St. Mary’s College is located on the site of the fourth oldest permanent English settlement in North America, a location of historical significance for the spread of civil rights and representative government on the continent.
The land now occupied by the campus of St. Mary’s College has played an important role in the evolution of the community and in the history of Maryland. The campus, lying on a broad bend of the St. Mary’s River, was the home of the Yaocomaco people during the 1600s. English colonists arrived aboard the Ark and Dove in 1634, determined to establish a settlement under a charter from King Charles I, authorizing them to take dominion of the lands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. Led by Leonard Calvert, second son of Lord Baltimore, they came ashore within sight of where the College stands today, signed a treaty of peaceful coexistence with the Yaocomaco, and named their town St. Mary’s City. Though the settlement had ceased to flourish by the end of the 17th century, it was the capital of Maryland for 61 years (until 1695) and saw the beginnings of civil rights and representative government on this continent.
By an Act of Toleration adopted at St. Mary’s City in 1649, Maryland became an early site of religious freedom in the New World. The Act envisioned tolerance only between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but it represented an enormous triumph over the religious unrest in Europe and became a basis for today’s larger view of religious freedom. The “Freedom of Conscience” monument on the campus commemorates that event.
Mathias DeSousa was the first Black Marylander, an indentured servant of African and Portuguese descent who arrived on the Ark in 1634. He became a mariner and fur trader after completing his service in 1638, and served in the 1643 legislative assembly of freemen.
The first faint trumpet heralding the women’s suffrage movement was sounded in St. Mary’s City in 1648. There, Margaret Brent, a landowner who had performed significant service to the colony in straightening out its muddled finances, appeared before the colonial Assembly to demand for herself a vote equal to that of male landowners in the affairs of the settlement. Her plea was denied, but her cause has persisted and flourished.
Colonial St. Mary’s City virtually disappeared after Maryland’s capital moved to Annapolis in 1695. During the 1930s, however, archaeologists began excavating the area in an attempt to uncover traces of the settlement and learn more about colonial life. In 1966, a state agency, the St. Mary’s City Commission, was formed to preserve, interpret, and develop this important landmark site. Recognizing this, in 1969 the U.S. Secretary of the Interior designated the area, including part of the College campus, a national landmark. In the years since then, researchers have discovered thousands of artifacts along with the vestiges of numerous buildings—enough evidence to create a map of the 17th-century capital and describe the daily life of its inhabitants. College historians, anthropologists, and students have joined with the research staff of the resulting state park and living history museum, Historic St. Mary’s City (founded in 1984), to conduct excavations and historical research. The foundations of the building where Margaret Brent made her plea are exposed as a permanent interpretive center, completed in 2008.
In Historic St. Mary’s City, 17th-century America comes to life through exhibits, reconstructed buildings, and staff interpretations. St. Mary’s College students receive complimentary admission tickets to all exhibit areas, one example of the many ways in which the two institutions collaborate. In 1997, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Historic St. Mary’s City Act, which facilitates joint programming by the City and the College. For St. Mary’s students, this collaboration represents a rare opportunity to explore the American past.