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St. Mary's County
Historic St. Mary's County:
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.

house inside the Godiah Spray plantation, Historic St. Mary's County

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.

state house, Historic St. Mary's County

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.

interpreters in period attire at Historic St. Mary's County

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.

inside Smith's Ordinary for drinks

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.

Sabella at Godiah Spray's plantation

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.

chickens at Historic St. Mary's County

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 hand.

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 home.

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.

inside Mark Cordea's house

crewman of the ship Dove

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 the chickens… For more information about Historic St. Mary City, visit

Related Articles:
Charlottesville, 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

(Posted 7-2-2015)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

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