St. Mary’s City is located in St. Mary’s County, on the western shore of Maryland. It is located along the St. Mary’s River, and has been occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans, European colonists, and African and African American slaves and tenant farmers.
While tobacco agriculture on dispered farms or plantations was the hallmark of early Maryland, there was a need for a seat of goverment and St. Mary’s became the first city in the colony. Following a revolution in 1689, the colonial goverment was moved to Annapolis in 1695 and the reason for St. Mary’s City vanished. People soon abandoned the former capital and it became farmland. Not until the 20th century did scholars begin to explore the former “metropolis of Maryland” and learn how Maryland had began. St. Mary’s abundant archaeological remains forms one of the best preserved founding sites of a colony in North America and its significance was recognized by its designation as a National Historical Landmark in 1969. While much of the exploration has focused upon the many seventeenth century sites, archaeologist also study the remarkably rich evidence of prehistoric habitations and later 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century sites.
The Hicks Plantation
right: This map from 1787 shows the location of Mackall’s home, located to the west, and of George Hicks’ home, called St. Barbara’s, to the east. The map also includes most of the land listed in William Hicks’ advertisement. The map was drawn due to a legal dispute between Mackall and Hicks.
The first known owner of the land around St. Mary’s City after its abandonment was John Hicks. In his 1749, Hicks notes that he lived at St. Barbara’s, a plot of land along Mattapany Road, but also owned a lease at St. Johns, which had been the site of Maryland’s first assembly.
Upon his death, the land passed to his two sons, George and William. George continued to live at St. Barbara’s, while William lived at St. Johns. William expanded the property, purchasing three tracts of land that bordered the St. Mary’s River. He also constructed a granary in 1758, which stood until the 20th century. This indicates that he had begun a diversified agricultural approach. He later moved to England in 1759, and put the property up for sale in 1774. In addition, he also sold a number of slaves, including a tanner, shoemaker, cook, and washerwoman: despite his seeming disinterest in living in the colony, he appears to have operated a diverse plantation with a number of skilled slaves.
The Mackall Plantation
In 1774, John Mackall purchased the Town Lands from William Hicks, and relocated there from his previous home in Calvert County with his wife. He expanded the landholdings in St. Mary’s from 705 acres to 1,715 acres, and increased the number of slaves working on his plantation from just over twenty in1793 to 39 on his death in 1814. The advertisement for the sale of the property indicates that some of the slaves may have been sold to Mackall as well. Mackall lived near the river in a “Fram’d Dwelling-house old & crazy”. A map from litigation he was engaged in against George Hicks shows both his house and Mackall’s house at St. Barbara’s.
The Brome-Ashcomb Plantation
In 1813, John Mackall’s granddaughter, Margaret, married James Brome, an attorney from Baltimore. James and Margaret lived in John Mackall’s old house after he died, and, by 1815, Margaret had inherited all of her grandfather’s land. It was subsequently sold to Brome. Margaret soon died, and Brome married again to Ann Martin, who bore three children: John, Mary Ann, and Sarah Elizabeth. The family moved to St. Barbara’s, only for James Brome to die in 1823. Ann remarried to John Ashcomb, who took over the administration of the estate.
While Ashcomb managed the plantation, he did not own it: he served as the guardian for the property and for James Brome’s children. The estate was extremely valuable upon John Brome’s death, but it decreases in value throughout the 1830s. John Ashcomb died in 1839, the same year that Dr. John Mackall Brome finished medical school and reached his majority. He returned home to St. Mary’s City, and began a dramatic revitalization of the property, building it into one of the more prosperous plantations in St. Mary’s County.