Historic St. Mary’s City, an archeological and heritage center at the site of Maryland’s first capital, features an extensive collection of American Indian artifacts, true-to-the-time replicas and re-enactors in period costume.
But the original city nearly became lost, a footnote along a state highway with perhaps nothing more than a plaque marking the site where colonists established the first Maryland settlement that prized religious freedom and tolerance.
A group of historians, archaeologists and local residents refused to let that happen. Worried about development in Southern Maryland, they persuaded the legislature to establish the St. Mary’s Commission. That was 50 years ago. At the time, all that stood at St. Mary’s was the reconstructed 1676 State House. Historians, archaeologists and scholars combed the site and historical records for clues as to how the rest of Maryland’s first capital looked. They rebuilt the once-sprawling settlement into a compact area off Route 5 adjacent to St. Mary’s College.
Thanks to their work, St. Mary’s City stands again, at least in replicated form. The site is constantly evolving, with new finds and fresh interpretations on the city established in 1634.
The staff at Historic St. Mary’s City is hoping more people will come to hear those stories. About 30,000 people visit each year. More than two-thirds are students. All Maryland fourth graders have a unit on state history, and many teachers bring them to the site for a few hours. Colonial Williamsburg it is not. St. Mary’s City has only one hotel, few tour buses and no nearby amusement parks.
“We certainly would like to get Historic St. Mary’s City into the public consciousness more,” said Peter Friesen, director of education. “We tell a different story here. And it deserves to be more well-known.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 commission’s efforts to rebuild St. Mary’s. And it’s an excellent time to revisit the story of Maryland’s beginnings.
The story of St. Mary’s City begins an ocean away, in England, with Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. He served in King James I’s government until he declared himself a Roman Catholic. That made him unfit for public office under England’s mores, but his service to the crown persuaded the king to give him land. His first property was in Ireland. Then, in 1621, he established a colony in Newfoundland. Finding the climate there inhospitable, he lobbied King Charles I for land near Virginia. He died before he got the charter.
His son, Cecil Calvert, inherited the charter. In 1633, two ships, the Ark and the Dove, left England with 140 hopeful colonists on board. Cecil was not among them; he would never set foot in the colony of his father’s dreams. But his younger brother, Leonard, was on board to lead the colony. The ships landed on an island in the Potomac River in 1634 and dubbed it “St. Clement’s Island.” After meeting with leaders of the Piscataway people, they moved to the land they would name St. Mary’s City.
From the beginning, St. Mary’s distinguished itself from the colonies in Plymouth and Jamestown. It advocated religious tolerance. Protestants and Catholics lived together with equal rights. According to Once the Metropolis of Maryland, by Silas D. Hurry, St. Mary’s was the first colony in North America to mandate a separation of church and state. It was the first place where a man of African descent, Mathias de Sousa, voted in an English-American legislative body. St. Mary’s was also the scene of the first documented case of a woman, Margaret Brent, attempting to vote in a legislature, almost 300 years before American women earned that right.
Life was hard in St. Mary’s City, but it is one of the few colonies that did not endure a starving year. Decent relations with local Indians, including the Yaocomaco, helped settlers avoid the mistakes at Jamestown, founded just 27 years earlier. The Yaocomaco, a branch of the Piscataway people, taught the colonists how to grow corn and protect their crops.
St. Mary’s geographic distribution was also unique. Unlike Williamsburg, it was not a compact settlement. As it grew from the original 140 colonists to close to 600 settlers, its inhabitants spread into the countryside and planted tobacco. As the cash crop grew, so did slavery. Many Africans were sent against their will to the Maryland city known for its religious tolerance.
By 1644, the English Civil War had spilled to the colonies, and Protestant marauders attacked St. Mary’s City, driving out all Catholics and Catholic sympathizers. Leonard Calvert led a revolt and took St. Mary’s City back in 1647. Two years later, the Maryland Legislature in St. Mary’s passed the Maryland Toleration Act, codifying religious freedom. St. Mary’s is often called the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States because of this law.
St. Mary’s continued to thrive in the latter half of the century. Colonists there built the first printing press. There were also ordinaries — taverns with rooms to let — as well as shops, milk houses, barns and a chapel.
But tensions in England between Protestants and Catholics again spilled into the colonies. In 1692, Catholics lost the right to vote. In 1695, St. Mary’s new overlords moved the state capital to Annapolis. Gradually, the town was deserted and reverted to farmland. For nearly three centuries, until the 1966 Commission, all that remained was the abandoned State House.
Given how much happened at St. Mary’s, it’s surprising the site doesn’t get more visitors. Its location is a bit out of the way — though it’s just two hours from Annapolis, Baltimore, Richmond and the District of Columbia, it’s not near much else. But it is a worthwhile day trip and also an excellent overnight getaway when combined with a stop at Point Lookout State Park, where the broad Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Or you can stop by St. Clement’s Island to see where the Ark and Dove landed and visit the small but informative museum.
Allow at least four hours to explore St. Mary’s City. Start at the visitor’s center and watch the short film, narrated by the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who had a home nearby.
From the visitor’s center, walk the half-mile loop around the old city. The first stop is the replicated Indian settlement, which includes re-created witchotts — one-room shelters — with baskets of corn and animal pelts inside. The loop also includes an ordinary (inn), the chapel and the Mackall barn, said to be the oldest standing tobacco barn in the state. Costumed re-enactors help to interpret the history.
In 1992, archaeologists excavated three lead coffins from the site of the old brick chapel. They identified the remains as those of Philip Calvert — Leonard and Cecil’s younger brother — and his wife, Anne Wolseley Calvert. The smallest coffin contains the remains of a baby believed to be their daughter. Visitors can peer into the floor and learn about what the archaeologists found.
The Maryland Dove, a replica of the ship that carried the colonists, is docked along the shore of the St. Mary’s River, and the ship is quite popular with visitors, who can walk the decks, try out the bunks and pull on the ropes.
“We’re very hands-on here. We advocate that,” said Ben Singer, one of the Dove’s re-enactors. The staff sails the boat at least once a month to keep it in good condition. Unfortunately, for liability reasons, visitors aren’t allowed to join the journeys on the picturesque river.
Across from the Dove is a small gift and snack shop where you can refuel for the rest of the visit.
Visitors can walk to St. John’s Site Museum and see artifacts from one of the first plantations in Maryland. But it might be better to drive the half-mile distance. The same is true for the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation, about a half-mile down the road from the main part of St. Mary’s in the other direction. There, visitors will encounter re-enactors who tell the story of tobacco in the settlers’ lives.
The Spray plantation also includes chickens, Ossabaw Island hogs and a cow. Children will love seeing these animals, and the re-enactors do a great job of engaging young visitors. I wished my girls were as excited about cleaning their rooms as they were about sweeping the dust out of Spray’s small home.
In the 1600s, St. Mary’s City was not a utopia. Many residents were slaveholders, and early African-Americans endured terrible hardships in the colony just as they did in every other new settlement. Indentured servants who bought their freedom for the passage also continued their meager existences.
But, in many ways, it was a city ahead of its time. While St. Mary’s put religious tolerance into law, it was not until 1790 that all states eliminated religious restrictions on voting for white men. And cultural tolerance lags behind laws; African-Americans and women would have to wait many decades more for voting and other rights.
Walking among the replicas of the past gives visitors an appreciation of Maryland’s legacy of tolerance and its foresight in preserving it for future generations. As the staff continues to uncover St. Mary’s story, the phrase “living history” has scarcely seemed more applicable.
Visiting Historic St. Mary's City
Historic St. Mary’s City is located off Route 5 in scenic Southern Maryland at 18751 Hogaboom Lane, St. Mary’s City, MD. Admission is $10 for adults; $9 for seniors; $6 for students ages 6–18 and college students with ID; and free for ages 5 years and younger. Hours change seasonally; visit hsmcdigshistory.org or call 240-895-4967 for updates. The Maryland Dove is also occasionally away from its dock, so check its schedule before visiting.