Sotterley’s ‘quaint’ reputation built on architecture, family lore
Snow was melting from the roof of the cabin. It cruised down the slope and fell in rhythmic drips to the earth. There, the water sank into a narrow cradle of pebbles that ran the length of the cabin walls.
Catherine Kelly Elder, executive director of Sotterley Plantation in southern Maryland, pointed with enthusiasm.
“Look,” she said. “Those French drains. He did that, too.”
The drains, Elder explained, are a simple technique for drawing water away from the foundation of a building. Simple, but critical.
In the 1800s, this one-room cabin would have housed up to two dozen enslaved African Americans at one time. It would have been one of many that lined the plantation’s old rolling road, on a gently sloping path to the Patuxent River.
No one knows exactly how the builder, a plantation slave, came to use this technique, but it’s clear that these drains helped the cabin survive into the 21st century. So did a host of other construction choices that made this cabin unusually well built for the time. The chimney is brick, not wood. The entire frame of the cabin is hewn and sawn, rather than left unfinished. Posts on the exterior of the cabin brace the walls and stop them from buckling outward.
Collectively, these details have preserved a rare example of 1800s slave quarters in the mid-Atlantic region. But they also hint at the character, skill and forethought of the person who built it.
For Elder, this kind of testament to the human spirit shows itself throughout the history, grounds and architecture of Sotterley—the only surviving Tidewater plantation in Maryland that is fully accessible to the public. From the subtle moments of water dripping on stones to the finely crafted staircase of the mansion and colorful family legends, Sotterley tells a layered tale of life and history in the Chesapeake’s Tidewater region.
Like many of the other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, one of the first stories at Sotterley Plantation unfolds through the landscape.
Sotterley is draped along the gracefully sloping bank of the Patuxent River in Saint Mary’s County, MD. During colonial times and beyond, the waterways of the Chesapeake region were a ready-made highway, critical to commerce and survival.
When Sotterley’s original owner, John Bowles, purchased nearly 900 acres here in 1710, he secured a prime location for his farm. The rich tidal environment not only produced fertile fields, but living resources that helped to sustain its human inhabitants with game, fish, and shellfish.
Bowles and future owners of Sotterley relied on their waterfront location to expand both their personal wealth and Sotterley’s importance to the region. The river provided efficient transportation to markets at home and abroad, and it also won Sotterley’s designation as a “point of entry” for the colonies. This made the wharf at Sotterley an official hub of commerce for the larger region. Sotterley’s owners collected the shipping duties and other fees owed to the crown, and made a lucrative profit for themselves. The customs house and warehouse that evolved from these transactions still exist on the grounds today.
Even in the winter, with frozen water bringing ships to a standstill, the river connected communities on both side of its banks. As a youth at Sotterley, George Plater III courted his future wife, Elizabeth Rousby, by skating across the frozen Patuxent River to meet with her. There were, of course, no bridges at the time.
“Elizabeth was very beautiful,” Elder recounted. “They called her the ‘white rose of Maryland.’ George was worried that other suitors might get to her first, so he didn’t waste time waiting for the ice to thaw.”
The river was central to life at Sotterley for more than 200 years. It’s ironic, then, that today’s approach to the mansion is from the land, on a stately, tree-lined drive—with the river blocked from view. This entry actually brings visitors to the rear of the mansion, surrounded by quaint outbuildings and gardens. The true front of the house faces the river, and the view is worth the wait.
As one moves to the front of the house, the closer, cozy spaces of the rear give way to an expansive sweep of land and sky. Just a short distance from the mansion’s portico, the fields begin a long cascade to the river. At the water’s edge is a wooded buffer where eagles have nested for more than a decade.
To the right of the fields is a wooded ravine, with the slave cabin barely visible through the branches. The rolling road follows the tree line, echoing with footsteps aimed for the river and the ships at Sotterley’s pier. Your own feet, on the stone floor of the portico, stand on ballast stones from the bowels of British ships that made a final uphill journey on the same rolling road.
It’s too simple to suggest that you can absorb the river’s significance in just one glance, but the view from Sotterley’s portico comes close to accomplishing just that.
The mansion at Sotterley has drawn admirers for hundreds of years. George Washington, a frequent visitor at Sotterley, was among them. In more recent times, the drawing room was cited as one of the most beautiful rooms in America and the entire building called the “quaintest house in Maryland.”
And it, too, has stories to tell.
Sotterley’s mansion grew from a humble beginning. John Bowles began building the house in 1717, creating a two-room dwelling with a post-in-earth construction method that was common in Tidewater areas.
“Cypress posts were simply stuck into the earth,” Elder said, “And the walls were built up around them. Maybe the families thought they’d come back later and do something more substantial, but they didn’t.”
Today, in one of the original areas now known as the “red room,” a small piece of paneling has been removed to show the original post and a later reinforcement.
When Bowles passed away in 1727, his widow, Rebecca, married the affluent George Plater II. Their son, George Plater III, inherited Sotterley and went on to become the sixth governor of Maryland.
As the family transitioned, so did Sotterley. First, it gained a name—after Sotterley Hall, the Plater family’s ancestral seat in England. The farm grew into a plantation, and the modest home swelled into an exemplary colonial mansion.
The central staircase, one of Sotterley’s most renowned features, was built during this period by an indentured servant named Richard Boulton. Governor Plater contracted with this highly skilled craftsman for work on both the drawing room and the central staircase.
“They say Plater was so pleased with the staircase that he gave Boulton his freedom,” Elder said.
The staircase also drew George Washington’s attention during one of his visits to Sotterley. Washington signed Boulton up to finish work on his dining room, but Boulton declined to show up for the job.
Boulton also created the impressive shell alcoves in the manor house drawing room. This lovely formal room, with windows overlooking the river, also speaks from the past. On one window, the name “Key” is etched on the glass. This marks the spot where the governor’s daughter is said to have tested the authenticity of her new diamond engagement ring from Philip Key, the uncle of Francis Scott Key.
Sotterley remained in the Plater family’s hands for two more generations. Then, in 1822, George Plater V gambled away the last of his resources and lost Sotterley in the process. Later in life, while hospitalized in Baltimore for mental instability, he escaped for a last reckless pilgrimage to Sotterley. He reached his destination, but passed away on the lawn from exposure to the elements.
Afterward, the Briscoe family owned Sotterley for nearly 100 years. Then, in 1910, Sotterley was purchased by the “Satterlees.” The similarity in names is no coincidence. This transaction, which heralded Sotterley’s final era as a private home, brought a fitting conclusion to yet another story that began centuries earlier in England.
During the War of the Roses, the Satterlee family had lost its ancestral mansion in Suffolk—none other than Sotterley Hall—to the Platers. When descendants of the Satterlee family in America learned that the Plater family plantation, still known as Sotterley, was for sale, it seemed that fate had offered the last laugh to them.
While the mansion remains as the most visible center of the plantation, Sotterley’s stories don’t end within its walls.
For example, the lands and lives of Sotterley were continually embroiled with the nation’s wars. Shortly after the American Revolution, British troops raided Sotterley, hanging the plantation overseer and capturing four slaves. The raiders returned again in 1814. During the Civil War, Union soldiers camped nearby, but the Briscoes, owners of approximately 53 slaves, sided with the south. Three of Dr. Walter Briscoe’s sons joined the Confederate Army. One of his slaves, George Briscoe, escaped to join the Union Army. Briscoe’s son, Henry, and ex-slave, George, fought on opposite sides of the battle at Petersburg, VA.
Gardens and 25 outbuildings add further dimension to the texture of life at Sotterley. The slave cabin stands in stark, moving contrast to the luxuries enjoyed at the top of the hill. An exploration of the grounds helps bring today’s luxuries into focus as well.
The 18th century “necessary” was a well-equipped outhouse for the time, featuring brick walls, multiple seats and a window. Still, other touches like the rear access for cleaning and decorative bins for corncobs (ask your tour guide) are features that today’s visitors will be glad to do without.
The corn crib building, adorned with curled cypress shingles, has been restored to display the tools and crafts that supported a thriving plantation. Exhibits detail the work of coopers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and harness makers, as well as the growing and processing of corn and tobacco.
The 18th century smokehouse features a brining trough that was hollowed from the trunk of a tree and used for curing hams.
The gardens make for lovely scenery from April through November. They also help to demonstrate how colonial living depended on nature for everything from sustenance to medicine and hygiene.
A short distance from the gardens stand two small gatehouses, one of which served as a one-room schoolhouse in the 19th century.
Today, Sotterley stands on 100 acres as a rich example of life, history and architecture in the Chesapeake watershed.
“The amazing thing is that it’s all still here,” Elder said. That’s because, just 10 years ago, Sotterley was on the brink of structural and financial collapse.
Mabel Satterlee Ingalls created the Sotterley Mansion Foundation in 1961 as a way to preserve the plantation and its history. But, as the years passed, the foundation had no effective way to sustain itself or provide long-term care for the plantation.
“The roof on the manor house was literally falling in,” Elder said.
An unexpected partnership sounded the alarm. Agnes Kane Callum, a descendent of an enslaved family at Sotterley, partnered with Judge John Hanson Briscoe. Together, they championed its cause at the local, state and national level.
Their worked paid off in 1986, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation dubbed Sotterley one of America’s most endangered places.
Suddenly, Sotterley was in the national spotlight.
As the media flocked to Sotterley, so did public interest, expanded leadership and funding opportunities. Efforts were especially boosted in 1999, when the White House Millennium Council included Sotterley in its Save America’s Treasures project.
Sotterley got its new roof—“55,000 hand dipped, hand-hewn, hand-applied cedar shingles,” Elder said—and a new lease on life.
After the mansion was stabilized, work expanded to improve the grounds, outbuildings and exhibits. As a result, Sotterley is a historic jewel on the Patuxent, telling tales of three centuries in the Tidewater region. With ongoing restoration and rich archaeological opportunities ahead, the stories will undoubtedly continue to unfold.Sotterley Plantation
Sotterley Plantation is located on Route 245 in Hollywood, St. Mary’s County, MD, approximately 100 miles from Richmond and 60 miles from Washington, DC.
Manor House tours are scheduled 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday & noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. May 1 though Oct. 31. Tours for groups of 15 or more are available by reservation year round.
Fees are $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $5 for ages 6-16. Ages 5 and younger are admitted free.
Sotterly’s grounds and six miles of trails are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday year round. The grounds fee is $2 per person.
For information, call 800-681-0850 or 301-373-2280, or visit www.sotterley.com
2005 Event Calendar*
- May 20-22: Southern Maryland Quilt & Needlework Show
- July 3: Fourth of July Celebration
- Oct. 1-2: Riverside WineFest
- Oct. 14-15: Ghosts of Sotterley
- Dec. 2-3: Candlelight Tours of the Manor House
- Dec. 3: A Sotterley Family Christmas
*Special admission fees apply.
To learn more about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net
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