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Maryland’s earliest colonial settlement built in 1634 is discovered after 90 years of searching 

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, Maryla that was founded by Catholic settlers 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, the first permanent English encampment in what would become Maryland, was founded by the Calvert family in 1634 as a refuge for persecuted Catholics. 

It’s the fourth oldest British settlement in the United States, after Jamestown, Virginia (1607), Plymouth (1620), and Massachusetts Bay (1630).

Two ships, The Ark and The Dove, set sail from the Isle of Wight in November 1633 and arrived in Southern Maryland the following spring.

Some 200 colonists, including Jesuit missionaries and indentured servants, set up their community on the cliffs overlooking the St. Mary’s River, where the Piscataway had a half-abandoned settlement.

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

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

There’s still much researchers don’t know about the relationship between the settlers and the local tribes, according to Regina Faden, executive director of the Historic St. Mary’s City Commission.

‘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.

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.  

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

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

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. 

Excavation has turned up evidence of a brick cellar from a guardhouse, the trigger guard for a musket, pieces of pottery, a cannonball and other items

Excavation has turned up evidence of a brick cellar from a guardhouse, the trigger guard for a musket, pieces of pottery, a cannonball and other items

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.

‘There is evidence that Native people have been in the area for approximately 10,000 years before the English arrived,’  Faden told Mail Online. 

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.’ 

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ROANOKE COLONY? 

The Roanoke Colony was an attempt by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a permanent British presence in the New World, and comprises two unsuccessful attempts at settlement.

Elizabeth’s intention was to exploit the natural riches of the unexplored country, as well as using the colony as a base from which to launch privateering raids on Spanish ships.

The enterprise was originally financed and planned by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, but was later headed by Sir Humphrey’s half brother Sir Walter Raleigh.

An exploration mission led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe landed at Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584, and established good relations with the Secotan and Croatan tribes. Barlowe returned to England with members of the tribes, who told Sir Walter about the local customs and geography.

Sir Walter ordered another mission in 1585, led by his distant cousin Sir Richard Grenville. The expedition also included Sir Walter’s artist friend John White, who was to provide invaluable coastal mapping of the region.

Sir Richard left 107 men to establish a fort and settlement on Roanoke Island, but within a year the colonists had managed to anger the local tribes, leading to open hostilities.

When Sir Francis Drake stopped there in 1586, after a successful raiding expedition to the Caribbean, he offered to provide passage for anyone who wanted to return to England. Everyone accepted.

When Sir Richard returned with supplies to find the settlement abandoned, he left a small group to retain and English presence.

Sir Walter sent another expedition of 150 people in 1587, let by White. The only evidence they found of the small group left behind was a single skeleton. Relations with the tribes had not improved and, after a settler was killed in Albemarle Sound, White returned to England to ask for help and reinforcements.

Before he could return, England was plunged into the Anglo-Spanish War and all vessels were commandeered to repel the coming Spanish Armada. White was not able to return until 1590. His men could not find any trace of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children of the colony, nor was there any sign of a struggle or battle.

Before he left for England, White had arranged a code with the colonists. If they were under attack or forced to flee – a sensible arrangement considering relations with the locals – the colonists were to carve a Maltese cross into a tree.

There was no evidence of such a carved cross, but White’s men found two trees. One was carved with the word ‘Croatoan’ and the other simply with ‘Cro’.

Whether this was a reference to the settlement’s assailants, or a indicator that the colonists had gone to live with the Croatans on nearby Hatteras Island, remains unclear. Poor weather and his shipmates’ desire to leave Roanoke forced White to abandon his search for the colonists. He never returned.

A voyage by Sir Walter Raleigh 12 years later in 1602 also ended when bad weather forced the expedition to return to England. Sir Walter’s arrest for treason prevented him from making any other expeditions.


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