Archaeologists have discovered concrete evidence of one of the oldest permanent English settlements in what would become the United States.
Using ground-penetrating radar, researchers found fence posts from a fort in St. Mary’s, Maryland, that was founded by Catholics fleeing England in 1634 – less than 15 years after Plymouth.
The scans indicated several dwellings inside the fort, which was about the size of a football field, including some belonging to local Piscataway Indians.
Later excavation turned up a guardhouse cellar, a cannonball, part of a musket and other items.
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A rendering of the 1634 fort at the St. Mary’s settlement in Southern Maryland, one of the first permanent British encampments in the future United States
St. Mary’s was first permanent English encampment in what would become Maryland and the fourth oldest in the United States, after Jamestown, Virginia (1607), Plymouth (1620), and Massachusetts Bay (1630).
At the time of its settling, Catholics in England faced great persecution: Queen Elizabeth had outlawed Catholic Mass in 1559 and made it a legal obligation for her subjects to worship in the Anglican church.
Catholics were even accused of starting the Great London Fire of 1666 and of conspiring to assassinate King Charles II in the (fictitious) Popish Plot of 1678.
Archaeologists found the three-foot trench used for wooden posts that lined the fort’s perimeter. The settlers purchased land from the Yaocomaco, the local branch of the Piscataway Indian Nation
Lord George Calvert had been born to a Catholic family in Yorkshire, but was pressured into converting as a child.
After his wife’s death in 1622, he returned to the religion of his youth and made plans to form a colony in North America that would be a haven for persecuted Catholics.
Calvert died shortly before the Maryland colony received its charter from King Charles I, but his son Leonard carried on his dream.
He commissioned two ships, The Ark and The Dove, to set sail from the Isle of Wight in November 1633.
Calvert and some 300 colonists, including Catholic and Protestant settlers, Jesuit missionaries, and indentured servants, arrived in Southern Maryland the following spring.
They established their community on the cliffs overlooking the St. Mary’s River, where the Piscataway Indians had a half-abandoned settlement.
There’s still much researchers don’t know about the relationship between the settlers and local tribes, according to Regina Faden, executive director of the Historic St. Mary’s City Commission.
‘The Founding of Maryland,’ an 1860 painting by Emmanuel Leutze depicts the first meeting of English settlers and Piscataway Indians in 1634. Governor Leonard Calvert, seen clasping hands with chief, described the fort in a letter written several weeks after their arrival
‘We do know that the colony of Maryland did not begin with [an] immediate level of conflict and violence,’ Faden told Daily Mail, ‘probably because the Native people and English settlers were aware of the fraught beginnings of the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies.’
Governor Calvert negotiated purchase of half the village from the Yaocomaco, the local branch of the Piscataway Indian Nation, in return for textiles, axes, hoes, and other metal tools.
‘According to the arrangement, the Yaocomaco would remain in the other half of their settlement until the fall so that they could harvest their corn crop,’ Faden said.
‘They would then vacate the area.’
But the colonists eventually abandoned the settlement, too, and left little obvious trace of their presence.
Researchers examine the site of the fort, located not far from the St. Mary’s River. They found evidence of several dwellings, including some used by local Native Americans
Records of the fort remained, though, and Travis Parno, an archaeologist and director of research and collections at Historic St. Mary’s City, had been working with geophysicist Tim Horsley to determine its exact location since 2017.
On Monday, they confirmed they had found it.
Used ground-penetrating radar that can detect outlines of long-gone buildings, they scanned a meadow about a half-mile from the river.
There they found the three-foot-deep trench used for the palisades that lined the fort’s perimeter, and stains from the wood in the soil.
It’s believed the fencing around the fort was about 12 to 14 feet tall.
Parno was on vacation when Horsley detected the imprints from the posts and texted him, saying, ‘I think we found it,’ The Washington Post reported.
When the English arrived in St. Mary’s City, they were welcomed with open arms by the Yaocomaco, who showed them how to survive and provided them with shelter.
The Yaocomaco had started relocating north because of raids by neighboring tribes and invited the settlers to live in the witchotts, or thatched huts, they left behind.
Horsley and Parno found evidence of Native Americans dwellings inside the perimeter, though it’s not clear if the Yaocomaco and British lived inside the fort together.
Later excavation turned up evidence of a brick cellar from a guardhouse, the trigger guard for a musket, pieces of pottery and a cannonball.
The researchers also found a quartz arrowhead dating back 4,500 years, millennia before Europeans set foot on the New World.
A Jesuit prayer book written between 1634 and 1640 in English, Latin, and Piscataway. St. Mary’s was established as a sanctuary by the Calvert family as a sanctuary for Catholics fleeing persecution in England
‘There is evidence that Native people have been in the area for approximately 10,000 years before the English arrived,’ Faden told Daily Mail.
Plans to announce the discovery last year were put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic, but the pause gave Parno time to go back and uncover the cellar.
Archaeologist William Kelso, who discovered the lost fort at Jamestown, Virginia, told the Post the discovery of the fort is ‘extremely significant, because St. Mary’s is sort of a sister colony’ to Jamestown.
‘It’s another page to the story, to Chapter One,’ he said.
As the first settlement established as a haven for both Catholics and Protestants, St. Mary’s is considered the birthplace of religious freedom in America.
‘I found a most convenient harbor, and pleasant country lying on each side of it,’ its first governor, Leonard Calvert, wrote a few weeks after their arrival.
‘On the east side of it we have seated ourselves, within one half mile of the river,’ he wrote, describing a fort about 120 square yards wide with four corner bulwarks equipped with small artillery.
Archaeologists had been looking for the fort since the 1930s and there have been hundreds of digs since the 1990s.
The outline of the fort Horsley and Parno found actually didn’t match Calvert’s grand description—it was smaller, with just one bastion.
According to Historic St. Mary’s, that’s because the governor was describing plans for the fort before it was completed.
Within three years of settlement, the colonists began moving out of the fort to develop their own plantations along the waterways, Faden said.
‘Maryland colonists were only present in the fort for eight or nine years at most, with roughly half of that time being a period of intensive occupation.’