Volunteer archaeologists working in the shallows off the southern end of Kent Island have found what may be clues to the long-lost location of Maryland's first English settlement -- William Claiborne's 1631 fort and trading post.
The key find so far has been the remains of a barrel well, one of three old wells spotted in what are now mud flats more than 40 feet off the eroded southern shoreline of Kent Island.
Inside one of the wells, archaeologists last fall found three pea-sized blue trade beads identical to beads found earlier in excavations at St. Mary's City and Jamestown,Va. All dated to the mid- to late 1600s.
They also found a small brass straight pin of a type listed in inventories of the stock at Claiborne's trading post.
"I think it's a little early to conclusively say they've found it [Claiborne's fort]," said Richard B. Hughes,chief archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust, which helped pay for the excavation.
"But from the information presented here today, it looks like they're closer than anyone has ever gotten." Their finds, he said, are "tantalizing hints that either they've found the site, or they're darned close to it."
The group's most important contribution, Hughes said, may be that their work "makes it almost certain that Claiborne's fort is no longer on land -- that we're probably going to find it in the water."
The work also underlines the importance of archaeology along Maryland's eroding bay shoreline and the amount of information that can be found there. Offshore sites have been given added state protection and scientific attention in recent years.
Research and site work in search of Claiborne's settlement are continuing. The archaeologists asked that the precise location of the barrel wells not be disclosed to protect the area from souvenir hunters.
The discoveries were made by a team of four men led by Michael Pohuski of Baltimore, a professional photographer and weekend archaeologist. He was joined by Fred Hopkins, associate vice president for administration at the University of Maryland at Baltimore; Joseph M. McNamara, president of the Archaeological Society of Maryland and a former state archaeologist; and Donald G. Shomette, chief of the graphics section of the Library of Congress and a lecturer and author on Chesapeake Bay history.
Hughes said the search for the site of William Claiborne's fort on Kent Island has been "one of the major questions of Maryland history."
Historians, archaeologists and Kent Island residents have debated the location for years, most placing it somewhere on land or under water between Kent Point at the island's extreme southern tip, and Long Point several miles to the northeast on the Eastern Bay.
Conclusive evidence may never be found, Pohuski said. The buildings themselves rotted away long ago. But inventories list trade goods, weapons, hinges,windmill parts and other durable items that could eventually turn up.
"We're able to compare anything we find" with those lists, he said, and "if we find enough stuff that matches,while we can probably never say for sure, we can make correlations" to build convincing evidence for a particular site.
Claiborne was a businessman and adventurer who sailed to the English settlement at Jamestown in 1621 and soon began exploring the Chesapeake Bay region in search of expanded opportunities for trade with the Susquehannock Indians.
Hopkins said historical records indicate Claiborne explored Kent bTC Island and Palmer's Island at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, and in 1631 established a trading post on Kent Island.
By the time the Calverts founded their colony at St. Mary's City in 1634, Claiborne had already built his settlement on Kent Island, enclosed by a wooden palisade, and he was busy building his private residence and fort, now known as Fort Kent.
The settlement boasted storehouses,a grist mill, a boat yard and barrel stave shop. Its inhabitants included the first female settler in Maryland -- a servant named Joan Young -- and Maryland's first black resident, Hopkins said.
But the arrival of the Catholic Calverts angered Claiborne and the Virginians at Jamestown. In 1635 the two groups began skirmishing over trading rights in a series of armed clashes on the Chesapeake in which several colonists were killed.
Claiborne lost control of his settlement in 1640 in disputes with his financial backers, and in the shifting politics of England during its Civil War. The settlement was abandoned and looted during the mid-1640s, and Claiborne spent the rest of his life trying in vain to regain title to the property.
Pohuski said he and his group decided to try to find the site of Claiborne's settlement in 1988 after Darrin Lowery, a University of Delaware student working on a clamming dredge off the southwestern shore of Kent Island, pulled up a pottery fragment bearing the date 1593 in raised numerals.
The shard was determined to be part of a Bellarmine jug, a type manufactured in Germany in 1596 to commemorate the start of a monarch's reign three years before. It was a type popular with the English for holding water or wine. They lasted 30 to 40 years in normal household use, Pohuski said, which would date its use to the 1630s or 1640s -- the time of Claiborne's Kent Island settlement.
Joseph McNamara called it "the earliest dated European ceramic [ever discovered] in North America."
Pohuski's group found Claiborne's story so intriguing, with its tales of betrayal, bribery, intrigue and violence, that they wound up spending the next two years and thousands of dollars of their own money trying to connect the historical record of the settlement with its physical remains.
The Maryland Historical Trust assisted with $500 toward the group's expenses and $2,000 to preserve whatever was found.
The work began with aerial photography of the southern end of the island and its offshore areas, a search of historical records and interviews with residents and watermen, some of whom have amassed large collections of Indian and 17th and 18th century English artifacts.