The Blackistone Lighthouse on St. Clement’s Island stands next to a 40-foot white cross which commemorates the site of the first Catholic Mass in the 13 Colonies. Photo by Your Journey Studios – Tom & Carol Davis
Growing up in and around New England, I was well versed in the prominent role that region played in our nation’s history. I tripped on cobblestones along Boston’s Freedom Trail, walked the USS Constitution’s decks, and spent several school field trips learning about English explorer Henry Hudson, who in 1609 traveled up the river that now bears his name to an area that would later become Albany, New York.
But after living in Maryland for 15 years, I had yet to discover my new home state’s vital role in our country’s early history and some of the freedoms that I take for granted: Catholicism’s first roots in the Colonies, a government founded on religious tolerance, and a woman’s right to vote.
I picked up my friend Annemarie at BWI Airport last fall after her flight from Boston and we embarked on a journey through St. Mary’s County. Nestled between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers and extending into the Chesapeake Bay, the county is a peninsula with more than 500 miles of shoreline and a short bridge over the Patuxent that links it to Solomons Island in Calvert County.
A recreation of the Dove—one of the ships that arrived with colonists on Maryland’s shores in 1633—sails to St. Clement’s Island once a year. The rest of the time it is docked in Historic St. Mary’s City, where visitors can participate in demos of cannon testing and deck swabbing (inset). Photo by Keith Burke
During the first day of driving about, we discovered St. Mary’s County’s prime charm: There’s water everywhere—rivers glistening in the sun, creeks burbling, and waves lapping shorelines while boats bob in bays. We chose Solomons as our home base because of its selection of inns overlooking the water, walkable town, and easy drive to all St. Mary’s County has to offer. Here are some highlights from our journey.
We spent our first evening exploring Leonardtown, the county seat. In the center of town, there’s a small square park where we met people relaxing with their dogs. Branching off from the park, in the area of Washington and Fenwick streets, visitors will find restaurants, an 1800s jail that is now the Old Jail Museum, an independent bookstore and art galleries. On the first Friday of every month, many of the galleries and shops stay open for the evening to showcase local artists, and entertainment can be found on the square and the streets around town (for more information, visit www.leonardtownfirstfridays.com).
From there we meandered down the hill toward Breton Bay and discovered Leonardtown Wharf Public Park. The park’s circular observation deck is home to a beautiful 50-foot compass rose created with colorful brick pavers. A nearby sign explains that the compass rose has appeared on charts and maps since the 1300s. The design’s 32 points represent the directions of the wind. Eight of them are much larger than the others, signifying the major winds, and they are labeled with their respective Roman names (tramontana for north, ostro for south, and so on). We’d hear more about the compass rose the next day at Historic St. Mary’s City and how it was used by Colonial-era navigators.
Leonardtown Wharf Public Park
Back up Washington Street, Annemarie and I settled in on the porch of The Front Porch restaurant and dined on burgers made with grass-fed beef and specialty drinks—including a delicious sangria—as the sky turned pink. Our waiter explained that the staff gets together each season to sample 20 or so drinks and vote on their favorites. The winners make the seasonal menu and then “are never to be drank again,” he said.
Interpreters reenact the life of the colonists in Historic St. Mary’s City.
Historic St. Mary’s City
On our first full day, we began at Historic St. Mary’s City’s Visitor Center, going back more than 380 years in time to 1634. Former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who owned a home in St. Mary’s County and was a supporter of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, narrates an introductory film, and several exhibits explain how Maryland’s first capital, and the United States’ fourth permanent settlement, came to be.
St. Mary’s City was first envisioned by British Lord George Calvert in the late 1620s. After he announced that he’d joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1625, he was no longer qualified for public service. Calvert had long been interested in colonization and had established his own colony in Newfoundland. After a severe winter there, Calvert began to look south, and he lobbied King Charles I for a grant of land near Virginia. Calvert was eager to create a colony that was more than simply favorable to Catholics; he had the novel idea to create a place founded on religious tolerance.
George Calvert died before his dream came to fruition. As we walked past the panels that explained each Calvert family member’s role in the founding of Maryland, we learned that George’s son Leonard Calvert was the one to lead 140 colonists (many Protestant) on two ships—the Ark and the Dove—from England’s Isle of Wight to Maryland’s shores. Their journey began in November 1633 and culminated in landing at St. Clement’s Island on March 25, 1634 (the day we now celebrate as Maryland Day), and then, days later at St. Mary’s City.
A map of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard lists the English settlements that preceded St. Mary’s: Jamestown 1607, Plymouth 1620, Massachusetts Bay 1630. Outside the visitor center, Historic St. Mary’s City is a 70-acre outdoor history exhibit and archeological site on the banks of the St. Mary’s River.
We wandered the path to the Woodland Indian Hamlet, one of the outdoor exhibits, and met Sam, the site supervisor, standing near deerskin that was being smoked on a tripod of thick sticks. Sam showed us inside a witchott, a typical home of the Yaocomaco tribe of American Indians, and told us about Capt. Henry Fleet, an English adventurer from a wealthy family.
Fleet had several years’ experience trading with the Native Americans in Virginia, from whom he learned their language. Leonard Calvert hired Fleet as a guide. “They didn’t want the strife they’d heard was happening in the Virginia colony,” said Sam, who went on to explain how Fleet helped negotiate an exchange. The Yaocomaco tribe gave land and part of an American Indian village to the colonists and showed them how to grow crops in exchange for protection.
Continuing along the path from the Woodland Indian Hamlet, we visited the Print House (the first printer south of Boston) and Smith’s Ordinary. In the 17th century, an “ordinary” was a combination restaurant, hotel and bar. Unlike today, food then cost more than lodging. An overnight stay at Smith’s cost 4 pounds of tobacco, while a meal with a drink was 10 pounds.
Farther along, we stopped at the Margaret Brent Gazebo that overlooks the St. Mary’s River. The gazebo honors the executor of Leonard Calvert’s estate and the first woman to petition for the right to vote in America (she was denied).
Finally we came to the dock where the recreated Dove’s polished wood hull gleamed in the late-morning sun. A barefoot sailor dressed in Colonial attire was aboard. He likened the 40-ton capacity Dove to a family sedan, explaining that the colonists used it to explore and trade with other Colonies for things such as salt cod along the Atlantic seacoast. The 400-ton capacity Ark was akin to a moving van, he said, a rental that had to be returned to England, which it was by a group of mariners in August 1634.
When we asked if the Dove is ever taken out for a sail, he said a crew sails it every October to St. Clement’s Island for the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony and a reenactment of the first Catholic Mass celebrated in the Colonies on March 25, 1634. We wished we could sail there ourselves since St. Clement’s was our next stop, but we settled for driving.