After almost 90 years of searching, the earliest colonial site in Maryland has finally been found. Archaeologist Travis Parno was on vacation when he received a text message stating that a possible fort at St. Mary’s may have been discovered. St. Mary’s was the first permanent English settlement in the state and one of the earliest in the country.
Archaeological geophysicist Tim Horsley was using ground-penetrating radar to scan an area about half a mile away from St. Mary’s River when he found outlines of appeared to be old structures. The scans detected imprints of post holes that created a big rectangle and a semicircular bastion located in one of the corners as well as possible living quarters inside of it (perhaps belonging to Native Americans). Excavations then revealed a brick cellar belonging to a guardhouse or storehouse, as well as a quartzite arrow head dating back 4,500 years, and a musket trigger guard.
Historic St. Mary’s City confirmed this by stating that a palisade fort dating back to 1634 had in fact been found.
Native Americans occupied the area when the 150 colonists arrived in March of 1634 on two ships (the Ark and the Dove). Among them were numerous Catholics who were escaping Protestant persecution in England. Others included a Jesuit priest named Father Andrew White; the colony’s first governor named Leonard Calvert; and a servant named Mathias de Sousa who went on to serve in the legislative assembly of freemen.
Father White wrote that colonists bought 30 miles of land from the Yaocomaco Indians and paid them with axes, hoes, hatchets, and cloth. The colonists and natives lived close to each other, but it is unclear whether or not they inhabited the fort at the same time and if it was actually built around the native dwellings.
This is such a significant discovery and based on letters written back in the 1630s, the colonists seemed to have been very happy with their new settlement. In a letter written by Calvert to his business partner, Richard Lechford, on May 30, 1634, he wrote in part, “I found a most convenient harbor, and pleasant country lying on each side of it.” “On the east side of it we have seated ourselves, within one half mile of the river.” He went on to write that they had constructed “a pallizado of one hundred and twenty yards square.”
Father White also described their new settlement, “Our towne we call St. Maries … [It] abounds not alone with profit but also with pleasure.” While they seemed to have liked their new town, they did eventually abandon it.
Pictures of the excavation can be seen here.