Interpreters help visitors bring Historic St. Mary’s City back to life
Godiah Spray, a 17th century plantation master in St. Mary’s City, MD, was having a bit of trouble with his 21th century guests.
They needed help with their bows and curtseys.
They called him a “farmer,” instead of a “planter.”
And they seemed to have very little understanding of what it would take to survive in this new settlement along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
Spray was happy to help, and he offered some advice: A man should include a slight flourish with his bow. A lady should lower her eyes when she curtsies.
“I’m a planter, not a farmer,” he later explained. “A planter owns his land. A farmer merely rents it. The land has been ‘farmed out.’”
But learning to live, let alone thrive, in St. Mary’s City would take more time. Success would require a mix of skills and luck—and, most importantly, large crops of tobacco.
Spray, portrayed by Aaron Meisinger, comes to life regularly at Historic St. Mary’s City, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
St. Mary’s City was settled in March of 1634 along the St. Mary’s River, a tributary to the Potomac, in what is now southern Maryland. Its first citizens, approximately 140 English colonists under the leadership of Leonard Calvert, crossed the Atlantic on the Ark, accompanied by a smaller vessel named the Dove.
Theirs was to be the first city in Maryland and the first successful colony in North America owned by an individual, instead of a company. It would also be the first to avoid near starvation. Unlike their predecessors in Jamestown and Plymouth, who struggled to survive their early years, Maryland colonists produced enough crops within their first six months to export surplus corn to New England.
The relatively quick success at St. Mary’s City depended both on good planning and the resources of the Chesapeake Bay.
“The Calverts were very much aware of what was going on in other colonies,” said Susan Wilkinson, communications director for Historic St. Mary’s City. Many of the people who came to St. Mary’s City were recruited as indentured servants, people brought for their ability to work and carve a settlement out of the wilderness.”
Calvert planned the trip to arrive in the spring, at the start of the planting season, and he brought large provisions of food and seed. He required each colonist to provide their own clothing for one year, as well as supplies like frying pans, muskets, nails, shovels and saws.
The city was positioned on rich waterfront farmland, with a deep harbor providing access to local and cross-Atlantic travel routes.
“Waterways were the highways of the time,” Wilkinson said. “The inner lands didn’t have roads. If you had any goods you hoped to trade, if you wanted to move people or take advantage of communications, you’d need to be on the waterfront.”
The location of St. Mary’s City was no accident.
Originally, the colonists set up camp at St. Clement’s Island, in the Potomac River, and searched for a place to settle. They drew on the expertise of a Virginia trader named Henry Fleet. Fleet, who had explored Maryland and lived as a Native American captive for five years, learned about a site downriver where the Yaocomaco were abandoning a village. The settlers obtained the land by trading hatchets, axes, hose, and cloth with the natives—a deliberately honorable move, as later described by colonist Father Andrew White, meant to “prevent any pretext for injury or occasion for enmity.”
The colonists not only gained the land, but the village that stood on it. There was cleared land, fields sown with corn and shelter.
“There were shelters ready made, and some of the colonists moved right into them until they could build other homes,” Wilkinson said.
Some of the Yaocomaco stayed behind to help with harvest, teaching the colonists how to catch oysters and hunt game.
But the natives could never have imagined how one local crop would soon define the lives of these newcomers.
“I’m not here as a spokesman for tobacco companies,” Meisinger said to his guests, before stepping into character as Spray. “But I’m here to help you understand how people in St. Mary’s City thought about tobacco in the 1600s. And they did think about it. A lot.”
Natives used tobacco mostly for ceremonial purposes, but Europeans believed it was good for everything from pleasure to relieving womanly pains and constipation.
Tomatoes, on the other hand, were considered poisonous.
“Wherever there was trade, tobacco went. It was new and hip,” Meisinger said. “Remember, it takes less time for an astronaut to get to the moon and back than it took to travel one way from Europe. Tobacco really was from a new world.”
A tour of Godiah Spray’s plantation is not only a star attraction at Historic St. Mary’s City, but a palpable lesson in the relentless centrality of tobacco in the colonial tidewater region.
Everyone and everything at St. Mary’s City was focused on tobacco. While Maryland promised religious freedom, especially for Catholics, it was tobacco profits that drew people to its shores.
“Nine of ten people didn’t come here to worship as they please. They did—and that was important—but mostly they came to grow tobacco crops and make money,” Meisinger said.
Most of the early buildings at St. Mary’s were small and simple because settlers didn’t want to invest time in anything but the tobacco fields. And they were saving their money to buy more land—and plant more tobacco.
Cows and pigs proved the ideal livestock because they foraged for their own food and didn’t require crops to feed them. In fact, colonists were so reluctant to plant anything but tobacco that the colony’s leaders felt uneasy about the food supply. In 1638, they passed a law requiring planters to sow two acres of corn for each man working in the fields.
Those who didn’t grow tobacco made their living in trades that supported it or in taverns and at the docks. Coopers crafted large barrels known as “hogsheads,” which carried tobacco across the Atlantic. They traded for everything else, using tobacco as currency.
Tobacco affected the physical shape of the city, too.
“By 1661, 10 million pounds of tobacco were going from this site to England,” Meisinger said. “That’s why there was no ‘city’ here, in the way we think of it today. You can’t grow 10 million pounds of tobacco in a city.”
The colonists, who came to include several hundred people, lived in plantations spread out along planned roads. The roads formed two triangles with intersecting corners that marked the town center. A brick chapel and mill dam were built on the outlying corners of one triangle, and a state house and jail on the others.
The planters’ homes improved over time, but remained relatively simple wooden structures. Visitors looking for Tara-style mansions will be disappointed.
“This was the frontier of the world,” Meisinger said. “Running a plantation doesn’t mean you are rich, have slaves, or big white columns in front of your house.”
The recreated Godiah Spray house consists of a few small rooms serving a large family and a newly arrived indentured servant who wonders how she will fare against the illnesses of the coming winter.
St. Mary’s was at its peak as Maryland’s capital from 1660 to 1690. But trouble in England between Protestants and Catholics eventually caused unrest in Maryland. In 1695, St. Mary’s collapsed as a functioning city when the capital was moved to Annapolis.
As Maryland’s first city and one of the earliest permanent English settlements, St. Mary’s is steeped in so many “firsts” that it ranks among the most historic sites in the United States.
Religious tolerance was not only professed but practiced at St. Mary’s, resulting in the first Catholic chapel built in English America.
Two men of African descent arrived as indentured servants. One of them, Matthias de Sousa, became a mariner and fur trader. In 1642, he participated in the assembly and cast the first black vote in English America.
Margaret Brent was the first woman in America to request a vote—and, actually, she asked for two. Brent arrived in St. Mary’s City four years after its founding. She became an active business woman, owning land, trading tobacco and employing indentured servants. She represented herself and her brothers in court and was employed by the Calverts to help with business and financial affairs.
In 1648, she petitioned the assembly for two votes: one for herself and one for her position as Lord Baltimore’s attorney. Her request was refused.
The first printing press south of Massachusetts appeared in St. Mary’s City in 1685, and was operated by William Nuthead. His main products were forms for the government. When Nuthead died, his wife, Dinah, continued to operate the press, even though she could neither read nor write. When the government moved to Annapolis, she moved with it.
A few planters remained to work the land, but St. Mary’s City began to disappear. Today, nothing of the original city remains above ground, although archeology has unearthed the story.
Visitors walk colonial paths amid house frames that give a ghostly presence to Maryland’s first citizens. Well-placed recreations, like the Godiah Spray Plantation, Smith’s Ordinary, and the Woodland Indian Hamlet, come to life with the help of skilled interpreters. The state house, reconstructed in 1934, is a centerpiece of the grounds, and brick work on the chapel is nearly complete, as a recreated sanctuary rises under the hands of skilled artisans. The Maryland Dove, glorious at the dock and even more so under sail, introduces visitors to life on board a colonial trading ship.
At the visitors center, an exhibit called “…once the Metropolis of Maryland” showcases artifacts from colonial St. Mary’s City: earrings, body armor, thimbles, bells, pottery, glassware and Catholic religious medals. One of the three lead coffins unearthed from the floor of the chapel is on display. Two have been identified as those of Philip Calvert and his wife, Anne Wolseley Calvert. The third holds an unidentified female child. Their remains will be returned to the chapel once construction is complete.
“It’s a soulful place,” Wilkinson said, with a gesture that encompassed the central buildings, riverside walk, and masts of the Maryland Dove jutting above the tree line.
For Maryland’s first colonists, it was a place of hard work but boundless opportunity. Planters like Spray saw few limits to the region’s bounty. While Spray could plant tobacco in a field for no more than three to five years before depleting the soil, he saw no reason to worry.
“It’s not a concern,” Spray said with a shrug. “The land here goes on and on. We’ll never run out.”
The Maryland Dove first slipped into the water in 1978, a full-scale reproduction of a 17th century vessel, that carries visitors back in time. It is named for the Dove, the smaller of two ships that crossed the Atlantic with Maryland’s first settlers in 1634.
The Ark was the larger, 400-ton ship, chartered to transport 140 colonists and most of their supplies. The Dove weighed in at about 40 tons. Investors purchased the Dove not to carry goods and people, but to stay with the colonists as a trading vessel.
“The Ark was the moving truck. The Dove was the family van,” said Joseph Greeley, waterfront interpreter at Historic St. Mary’s City and author of “Watery Highways: Trade and Travel in the Colonial Chesapeake.”
The Maryland Dove is 76 feet long overall, with a 56-foot deck and a draft of 7 feet. Its two masts support up to 1,965 square feet of sail.
Visitors to Historic St. Mary’s City can enjoy a full tour with costumed interpreters. Because the Maryland Dove makes a few visits to other ports, it’s worth checking her schedule on the special events calendar at www.stmaryscity.org.
- Grand Militia Muster: Oct 21. The St. Maries Militia comes to town for one of the largest gatherings of 17th century re-enactors in the United States.
- Hearth & Home in Early Maryland: Nov. 24 & 25. Demonstrations and hands-on activities show how colonists prepare for the winter.
- Community Concert & Open House: Dec. 6. The State House hosts costumed singers and seasonal music. Free. Doors open at 6 p.m. Concert begins at 7 p.m.
For information, visit www.stmaryscity.org.
Historic St. Mary’s City
Visitors may explore the grounds, Visitor Center, The Shop at Farthing’s Ordinary and living history exhibits.
Fall 2006 (through Nov. 25) & Spring 2007 (March 13-June 16): 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Living history exhibits are closed on Sunday.
Winter: (Nov. 29 through March 12) The Visitor Center and living history exhibits are closed.
Summer 2007 (June 20-Sept. 16): 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The living history exhibits are open daily.
Admission is $7.50/adults; $6/seniors & students; $3.50/ages 6–12; free/age 5 & younger. Admission is reduced in the winter and on Sundays in the spring and fall, when living history exhibits are closed.
(In 2007, the fees will increase to. $10/adults; $8/seniors; $6/students; $3.50/ages 6-12; free age 5 and younger.)
An audio tour may be rented for an additional $3.
For information, including directions, visit www.stmaryscity.org or call 800-762-1634 or 240-895-4990.
For information about other Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network sites, visit www.baygateways.net.
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