Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: St. Mary's City, MD

A cruising couple visits St. Mary's City, the first capital 
of Maryland, established in 1634, abandoned in 1695, 
rediscovered in the 20th century. [June 2012]


By Maureen FitzGerald O'Brien
Photographs by Tamzin B. Smith

As we eased out of our slip at Beacon Marina in Solomons, Md., our summertime home base, husband Dan and I had very mixed feelings. Sure, we were off on another adventure, but we'd also made new friends here--and reconnected with some long-time buddies from our 20 some years of Bay sailing. Now full-time cruisers, with a logbook full of names always said in the plural--the Keys, the Exumas, the Abacos--we had enjoyed a summer's worth of familiar waters and favorite places. Annapolis, Rock Hall, St. Michaels, Oxford . . . and, this year, good old Solomons, where we'd also weathered a storm called Irene.

Soon we'd be heading south to the islands again, but not without a trip up the Potomac to a town and river that share a name, if not an apostrophe: St. Marys River and St. Mary's City. Yes, it's hard to believe, but in two decades of Bay sailing, we'd never made it there--though it had been on our bucket list from the beginning. Now, at last, it was going to happen.

After several hours of motoring south from Solomons, vainly hoping for a little help from the wind, we found ourselves off Point Lookout and turning west into the Potomac. There we finally picked up a little wind, and before long, about seven miles upriver on the Potomac's north shore, we turned into the wide mouth of the St. Marys, a good two miles across, from St. George Island to the west and Kitts Point to the east. And soon after that we were enveloped by the beautiful shoreline, as peaceful and undisturbed as our cruising guide had promised. Rolling green hills along the shore were only occasionally interrupted by the lawns of stately mansions as we proceeded steadily upriver.

 About two miles beyond St. Inigoes Creek, where the river takes a little jog east and then back again, we came at last to Church Point on the eastern bank, easy enough to identify by the steeple of Trinity Episcopal Church. Just south of the point we could see the golden brown Maryland Dove tied to the Historic St. Mary's City dock. The ship is a full-scale replica of the 76-foot square-rigger Dove, the cargo-carrying companion of the larger Ark, which in 1633 and 1634 carried some 140 English settlers across the Atlantic to what would become Maryland's first settlement and first capital.

Rounding Church Point, we took in our first view of Horseshoe Bend, our anchorage for the next two nights. With the look of a small bay, this lovely and inviting basin is three-quarters of a mile wide and plenty deep. And, though it could easily accommodate 30 boats our size, we practically had the place to ourselves; there was only one other sailboat on the hook.

You know you've arrived somewhere special when your first orders of business are (1) set the hook and (2) grab the camera. On the east side of Horseshoe Bend, St. Mary's College provides a lovely vista of red brick buildings climbing up a gentle hill. It was easy for Dan and me to imagine that these views of winding river and green hilly shores would be nearly identical to those seen by the early colonists. 

Seeing a busy day ahead of us, we opted for a relaxing onboard dinner and an early sack time--but not before a bit of laptop research, to both slake our curiosity about the place and come up with a sightseeing battle plan. The basic outline was pretty simple: First a visit to the historic site--which we figured would take up a good portion of the day, it being spread out over some 800 acres of land stretching south along the river from Church Point. Then, depending on our energy reserves, we'd cross Piney Point Road and explore the college, which was just back in fall session. 

Early the next morning, after a couple of doses of coffee, we went ashore, landing the dinghy on the small beach behind the college docks (having checked first to make sure this is allowed; it is). From there it was just a short walk along Trinity Church Road, past several campus buildings, to the northwest edge of Historic St. Mary's City, commonly abbreviated as HSMC. This is not the official starting point of HSMC--the visitor center is nearly half a mile away at the southeast edge of the site. But on that day it was as good a place as any for us to start. Since it was an in-service day for state employees, the visitor center was closed and there were no costumed interpreters on duty. I was a bit disappointed that we wouldn't see any of the costumed docents, but this development had its upside too: namely, we were on nobody's schedule but our own and were able to interpret for ourselves--linger over exhibits and read the ample posted literature at our leisure.


As I've said, it all began in 1634, when Leonard Calvert (younger brother of the Cecil, second Lord Baltimore and holder of the royal charter for Maryland) brought his contingent of English settlers up the river to this protected and promising spot--having first gone ashore at what is now St. Clements Island. When they arrived at the more commodious and better protected site up the St. Marys River, they encountered friendly Yeocomico Indians, with whom Calvert negotiated the purchase of the land.

Though not all of the settlers were Catholic, the Calvert family was, and one of its aims--in addition to boosting its fortunes by jumping on the tobacco bandwagon--was to build a society where they and others would be free to prosper and worship as they chose. With Leonard as the "proprietary Governor" for the first dozen years, the colony quickly became one of the few places in the English realm where Catholics could rise to positions of influence and wealth. That didn't last, of course, because there followed more than a century's worth of religious conflict--echoing the Anglican-versus-Catholic tensions in Europe. 

But despite all that, the first 50 years or so was generally a time of growth and prosperity for St. Mary's City. But that lasted only until the 1680s and '90s. The first blow came in April of 1689, when John Coode--a militia captain, assemblyman and leader of a group called the Protestant Associators--led an armed but bloodless rebellion against the governing Calverts. In the name of England's new Protestant monarchs, William & Mary, and backed by a 700-man army, Coode seized control of the lightly defended Colonial government and named himself "commander in chief." He remained in power until the appointment of a new royal governor--Nehemiah Blakiston--in July of 1691. The fatal blow for St. Mary's City, however, came a few years later, in 1695, when the crown designated Annapolis, a Protestant stronghold, as the new Colonial capital. That was the beginning of an abrupt end for this experiment in religious freedom in Southern Maryland.

Fortunately, from an archaeological point of view, there was very little subsequent development here--so the site remained virtually undisturbed for two centuries. Early in the 20th century, though, historians and archaeologists began to realize what a gold mine they had here on the shore of the St. Marys River-- indeed, because it remained so undisturbed over the years, it is considered one of the country's richest 17th-century archaeological sites. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969.

As only the fourth permanent European settlement in North America, St. Mary's City has an impressive catalog of firsts: the first legislator of African descent in North America (Mathias de Sousa, 1642); the first woman to petition for the right to vote in English America (Margaret Brent, 1648); and the first separation-of-church-and-state policy.


Given that history of church-and-state separation, the physical position of HSMC's two main architectural recreations is quite apropos. The reconstructed 1676 State House, built in 1934 to mark the settlement's 300th anniversary, sits at the northwest edge of the site, just a few hundred feet from its original site--which is now surrounded by the gravestones in the cemetery of neighboring Trinity Church. At the northeast edge of the HSMC property, nearly half a mile away, is a much more recent reconstruction, that of the stout brick Jesuit Chapel that stood here in the 17th and 18th centuries, likely built in the late 1660s. Unlike the State House, the rebuilt chapel occupies the same spot as the original--the same foundation, in fact, which scientists judged to be strong enough to support the replica. Figuring we'd be headed back to the northwest side anyway, to return to our dinghy, we decided to head for the chapel first.

The cruciform foundation of the chapel was unearthed in the 1930s, but it wasn't until 2002 that work began on an exhaustively researched reconstruction of the building. It took seven years and a lot of fundraising sweat and tears to get the job done, but there it stands now. If any of this rings a bell, perhaps it's because it was here, in the excavated foundation of this very church, where archaeologists found three lead coffins in the early 1990s. This drew attention from around the world, and scientists from many disciplines and agencies descended on the place to help unearth and identify the remains. After years of preparation and study, including x-rays and high-tech air sampling, the team removed the coffins and opened them. Though their findings were not conclusive, most believe the remains to be those of Philip Calvert, (younger brother of Cecil and Calvert), his first wife, Anne Wolsey, and, much more speculatively, the infant daughter of Calvert and his second wife, Jane Sewell.

Only about 15 feet wide at the main entrance and nave, the chapel is no cathedral, of course (Colonial buildings were necessarily modest, after all), but it is nevertheless quite imposing in context--now, as it must have been then--presiding regally over the wide open fields that surround it. Standing at opposite sides of the chapel--one to the south and one to the north, and literally pale by comparison--are two of the "ghost" buildings that are scattered all across the historic site. These bare-wood frames mark the sites of known houses and buildings in the city.

Our next stop was to the site's bona fide outlier, the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation at the very south edge of the property, about half a mile's walk--past the HSMC visitor center, along Hogaboom Lane, then west along a lovely wooded path. The name Godiah Spray is fictional, but otherwise this faithful and very detailed recreation of a small 17th-century tobacco plantation--most of the particulars coming from records of an actual St. Mary's planter, Robert Cole. Covering everything from livestock to family life and the details of indentured servitude (far more common than slavery in that period), it is a fascinating look at the beginnings of tobacco growing.

From the plantation we headed northwest again, a direction that would take us not only to the reconstructed State House and the nearby Trinity Church, but also--just across Point Lookout Road--to the St. Mary's College dining hall, which welcomes St. Mary's City visitors. There, on the second floor of the spanking new Campus Center, we found the food-court style cafeteria and indulged in a tasty lunch of salad bar creations and Philly-style cheesesteaks.

After lunch, as we explored the picturesque campus of this highly ranked public honors college, we stumbled on the news that the varsity sailing team had won the International Collegiate Sailing Association's team race national championship, bringing the St. Mary's sailing program's total to an astonishing 15 national titles. When it comes to sailing, you don't mess with St. Mary's.

Our first stop after lunch was the Trinity Church, which is not part of the historic site, but is in fact an active Episcopal church. Here too, however, our timing was off; there was a wedding in progress there, so we got only the quickest peek inside. Disappointed but undeterred, we strolled the grounds and took in the beautiful churchyard and sprawling cemetery around it, perched on a point of land with a stunning 180-degree view of the river--the wide north-south reach off to the west and tranquil Horseshoe Bend to the north. I couldn't help but wonder how those early settlers must have marveled at this view--though it also occurred to me that they likely had other preoccupations, petty things like trying not to starve or freeze to death.

The first Trinity Church, a wooden structure, was built in 1638 (on what is now Smith Creek near the mouth of river), but it didn't last long. In 1695, when the capital moved to Annapolis, the congregation took over the old State House, which remained its home until 1829. That's when the present-day building went up--using, interestingly enough, bricks salvaged from the State House. The new church was remodeled in 1889, again with State House bricks, and has undergone a number of architectural facelifts since then, the latest in 1994. What's there today is a simple and beautiful structure, a brick exterior painted pale gray, a steeply pitched slate roof, a graceful wooden steeple, and the ancient graveyard.


Next on our itinerary was the sturdy "new" State House right next door, where we were lucky enough to stumble across a group of musicians practicing, though we were not sure for what. In this spare, well-proportioned two-story building with spacious meeting rooms, we could just about hear the debates and proclamations echoing from its walls. We wondered, for example, what variations of annoyance, dismissal and perhaps even admiration that might have greeted the first appearance here, in 1648, of Margaret Brent--the first woman to petition for the right to vote in English America. 


For a taste of more contemporary St. Mary's life, we planned to attend a movie at the college that night. This was based on a tip we'd gotten from a cruising friend--in the Bahamas, no less. He had raved about a visit he and his wife had made to St. Mary's City, and how he'd gone to a free movie screening one night at the college. Not just a free movie, he raved, but free popcorn! He was amazed at the hospitality, and thought it was just about the friendliest school around.

And sure enough, after a bit of poking around, we found out that they were screening the comedy Bridesmaids that very night at Cole Cinema in the Campus Center. It was pretty packed, and we contemplated offering our seats in the back row to tuition-paying patrons. But it turned out not to be necessary, and we settled in to enjoy some laughs. 

Now it had officially been a full day, especially for the two of us, who discovered long ago that "cruisers' midnight" comes at about 9 p.m. whether it's after a day on the water or a day vigorous free-range sightseeing. 


In the morning we headed for shore again--hoping for some interactive learning this time, now that the city would be populated by historical interpreters. And boy was it populated--but not just with HSMC interpreters. This, it turned out, was the day of Riverfest--an annual festival organized by and for the benefit of the St. Marys River Watershed Association. So we happily spent the morning exploring the booths and tents, watching a magician, listening to the bands, marveling at the arts and crafts, kibitzing the face-painters and smelling the yummy food.

Speaking of which, it was getting close to lunch time. I can never pass up a rockfish sandwich. And this particular one reminded me why I can't; it was marvelous. Dan was equally self-congratulatory on his choice--a delicious barbecue hoagie.

Happily fortified, we set out for round two of the HSMC tour, beginning with the visitor center and museum. Its location, well to the south of Trinity Church and the State House, seemed remote to us, but that's only because we were visiting by boat and coming from the north edge of the property. For people arriving by car, either end is convenient to the main drag, Point Lookout Road.

The visitor center occupies a handsome old barn and several other buildings that comprised a farm until a few decades ago. We arrived in good time and settled in for the introductory video. The exhibits here range from paintings of the Calverts to maps and illustrations of the early city, to archaeological finds of every imaginable kind. We especially enjoyed the paintings of the various Lords Calvert.  

Then it was off to see some of the things we'd missed on day one--for starters, the reconstructed Jesuit church. It was still and peaceful, and very spare. It felt a little like a Quaker meeting house, but minus chairs or pews. A group of visiting teen-age girls seemed intrigued by the very unusual church interior, as were we.

And then there was Smith's Ordinary, a tavern for the regular (poor) folks--recreated to show what such an inn might have looked like in the last quarter of the 17th century. What fun it was when our costumed inn "mistress" engaged us in a lively discussion of how and where the travelers to the settlement would eat and sleep. Suffice it to say that the space was multi-functional, and shared closely.

This had all been a perfect follow up to the previous day's unplanned course of independent study. Today, with lots of information pre-loaded, so to speak, we were able to soak up the 17th-century feel of it all--thanks to interpretive actors staffing the buildings, the gardens, and the Maryland Dove, which was our next and last stop for the day. Aboard the Dove, we enjoyed visiting with a pair of witty guides in period dress. Enthusiastic Abby Adams taught me how to operate the sail-lifting crank, made with square handles fitting into square pegs (no fools, those early ocean-crossers). 

Returning at last to Trinity (our boat, not the church), we found that our anchorage now had three other sailboats enjoying this special place. They were widely spaced out, however, and it felt somewhat companionable to have neighbors. But in our mutual comings and goings, we never got a chance to meet any of them. Two were flying Canadian flags. What, the summer trek south already? Yikes. Indeed, that reminded us, it was time to think of heading south. 

Over evening drinks in the cockpit, we watched a newly arrived Cape Dory set up a complicated but clever screen/net arrangement that encompassed the entire cockpit, and likely made a dandy sleeping "cabin" on hot summer nights. We eyeballed Trinity to see if such a thing were possible for her, but our rail-mounted necessities (outboard, man overboard system, etc.) made it seem unlikely. Besides, we like sleeping below--as long as we have our 12-volt fans. Still, I thought--refusing to give up on the idea--the screened-cockpit option seemed like a good offering for potential guests. 

But thoughts of guests were for another voyage. Busy with departure thoughts of our next destination, Deltaville, we wondered when we'd see St. Mary's City once more. Soon, I hope. Because it's no longer on the bucket list; it's on the favorites list.