St. Mary’s City

The latest and greatest entry in my ongoing series “Pat and Ian Go Places When Ian Has the Day Off and Pat Continues to Be Unemployed” is our recent trip to the historic St. Mary’s City. I should get a job. Before that happens though, a brief intro to Maryland history.

The history of Maryland is long (for the US, anyways) and filled with exciting episodes like that one time we had a war with Pennsylvania, that other time people actually fought over the Severn, and a more awkward than most relationship with slavery. The story opens, however, with the founding of the colony that would become the greatest state in the union at St. Mary’s City on the northern shore of the St. Mary’s river. It’s a pretty standard colonial origin story, with dashes of escaping religious persecution, befriending the natives, and important things happening under trees. After about 70 years the capital was moved up to Annapolis and St. Mary’s was abandoned. Fast forward an additional three hundred or so years, and the city has become a major archaeological site you can visit on sunny days in May.

We headed out for our 2.5 hour drive around ten thirty and stopped for lunch on the way at Smokey Joe’s BBQ. We parked at St. Mary’s City visitor’s center to pay our entry fee and look at the artifacts they have on display. St. Mary’s City is apparently an archaeological training ground, so the city is pretty well documented as far as these places go. The visitor’s center gives a pretty efficient run-down of the history of the city. Artifacts on display include an old saker, which is apparently a type of cannon, a variety of pottery shards from the local tavern, and some examples of jewelry and sewing needles and the like. The rest of the city is explored via walking trails. “City” is a bit of a generous term in the modern sense and the whole place is about a mile from end to end.

The first area is a recreated Native American village. The nascent St. Maryites spent their first winter living in part of a Yaocomico village they purchased after some negotiations. Relations with the natives were reportedly very friendly, which is nice for a change of colonial pace. This portion of the city features prototypical huts with various implements on display within them. A very nice man in a polo shirt was explaining some of the finer points of native construction techniques, but Ian was too preoccupied with some of the other huts to let me listen very long. Also on display is a half-finished canoe, but filled with rainwater it looked more to me like someone should be looking for a convenient soap mine.

Next up on the path is a reconstructed Jesuit church. Throughout the city are faithful as possible recreations of the original structures. Some, like the church, were built with as original as possible construction techniques and materials, while others are a little less faithful but the discrepancies are noted. Also dotting the site are “ghost houses,” which are wooden frames of buildings as stand-ins for the originals to give you a sense of the density of the place. The church is fairly impressive, with one of the highlights being a glass section of the floor where you can look down and see the original lead coffins of Philip Calvert (the second Lord Baltimore’s brother), his wife Anne, and an unknown child, presumed to be from Phil’s second wife. They were returned to approximately their original locations (the modern reconstructed church is over the site of the historic one) after about 25 years of study and storage. In my old age I am sort of increasingly weirded out by putting dead people on display. I might be the crazy one. The coffins look nice though I guess?

Another highlight of the city is the oldest barn in Maryland. The sign for the barn is titled “Why is this Barn Here?” which is a little philosophical for my tastes but I’ll let it slide. The inside of the barn features displays about barn construction techniques and the details of tobacco packaging & shipping. As a proud Marylander, I am of course very familiar with tobacco farming, with tobacco farms being a standard for Elementary School field trips. At any rate this particular barn dates from 1785, putting it well within the farmland years of St. Mary’s City, but very historic nonetheless.

Walking north from the church brings you to downtown or our bustling historic metropolis. This are includes the most intricate display they have, with a large building representing Garrett Van Sweringen’s Council Chamber Inn. It was purportedly quite the posh place back in the day. You know it was nice because they have a sign denoting the fact that they found a large number of crab remains on the site, proving that Marylanders have been enjoying crab feasts from the start. Also on the back of the property is a coffee & brew house, and I mean with all these features in one spot why did they ever bother to go to Annapolis? This portion of the city also features the town store where you can look at old shoes and axe heads, as well as tour guides in period garb. These were my favorite kind of tour guides in period garb, where they don’t try to make you think you’ve somehow been transported back to 1650, and instead just tell you about whatever they got going while wearing some sweet duds.

They very pièce de résistance of the whole place (for Ian and I, anyway) is a recreated Dove. Although the colonists and their supplies were transported to the city on another ship, the 400-ton Ark, the colonists also brought over the Dove to give them some metaphorical wheels once the Ark departed. The modern Dove is a best-guess at what the original looked like, as the guides for the ship explain ad nauseum. It clocks in at 40 tons and strikes me as a pretty sturdy little ship, although the original was lost at sea on a trading voyage not too long after the colonists settled in. Although we didn’t get to see it when we were there, the Dove goes sailing about once a month to keep the crew exercised and trained.

The endpoint of the walking tour is another recreated building, Maryland’s first state house. The original state house was torn down after the city was abandoned, but the bricks were used to construct the Trinity Church which still stands next door, giving a tangible tie to the past, or whatever sounds poetic here. You can explore the statehouse, which is one of those large cool buildings, designed for hot summers before they invented air conditioning. Along with the church there is of course a graveyard, featuring some more old dead people, though not quite as old (but still as dead) as the lead coffins from earlier. In the graveyard is a marker declaring the position of the old mulberry tree where the colonists gathered to establish their city. Upon reaching this marker and reading the inscription, Ian declared that we were “done” with the city, and with that we turned around for the walk back to the car.

St. Mary’s City was a very nice place to visit. The weather was beautiful and those colonists really knew how to pick scenic riverside real estate. The displays and signs were very well done, and it is evident that the location is well cherished and cared for by the similarly named university next door. I think most people that visit Maryland will wind up in Baltimore or Annapolis, but down southern Maryland is really the state’s agricultural homeland and it is worth the trip.