Remains Of Legendary St. Mary’s Fort Finally Found in Maryland
Archaeologists associated with the preservation organization Historic St. Mary’s City have just announced a major discovery, which they recently unearthed at one of the most heavily explored sites in North America. At the location where Maryland’s first colonial capital (St. Mary’s City) was founded in 1634, the archaeologists have excavated what was for them the equivalent of the Holy Grail: the remains of the original St. Mary’s Fort, the secure structure erected by the first group of European settlers to reach the western side of Chesapeake Bay. Excavations have been ongoing at the St. Mary’s City site, which is now a registered historic area, for several decades. In the past 30 years approximately 200 excavations have taken place in the surrounding region, but no trace of the legendary lost St. Mary’s Fort had ever been found.
How Ground-penetrating Radar Located St. Mary’s Fort
That all changed in 2018, when Historic St. Mary’s City director Travis Parno contracted Tim Horsley, an archaeological geophysicist, to complete a comprehensive survey of the St. Mary’s City site. Using ground-penetrating radar, Horsley discovered the distinctive rectangular footprint of the long-lost fort, which he and Parno recognized based on the description of its characteristics that had been preserved in the historical record.
“On the east side of it we have seated ourselves, within one-half mile of the [St. Mary’s] river,” wrote the settlement’s first colonial governor, Leonard Calvert, in a letter he sent to a business associate in May 1634. Calvert disclosed that the settlers had erected “a pallizado [defensive fort] one hundred and twenty yards [110 meters] square” that was to include four bastions equipped with small artillery installments for protective purposes.
Dr. Tim Horsley conducts ground-penetrating radar survey in search of the 1634 St. Mary’s Fort. (The Maryland Historical Trust Blog)
Horsley’s scan revealed the imprints made by postholes that supported the outer palisade that surrounded the fort. The outline of a single semicircular bastion was found at one corner of the fort, indicating that this aspect of the project had never been entirely completed. The outlines of housing units were also found inside the perimeter of the fort, including some that fit the construction style of Native American peoples who lived in the region at the time the settlers arrived.
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In 2019 and 2020, actual excavations at the site of Horsley’s discovery confirmed that the buried structure was indeed the remains of the famous St. Mary’s Fort, which had been left undisturbed since St. Mary’s City was abandoned in the late 17 th century.
Among other intriguing finds, Parno’s teams uncovered trenches where the wooden posts of the palisades had been placed. They also found the upper part of a brick cellar that had sat beneath a storehouse or guardhouse, the trigger guard for a musket, and a quartzite arrowhead that would have been brought inside the fort by a Native American visitor.
Historic St. Mary’s City chose to officially announce their exciting discovery on Monday, March 22, in anticipation of the upcoming Maryland Day (March 25). This state holiday commemorates the anniversary of the arrival of the state’s founders at the St. Mary’s City site on March 25, 1634.
“This is our moment,” Parno exclaimed while sharing the news with the media. “This is the earliest colonial archaeological site in Maryland. This is it.”
The Algonquin-speaking people known as the Yaocomaco welcoming the Protestant and Catholic settlers from Britain in 1634 at the yet-to-be-built St. Mary’s Fort, Maryland. (Emmanuel Leutze, painter / Public domain)
The Founding Of St. Mary’s Fort Settlement And City
The newly formed community at St. Mary’s was the fourth permanent English settlement to be established on the North American continent, following in the footsteps of Jamestown (1607), Plymouth (1620), and Massachusetts Bay (1630).
As it turned out, the settlers had selected a fortuitous spot to build their fort and launch their community project. The territory surrounding St. Mary’s River was occupied by a Native American Algonquin-speaking people known as the Yaocomaco, who were amicable toward the settlers and more than ready to negotiate a deal for the rights to use their land. The Yaocomaco saw the settlers as a potential ally in their struggle against the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, who had territorial ambitions and were pressing on them from the north.
To cement a friendly relationship and gain a guarantee of protection, Yaocomaco leaders agreed to provide the settlers with unfettered access to 30 miles (48 km) of land in every direction, in exchange for supplies of cloth and a large cache of agricultural implements, plus a general commitment to mutual cooperation in affairs important to both sides.
Fulfilling their part of the bargain, the Native Americans provided the settlers with basic instruction in important survival skills. In return, the settlers promised to keep the Yaocomaco safe from Iroquois predations should they ever become a problem (which they really didn’t, since the Iroquois weren’t interested in picking a fight with the settlers at St. Mary’s City).
Having a good relationship with the local inhabitants helped the St. Mary’s City founders establish their new community without difficulty. Evidence suggests that the settlers either constructed St. Mary’s Fort around existing Yaocomaco residential structures, or allowed them to be built inside the fort later on. In essence, these good relations rendered the fort superfluous, and it may explain why only one defensive bastion was constructed in the fort instead of the multiple bastions that were originally planned.
A reconstructed early colonial home at the St. Mary’s City historical site in Maryland, USA. (Sarah Stierch / CC BY 2.0)
From Triumph To Tragedy, And Modern Redemption
While the launching of St. Mary’s City was successful, its subsequent history betrayed the hopes of its Protestant and Catholic founders, who wanted to build a community where religious tolerance was sacrosanct.
The reliance on tobacco farming by the community’s growing population led to an increase in the use of slavery, which violated the community’s original plan to phase the practice out over time. The pursuance of this economic path also helped fuel serious dissension and conflict between the largely Protestant planters and the Catholic aristocracy that held political power in the community.
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Tragically, no one suffered more from the founding of St. Mary’s City than the Yaocomaco people. This once thriving group vanished from the Earth within a few decades of their first contact with the Europeans, who had brought new and deadly diseases that ravaged unprepared Yaocomaco immune systems.
In 1694, Maryland’s colonial settlers moved the capital from St. Mary’s City to Annapolis. All that survived afterwards was a highly profitable but morally degraded plantation economy, where the fertile lands were concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy tobacco-farming slaveholders. The city itself was ultimately abandoned, and was only rediscovered nearly three centuries later when archaeologists returned to the spot to look for what remained of Maryland’s long-lost first settlement.
Today, St. Mary’s City has been restored as an historical site and tourist attraction. Visitors can learn more about the location’s vitally important history—and soon they will be able to tour the fully excavated St. Mary’s Fort, where the state’s founders established their initial footprint nearly 400 years ago.
Top image: A conjectural drawing of the St. Mary's Fort settlement in Maryland in 1634. Source: Jeffrey R. Parno / Historic St. Mary's City
By Nathan Falde