Archaeologist Travis Parno (center) led the St. Mary’s Fort excavation. He joins us to discuss the recently uncovered site.

Archaeologist Travis Parno (center) led the St. Mary’s Fort excavation. He joins us to discuss the recently uncovered site.

Researchers have unearthed a nearly 400-year old colonial site on the property of Maryland’s Historic St. Mary’s City, a living history museum. Archaeologists have been searching for the site for nearly 90 years. About the size of a football field, St. Mary’s fort was home to approximately 150 English colonists who arrived to Maryland in the spring of 1634.

Maryland archaeologist Travis Parno and his team discovered St. Mary’s fort last year, but due to delays caused by the pandemic, the success of the excavation was only made public last week. Historic St. Mary’s City also announced that the outdoor site is now open to visitors, so the public can witness archeology in action.

Parno and Regina Faden, executive director of Historic Saint Mary’s City, join us to discuss this recent discovery and how it helps us further understand our region’s history.

Produced by Inés Rénique


  • Travis Parno Director of Research and Collections, lead archaeologist on the Saint Mary’s fort excavation, Historic Saint Mary’s City
  • Regina Faden Executive Director, Historic Saint Mary’s City


  • 12:00:16

    KOJO NNAMDIYou tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be joined by PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff. But first, after a nearly 90 year search, researchers have unearthed the founding site of the Maryland colony called St. Mary's fort. This almost 400 year old fort is about the size of a football field and was home to English colonists, who arrived to Maryland in the 17th century. To dig deeper into this historic site and what it means for our region, I am joined by Travis Parno, lead archeologist on the St. Mary's fort excavation. He's also the Director of Research and Collections at the Historic St. Mary's City. Travis Parno, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:01

    TRAVIS PARNOThank you so much for having me this morning.

  • 12:01:04

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Regina Faden, Executive Director of the Historic St. Mary's City, a museum located on Maryland's Western Shore. Regina Faden, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:14

    REGINA FADENThank you so much. It's a pleasure.

  • 12:01:16

    NNAMDITravis Parno, what do listeners who are just now hearing about this discovery need to know about St. Mary's fort? Why is this historic site so important?

  • 12:01:26

    PARNOWell, I mean, the Maryland colony was really the fourth colony that was successfully established in North American. And by that I mean, it was one that was chartered. It was sort of an official colony and it lasted. You know, there are a number of colonies like the Roanoke colony and the Popham colony that sort of started and stuttered and failed.

  • 12:01:48

    PARNOBut we're really the sort of fourth major entrepot that became a colonial capital here in Maryland after Jamestown, Plymouth colony, Massachusetts Bay colony. And so to find where the colony began, this site where it all sort of started, the relationships that were forged between the colonists, who came and the native peoples who were here, all of that stage was really set at St. Mary's fort. And for the longest time that site had been lost to our archeology and to history. And so to finally have the opportunity to investigate this site and to really peer into that earliest point in our state's colonial past and see what it means for our life today is really just an unprecedented opportunity.

  • 12:02:38

    NNAMDIWell, St. Mary's was once Maryland's capital. Can you talk about that history, when it was founded and how long it lasted?

  • 12:02:46

    PARNOSure. Yeah, St. Mary's city was founded in March of 1634 when about 150 colonists came over from England. Arrived on the shores of what would be called the St. Mary's River, and negotiated with the Assacomoco, the people who were leaving in the area at the time, for the right to settle. And this was the place where the colonists who are led by Maryland's first governor Leonard Calvert established the Maryland colony. This was going to serve as the capital of the colony for a number of years.

  • 12:03:17

    PARNOAnd the colony survived a number of rebellions. It was a place that was intended by the Calvert family to be a place of religious freedom for Christian worshippers particularly for Catholics, who could not openly worship in England at the time. And that idea of religious freedom that permeates into our own constitution today caused a lot of problems in the 17th century. So there were a number of attempted overthrows at the government.

  • 12:03:45

    PARNOAnd finally in the mid-1690s after the colony had been taken over from the Calvert family by the British royalty the capital was -- the decision was made to move the capital from St. Mary's City up to what is today Annapolis. So St. Mary's City was an important place in our state's history critical to its beginnings. But was really only present as a capital for about 60 years.

  • 12:04:13

    NNAMDIRegina Faden, you oversee historic St. Mary's City, which is described as an outdoor museum of history and archeology. Can you tell us more about the museum?

  • 12:04:23

    FADENYes. The museum was established by the historic St. Mary's City Commission. That's a state agency of Maryland in 1984. The commission had been established in the 1960s, but it took a number of years to do enough archeology to find out about the first city, because we really knew very, very little about it until we could open a museum to begin to interpret academic findings like what Travis does into a public history program.

  • 12:04:48

    FADENSo today we have 40 acres of outdoor exhibits. It's a great place during the pandemic to come outside. Enjoy walking around with your family and friends and to learn about this very intriguing history that we have here. So we have a reproduction or a representation of a 17th century sailing ship called the Maryland Dove. People can learn about immigration, trade and they said in the town center that's what we call it. And it's all on the actual site. So unlike Plymouth and some other historic sites, this is all exactly on the place where these things were built.

  • 12:05:22

    FADENAnd so you'll see reconstructions of 17th century buildings. You'll see a unique Baroque city plan down here. So what's intriguing to me being from New England where the state and the church were the same, in Maryland, the state house is on the opposite side of the city from the church, the Catholic chapel that's here. And that really puts that idea of religious -- you know, separation of church and state into the architecture of the city. So people can see the Catholic chapel where Phillip Calvert the youngest son of Lord Baltimore is buried in a lead coffin. He's not in the coffin at the moment, but they can see an exhibit of that space.

  • 12:06:00

    FADENThey can go to a 17th century plantation. That way we talk about tobacco in the first person. And then also I'll say we have what we call woodland Indian hamlet. And the woodland refers to the period of contact with the native people and the Europeans. And so people can spend a full day outdoors. Enjoy the entire site walking our paths. We have three and a half miles of trail. So it's a really rich experience in the beauty of southern Maryland if you haven't been down here, and then about great history, and always we have the comment from our visitors, "Great interpreters" greeting people to engage with when they come onsite.

  • 12:06:37

    NNAMDIWhat was known about the fort and settlement before the site was discovered? Same question to you, Regina.

  • 12:06:45

    FADENI'm sorry?

  • 12:06:46

    NNAMDIWhat was known about the fort before the site was discovered?

  • 12:06:50

    FADENWell, there had been some research done. As you mentioned, it was 90 years in the making. There was an archeologist who came down decades ago who was looking for the fort. He also investigated the Jamestown site. But it wasn't again until the commission was formed in the 60s and really the early 70s that some of our archeologists began looking for it. So Dr. Henry Chandlee Forman, who was the original archeologist came down, he had an idea that made some sense that the fort would have been looking over the St. Mary's River, because it would give you a strategic advantage as far as defense.

  • 12:07:22

    FADENThen there was another idea except where we ended up finding the fort, which was on farther back from the river. And Travis can talk more about the description of the fort and he began to look there. We had some documentary evidence. But it really wasn't until we got a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust to do geophysical research so that you didn't have to dig everywhere to find out what was in the ground to really get a good idea of what we were looking at.

  • 12:07:46

    FADENAnd Travis oversaw that investigation, which looked at both sites, which we only did a couple of years ago. And then he had to go out and make sure that we really knew what we were talking about. So he had to go out and do some excavation to ground truth that. So it has been a long time in the making. And we finally put all the clues together, which is what historical archeologists do to finally find this substantial feature in the ground.

  • 12:08:11

    NNAMDITravis, as Regina pointed out, archeologists have been looking for this site for decades. Why and how had the exact location been lost to historians and archeologists for so long?

  • 12:08:23

    PARNOWell, for one thing the fort was only used for a very short period of time. When the colonists arrived in 1634, they set about constructing a palisaded enclosure. You know, palisade being basically timbers that have been stripped of their branches and then stacked sort of side by side in the ground to create a 10 to 14 foot tall wooden barrier, sort of basic rudimentary defensive measure. And the palisade was constructed and designed to hold the colonists, who arrived in the Arch and the Dove in 1634.

  • 12:08:56

    PARNOBut it didn't take too long, about six to seven outwards of eight years for the colonists to begin moving outside of the fort and settling along waterways where they could establish tobacco plantations and have a larger amount of land. And so the fort wasn't used for very long. And it's a period of our state's and the Maryland colony's history that isn't very well documented historically.

  • 12:09:22

    PARNOSo the documentary record that we had wasn't extremely descriptive about where the fort was located. We had a single letter that was dated May 30th, 1634 written by Maryland's first governor that actually described where the colonists built their fort. And he talks about how they walked half a mile inland and there they can constructed their fort. And he described it as 120 yards square with four flanks, which we tend to interpret as meaning four bastions on the corners of this fort, sort of a circular outwork.

  • 12:09:56

    PARNOSo there was a large enclosure that he was describing about half mile inland from the river. And so that was the key, was where along the river. Is it right up against the river like Dr. Henry Chandlee Forman mentioned like Regina said, because if you have a fort and you have a bunch of canon mounted in it, which Calvert described in his letter, what are those cannon intended to do? Are they trying to shoot at ships that are coming up the river in order to prevent an enemy from arriving by ship?

  • 12:10:25

    PARNOOr are they intended to be used overland if you're more worried about whether it's Virginian troops or other colonies or potentially native groups who you haven't established diplomatic ties with attacking overland. And so for a long time there were these two kind of competing theories about where would the fort have been situated. And so like Regina said it really took this sort of development of technology to sort of catch up and so that we could use more scientific instrumentation to look at large areas without having to excavate them.

  • 12:10:58

    NNAMDITravis, you led the site dig. After so much effort, what did unearthing this fort meant for you on a personal level?

  • 12:11:07

    PARNOWell, I mean, I think it's -- it feels like a sigh of relief and also a big beginning. This is -- it's a huge site, really, just a very large site. Archeologists are very careful meticulous people. Sometimes we get criticized for working too slowly. You know, we like to be really careful and intricate about all of the work that we do, because once we excavate an area, there's no putting it back the way that it originally was. And so we try to be extremely careful as we are excavating into the soil.

  • 12:11:38

    PARNOAnd so we have a site that is again, about the size of a football field and we could easily spend 10-15-20 years excavating this site. So it's a massive discovery and something that's so exciting for us. But also represents the beginning of what's going to be a really long term investigation into this wonderful site.

  • 12:12:00

    NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:24

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're digging into Maryland's past with Travis Parno, lead archeologist on the St. Mary's fort excavation and Director of Research and Collections at the Historic St. Mary's City. Regina Faden is the Executive Director of the Historic St. Mary's City, a museum located on Maryland's Western Shore. Regina, you have been the Director of the Historic St. Mary's City as we said an outdoor museum of history and archeology for more than 10 years. What does this discovery mean to you?

  • 12:12:52

    FADENWell, I actually am not a historian by early training. I studied literature and I love the stories of people and understanding different perspectives. And that's really something that this fort is going to enable us to talk about our shared history. And I mean the story of us. And as a museum director, when I say the story of us I mean all of the people, who were here and the Native people, the African Americans.

  • 12:13:18

    FADENWe didn't even mention Mathias de Sousa yet. That's a fascinating story of a man of African descent, who comes here as an indentured servant. Earns his freedom and then participates in the legislature in the 17th century and also, of course, about the English colonists. It's so much about who we are as Americans, all of the conflicts, the difficulties, the ways of finding ourselves moving forward together, civil rights. All these things that are a part of our lives today are represented in the fort in the moments where our people first came together, and I think it's just a powerful thing.

  • 12:13:52

    FADENLike we all travel or many of us travel to go see those places where important things happen. And it's right here at St. Mary's City where you can stand and look at the places where people were building their lives and constructing a new society with these three old cultures that came together, the European, the African and the Native American. I think it's just an extraordinary opportunity for storytelling, and I mean based in history. But ways that we can connect to each other by telling our own personal histories and connecting them to what we learn about the past.

  • 12:14:23

    NNAMDIIndeed, Travis, of course, as Regina just pointed out our region's history goes far back beyond the colonial time period. Can you tell us a little more about the native peoples that lived in Maryland before then? How is the museum working to make ensure their stories are represented too? And Tia in Alexandria emails, "It took a while for racialized chattel slavery to evolve in the colonies. Does the new work at the St. Mary's fort and settlement shed light on labor practices and slavery?" Travis Parno.

  • 12:14:55

    PARNOAbsolutely. These are wonderful questions and very complicated questions that we have to get into. And you're absolutely right that native people were present in this region for millennia prior to the arrival of European colonists. You know, we have artifacts that have been excavated at historic St. Mary's City over the last 50 years that date back 10 to 12,000 years ago. And we know that native people were present in the region even a couple thousand years at least before that. And so there's this deep history of use of space and of occupation and of relationship to the environment and relationship to the land.

  • 12:15:33

    PARNOAnd that's something that is so critical for us to really work into the story in a way that perhaps we haven't in the past. And the St. Mary's fort site represents -- you know, we talk about it as the founding site of Maryland colony. But it's also a moment of interruption, of insertion where colonialism and everything that goes with colonialism of economic exploitation of differences of diplomatic ties and breakages of treaties and broken treaties. All of that comes into play at St. Mary's fort.

  • 12:16:12

    PARNOAnd so we knew that we couldn't just look at this site as a colonial site. That we needed to sort of step backwards and look at other areas of our sites to work into the story, and so what we've done is we're actually working in two other adjacent archeological sites that are present not a 1,000 feet away from the site of St. Mary's fort. One of these sites we know dates at least 500 to 2,000 years old, and another site nearby dates at least three to 5,000 years old.

  • 12:16:45

    PARNOAnd so what we've decided to do is look at all three of these sites under the same project umbrella, what we're calling the people to people project. And this work will done in conjunction and collaboration with members of the Piscataway Conoy tribe, the Piscataway Indian nation whose ancestors the Piscataway are -- really were one of the most powerful entities in this region at the time the colonists arrived.

  • 12:17:12

    PARNOAnd so the Piscataway were what we call the paramount chiefdom. They were sort of governed over much of what is today Maryland's Western Shore. And so by working together with our Piscataway friends and colleagues to conduct our excavations and really design public interpretation like we do at our museum with education programs, reconstructed historical features and signage and artistic programs, all of this is going to be done as a collaborative effort, because we're not the keepers of history. You know, we may be -- certain some as historians and archeologists we play a role. But our community are really the keepers of history. And we want to work together and pull all of those stories out to celebrate everyone's past. But to get to the -- I'm sorry.

  • 12:17:59

    NNAMDIGo ahead.

  • 12:18:01

    PARNOTo get to the question about chattel slavery, I think is a really great one because Regina shared the story of Mathias de Sousa, which is so important for us as a person of African descent participating in colonial governance. But his story is I think even more powerful when we think about the fact that members of the Calvert family and other wealthy colonial planters at this time were working hard in the 1630s, 1640s, the earliest years of the colony to import enslaved Africans into the colony.

  • 12:18:31

    PARNOThey were coordinating with the Virginia colony, with other contacts back in Europe to try and introduce chattel slavery into the colony. And in 1664, the Maryland colonial government passes sort of what we consider to be the first sort of codified race based chattel slavery laws that are passed in English North America. These were based largely on chattel slavery laws that were passed in 1661 in Barbados.

  • 12:18:57

    PARNOAnd so while we have these stories that we can celebrate with de Sousa and so many stories of strength and sort of unique accomplishments we also have the fact that the 17th century is really the crucible in which so many of the social issues that we wrestle with and we tend to associate with the 18th century like large scale plantation chattel slavery had their roots in the earliest phases of the 17th century.

  • 12:19:25

    NNAMDIHere now is Butch in Bowie, Maryland. Butch, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:32

    BUTCHHi. Very interesting subject, I appreciate it, Kojo. Quickly, how far is it from -- how far is the site from Mill Point Shores or Longview Beach? Longview was where a Black African settlement private beach area.

  • 12:19:57

    NNAMDICan you answer that, Regina Faden?

  • 12:20:00

    FADENSure. I'm not that familiar with Long Beach, but I can say we are about a 90 minute drive from Washington D.C. We are down, like I said, nearly to the southern end of the peninsula, the St. Mary's County peninsula. And if anyone is familiar with Point Lookout, which is a state park, we're about 15 miles from there. It's about an hour and a half to Edgewater and then about two hours to central Annapolis City. So I think that's the best I can describe right now. Like I said, it's good hike down, but, like I said, it's a beautiful drive also.

  • 12:20:36

    NNAMDIAnd Jim in Washington emails, "Did King William push out the Calverts, because they were Catholics? As kids in Montgomery County schools, St. Mary's history was part of the curriculum, but they were illusive on that point." Can you help us with that either Travis or Regina?

  • 12:20:54

    FADENTravis, why don't you take that?

  • 12:20:55

    PARNOSure, yeah, it was a time where there had been enough conflict between the Protestants and the Catholic proprietors that it was deemed that sort of for the good of the colony that there needed to be a royal takeover essentially. Prior to this, again, the Calvert family owned the colony as a family, which is sort of a unique situation. And eventually the crown came in and said, "You know, let us handle this."

  • 12:21:24

    NNAMDIAll right. We're almost out of time. Regina, you had planned to announce the discovery of St. Mary's fort last year, but decided to postpone. Why is that?

  • 12:21:32

    FADENWell, COVID in the short story. But what we would typically do is have, you know, people come down. They'd be able to enjoy the site. We would have a big celebration. We did do an online Maryland day of virtual celebration. And the governor participated, the lieutenant governor, all the leadership and the state. And also we had federal leaders who are leading the effort to declare Southern Maryland a national heritage area based on religious freedom.

  • 12:22:01

    FADENBut we couldn't gather people together. We couldn't do what we normally do. And we're still sort of waiting to get together. But it gave us a chance to think more deeply about how we're going to approach the project. And so it all worked out in the end.

  • 12:22:13

    NNAMDIWell, now locals can visit the actual fort dig site. And I'm sorry we can't tell you more about that, but Travis Parno and Regina Faden, thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be joined by PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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