While people never forgot that St. Mary’s City was the founding place and first capital of Maryland, nothing survived above ground of what William Hick’s called “once the metropolis of Maryland.”. Furthermore, any maps or good written descriptions that once existed of the settlement have vanished. Soon after the state established Historic St. Mary’s City in 1966, historian Lois Green Carr began assembling all the historical documents about the city she could find and archaeological investigations began. It soon became obvious that the only way to understand the town was through archaeology.
So limited was the information that no one was even sure of where the heart of the ancient capital had been or what it had been like. To solve this mystery, the National Endowment for the Humanities provided grant funding to the museum in 1981 to find the city. This project spanned the years 1981-1984 and involved broad sampling and more intensive excavations. After digging over 400 excavation units, pieces of buildings, fences pits, and other features were mapped. Key to it all was the discovery of the 1630s home of Maryland’s first governor Leonard Calvert, which documents indicated had stood at the town center. Finding this large 40 by 68 foot building and a nearby public inn that had burned to the ground in 1678 conclusively demonstrated that the center of Maryland’s first city lay near the St. Mary’s River, under the still standing 1840s building of Dr. John Brome’s plantation. Subsequent work identified more than a dozen other buildings in the area and led to the discovery that the capital had displayed an elaborate city plan.
Archaeologists fully excavated the 1660s public inn (Smith’s Ordinary) that had burned down and a 1670s store built by a French immigrant. These have subsequently been reconstructed. Work continues on the complex Leonard Calvert house site. It not only served as the home of the first governor but became the first official State House for Maryland in 1662. Later, it served as the largest public inn in the colony. Excavators also discovered that The Calvert House was surrounded in the 1640s by a fortification named Pope’s Fort. Directly related to the English Civil Wars, this moated fort remains the only archaeological evidence of that conflict known in America. The fact that the 1840s building had been built on top of the 17th-century structure made any additional investigations very difficult. This was one factor in making the difficult decision to move the 19th-century buildings to a new location.
As exploration of the Town Center continued, archaeologists also recovered abundant evidence of Chesapeake Indian habitation spanning over 9000 years of time. Likewise, these same excavations produced a rich collection of 19th and early 20th-century artifacts related both to the manor house occupants and the African American workers at the Brome Plantation.