“Never have I beheld a larger or more beautiful river. Fine trees appear, not choked with briars or bushes and undergrowth but growing at intervals as if planted by the hand of men so that you can drive a four horse carriage whereever you choose, through the midst of trees.” - Father Andrew White, writing from the mouth of the Potomac River, 1634
The journey had been longer than planned. Four months earlier, on a November day in England, 1634, more than 200 colonists had set sail on the Ark and the Dove to make the first European claims on Maryland territory.
They sailed south along the African coast, crossing the Atlantic through fearful storms that slowed their progress and consumed their supplies. In Barbados, they stopped to restock before resuming a northerly tack toward the Chesapeake Bay.
They touched down briefly in Old Point Comfort, VA, and entered the mouth of the Bay on March 3. Then, at last, the Potomac River spread before them. The Potomac marked the southern boundary of the new Maryland colony and signaled an end to their long voyage.
But the colonists didn’t go ashore. Not quite yet. The fine wooded coastline was alive with human activity. The native Piscataway tribes had sighted the newcomers and sounded a network of alarms. A traveler on board the Ark, Father White wrote:
“At our First coming we found (as we had were told) all in armes; the king of Pascatoway had drawne together 500 bowmen, great fires were made by night over all the Country, and the Biggnesse of our ships made the reporte, we came in a canow as bigg as an Island, with so many men, as trees were in a wood, with great terrour unto them all.”
The journey continued a bit longer as the colonists moved cautiously upriver. Twenty leagues farther, a quiet island appeared on the horizon—one among a cluster of islands known as the Heron Islands, or as Father White called them, the Herne Islands, named for the “infinite swarmes of hernes theron.” There, at the first of these islands, the Ark and the Dove dropped anchor and the colonists waded to shore. It was March 25, 1634.
The colonists held a ceremony to take possession of the land and read Lord Baltimore’s instructions aloud. They included the first policy of religious tolerance in America. Maryland would welcome settlers of all faiths, and Lord Baltimore admonished the Protestant and Catholic followers among these first arrivals to preserve the “unity and peace” among them.
In keeping with this policy of tolerance, they celebrated a Roman Catholic mass of thanksgiving, the first in the English-speaking colonies and of great significance given the oppression of Catholics in England. According to Father White, they erected a “great cross, which we had hewn out of a tree.”
Along with such lofty and noble business, the colonists had some mundane concerns as well. There was good news regarding the resources of the island, which “abound[ed] in cedar and sassafras trees and flower and herbs, for making all kinds of salads,” wrote Father White. But, unfortunately, a laundry expedition had gone awry. “The women, who had left the ship to do the washing, upset the boat and came near being drowned, losing a large part of my linen clothes, no small loss in these parts.”
The newcomers named the place St. Clement’s Island, in honor of St. Clement I, pope, martyr and patron saint of mariners.
St. Clement’s Island lays a half-mile from the mainland in what is today Colton’s Point, MD, at the southern end of St. Mary’s County. Its modest, forested profile spills low on the horizon as you look from the long pier at the St. Clement’s Island-Potomac River Museum. The 40-acre island is now a public park, owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The county owns and operates the museum.
“Our job is to tell the story of St. Clement’s Island,” explains Christine Clagett, education curator. “St. Clement’s is like a time capsule of Maryland history, a microcosm of so many eras in one small, defined place.”
The St. Clement’s Island-Potomac River Museum opened its doors in 1975, and is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, sharing its mission of highlighting the Bay’s natural, cultural and historical heritage. Its earliest home was a revamped residential cottage donated for the museum’s use. The cottage was replaced with a modern facility at the same site in 1984.
Exhibits at the museum change frequently to highlight different aspects of life on and around the island. The colonists’ arrival is a vital moment in the island’s history, but not the only one. Visitors to the museum will encounter everything from native cultures, adventuring colonists and British royalty, to the Blackistone Lighthouse, Civil War blockades and workboats of the Potomac River.
Children can explore the contents of the Colonial Trunk and enjoy a hands-on investigation of fossils from clams, barnacles, whales and horseshoe crabs.
The seasonal water taxi allows visitors to roam the island. Better yet, launch a canoe or kayak and paddle to its shores.
The structures of its past have given way to trees, foot trails, and beaches. Picnics are welcome, binoculars encouraged—there’s an abundance of bird life on the island. Bring fishing poles, too. Interpretive signs marks the trails, and camping is available through advance arrangement with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
A 40-foot cross on the southern end of the island honors the founding of Maryland and the establishment of religious tolerance in America.
Special events can sometimes spike the number of visitors, but a visit to St. Clement’s is most often a tranquil, reflective experience. The changes that have swept through the island are in some ways made most meaningful by the silence that today stands in its place. The museum and the imagination of the visitor have instead become its voice.
The first Maryland colonists decided that St. Clement’s Island was too small for a permanent settlement, at least one that could serve as a seat of government and commerce. Moreover, it had no protective harbor. They made careful consultation with Piscataway leaders before relocating to the present day site of St. Mary’s City.
Within two years of the colonists’ landing, St. Clement’s Island and a great deal of the surrounding landscape were in the hands of Dr. Thomas Gerard, who became a prominent citizen and landowner both in southern Maryland and in Virginia’s Northern Neck. When his daughter, Elizabeth, married Nehemiah Blackistone in 1669, he presented the island as her dowry. The island remained in the Blackistone family for 162 years.
St. Clement’s Island, or Blackistone Island, as it was called for nearly 200 years, became an important location for wartime blockades. During the Revolutionary War, the British used the island as a base of operations, supporting a blockade of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, while looting the nearby waterfront plantations. The British again took possession of the island during the War of 1812.
The second long-term stewards of St. Clement’s Island were the McWilliams, who ushered in the era of the Blackistone Lighthouse.
The continual challenges from shoals, sandbars and unlit islands of the Potomac sent captains of 19th century vessels on a zig-zag course through its waters. Oil lamps on shore were often more confusing than helpful, and navigators were desperate for clear, reliable landmarks.
When Dr. Joseph L. McWilliams took possession of the island through a land trade deal in 1850, the federal government had already appropriated funds to erect a lighthouse on the south end of the island.
The Blackistone Lighthouse was a two-story, brick residence with the footprint of a narrow rectangle and a 40-foot tower extending from the center of its roofline. McWilliams and his family were heavily involved with tending the lighthouse. His daughter Josephine McWilliams Freeman was one of the few female lighthouse keepers on the Potomac, and she held this distinction for 37 years. Both McWilliams and his daughter kept detailed diaries of their life on the island.
During the Civil War, the lighthouse made St. Clement’s Island very important to the Union blockade, which attempted to stop the flow of supplies into Virginia from southern sympathizers.
In 1864, Confederates launched a raid to dynamite the lighthouse. But the keeper’s wife, Mrs. Jerome McWilliams, was near to giving birth. Making pleas on behalf of her health and the baby, the McWilliams persuaded the commander to take a lesser course of action. He destroyed the lens and the lamp, and took the oil. But the structure was left intact.
In postwar years, the island continued in various incarnations of farmland, summer resort, steamboat landing, cannery location and proving ground. The Blackistone Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1932. Its interior was destroyed by fire in 1956, and the Navy razed the remaining walls a short while later.
Yet, while the structures and roadways faded away, community members worked passionately to preserve and interpret the island’s story. Their efforts ultimately secured the island for the state of Maryland and led to the founding of the St. Clement’s-Potomac River Museum.
In 1960, a federal survey restored the original name of St. Clement’s Island on the charts of the Potomac River.
St. Clement’s, like most Bay islands, is shrinking. Colonists on the Ark and the Dove surveyed the island at 400 acres. Today, approximately 40 acres remain. Extensive work has been done to slow the erosion, and damage from Hurricane Isabelle is still being addressed.
“The reality is that this island may eventually disappear,” Clagett said. “But the history of the island will always be here for people to experience.”
St. Clement’s Island-Potomac River Museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. on weekends March 25 through Sept. 30.
The admission $1 for ages 12 and older; younger children are free.
From the Washington Capital Beltway: Take Exit 7a to Route 5 south – Waldorf to Mechanicsvile. Continue on Route 5 south to Route 242 south, to the end at Colton’s Point.
From Annapolis: Take US 301 south to Route 5 south. Continue on Route 5 south to Route 242 south, to the end at Colton’s Point.
From Richmond: Take US 301 north across the Harry Nice Bridge to Route 234 east to Route 242 south, to the end at Colton’s Point.
For information, write to: St. Clement’s Island-Potomac River Museum, 3830 Point Breeze Road, Colton’s Point, MD 2026, call 301-769-2222 or visit www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/museums
To learn about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit http://www.baygateways.net/
Upcoming events at the St. Clement’s Island - Potomac River Museum include:
- May 29 & June 26: Tide of Tolerance History Tour, an outdoor drama on St. Clement’s Island
- July 10: Potomac Jazz & Seafood Festival
- Aug. 7: Children’s Day
- Oct.. 2–3: Blessing of the Fleet
- Dec.1, 2004–Jan. 2, 2005: Christmas Doll & Train Exhibit