ST. INIGOES - After nearly 20 years of searching along a riverside here, archaeologists say they have found one of the oldest English footholds in Maryland - a Jesuit plantation called St. Inigoes House.
Historians say the Jesuits arrived with the first settlers in 1634, aboard the Ark and the Dove, and built their first chapel in St. Mary's City. By 1638, they were also harvesting tobacco and corn at St. Inigoes to finance their mission to convert and educate Indians and colonists.
Yesterday, at the U.S. Navy's Webster Field where the discoveries were made, archaeologists displayed fragments of Indian tobacco pipes, trade beads, lead shot, gun flint and European domestic refuse. All of it has been dated to the first half of the 1600s. It appears to mark the spot where the Jesuit priests, led by the Rev. Andrew White, built St. Inigoes House.
The dig also uncovered three graves, perhaps those of some of the farm's first inhabitants.
Henry Miller, research director at Historic St. Mary's City, called St. Inigoes House the oldest settlement in the state outside St. Mary's City.
"This is the most important site discovered this year in Maryland," said Julie King, director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, in St. Leonard, who led the dig.
The artifacts were found beneath a field at Priests Point. The point, where St. Inigoes Creek meets the St. Mary's River, is about a mile south of St. Mary's City, the site of Maryland's colonial capital until 1694. The field is one of many the Navy leases to local farmers.
By bringing about 40 indentured servants to the colony in the 1630s, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, acquired rights to 2,000 acres at Priests Point from Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore and Catholic proprietor of the colony.
Perhaps half of those first servants worked at St. Inigoes House, supervised by four or five Jesuit fathers, Miller said. The farm was one of several large Maryland plantations established by the Jesuits.
"The farming financially supported their missionary efforts. This plantation was for growing tobacco and making money," said Edward E. Chaney, state archaeologist for Southern Maryland. The Jesuit fields were worked first by servants, after the 1660s by slaves and finally by tenant farmers.
The Maryland plantations mirrored others in Brazil, and anywhere Jesuits were permitted such freedom, said Maryland state archivist Edward Papenfuse.
"That's why they were from time to time suppressed," he said. "They were becoming too rich." The farms made them an economic force in the colony and significant slaveholders.
The slaves were freed before the Civil War, but the Jesuits held on to their land at Priest Point until 1942, when they sold 800 of the 2,000 acres to the U.S. War Department. The Navy established Webster Field in 1943. The Jesuits still own the rest.
It's not certain when St. Inigoes House was first settled. But historical records show it was producing tobacco by 1638. There are also references to a fort on the property.
"There wasn't a permanent garrison," Chaney said. "The fort was used for 10 years. The people in St. Mary's County could flee here and hide out" from Indians or from Protestant forces during a sectarian rebellion in the 1640s.
Until this summer, no one knew precisely where either the fort or St. Inigoes House had stood. An archaeological survey in 1981 revealed dozens of old sites, but none with artifacts old enough to be St. Inigoes House.
In 1996, the Navy invited King and Chaney to conduct an extensive archaeological inventory on the base. The National Historic Preservation Act requires such surveys to protect significant sites on federal land.
The archaeologists spent eight months digging a grid of 5,600 test holes, a foot square and a foot deep, across the base.
"We were finding a lot of stuff, from prehistoric Indian material to the 20th century," King said. "It was a good place to live."
When a small cluster of those test holes produced European pottery and other artifacts clearly dating from the early 1600s, the archaeologists knew St. Inigoes House could not be far away.
King and Chaney returned to Webster Field last spring under a Navy grant to excavate more of the 18th-century sites. But they were eager to dig on that section of the field where the early 17th-century material was found in 1996.
With permission from Douglas P. Lister, cultural resources officer at the base, they finally got their chance. "We started finding boatloads of early stuff," all datable to the early 1600s, King said.
They found fragments of several decorated Indian tobacco pipes, including one inscribed with an abstract image of a deer. There were also colorful beads - both round and cylindrical - and copper tubes commonly used in trade with the local Indians.
Diggers also found European and Chinese pottery shards, Dutch-made clay pipes, a piece of what King suspects is a brass spur, a rusted mouth harp and scissors.
One of the most interesting finds was a copper or brass coin weight bearing a royal crest dated to between 1603 and 1649. The weights were used in a balance to verify the value of European coinage.
The discovery of military artifacts - a brass sword belt hook, lead shot and gun flints, all datable to the early 1600s - led to speculation that the archaeologists had found the Jesuits' fort. But the abundance of domestic refuse suggested more strongly that they had found the plantation house.
Evidence in the soil of post holes, brick, charcoal and burned nails suggest the house might have burned. But the archaeologists aren't sure yet what kind of structure they're looking at.
The site will be reburied shortly and preserved for future investigators.
"The Navy is in possession of a very significant historic site that can now be protected from destruction and possibly used as a source of future research," Miller said.
The artifacts will go to the state conservation lab in St. Leonard, where analysis will answer some questions and likely raise others.
"So in a way we're walking away," King said. "But there's a lot more that can be done with the information we have."