Researchers Discover Ruins of Maryland’s Earliest Colonial Site, a 386-Year-Old Fort

A team used ground-penetrating radar to identify the outlines of a defensive outpost at the St. Mary’s settlement

The Remains of St. Mary's
Archaeologists confirmed the find in late 2019 but only announced the news now due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This drawing shows what the St. Mary's Fort may have looked like. Jeffrey R. Parno / Historic St. Mary’s City

Archaeologists in Maryland have discovered the remains of St. Mary’s Fort, a structure built in 1634 by the first English colonists to reach the western side of the Chesapeake Bay. As the Maryland State Archives note, the defensive garrison served as an outpost for St. Mary’s, the first permanent European settlement in Maryland and the fourth in British North America.

Travis Parno, director of research and collections at preservation organization and living history museum Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC), announced the find on Monday, bringing the search for the palisaded fort to a close after 90 years, reports Michael E. Ruane for the Washington Post. Though researchers confirmed the discovery in late 2019, they only revealed the news now due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The newly identified site, located about half a mile away from St. Mary’s River, is roughly the size of a football field. Though researchers have conducted approximately 200 excavations in the area over the past 30 years, none of these digs yielded conclusive evidence of the fort’s presence, writes Nathan Falde for Ancient Origins.

“Finding the location of Maryland’s original settlement is truly exciting news for our state and will give us an opportunity to reconnect with our pre-colonial and early colonial years,” says Governor Larry Hogan in a statement. “The state has been proud to support the study of St. Mary’s Fort and looks forward to further excavation of the area as we approach our … 400th anniversary.”

Per the statement, archaeological geophysicist Tim Horsley used magnetic susceptibility, magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar to survey the site. Upon analyzing the scans, he spotted the contours of the historic structure, as well as the imprints of postholes arranged in a large rectangle and traces of what may have been houses within the fort’s walls.

Other highlights of the find, according to the Post, include a storehouse or guardhouse’s brick cellar, a trigger guard for a musket, and a 4,500-year-old quartzite arrowhead.

A modern recreation of the Dove, one of the ships that brought English colonists to Maryland in 1634
A modern recreation of the Dove, one of the ships that brought English colonists to Maryland in 1634 RF National Scenic Byway via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

“This is our moment,” Parno tells the Post. “This is the earliest colonial archaeological site in Maryland. This is it.”

As WTOP News’ Will Vitka points out, about 150 English settlers arrived at the Maryland site on two ships, the Ark and the Dove, in March 1634. At the time, the Yaocomaco people—an Indigenous tribe loosely affiliated with the Piscataway chiefdom—lived in the region.

Historians know little about the two groups’ relationship beyond what English colonists wrote in their records. But the statement notes that the team hopes to use the recent discoveries to “unearth new information about Maryland’s pre-colonial and early colonial past.”

Historic St. Mary’s City began digging at the site in 1971, making a number of significant discoveries nearby. In 1990, for example, scholars unearthed three lead coffins containing the remains of Maryland Governor Philip Calvert and two of his family members, as James Bock reported for the Baltimore Sun at the time.

The fort itself remained hidden until 2018, when a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust funded geophysical surveys of two potential locations. Excavations conducted in 2019 confirmed Horsley’s scans, enabling the team to successfully pinpoint the fort’s ruins.

HSMC revealed the find ahead of Maryland Day, a March 25 holiday marking the anniversary of settlers’ arrival in the region in 1634. More details of the find, as well as the launch of a broader project titled “People to People: Exploring Native-Colonial Interactions in Early Maryland,” will be announced on Maryland Day.

The venture—a joint effort between HSMC and Piscataway tribal participants—is slated to include archaeological excavations at and near the fort, exhibitions on Indigenous and colonial culture, and public programming about the early 1600s.

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