Anne Arundel County (USA): How the original settlers lived

Bob Zimberoff 

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This reconstruction of an early Colonial earthfast dwelling at Historic London Town in Edgewater represents a typical home built by the first settlers in the 17th century. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANNE ARUNDEL’S LOST TOWNS PROJECT

When history buffs and fans of architecture think of the Colonial period, they likely imagine modest brick mansions and stately brick buildings like those found in Chestertown.

But according to Jane Cox, Anne Arundel County’s archaeologist and historic preservationist, the first homes built by settlers on the Chesapeake Bay were rooted in dirt and wood.

Cox, the assistant director of the Lost Towns Project, was the first speaker in Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s “This Old Chesapeake House” series Jan. 30 at the museum.

The Lost Towns Project is a hands-on archaeology program that researches 17th century Colonial towns in Anne Arundel County. Cox’s presentation detailed findings from 20 years of historical archaeology.

The project started with the discovery of archaeological sites from 17th century Providence near where the Bay Bridge is today.

Providence was the first settlement in Anne Arundel County. There were dissident Puritans that came up from Virginia and from St. Mary’s,” Cox said, “and in 1649 they settled on the banks of the Severn River, the White Hall Bay, and essentially formed the community that would one day become the capital city of Annapolis we all know today.”

When the first settlers arrived, they thought they would one day return to England. They were a mix of Protestants looking for religious freedom, planters, farmers and Colonial elite along with indentured servants and slaves.

They wanted to make a quick buck,” Cox said. "A lot of these folks were not planning on sticking around for a while.”

She said they had heard the colonies were the land of opportunity, and that they could come, plant tobacco and make a lot of money.

For that reason, the first homes to appear in Maryland were not built to be permanent. Also, most of the original settlers didn’t expect to live past age 45.

With so many of them, knowing that they had a low life expectancy, knowing that they had the opportunity to make money and get out, there was a real fluidity to the Chesapeake colonial society between 1650 and 1700,” Cox said. “If you look in Colonial Williamsburg, if you read in any history book, all you really hear about are these wonderful brick structures, these fantastic elite buildings. The reality is that that was rare, that was the Bill Gates, that was not the common person, that was not the middle or lower class.”

In fact, most homes built from 1650 to 1700 were wooden post-in-ground or earthfast structures, Cox said.

You have very simple one-room buildings,” she said, noting that 16x20-foot buildings were the average.

The buildings had very little insulation, according to Cox.

If they were lucky they had a brick fireplace or a brick chimney,” she said. “In many instances what we found from the archaeology is that the chimneys were made of what’s called wattle and daub. It’s essentially woven wood strips that are covered in mud and then they use it as a fireplace. You can see the inherent problem with having a wooden fireplace.”

Cox said at a couple sites, archaeologists discovered that the wattle and daub fireplaces were held up by a post. If the fireplace caught on fire, someone could simply kick the post, collapse the fireplace and prevent the fire from threatening the building.

The interesting part about the evolution of these buildings is that it’s completely in response to really an environment that the folks that are showing up here had never experienced before,” Cox said. “You’ve got incredible changes in temperature. ... You’ve got incredibly humid summers. You’ve got to find out a way to make this building survive, to make it be comfortable, to at least be inhabitable space.”

Cox said buildings from 1650 to about 1700 would last about 20 years before termites infested them. The wooden structures evolved through the 17th century until the third generation of settlers started building more permanent structures.

"These people have pretty much figured out they’re not going home again,” Cox said.

So, now in the 18th century, that’s when they finally settle in and say ‘OK ... We’ve got the resources now. We’ve made a couple bucks on tobacco. We’ve got the stability of the society. We’re going to start building something more permanent.”

Cox has worked in the dirt at other Anne Arundel sites like London Town and Herrington through the Lost Towns Project. She is looking for volunteers and interns. No experience is necessary, and the project offers yearround work in the field, a lab or historic research.

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