Historic St. Mary's
Where the Colonists are Still Minding the Farm
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos courtesy of Historic St. Mary's City
ebecca, an indentured servant, has only been at the plantation for two
months, and already she has mastered the skills of milking, cooking,
gardening and tending to the animals.
The Captain of the Dove, the ship that brought
her from England, explains the intricacies of determining longitude
and latitude in 1634.
Plantation owner Godiah Spray worries about the back
rent his tenant farmer, William, owes him. Historic St. Mary's City
(HSMC), in southern Maryland, is a very busy colony.
Just as it was in 1634 when 142 settlers arrived under
the leadership of Leonard Calvert. Based on the concept of religious
tolerance as well as profit it was the first permanent settlement
in Maryland. The emergence of St. Mary's City the first capital of
MD until moved to Annapolis in 1695 spawned a number of firsts. Here
was built the first Catholic Chapel in the New World, with the Acts
of Toleration created to promote harmony with the Protestants, in contrast
to the persecution the Catholics received in England.
St. Mary's legislature, a representative government
itself, a totally new concept fostered the principle of Separation
of Church and State. With the church at one end of the city, and the
state house at the other, the geographically separate buildings were
themselves a metaphor for the concept. The seeds of democracy were laid
in St. Mary's soil: religious tolerance, separation of church and state
and representative government.
Just ask any colonist. Dressed in period attire and
in character throughout, different settlers enthusiastically describe
life in the colony both good and bad especially warming
to their own particular circumstances. In easy conversations with visitors,
they answer the wide variety of questions that come their way.
Male interpreters explain the way tools were made from
stone and animal bones. Women are busy farming, weaving mats from river
grass (real river grass), drying deer pelts (from real deer) for clothing.
Nothing is Disneyfied. There are very few things that haven't been authentically
recreated using the materials and the methods of the time.
Stop by Smith's Ordinary the town gathering place
for a drink, a game of draughts (English checkers) or Quoits,
or perhaps to spend the night on the floor, which defined "accommodations"
in mid 17th century.
The Print House is the most recent addition to the ever-growing
city. Locating the site of the structure involved a long, painstaking
process of archaeological discoveries, intense research and lots of
puzzle-piecing. The study of nearby glass fragments enabled exact duplication
of windows. Counting and measuring the nails allowed for reconstruction
of the original clapboard siding. Rare colonial skills, such as hand-hewing
the beams, splitting the clapboard and forging the nails were employed
to create the final inn. From excavation to the application of the final
coat of whitewash, the new Print House virtually replicates the original.
Back to 1667. We encounter Sabella, a pretty young servant
working off her indenture. She is crocheting a small herb-containing
pouch that she will wear around her neck to promote good health. Good
health is very important around these parts. Plantation owner Godiah
Spray initially had doubts she'd survive the four seasons (many don't),
but now that she has been successfully "seasoned," she eagerly
looks forward to earning her freedom in five years.
Taking authenticity to new heights, not only do the
materials actually reflect those that were used at the time, but so
do the animals. The pigs, chickens and cows bear the same markings as
the original animals and bear little resemblance to their counterparts
today. The cows are from a special herd with its own characteristic
patterns; the pigs are stouter and snoutier.
But it's the chickens that surprise me the most. They're
larger, some with hairy black and orange feathers sport fluffy, bushy
balls on top of their heads; others, even bigger, are black with reddish-tinted
fur and furry feet. The chickens I know don't have furry feet! These
animals are anachronisms certainly not a part of today's world.
I must be in the 17th century!
Master Spray, while introducing his 'guests" to
his property, explains the workings of a 1660's tobacco farm as he demonstrates
how to split wood, till the soil and dry the "weed."
He designates 10-year-old Chris Paul, from Berwyn Heights,
Maryland, as his newest indentured servant, and instructs him in the
proper raking of a small patch of land. Left to complete his chores,
the group hears more about plantation life. Chris casts nervous glances
at his parents, wondering if he really might be left behind, hoe in
In conversation, Spray relates the benefits of smoking
tobacco. To the colonists, not only is tobacco a cash-cow, but "good
for whatever ails 'ya." When you grow 6000-10,000 pounds of tall
dry stuff, you can afford to import fine dishes, glasses and furniture
from Europe. Mrs. Spray is more than happy to show off her finely stocked
No doubt, she gets some of her finery at Cordea's Hope.
Mark Cordea would probably be an Enron executive today. He buys heavily
anytime a ship from Europe is in town, stores his goods, and then sells
them at extravagant prices during the times there are no other sources
for his products. Everything from pottery and everyday necessities to
rare crystal glassware, which he uses to toast his favorite and
no doubt, richest customers.
Aboard the Dove, there is always something happening
either the crew is loading cargo, testing the cannon, swabbing
the decks or learning tricks of navigation, rope-tying or sailing. A
visiting "sailor" is drafted to be a part of the crew during
these demonstrations to the delight of the rest of the crowd.
The Captain explains the intricacies of determining
the ship's latitude from the rudimentary instruments of 1634. What's
so impressive is how accurate they are. And they're even older than
For more information about Historic St. Mary City,
Virginia: Mr. Jefferson's Country; The
Long Good Bye to Ireland; Rediscovering
Myrtle Beach's Gullah Culture; A
Cruise Into History: Lewis and Clark's Expedition; A
Trip to the Cherokee Nation