Diggin’ Historic Saint Mary’s City

Unearthing the Roots of America at Maryland's Earliest Colonial City

By April Bartel | Posted on 04.20.14 – Destinations, History, Travel

Historic St. Mary’s City, about two and half hours south of Frederick, is a place of “firsts.” It was one of the first permanent English settlements in North America, Maryland’s first city, home to the first legislator of African descent and site of the first petition for women’s voting rights—all before 1650. St. Mary’s also served as Maryland’s first capital for 61 years. Large for its time, the town was home to about 200 people at its peak. Today, it’s a destination for family-friendly, hands-on history programs that bring 17th-century America to life.

An active archaeological site year-round, the 800-acre Historic St. Mary’s City museum complex is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.  to 4 p.m., through spring and summer and until the end of November. Admission is $10 for adults and includes access to four living history sites, presentations, exhibits, and other reconstructed buildings.

 “When people think about museums, they expect to stand still, keep quiet, and keep their hands to themselves, but we are not that type of museum. We want people to touch and explore,” says Susan Wilkinson, Director of Communications and Marketing for Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC).

“Interactive” isn’t just a buzz word here. While there are plenty of plaques to read and displays to observe, Historic St. Mary’s City’s twin treasures are its costumed interpreters and ongoing excavations.

Wilkinson suggests spending four to five hours to see some of everything. There is a 1¾-mile loop from the Visitor Center. In addition to the State House of 1676, the St. John’s Site Museum and Brick Chapel, there are four living history locations: The Woodland Indian Hamlet, the Waterfront, the Town Center and the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation.

Wilkinson says venturing out to the plantation is especially worth the trip. “The interpreters assume the character of a 17th-century person. They will talk to you and treat you likewise,” she says. “There are few intrusions from the 21st century, so it’s a very immersive experience.”  Visitors are welcome to help work in the tobacco field, cook a meal or try their hand at grinding corn, if they choose. Heritage livestock round out the scene.

In the Town Center there are a number of reconstructed buildings, including an “ordinary” (tavern/inn), a warehouse and a print shop. Guests can try printing at the Franklin Press, modeled after the first press established in the English southern colonies. There are colonial crafts and games for kids of all ages. The nearby waterfront features a replica of the Dove, one of two tall ships that brought the first settlers from England. Visitors can climb aboard and imagine what it would be like to spend weeks at sea as the wood creaks and the water sloshes against the hull. The Woodland Indian Hamlet showcases typical daily life of the local Yeocomico/Yaocomaco tribe with several witchotts (long houses). The natives welcomed the newcomers, teaching them about the area and even giving them homes.

There is no admission charge to tour St. John’s Site Museum. The original foundation of the building is preserved. It was home to the first provincial secretary and one of the largest enclosed spaces in the colony. It also served as a legislative building, standing witness to discussions ranging from the separation of church and state to voting rights. The State House and Brick Chapel are also open. Rare lead coffins unearthed at the chapel belonged to members of Maryland’s wealthy founding family, the Calverts.

The old place hasn’t given up all of its secrets yet. When Annapolis became the state capital, Historic St. Mary’s City was nearly lost to history. Many original buildings were stripped for supplies. The rest were virtually abandoned and left to decay. Ironically, the land’s subsequent agricultural use preserved many of the buried relics left behind. Now owned by the State of Maryland, the HSMC research department was established in 1966. The archaeology program began in 1971, affiliated with adjacent St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

 During the college’s summer session, students can sign on for a 10-week accredited anthropology course where they learn and dig alongside a staff of professional archaeologists. Some get to sail on the Dove.

And, because excavations are open to the public, students get to interact with visitors, too. This Field School is acknowledged by the Archaeological Institute of America for revolutionizing “the understanding of colonial architecture and material culture.” There’s also a minicamp for younger history buffs and plenty of opportunities to volunteer.

Everyday folks can help sift through history during Tidewater Archaeology Weekend, July 25 and 26. The museum will celebrate its first traditional May Day this year. Hearth and Home in Early Maryland serves up samples and insights in November, while Colonial Christmas and Holiday Madrigal Dinners cap the annual events. Daily highlights and workshops may focus on music or recent findings at excavations.

Nearby Leonardtown has its own cache of historic sites, diversions and amenities, including a riverfront park. Mechanicsville has the Potomac Speedway, Maryland International Raceway and Budds Creek Motocross & Speedway. There is a Patuxent Wine Trail, four lighthouses and adventures for geocaching enthusiasts around St. Mary’s County. There are 536 miles of shoreline with public beaches, boating and paddling for soaking in the glory of nature—and popular seafood specialties. Church dinners for fried oysters and stuffed ham are a deep-rooted custom.

The museum complex is somewhat off the beaten path. You won’t find big malls or glitzy shopping just outside the gates, but that’s not why people come here. They come to take a break from modern stress and reconnect to our collective past, because when understand our history, we understand ourselves.


 If You Go

 For more information about upcoming events in St. Mary’s County, go to www.visitstmarysmd.com or visit to the Historic St. Mary’s City website at www.stmaryscity.org.