Historic St. Mary’s City: Site Review

Review of Historic St. Mary’s City, MD.

I attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland for my undergraduate education. This school was not only a wonderful institution with a focus on tolerance and the liberal arts, but the school itself was surrounded by history. St. Mary’s College of Maryland is located in the vicinity of St. Mary’s City, the first capital of the state of Maryland. Along the banks of the St. Mary’s River, intermixed with the boundaries of the college, lies Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC), a living history site and museum. I might have a bit of a bias when it comes to Historic St. Mary’s City, as I grew to love this place as an extension of my own beloved institution. But I have visited “Historic,” as St. Mary’s College students like to call it, many times. As a student of history and anthropology, I feel as though I can make thoughtful judgments about this site and its purpose as a public history institution.

Historical Background

St. Mary’s City was the location of the landing of settlers, under the direction of Leonard Calvert, on the Ark and the Dove in 1634. These settlers founded the first successful non-native settlement in Maryland, a town that would come to be the first capital of Maryland.

Physical Site

In total, the land of HSMC takes up about 800 acres but it feels intimate, with many various small “sites” on HSMC property. As a living public history museum, HSMC attempts to recreate the first capital of Maryland. The center of the historic town has been “rebuilt” as it might have looked in the past. Other vestiges from the original town remain as well. The first statehouse of Maryland has also been rebuilt and stands on this site as a symbol of the importance of justice and what has become the United States of America’s judicial system. In stark contrast, directly across from the Statehouse, is the Brick Chapel, also a reconstruction, that stands as a symbol of the importance of religion and religious freedom. These two sites that lie on the same road yet stand hundreds of yards apart, were meant to symbolize the separation of religion and the state and the balance between the two that the settlers sought after.

Brick Chapel (Image 1)

Within this narrative lies the argument this site attempts to communicate to those that visit: St. Mary’s City was the beginning of the great American ideals we honor today. The fights for religious freedom, separation of church and state, and equal rights all began in St. Mary’s City. This is what the site tries to communicate to its visitors.

Anyone can visit this site and not only learn much about Maryland history but they will also enjoy the site. As is, this site is aimed for the general population. When walking the grounds, you are likely to run into families, large student groups, and locals that use the site to walk their dogs or exercise.

As a visitor, one can take part in a group tour of the site or check out the site on your own. Either way works, however, I believe you get the most out of this site by taking a tour of it. It is not so easy to figure out your way around the site without some guidance. There is not one clear path that one should take and it would be easy to miss important sites or features of HSMC. However, along your journey at HSMC you will find a few interpreters, dressed in period costumes, that tell the stories of St. Mary’s City residents. There are very few actual interpreters at the site, though. So when walking through the site, it is likely that you may not run into any interpreters at all. The interpreters can provide fascinating information about the history of St. Mary’s City, though their use seems to be directed towards children and school groups.

Interpreters at the Dove (Image 2)

Though HSMC is situated on a lot of land, the land remains mostly empty. Archaeological digs, which have been ongoing at the site for the past forty years or more, have proven the location of many original buildings from the first capital city. HSMC has taken information from archaeological digs to “rebuild” the town, most notably by using “ghost” houses. These houses are merely the outlines of structures, but mark where actual houses or buildings from the original town once stood and what they might have looked like.

Ghost houses (Image 3)

You can also take a trip down to the waterfront, where the reconstructed ship from the settling voyage, the Dove, sits today. Visitors to HSMC can get a tour of the reconstructed ship, which to me is one of the most interesting parts of the entire site. Also featured at HSMC is an Indian Hamlet, somewhat hidden in the woods, that attempts to portray what the site might have looked like before settlers from Europe arrived. Here, you can learn about Indian modes of subsistence, how they built their own canoes, and how to make an arrowhead. Another interesting part of HSMC is the St. John’s Site Museum. This museum is situated on the grounds of the college, where archaeologists uncovered the foundation of an early English home along with a wealth of archaeological finds. This museum is worth the trip to HSMC over any of the other aspects of this site. The museum is one of the most interesting archaeological museums that I have ever been to. Unfortunately, this museum is “off the beaten path” of HSMC, so many visitors may not make it over to this part of the site.

Overall, HSMC is a great example of a living public history museum. The archaeological work that has allowed for the site’s existence has successfully articulated the history and the lives of the various types of individuals that used to call St. Mary’s City home. Though there is not one path to follow throughout the site, visitors can either take a tour of the site or follow the maps to find each educational experience at HSMC. However, having clearer signage and more directive maps would help visitors get the best experience from HSMC.

Digital Site

The digital site for HSMC is www.hsmcdigshistory.org. The opening page reads, “Experience life in 17th century Maryland!” At first glance, visitors to the digital site understand that HSMC aims to be a recreation of life from seventeenth century St. Mary’s City. The opening page also discusses St. Mary’s City’s “legacy of democracy and toleration,” hinting at the site’s argument that HSMC was a building block for modern America.

This website is aimed for those interested in visiting the site. There are many tabs on the page for users to view, but the first two tabs include information about visiting the site and the various programs and tours the site offers. Other tabs on the HSMC website include, “Support,” “Private Events,” “The Shop,” and “The Inn.” Besides being aimed at potential visitors, the HSMC website is aimed at those interested in financially supporting the institution. Finally, the site is geared towards those interested in the history of the site and the various research opportunities that are ongoing at HSMC. This website gives out a lot of information about HSMC. In this way, I think they cover a variety of information that anyone visiting their website might in search of.

Home page of HSMC’s digital site (Image 4)

The most interesting component of the website is a Museum Map, an interactive digital map of HSMC. By including this map on the website, potential visitors can not only get a grasp of the site before they go, but they might be able to gain any information they are looking for on the site without needing to physically visit. The interactive map works by the website user clicking on the various buildings or monuments on the map. Small windows will appear with a picture of the building and some brief historical information. The only downside to the map is that it seems to be a work in progress. Each of the small information windows that pop up include a link for visitors to “Dig Deeper,” suggesting that a new window will appear with even more information on the site. But when clicked on, the page brought up has an error message. Despite this, the interactive map on HSMC’s website a great tool for visitors to use and brings the website into a more interactive sphere.

HSMC’s Interactive Map (Image 5)

Overall, the digital site for HSMC has a simple layout, yet contains a large amount of information on this site. There is only one interactive aspect of the website, the museum map. Though it is the sole interactive element, it is visually engaging and could be very helpful to visitors to the page. The website could be improved by streamlining much of the information on the site and ensuring that various links on the site work.


The physical site and digital site make similar arguments about the history of St. Mary’s City. However, the visitor to the digital site might gain more information on the formation of the site and the archaeology that preceded the site’s creation. It might be beneficial for those that aim to visit the physical site, to take time to visit the digital site beforehand. The digital site would help visitors make sense of the site, even before their actual visit.


Image Citations:

Image 1: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/St_Marys_City_Historic_District_Catholic_Church_Jul_09.JPG/250px-St_Marys_City_Historic_District_Catholic_Church_Jul_09.JPG

Image 2: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/photos/77370

Image 3: http://www.hsmcdigshistory.org/map/#Priests_House_Ghost_Frame

Image 4: Screenshot, www.hsmcdigshistory.org

Image 5: Screenshot, http://www.hsmcdigshistory.org/map/

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