One of Maryland's lost towns, the site of Maryland's first settlement and capital.
In March, 1634, the legendary founding ships of Maryland, the Ark and the Dove, landed on St. Clement's Island, carrying 128 colonists and 12 Catholic clergymen. Most of the colonists were indentured servants, having agreed to work several years for someone who had paid for his transportation in exchange for large land grants from Lord Baltimore.
Governor Leonard Calvert (brother of then Lord Baltimore Cecil Calvert) received permission to settle from local Piscataway Indians in return for assistance agiainst raiding Susquehannocks. Calvert purchased a tract of cleared land in the angle of St. Mary's River and St. Inigoes Creek from the Yaocomaco, in exchange for cloth, steel axes, and hoes. A fort was constructed, but the settlers soon moved on to the land granted to them.
The settlers faced an immediate problem: William Claiborne, who had started a fur trading post to the north on Kent Island. He refused to accept Calvert authority, and it took an armed expedition to force him out.
As part of the lands granted to each investor for transporting settlers, investors were granted 30 acres of "town lands" in order to encourage the formation of towns. However, settlement at St. Mary's was sparse, with Governor Calvert's house serving for most public functions, occasional meetings of the free settlers.
These meetings did not always turn out to the liking of Lord Baltimore. In 1638, the General Assembly rejected a slate of proposed laws he sent from England, replacing them with their own. But the Lord Proprietor was bound by his charter to accept the decisions of his tenants, and the Assembly's laws were the ones that were enacted.
Most of Maryland's investors were Catholics, and most of the indentured servants were Protestants, who had only agreed to their indenture after assurances that they would be allowed to worship as they wished. It was good business practice, and a requirement for public order, for the Calverts to enforce a policy of religious toleration in the new settlement. Nevertheless, anti-Catholic sentiment reached a fever pitch during the English Civil War. In 1645, William Claiborne and Captain Richard Ingle raided the settlement on the pretext of 'Papist persecution', forcing Governor Calvert to flee. When he was finally able to return in 1646 (he died soon after), the settlement had dwindled to 100 people, fewer than the number of people who had disembarked from the Ark and the Dove in 1634.
To rebuild his colony, Lord Baltimore began granting land to indentured servants who had fulfilled their terms. In addition, the Protestant governor he appointed, William Stone, persuaded a group of Puritans to come to Maryland from New England. They settled further north on the Chesapeake Bay, calling their settlement Providence.
Oliver Cromwell pushed Calvert out of the way and appointed William Claiborne as governor over Maryland and Virginia. In 1654, with assistance from the Puritans, Virginia seized control of Maryland. Upon the expulsion of Richard Cromwell in 1658, Claiborne was forced to return control of Maryland to the Calverts.
The stability brought by the Restoration improved prospects for poor people back in England, and the number of people willing to indenture themselves and travel across the ocean for free land decreased. For Maryland, this meant a devil's bargain. In order to bring in the profitable tobacco crop, Maryland planters began to import more and more captive people from Africa, to be placed into the much more cost-effective position of slavery. Over the next 70 years, the colony changed from a land of small, middle-class landowners to one dominated by large, wealthy slaveholding planters.
By the 1660s, St. Mary's was beginning to resemble an actual town, and in 1668, Lord Baltimore granted a town charter to St. Mary's City. In 1676, a real State House, Maryland's first, was erected.
In 1689, in the wake of England's "Glorious Revolution", William III revoked Maryland's charter, and everything happened by the decree of the royal governor he sent. By 1692, with the Church of England firmly established, and Catholics forbidden from office, Maryland was allowed to resume self-government.
By this time, St. Mary's City had a location problem. St. Mary's County lies in the extreme south of Maryland's Western Shore, and it was a long sail for most Marylanders to get there. The colony's capital was moved to a more central location, Annapolis, in 1695. Its main reason for existence removed, St. Mary's City quickly withered, and was abandoned by 1720.
Maryland's first settlement was never forgotten; it was simply inconvenient to live there. In 1840, a "living monument" was created near the site. "St Mary's Female Seminary" served to educate young women in the liberal arts, Today, St. Mary's College still thrives as a public honors institution.
St. Mary's City has a wonderful advantage over most other early colonial sites: It is far enough inland not to have been eroded into nonexistence, and it is far enough away from large cities not to have been obliterated by development. In 1965, the General Assembly passed an act creating a Historic St Mary's City Commission. Active archaeological efforts began in 1971. In 1997, the museum and archaeological efforts were made a function of St. Mary's College.
Today, St. Mary's City is a state historical park. with reconstructions of many of the important sites, as well as living history museums akin to those in Colonial Williamsburg. It is far less expensive and far less mobbed by tourists than the latter site.
St. Mary's College of Maryland - History of the college
A Brief History of St. Mary's City
Lois Green Carr, "Maryland's Seventeenth Century"
The Maryland History and Culture Bibliography,