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Digging up the past


Armed with maps and a hunch, archaeologists in Anne Arundel County this year will embark on a hunt near the southern end of the county for a long-gone house outside a tiny Colonial town that vanished more than 300 years ago.

Archaeologists hope to locate what was once the home of Samuel Chew Sr., a planter, merchant and officeholder who lived outside the short-lived tobacco port of Herrington, near what is now the Fairhaven community.

Whatever they can glean from their work will contribute to the sparse knowledge of Herrington and the surrounding community, both of which are swathed in mystery.

"Samuel Chew Sr. was an important historical figure as well as a religious leader," said John Kille, assistant director of the Lost Towns project, the archaeological venture to find evidence of the earliest Colonial settlements in Anne Arundel County.

Chew lived in the area in the mid-1600s. A prominent, wealthy Quaker, possibly by conversion, he held religious meetings in his home, Kille said.

Nothing is known about his house but this: 100 years after Chew's death, the structure evidently still stood, visible from a distance. It was used, along with his son Samuel Chew Jr.'s nearby home, as markers by incoming trade ships to navigate Herring Bay and Creek.

That has led to a suspicion that it was more substantial than the typical wooden, crate-like homes of the 1600s, which rotted away within a couple decades. Chew's main residence may have been brick, not wood, which would have extended its life.

"It likely was a significant building," Kille said.

County archaeologist Al Luckenbach said the team hopes to find evidence of the home's foundation, which probably has decomposed into nothing more than discolored dirt. However, houses commonly had trash pits, the equivalent of mini-landfills. Excavations into those offer a window into an era, as they may hold food remains, broken utensils and items that outlived their usefulness, he said.

A sizable tobacco plantation - and Chew is likely to have had one - would have had outbuildings such as a kitchen, barns and slave quarters, Luckenbach said.

When the dig, funded in part through a $2,500 grant from the Four Rivers Heritage Area, will take place or how long it will last has yet to be decided, he said.

Chew was born in 1634 in Jamestown, Va., and is believed to have moved to the Herring Creek area in 1659, becoming a well-known leader in the religious and civic arenas. He served as a colonel in the military, sat in the Lower House of the legislature in 1661, then the Upper House from 1671 to 1674, according to an article Kille wrote this spring for the Anne Arundell County Historical Society.

Chew served as county sheriff in 1663 and 1664, as a county justice from 1665 to 1669 and then was a member of the Provincial Council and Court until he died, in 1676 or 1677, Kille wrote.

In the Herring Creek vicinity - and to the south in Calvert County - Chew owned some 2,000 acres. In an era when tobacco was creating a booming local economy, he most likely grew tobacco and, like other planters, traded it at the local port, making him a "rich guy," Luckenbach said.

In its heyday, Herrington was a bustling port, a site for international trade, important enough to have one of the county's three tobacco inspectors and to be the site of a burgess election. It was a town associated with people of means and influence, Kille said.

But Herrington is a peculiar, if mysterious, town in history. The Maryland Assembly established it as a tobacco and import-export trade control port in 1669, and by 1705 it was dead, Kille said.

Colonial officials "kept trying to establish towns in Virginia and Maryland. I guess if you try hard enough, some will stick," Luckenbach said. The Eastern Shore town of Cambridge has such roots, he noted. But some towns of that time existed only on paper, as nobody came to live in them, he said.

While Herrington existed, it may have played a key role in the local religious sphere. Herring Creek residents came from English Puritan stock. But by 1660, several well-known Quaker missionaries had come through and won converts, turning the area into an active Quaker community, Kille said.

Not only was Samuel Chew Sr.'s home used for Quaker meetings, but his son provided the land for the Herring Creek Friends Meeting House, which stood before 1706.

And while others in South County, including people who lived around Herring Creek, helped to establish the St. James Parish, dissenters opposed establishing the Church of England as the state church about the turn of the century, Luckenbach said.

Around that time, Herrington disappeared.

"We know practically nothing about it," Kille said.

That made Harrington a candidate for the county's Lost Towns Project, which researches and tries to locate the towns that drew settlers. So far, Luckenbach's group has found three: London Town, Providence and, most recently, Herrington.

Five years ago, with the financial backing of the Maryland Historical Trust, the archaeologists and a band of local volunteers began the Herrington hunt.

"We dug 600 test bores," Kille said. They first found evidence in hole No. 172 - and quite a ways down.

Legends about the rural area's erosion turned out to be true: "Herrington has about 3 feet of silt on top of it," Kille said.

The search for the town and for Chew's home has piqued the curiosity of South County residents, largely those with deep roots in the area and members of a fledgling historical society based in nearby Deale, said Ned Crandell, who developed an interest in it.

Stories handed down about the eroded landscape are beginning to make some sense. Town Point, now a knob into the water, in Colonial times was a peninsula that came to a point, according to old maps, Kille said.

What the archaeologists found in their digs from 2001 to 2004 intrigued them. An outline of the town emerged. They found trash pits, or middens, which held stylish European ceramics.

From Germany came Rhenish stoneware, its salt glaze trimmed in blue. From England came manganese-mottled earthenware. From England's North Devon region came yellow-glazed plates with elaborate etched designs. And there were pieces of tobacco pipes, wine bottles and wine glasses also believed to be from the Herrington period.

This told archaeologists two things: First, in an extensive trade network, Herrington's dwellers could obtain everything from Italian glass to English ceramics, Kille said. Second, "It meant the world wanted tobacco," Luckenbach said.

They also found evidence that the settlers dined on the Chesapeake Bay's seafood bounty and killed animals for food, at a place where Native Americans previously had lived, and where more Europeans followed.

What the searchers have not found is a clue to why Herrington vanished.

Luckenbach speculated that Herrington was deserted because London Town, to its north, eclipsed it. That Colonial seaport became a government seat and a hub for land routes going north.

But something else may have been at play, he said. Growing more tobacco in South County meant stripping larger areas of vegetation. The soil eroded into Herring Creek, making it shallower. That would have become a barrier to large ships laden with goods to trade upon arrival and with tobacco as they left.

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