As archaeologists labored to peel back layers of earth, a small brown stain rose to the surface like a long-buried scar. It was the footprint of a small, disintegrated coffin, in the last place anyone expected to find it.
They had been exploring this area of lawn at the historic site of London Town, in Anne Arundel County, MD for some time. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, London Town was a thriving colonial tobacco port and ferry point on the South River. This particular spot held the remains of a house that was built about 1725, most likely by the local tavern keeper, who owned several slaves. The outline of the house was clear. Dark lines and circles in the soil marked posts and indicated the placement of walls and doorways.
Floorboards, too, were neatly inscribed in the earth. And the tiny coffin was tucked directly between two of them.
“We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, but there was no mistaking it,” said Al Luckenbach, archaeologist for Anne Arundel County. “Someone had been buried beneath the floor of this building. The question was, why?”
Archaeology detectives spread word of the discovery to their colleagues. They found no other site in the United States similar to this one. But a different story revealed itself to the south. In Bermuda, colonial slave families buried their adult relatives in outlying areas, but they often interred deceased children beneath their floorboards, presumably to keep the little ones close to home and heart. The practice was also known in various West African cultures.
The connection to London Town was not hard to trace. During the 1720s and 1730s, Bermuda was London Town’s principal trading partner. And it was not uncommon for London Town to receive shiploads of slaves from Bermuda.
Most of the remains in the coffin have been lost to time, but archaeologists believe they are of a slave child about 6 years old.
In May 2003, the remains were reinterred at their original location, honored with ceremonies involving ministers, re-enactors, politicians, historians and archaeologists, many of them from the African-American community.
“It’s part of the story this place needs to tell,” Luckenbach explained. “The grave will be protected and interpreted, right in the spot where the mother intended it to be.”
London Town’s mission of protecting and interpreting the region’s historical and natural heritage is shared by fellow members of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
While the child’s burial place was an especially notable find, the energy of discovery is everywhere at London Town, formally known as Historic London Town & Gardens. The 23-acre site—one-fourth of the town’s original holdings—has remained largely undisturbed for about 150 years.
Archaeological excavations began just recently, in 1996. Visitors see not only the results of the excavations, but rub elbows with the process as it happens. They can stroll up close to the excavations and get a hands-on experience during supervised “dig days.” There are also opportunities to join in the re-creation of early fence rows and colonial gardens, as well as to explore the reconstruction of early buildings, as the work of master housewright Russ Steele and a league of volunteers goes on around them.
London Town also features the William Brown House, a National Historic Landmark house museum; an 8-acre woodland garden; colonial kitchen and African-American gardens; the Richard Hill Garden of native and imported medicinal plants; and a multipurpose pavilion, used for weddings, business meetings, lectures and cultural events.
London Town is once again about trade and commerce—this time, an exchange of education and enthusiasm for this juncture of history, landscape and waterways.
London Town was founded in 1683 by an act of the Maryland General Assembly. It was a logical place to encourage development. Situated just above the mouth of the South River, where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, and surrounded by lush fields of tobacco, London Town was an ideal spot for a trans-Atlantic seaport. It was also the location of a thriving ferry crossing to nearby Annapolis, serving travelers on several major roads that joined up at London Town, including the main route between Williamsburg, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
The town soon blossomed to 300 inhabitants, with approximately 40 homes and other buildings. Along with the direct participants in land and sea trade, others arrived to serve the many needs of a growing population and constant flow of visitors. Innkeepers, rope makers, ship builders, carpenters, doctors and coopers joined the community of wealthy merchants and growers whose rich soil seemed endlessly productive.
Pipemakers, too, were among the mix. Just recently, historians and archaeologists held a 14-hour, overnight vigil—including three hours of rain—to nurse a carefully reconstructed pipe kiln to firing temperature. The pipe kiln was built near the site of a probable London Town pipemaker and based on a pipe kiln uncovered at another site in Anne Arundel County.
“It was the first time in hundreds of years that pipes have been fired this way in the Chesapeake region,” said Donna Ware, executive director of the London Town Foundation. “Everyone was excited about the first firing. Some pipes were expressed mailed in from Virginia. Another was made by a British historian.”
By 1700 to 1730, the town rivaled other colonial centers such as Williamsburg and Annapolis. But things were about to change. British powers aimed to control the booming but unregulated tobacco trade—and to tax it. In 1747, the Maryland General Assembly limited tobacco exports to a handful of select ports. London Town was not among them.
“We don’t know exactly how that decision was made,” Ware said. But she points out that the town was in heated competition with Annapolis. Also, its merchants were predominantly Scottish, a population whose bristly relationship with the British had a long and detailed history. “They may have used the opportunity to bump the competition off the map.”
Faced with a declining tobacco trade, additional competition from an upriver ferry, and the economic turmoil of the American Revolution, London Town faded quickly.
Amidst the sudden and undeniable downturn in London Town’s fortunes, one of the town’s most prominent citizens staked out an unexpected new project.
William Brown was an aspiring gentleman who operated both a ferry and an inn at London Town. He was also a joiner, cabinetmaker and building contractor. In 1758, Brown began constructing a formidable Georgian mansion at the river’s edge. The house measures 50-by-40 feet, facing the road to the ferry landing, with a dramatic view of the river.
The house rose as the town faded. Although Brown himself succumbed to debt and left the house with an unfinished interior, it stands today as a National Historic Landmark and an essential part of any London Town visit.
Brown built in a grand style for the times. Most notably, all of the exterior walls were made using “header bond” brick. Header bond was a stylish and expensive technique, fashioned by rotating the bricks to expose the narrow end rather than the wide one. This required many more bricks than conventional brick-bonding methods. Usually, header bond was saved for accent areas. The Brown House is the only known example using all-header bond brickwork on four elevations.
Inside, a unique floor plan features four elevated corner rooms separated by two intersecting hallways. Architectural evidence suggests that the house was intended to be used as a tavern.
By the early 1800s, little was left of London Town except for the stately William Brown House. But the existence of this house is one reason that much of the town’s story can be recovered from the ground today.
In 1828, Anne Arundel County purchased the Brown house and 10 surrounding acres for use as an almshouse. The house and grounds provided sanctuary for the county’s poor until 1965. This kept the house used but basically unaltered for more than 140 years, and it left even more treasures intact beneath the surface of its lawn. When the almshouse closed, preservationists rallied to restore the building as a house museum.
It took time for efforts to expand beyond the William Brown House itself. In the 1980s, some preliminary work indicated that a world of archaeological evidence lay beneath its neatly manicured lawn.
“It was like standing in Williamsburg and only seeing the capital building,” Luckenbach said.
In 1996, the county finally launched an aggressive exploration of the London Town site as part of its “Lost Towns” project. County archaeologists have since uncovered several building sites, including Rumney’s Tavern and a tenement building known as the Lord Mayor’s House, along with countless artifacts and, just recently, the resting place of the slave child. These finds have led to a welcomed burst of reconstruction, educational programming and public attention.
London Town is the site of more than buildings; its gardens are flourishing. Historical gardening techniques and heirloom plants are showcased in the kitchen garden, the African American garden, the Dr. Richard Hill Medicinal Garden and tobacco patch. Adjacent areas are targeted for exemplary forest management and walking trails. Most notably, a woodland garden spills over 8 acres of the property, brimming with native and exotic species that cascade over shady slopes and break to reveal vistas of the river.
This woodland garden evolved from efforts of the county extension service, which once housed its offices in an old almshouse outbuilding. The garden does not recreate historic settings, but offers the visitor delightful solace in the “gardens within gardens” that fill its nooks and curves.
Although the woodland garden is especially lovely in spring, professional and amateur horticulturists, area garden clubs, individual volunteers and Anne Arundel County Recreation & Parks staff designed the garden to be enjoyed year-round.
The Spring Walk is especially captivating. It includes streamside ferns, primroses, Virginia bluebells, violets and other woodland wildflowers, as well as azaleas, rhododendrons, dogwoods, bloodroot, epimedium and trees and shrubs that flower in succession through spring into early summer.
Noteworthy plant collections include hollies, species magnolias and cultivars, thousands of daffodils and an array of peonies, including both herbaceous and tree forms. Camellias, mahonias, stewartias and many others continue the show year-round.
The Winter Garden begins with the gazebo and ends with an overlook at the South River. It is planted with deciduous trees and shrubs that sport interesting winter character. Visitors will find berries, branches and bark with distinct colors or patterns, and evergreens with unusual colors or forms. The winter garden also includes a collection of winter-blooming camellias developed by Dr. William Ackerman. These plants were bred for cold climates and planted here as part of a cold hardiness trial.
Beside the Winter Garden, the Wildflower Walk winds through bloodroot, woodruff, trillium, lady’s slipper, hardy orchids, and other natives and leads to the top of the Azalea Glade. From there, broad steps descend through a planting of native rhododendrons.
The bottom of the glade opens to a splendid view of both the river and the Dell. A small valley, the Dell’s surrounding slopes are covered with azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. By the river are the garden’s two oldest trees, both willow oaks, and several species of large-leafed magnolias.
A visit to London Town is a textured experience. Get your hands dirty with a spirited crew on a public dig day. Enjoy some solace on a shaded, riverside bench. Wind your way through the wood chips to learn about colonial carpentry. Step through the doorway of a seaport tavern. Expand your world of plants. Or go one step further—put yourself into the past and sail to the dock at London Town, like so many visitors did in years gone by.
In the days ahead, look for more trails, an award-winning visitors’ center and museum and more interpretive areas along the water’s edge and ferry site. The folks at London Town invite you to join in the discoveries.
Visiting London Town
London Town and the woodland garden are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday , and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The last tour begins at 3 p.m. In January through March, the William Brown House is closed to tours and the woodland garden is open, weather permitting, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The guided house and archaeological tours are $4 each for adults, as are a self-guided garden tour and a slide show; children 7–12 are $3; children under 7 are free. A guided house tour and Acoustiguide package is available for $7 ($5/seniors). Group tours are available with reservations.
Public dig days are scheduled monthly, April through September.
To get there, take U.S. Route 50/Maryland 301 to Route 665 (Exit 22 Aris T. Allen Blvd.), exit onto Route 2 South (Solomon’s Island Road) and go over the South River Bridge. Continue about 0.6 miles and turn left onto Mayo Road. Go about 0.8 miles and turn left onto Londontown Road. Go about 1 mile to the end of the road and drive through the London Town gates.
For information, contact Historic London Town & Gardens, 839 Londontown Road, Edgewater, MD 21037, 410-222-1919 or www.historiclondontown.com
To learn about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.chesapeakebaygateways.net