenant in the War of 1812, owned the property. He renamed it Java, for the British warship overpowered by the USS Constitution. Legend has it that Contee bankrolled his purchase with prize money he got for being in charge of the snipers and boarding party from the Constitution - but Luckenbach said Contee would not have received enough prize money to buy the plantation.

Contee built a wharf - the road to the property is Contee's Wharf Road - taking his waterfront from being strictly for his own use to becoming a successful commercial steamboat landing in the 19th century, Cox said.

But it's the unseen and the quirky stories about the property - though the boundaries kept changing depending on the owners and their neighbors - that have piqued the attention of archaeologists.

Thomas Francis, who owned an adjacent tract that he may have bought from Sparrow, was returning from a visit to downstream neighbors and drowned when his boat sank in 1685, but his wife, Mary, floated to safety on her hoop skirt.

Francis was buried near the waterfront.

An undisturbed inland area is a slave cemetery; its connection to the property is unclear.

Archaeologists hope to uncover more detail on the use of the property, and what life was like for its colonial upper-crust occupants as well as their servants.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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