Kent Island and Maryland’s Turbulent Early History

Travelers heading over the Chesapeake Bay from Maryland’s western shore along Maryland Route 50 are often on their way to one of the sandy beaches along the Eastern Shore’s Atlantic Coast.  Sunlight sparkles off the bay on either side of the bridge, as large container ships, commercial fishing vessels, sail boats, and other pleasure craft ply its waters. Up ahead, the shores of Kent Island become visible, its forested shores and fields gleaming green in the distance. 

Figure 1. The date 1593 and a medallion device bearing a two-headed bird decorate the German stoneware sherd discovered in 1988. From the 18QU300 Medallion Site. (Photo courtesy of Darrin Lowery.)

Today, Kent Island is home to the Terrapin Nature Park and miles of sandy beaches, as well as a number of marinas, yacht clubs, inns, restaurants, and hiking trails that help support a booming tourist industry. But long before it became a popular visitor destination, the island experienced a tumultuous early history, marked by pitched turf battles between the Maryland and Virginia colonies for ownership of this land.

The impressive fragment of German salt glazed stoneware jug or bottle shown here was present for those early, turbulent years.  Discovered by archaeologist Darrin Lowery in 1988 while working on a clamming dredge off the southwestern side of the island (Roylance 1991), this sherd is the oldest ceramic bearing a date in the collection of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, the state’s archaeological curation repository. The vessel of which it was a part is believed to have been used, broken, and discarded at Kent Island’s earliest settlement.

Kent Island, settled in May of 1631 as a trading post and farming community by English settler William Claiborne, is the third oldest English settlement in North America, after Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts. Claiborne, appointed to be the Virginia Colony’s Secretary of State, had arrived in Jamestown in 1622 at the age of 21 (Copeland 2003).  After receiving permission to explore the Chesapeake Bay from Virginia’s governor (or, as he put it, “to win the forests of Virginia”), Claiborne claimed Kent Island, near the head of the bay, for the Virginia Colony (Appleton 1888:620).  By the end of the 1630s, over 120 people lived on the island (Isaac 1957), forming a community of planters, shipbuilders, coopers, millwrights, and sailors.

Figure 2. William Claiborne. Appletons’ Cyclopedia of American Biography (1888), from which this illustration is taken, called Claiborne “the Evil Genius of Maryland.”

Within several years of Claiborne’s claim, the Virginia colony began a legal battle over ownership of the island—a conflict that would last over four decades. In 1634, King Charles I granted the Calvert family a charter to establish the Maryland colony north of Virginia, which included the upper half of the Chesapeake Bay, including Kent Island. Calvert was willing to allow Claiborne to keep his land if he pledged allegiance to the Calvert family. Claiborne, however, was unwilling to recognize Calvert’s authority because Kent Island had already been developed under the name of the Virginia colony.

Maryland responded by confiscating one of Claiborne’s boats, prompting Claiborne to reciprocate with armed skirmishes. Financial backers lost faith in Claiborne, replacing him as the island’s leader in 1637.  After Claiborne returned to England to plead for reinstatement, Calvert seized control of the island and the Lords Commissioners of Plantations ruled in favor of Lord Baltimore’s legal right to the land.

Claiborne was not so easily thwarted. Seven years later, he and fellow Protestant Richard Ingles launched an attack on St. Mary’s City, prompting Governor Calvert to flee south to Virginia. Claiborne thus regained control of Kent Island until 1646, when Calvert retook the Maryland colony, including the island. In another reversal, Claiborne and Virginia governor Richard Bennett overthrew the Maryland government and ruled from 1652 to 1655. By 1657, Maryland had been restored to the Calvert family and, despite one final attempt by Claiborne at regaining his land in 1677, his control of Kent Island remained elusive.

Over the centuries, the effects of erosion and sea level rise have caused Claiborne’s original settlement to now be inundated by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, off of the southwestern side of the island.  In 1991, archaeologists examining the shallow waters 40 feet offshore discovered three old barrel wells believed to date to the seventeenth century (Roylance 1991).  Fragments of wooden barrel, likely been part of another well, were also found in the soil containing the medallion sherd brought up by the clamming dredge in 1988. Because the earliest evidence of Claiborne’s settlement now appears to be underwater, it is likely we will never know more about the actual appearance of this fort.  

Figure 3. This fanciful 19th-century woodcut imagining of Claiborne’s fortified settlement has little bearing in reality—the teepee dwelling and the shape and structure of the canoe are more appropriate to styles used in other geographic regions and time periods of the American past, for example. (Illustration from Andrews 1922:155)


Andrews, E. Benjamin.  1922.  History of the United States From the Earliest Discovery of America to the Present Time. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.  Originally published in 1894.

Appleton, D. 1888.   Appletons’ Cyclopedia of American Biography. Edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske.  D. Appleton and Company, New York.  Website accessed October 2, 2021 at

Copeland, Jennifer. 2003.  William Claiborne (1600-ca. 1677).  MSA SC 3520-246.  Maryland State Archives. Website accessed October 2, 2021 at

Isaac, Erich.  1957.  Kent Island: Part I: The Period of Settlement.  Maryland Historical Magazine Volume 52 (2):93-119.

Preservation Maryland.  2017.  Maryland History: The First Pirate of the Chesapeake.  Website accessed October 2, 2021 at Roylance, Frank D.  1991.  Clues:  4-Man Team of Archaeologists Believe It Has Discovered Evidence of Early Settlement on Kent Island.  The Baltimore Evening Sun.  February 17, 1991.  Website accessed October 2, 2021 at

Roylance, Frank D. 1991. Clues: 4-Man Team of Archaeologists Believe It Has Discovered Evidence of Early English Settlement on Kent Island. The Baltimore Evening Sun. February 27, 1991. Website accessed October 2, 2021 at

Moonlight Towers and Arc Lighting – Illuminating Baltimore’s Neighborhoods?

Figure 1. A “moonlight tower” arc light tower, San Jose, California, December 1881. (

Several years ago, I heard a fascinating “99% Invisible” podcast episode on the late nineteenth-century street electric lighting known as moonlight towers. A mention was made of moonlight towers being used in Baltimore, so I began what turned out to be a fruitless hunt for information on moonlight towers there.

Electric arc lighting was developed in Europe in the 1870s for use in lighthouses (Jakle 2001:39) and was commonly used in the 1880s and 1890s in the United States for street lighting.  In arc lights “a powerful current of electricity leaps from one carbon point to another, fusing both, the combustion being accompanied by an intense radiance (Baltimore Sun 1882). Arc lights needed daily maintenance, since the carbon electrodes burned out quickly, much like a candle wick consumed by a flame (Jakle 2001:39).  Since these lights were often mounted on tall towers to raise their bright light above human fields of vision and the tops of buildings, the soaring heights of the moonlight towers made this daily task difficult.

When mounted on multi-story towers, arc lights illuminated large areas (Figure 1) and helped to prevent night crime. But these lights also had a number of disadvantages:  they emitted a loud buzzing sound and dropped burning ash onto the streets below (99% Invisible). They also cast a very harsh, bright and often uneven light that forced residents to use parasols to protect their eyes.  The light cast by arc lights was described in contemporary accounts as  “piercing rays” and “dazzling” and extending “for a long distance” (Baltimore Sun 1882).  By 1890, there were more than 130,000 arc streetlights in the United States (History of Lighting 2021).

Before the invention of the arc light, gas lights were typically used to illuminate outdoor spaces in cities. Baltimore was one of the first cities to use gas street lights, introducing them in early 1817 after Rembrandt Peale formed the Gas Light Company of Baltimore. Gas lights were used to illuminate the city’s streets for most of the remainder of the century, when arc lights and later, incandescent lights, began to replace gas. They would have been a stark contrast to gas lights: a gas lamp has the power of about 15 candles compared to the several thousand candle power of an arc light.   

Figure 2. A portion of incandescent light bulb from 18BA331. The development of the incandescent bulb brought an end to arc lights.

The first outdoor arc lights in the United States occurred in 1879 in Cleveland (Jakle 2001:40) and likely started appearing in Baltimore shortly thereafter. In 1882, the city entered into a five year contract with the Brush Company to furnish 485 electric lamps (Baltimore Sun 1887). By the fall of 1882, the first incandescent lighting premiered in Baltimore at the Baltimore Sun building (Baltimore Sun 1882) and by July of 1884, the Sun had placed fifty incandescent street lights along South Street (Baltimore Sun 1884). Edison’s incandescent lighting began to replace arc lighting across the United States (Figure 2), but arc lights remained intact in Baltimore for another twenty years and co-existed with incandescent lighting.  An 1894 Maryland Electric Company advertisement in the Baltimore Sun offered both incandescent lighting and arc lighting, which could be contracted to burn from dusk to midnight or, for a higher cost, to burn all night long (Baltimore Sun 1894). The July 14, 1900 edition of the Baltimore Sun announced that the city was opening a competition for its street lighting (Baltimore Sun 1900:11).  The United Electric Light and Power Company had a monopoly and was under contract to supply the city with arc street lighting.  An adjacently placed article in the same edition of the paper provided a report from the city police that a third (353) of the city’s arc street lights were not working or remained lit only part of the night.  This problem was not new—the city fined the Brush Company in 1893 for the continued underperformance of its arc lights (Baltimore Sun 1893).

Figure 3. Moonlight tower in Detroit in the early 20th century (Courtesy of 2013). Despite looking through numerous publications with early photographs of Baltimore, no moonlight towers appeared in the photos.

Despite looking through a number of books featuring early photographs of Baltimore, I was unable to find anything that looked like a moonlight tower (Figure 3). It is possible that arc lights in Baltimore, like lights used at the Chicago Columbian Exposition and in other U.S. cities, were not mounted on towers, but on poles only a few feet higher than regular gaslights.  Austin, Texas is only U.S. city where moonlight towers still stand and they have become part of the local popular culture.  Since 1986, they have been designated as state archaeological landmarks and they are also on National Register of Historic Places.


99% Invisible.  2015.  “Under the Moonlight”.  99% Invisible podcast.  Episode aired January 27, 2015 at

Baltimore Sun. 1882.  “Always in the Lead – The Sun Building Lighted with Edison’s Electric Lamps.” Baltimore Sun, October 13, 1882. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.

Baltimore Sun. 1884.   “Giving Out the News.” Baltimore Sun, July 12, 1884, page 4. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.

Baltimore Sun.  1887.   “Electric Light Contracts.” Baltimore Sun, April 8, 1887, page 4. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.

Baltimore Sun.  1893.   “The Brush Company Fined by the City.” Baltimore Sun, November 29, 1893, page 10. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.

Baltimore Sun.  1894.   “Electric Lighting Supplies.” Baltimore Sun, February 7, 1894, page 7. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.

Baltimore Sun.  1900.   “Competition for Lighting: Electric Company May Have to “Hustle” for the Contract.” Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1900, p. 11. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.

Garber, Megan. 2013.  Tower of Light: When Electricity Was New, People Used It to Mimic the Moon.

History of Lighting. 2021. History of Street Lighting.  Website accessed July 25, 2021 at

Jakle, John A.  2001.  City Lights; Illuminating the American Night.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 2021. San Jose Electric Light Tower Illuminated in the Early 1880s.  Website accessed July 30, 2021 at

Maryland Medical Achievements

As many of us rolled up our sleeves this spring for a Covid vaccination, it seems appropriate to feature a syringe in this blog post.  Figure 1 illustrates two mid-19th-century glass syringes found in Baltimore at the Albemarle Row House site (18BC50). 

Additionally, April was Maryland Archeology Month and this year’s very appropriate theme was “Medicine and Healing in Maryland”.  So this month’s blog will follow in these same footsteps and focus on a few of the many medical advancements made in Maryland.  The state has a number of prestigious hospitals and research facilities, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Johns Hopkins Hospital opened in 1889, followed in 1893 by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, thus paving the way for numerous medical advancements.  Johns Hopkins was the first medical facility to develop renal dialysis (1913) and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, as well as the first to use rubber gloves during surgery (Johns Hopkins 2021). It is also the birthplace of many medical specialties, including neurosurgery, urology, endocrinology and pediatrics.  In 1890, it led the way in progressive medicine, becoming the first major medical school in the United States to admit women on an equal basis with men.  

Figure 2.  Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or permission.

Perhaps the state’s best-known (and controversial) medical advancement was the creation of the first immortal cell line—the “HeLa” cells. Removed without permission from cancer patient Henrietta Lacks in 1951 by physicians at Johns Hopkins, medical researchers all over the world have used these cells—aiding in the development of the polio vaccine, in cloning experiments, in understanding how viruses work and much more (Skloot 2010).    

The first public medical school in the nation, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, also bears the distinction of being the first medical school to institute a residency training program (Cordell 1903). In a residency program, newly minted medical doctors spend several years gaining hands-on experience working with established physicians in a hospital or clinic setting. During this period, the residents decide on what medical specialty they would like to pursue and focus their training in this area.

The Institute of Human Virology (IHV) was formed in 1996 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.  Under the leadership of co-founder Robert Gallo, the Institute has made great strides in AIDS research.   

The National Institutes of Health had its beginning with the Marine Hospital Service, a late 18th-century institution established to provide health care for merchant seaman, and later began monitoring ships arriving in the U.S. for infectious diseases (NIH 2019). The NIH has made great strides in many areas of medicine, including cancer research and the prevention and treatment of heart disease.

This blog has listed a small sample of medical advancements from Maryland’s medical institutions.  The state has a long history of medical achievements and will doubtless continue to lead the way in the twenty-first century.


Eugene Fauntleroy Cordell. 1903. Medical Annals of Maryland 1799-1899.   The Medical and Chirurgical Faculty for the State of Maryland, Baltimore.

Institute of Human Virology. 2021. Institute of Human Virology Research. Website accessed 6-8-021 at

Johns Hopkins. 2021. About Johns Hopkins Medicine History Timeline.  Website accessed 6-8-021 at .

National Institutes of Health.  2019.  The Roots of NIH.  National Institutes of Health. Website accessed 6-8-021 at

Rebecca Skloot.  2010. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Random House, New York.

The Great Baltimore Fire

This month’s item—a stack of charred paper—might not look like much, but it represents what was perhaps the worst disaster in Baltimore’s long history.  

Most people have heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Fire of 1906, but the lesser-known 1904 Baltimore Fire ranks as the third worst conflagration in United States history. Raging over the course of two days—February 7th and 8th—the blaze destroyed over 1,500 buildings in central Baltimore. The fire began at a dry goods warehouse on what is now Redwood Street, just blocks northwest of the Inner Harbor.  Despite attempts to halt the fire’s spread by dynamiting buildings in the path of the blaze, damage extended south to the harbor, east to Jones Falls, north to Fayette Street and west to Liberty Street.  Overall, some 140 acres were destroyed, although only one life was lost.  Some firefighters later died of pneumonia brought about as a result of fighting the fire (Heilner 2004). While reports in the Baltimore Sun estimated that property loss would range between $50 to $80 million dollars, the damage actually came in between $100 and 150 million.

Figure 1. A stack of burned paper from Reiter & Company store, recovered during archaeological excavations at the Shot Tower Metro site (18BC66). 

The severity of the situation was realized quickly and within thirty minutes of the blaze being detected, every piece of firefighting equipment in the city had been deployed.  Two engines arrived by train from Washington DC after the hasty dispatch of a telegram requesting assistance (Baltimore Sun 1904a).  Other units from surrounding locales also rushed to help battle the blaze and the Maryland National Guard and law enforcement officers from Philadelphia and New York helped maintain order and security. After 30 hours, the fire was finally brought under control by 5 pm on February 8th.

Figure 2. Front page of the Baltimore Sun on February 8, 1904, printed when the fire was not yet under control.

Within days of the fire, the pages of the Baltimore Sun were filled with large advertisements from insurance companies and building contractors, seeking to help businesses and citizens with the work of rebuilding the city. City services, like streetcars, telephones and telegraphs, were restored quickly, and the excitement generated by the disaster settled into the hard work of creating a safer and more fireproof Baltimore.

The portions of the city impacted by the fire became known as the “burnt district” (Baltimore Sun 1904b) and in March of 1904, the Maryland General Assembly established a Burnt District Commission (Digital Maryland). The commission was given broad powers to improve and rebuild the city through the removal of burned buildings, the widening and straightening streets, and the establishment of market spaces and public squares (Maryland State Archives 2015). The commission was in operation until 1907. As a result of the fire, new building codes that called for fireproof materials were established. The General Assembly also established the Citizens’ Relief Committee, which was given a fund of $250,000 for disbursement to citizens who had lost property in the fire.   

Figure 3. Graphic showing extent of Baltimore fire, screen capture taken from YouTube video.

Any archaeological excavations occurring in portions of the city affected by the fire uncover evidence of the disaster. Work at the harbor revealed that demolition debris from destroyed buildings was used as fill in early twentieth-century wharf construction and repair. Archaeologists working at the Baltimore Metro Shot Tower Subway Station Project (18BC66) uncovered the brick foundation and cellar of a building that had been a dry and wet goods store from the late eighteenth century until the fire. The lowest levels of the cellar contained melted medicine bottles and charred foodstuffs from Reiter & Co., the grocery in operation there at the time of the 1904 fire. Charred plant remains included what appeared to have been bags of rye grain, peas, rice and coffee. The burned paper was also discovered at the store.

Figure 4. Aftermath of the 1904 fire.

A large number of burned items recovered from the Reiter & Co. store are on display in the Metro Shot Tower Subway station.  For further reading about the fire, see Harold A. Williams, Baltimore Afire (Baltimore: Schneidereth and Sons, 1954); and James B. Crooks, “The Baltimore Fire and Baltimore Reform”, Maryland Historical Magazine 65 (Spring 1970): 1- 17.


Baltimore Sun.  1904a  Twenty-four Blocks Burned in the Heart of Baltimore.  Baltimore Sun. February 8, 1904.

Baltimore Sun.  1904b  City’s Recovery from Great Blow is Rapid.  Baltimore Sun. February 14, 1904, p. 16.

Digital Maryland. Burnt District Commission Report, September 11, 1904. Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Heilner, Alexander.  2004. The Great Baltimore Fire.

Maryland State Archives.  2015 Baltimore City Archives; Burnt District Commission. Maryland State Archives.

Camp Stanton and the U. S. Colored Troops

In October of 1863, two young men enslaved on the Southern Maryland farm of George Peterson made a bold move towards fighting for their own freedom and that of four million individuals enslaved in the United States. William H. Coates, aged 18, and William B. Jones, aged 19, enlisted at Camp Stanton in Charles County for a three year term with the United States Colored Troops (USCT).  Located along the Patuxent River at Benedict, Camp Stanton was established in 1863 as a recruiting station and training camp for the U. S. Colored Infantry.    

Figure 1.  Lead Minié balls recovered during the 2012 archaeological work at Camp Stanton (18CH305). Photo courtesy of the Maryland State Highway Administration.

The enlistment of Black men into the Union Army came to be viewed as critical to the success of the war.  Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (for whom Camp Stanton was named) wrote to Abraham Lincoln on October 1, 1863: “There is…in my judgment, a military necessity, in the State of Maryland… for enlisting into the forces all persons capable of bearing arms on the union side without regard to color, and whether they be free or not” (Berlin 1982:212).   Although President Lincoln had initially resisted enlisting men of color, the Bureau of Colored Troops was formed in May of 1863 to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers into the Union Army (Cornish 1965). By the end of the Civil War, there were almost 180,000 men in 175 USCT regiments; about one-tenth of the manpower of the Union Army. U. S. Colored Troops fought in every major battle during the last two years of the war and their efforts contributed to the success of the Union.

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Civil War Medicine—Not Just About Treating Battle Injuries

This post, which features a brass syringe found in a privy in Baltimore, anticipates April 2021’s Maryland Archeology Month, with its theme of medical care in archaeology. The syringe was found in a mid-nineteenth century context, corresponding nicely with similarly dated examples in museum collections.

Figure 1.  Clyster syringe from the Metro Shot Tower site (18BC66) in Baltimore.  One of the mid-19th century residents at this site was a physician. 

Known as a clyster, this syringe was not used with a needle. Instead, the cylinder would be filled with medicinal powders, which could be injected into wounds (Dammann 1983).  A standard component in Civil War era physicians’ kits, clysters were also used to treat venereal diseases (NPS n.d.). The term clyster comes from an archaic word meaning “enema” and larger versions of these syringes were used to administer enemas.

As the site of numerous battles during the Civil War, including its deadliest one day battle at Antietam, Maryland was the site of a number of Civil War hospitals. These hospitals ranged from large complexes constructed specifically to serve as medical facilities (Figure 2), to barns, homes and other buildings repurposed as needed. When most readers think of Civil War hospitals, they probably envision treating gunshot wounds and performing amputations as being the most common tasks for these medical professionals. Physicians and nursing staff at these facilities, however, had a wider range of challenges facing them.

Figure 2. Hicks U.S. Genl. Hospital, Baltimore, Md.  Library of Congress.

Deaths from diseases far outnumbered fatalities caused by battle-related injuries. Recent statistical revisions have increased the overall number of war fatalities from 618,000 to 752,000 (Hacker 2011) and some scholars place deaths from diseases as accounting for as many as two thirds of the fatalities (Foote 1958:1040; Dammann 1983). Typhoid, malaria, chronic diarrhea and dysentery (Figure 3), all caused by unsanitary conditions and exposure to disease-carrying insects, were major killers, felling almost 102,000 men (Burns 2021). One of the medical advances made during the Civil War was the use of quinine in treating malaria (Reilly 2016). Many soldiers, particularly from isolated rural areas, encountered childhood diseases like measles and mumps for the first time in the crowded conditions of the camps and trenches (Burns 2021).

Figure 3. Chronic Dysentery, Aaron Parker, Co D 1st Maine Cavalry.  Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive. 

Infections from delayed or improperly cleaned wounds were also a big concern – and development of antimicrobial drugs was still many decades in the future.  Some commonly employed medicines actually caused more harm than good (Reilly 2016).   

In our current public health crisis, many of us have had to practice quarantining as we were either diagnosed with Covid, or were symptomatic.  We can credit Civil War physicians with figuring out the value of isolating patients with communicable diseases; during the war they were able to effectively control yellow fever through the practice of quarantining (Reilly 2016).

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine, located in Frederick, Maryland, is a great place to visit to learn more about medicine and medical practices during this conflict. 


Burns, Stanley. 2021.  Diseases.  Behind the Lens:  A History in Pictures.  Mercy Street. Public Broadcasting Service. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at,was%20probably%20closer%20to%20750%2C000.

Dammann, Gordon.  1983.  Pictorial Encyclopedia of Civil War Medical Instruments and Equipment.  Volume I. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana.

Foote, Shelby. 1958. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3. New York: Random House,     

Gugliotta, Guy.  2012.  New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll.  New York Times, April 2, 2012. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at,any%20war%20in%20American%20history.

Hacker JD. 2011. A census-based count of the Civil War dead. Civil War History. 57:307–348.  

National Park Service. Syringes.  Vicksburg National Military Park. Museum Management Program. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at

Reilly, Robert F. 2016.  Medical and surgical care during the American Civil War, 1861–1865. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2016 Apr; 29(2): 138–142.

E. Sasche & Co. 1864. Hicks U.S. Genl. Hospital, Baltimore, Md. / Wm. Q. Caldwell, Jun. architect.  E. Sachse & Co., Baltimore.

MS. in a Bottle – Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore

October seems the perfect month to feature a blog post on Gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and his storied history in Maryland. This circa 1830s wine bottle, recovered from a mid-19th century privy in Baltimore, inspired this post.

Figure 1. Wine bottle recovered from a mid-19th-century privy at the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27) in Baltimore.

Although born in Boston on January 19, 1809, Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore roots extend back before his birth. Poe’s father, professional actor David Poe, Jr., was from originally from Baltimore and Poe’s paternal grandfather moved there with his parents from Ireland in the mid-18th century.  As a result of his father’s abandonment and the subsequent death of his mother, Edgar Poe became an orphan at the age of three.  He and his siblings were split up, with Edgar Poe sent to Richmond, Virginia, to be raised by the family of John and Frances Allan. It was Poe’s relationship with this family that prompted him to take the middle name Allan.

Figure 2. Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, late 1840s.

Edgar Allan Poe’s own relationship with Baltimore began in 1827, when he was in the city for a short time before enlisting in the Army. Later that same year, his poem “Extract—Dreams” was published in the Baltimore newspaper The North American, under the initials W. H. P. [William Henry Poe].  Some of his other early poems were published in Baltimore in 1829 in a volume entitled Al Araaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (Quinn 1998). Limited numbers of the volume were printed and it received very little notice at the time.

On October 19, 1833, the Baltimore Saturday Visiter published Poe’s short story, “MS. Found in a Bottle”.  The story was Poe’s response to a short story contest announced in the June 15th edition of the paper. Poe submitted six stories to the contest, and “MS. Found in a Bottle” was the unanimous choice of the judges, earning Poe a $50 prize. Poe scholars agree that this short story launched the author’s career (Peeples 1998). Perhaps Poe’s story was inspired by a wine bottle like the one illustrated here, since Poe was no stranger to drinking.

Figure 3. Banner of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter edition that published Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle” on October 18, 1833.

One of Poe’s greatest connections with the city was with his cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm.  Poe married 13-year old Virginia in 1835; they remained married until her death from tuberculosis in 1847. Poe began to drink heavily after his wife’s death.

October is also the month of Poe’s rather sudden and premature death at the age of 40, during a visit to Baltimore. Scholars still disagree about the cause of Poe’s death on October 7, 1849, with at least nine hypotheses in play, including carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, the flu and murder. Complications from his long struggle with alcohol addiction seem a likely candidate, although swelling of the brain was listed as the official reason on his death certificate (Geiling 2014). Poe was originally laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Baltimore, but in 1875 was exhumed and buried with his wife Virginia and her mother—in the city where he first gained recognition for his writing talents.

Figure 4. Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore.

Fascination with Poe and his mysterious stories and complicated life is still strong today, particularly in the cities where he made his home.  Baltimore even named their football team – the Baltimore Ravens—in homage to Poe. Today, fans of Edgar Allan Poe have a variety of Poe’s former homes where they can pay homage to the horror writer:  the Poe Museum in Richmond, The Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum in Baltimore, or even the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.


Geiling, Natasha. 2014. The (Still) Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. October 7, 2014. Website accessed on October 13, 2020 at

Peeples, Scott.  1998.  Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. Twayne Publishers, New York.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. 1998. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press.

A Humiliating American Defeat at Bladensburg

This 18 pound cannonball was donated to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab several years ago by a nearby resident who found it on his property. Doubtless, this cannonball was fired during the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek, where the British engaged with American Commodore Joshua Barney’s fleet in June of 1814 (Eshelman 2012). This month’s blog uses this artifact to commemorate the Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred on August 24, 1814.

Figure 1. Eighteen pound cannonball discovered near the site of the Battle of St. Leonard Creek, June 1814. Both the British and American forces used 18 pound balls, so it is not possible to assign this cannonball to a specific side.

After British troops left Southern Maryland following the Battle of St. Leonard Creek, they advanced on Washington, D. C., with the goal of capturing the nation’s capital. American troops, anticipating this move, were waiting for them ten miles outside of the city, at Bladensburg. All signs pointed to an American victory: the American troops occupied the high ground leading into town, they controlled the bridge leading over the Anacostia River and they outnumbered the British forces 6,500 to 4,500 ( 2020). Three battle lines were drawn up along the high ground, with one of the lines consisting of sailors and marines under the command of Joshua Barney, who had recently engaged the British at St. Leonard Creek (Whitlow 2020).

Figure 2. Drawing of the Battle of Bladensburg from a British perspective. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

But the British forces had the advantage of more training and a strong, experienced leader in Major General Robert Ross (NPS 2016). Ross determined that the placement of the American troops left them vulnerable. Once the British troops had forded the river above the bridge, as well as forcing their way across the bridge, they advanced and gained control of the west bank of the river. American forces, under the command of General William Winder, quickly retreated. There were an estimated 450 casualties of the Battle of Bladensburg – 200 on the American side and 250 for the British troops. Commodore Barney was shot in the thigh, but managed to command his men to retreat before passing out from blood loss (Whitlow 2020).

The British victory at Bladensburg allowed them to easily march into Washington, where they set fire to a number of public buildings, including the presidential mansion, occupied at that time by James and Dolley Madison. A dinner for forty people had been in the works when the mansion was abandoned and the soldiers partook of the food and wine before setting fire to the house (Gleig 1826). The capture of Washington on August 24th and 25th of 1814 was the only time a foreign power has captured our nation’s capital.

Figure 3. Damage to the White House after the British burned the building. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Maryland State Highway Administration, in partnership with the Center for Heritage Resource Studies of the University of Maryland, conducted archaeological investigations at the Market Master’s House and the Indian Queen Tavern in Bladensburg as part of the outreach for the bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812 (Crowl et al. 2012).

References 2020. Bladensburg. American Battlefield Trust. Website accessed on August 21, 2020 at

Crowl, Heather, Benjamin Stewart, Carey O’Reilly, and Kathleen Furgerson. Bladensburg Archeological Investigations: Magruder House (18PR982), Market Master House (18PR983), and Indian Queen Tavern Site (18PR96), Prince George’s County, Maryland. 3 vols. SHA Archeological Report No. 432, SHA, Baltimore, 2012.

Eshelman, Ralph. In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 2012.

Gleig, George Robert, A History of the Campaigns of the British at Washington and New Orleans (1826), reprinted in The Heritage of America by Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins (1939).

National Park Service (NPS). Summer 1814: American troops flee in humiliation, leaving Washington exposed. National Park Service. Website accessed August 18, 2020 at

Whitlow, Zachary. 2020. Bladensburg: Before the British Could Torch the Capital of the United States……They had one more stop to make. American Battlefield Trust Bladensburg. Website accessed August 21, 2020 at

“The Manner of Their Fishing”: Trapping Fish in Maryland’s Past

Curators at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab have the distinctly enviable pleasure of going through the lab’s archaeological collections as part of their daily jobs. And more often than not, the collections will yield interesting new discoveries—like the curious object in Figure 1. It was found in a bag containing many similar pieces of iron wire and had not been identified by archaeologists at the time of its excavation at the Oxon Hill/Addison Plantation site (18PR175) on the Potomac River in Prince George’s County. But leave it to MAC Lab Federal Curator Sara Rivers Cofield to come up with its identification as part of an eel trap (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Photo montage of a complete eel trap (created by Sara Rivers Cofield).

The only freshwater eel in North America, the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), spends most of its time in fresh or brackish water, migrating to the ocean to spawn (Wilding 2018).  While eel (Figure 3) has virtually disappeared from North American cuisine, it was very popular with colonial Americans, who brought a taste for it from England (Schweid 2002). Wrapped in a pastry crust, eel pie was a common and inexpensive London street food. The English settlers were not the only ones to enjoy eel’s reportedly robust flavor; Algonquin tribes smoked them (Booth 1971:108).  In the late 18th century, eels were a staple of George Washington’s army’s diet.  


Figure 3. Common Eel from The Fresh-water Fishes of Great Britain, drawn and described by Mrs. T. Edward Bowdich. R. Ackermann: London, 1828.

Riverine resources have always been an important aspect of Maryland’s past. In addition to spearing and netting fish, Maryland’s native populations used fish traps and weirs of varying types. Both traps and weirs worked by routing fish, including eel, into places of no escape, where they could be more easily speared or netted. Traps could be constructed of basketry, wire like the Oxon Hill example, or wood, similar to an example depicted by John White in late 16th-century eastern North Carolina (Figure 4). Fish weirs were more often made of stone arranged in a V-shape that channeled the fish downriver through a narrow chute and possibly into a smaller holding pen constructed of wood or brush for easy capture. A 1965 aerial photographic survey of a portion of the Potomac River near Washington D.C. discovered 36 prehistoric and colonial stone fish traps and weirs (Strandberg and Tomlinson 1969).  A total of 54 V-shaped stone weirs have been documented in the Potomac between Leesburg and Harper’s Ferry (Scheel 2000).

Figure 4. The Manner of Their Fishing. Artist John White, British Museum Collections.

The use of fish traps extends back thousands of years in Southern Maryland; archaeologist Horace P. Hobbs reported finding a six to seven thousand year old projectile point in one of the traps along the Potomac (Hobbs 1965, 1966). There has been some debate about who first constructed the weirs; engineer Dan Guzy (1999) argues that they were actually constructed during the colonial period by white and black settlers moving into this portion of Virginia and Maryland.   

Regardless of who originally built them, the Potomac fish weirs were used during the colonial period and nineteenth century.  Some weirs, blocking river navigation, were removed in the 18th and 19th centuries, much to the dismay of people living along the river (Scheel 2000).  

Today, eels are largely extinct in the Potomac, due to the construction of the hydroelectric dam near Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  The dam disrupts the eel’s life cycle, making it difficult for them to reproduce.


Booth, Sally Smith. 1971. Hung, Strung and Potted: A History of Eating in Colonial America. Clarkson N. Potter, New York.

Bowdich, Mrs. T. Edward. 1828.  The Fresh-water Fishes of Great Britain. Ackermann, London.

Guzy, Dan.  1999.  Fish Weirs in the Upper Potomac River.  Maryland Archeology.

Hobbs, Horace P. 1965.  Rock Dams in the Upper Potomac. Archaeological Society of Virginia, Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 96-98. 

Hobbs, Horace P. 1966.  Rock Dams in the Upper Potomac (Conclusion?). Archaeological Society of Virginia, Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 21-23.  

Scheel, Eugene.  2000. Fishing Out Evidence of Indian Heritage.  Washington Post. July 16, 2000. Website accessed July 24, 2020 at

Schweid, Richard.  2002. Consider the Eel. Gastronomica , Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 14-19.

Strandberg, Carl H. and Ray Tomlinson. 1969. Photoarchaeological Analysis of Potomac River Fish Traps. American Antiquity. Vol. 34, No. 3: 312-319.

Wilding, Sam.  2018. American Eel.  Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.  United States of America, North Carolina/Northwest Atlantic. Pots, Fyke nets, barriers, fences, weirs, corrals, etc. Website accessed June 11, 2020 at

“Heading” for Trouble in the Maryland Colony?

One of the more intriguing 17th-century artifacts found in Maryland is this ceramic figurine of a king (Figure 1). The broken artifact measures around 6 inches tall; originally the figurine would have stood about 10 inches in height (Grulich 2008).  The headless monarch is clad in armor, holds a sword in his right hand and an orb topped with a cross in his left. The figurine, broken into two pieces, was found in 1998 at the Charles’ Gift Site (18ST704), on Naval Air Station Patuxent River. It had been deposited in a large trash midden containing ceramics dating its filling between 1682 and 1700 (Polglase 2001:179). The Charles Gift property was home at this time to Nicholas Sewall, stepson of Charles Calvert, governor of the Maryland colony. Cecil Calvert (1605-1675), the 2nd Lord Baltimore, established the Maryland colony, ruling it as its First Proprietor. His son Charles (1637-1715) was the 3rd Lord Baltimore and, unlike his father, lived in the colony that he governed.

Figure 1. Headless king figurine from the Charles’ Gift site (18ST704). Courtesy Naval District Washington, Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

Why would this figurine have found its way to the Maryland colony? There is some evidence that these figurines were produced as souvenirs of coronations and sold at fairs in England (Grulich 2008). It is possible that the Sewall family either purchased the figurine themselves, or had it shipped from England for display in their home. It may have been displayed in a room used for formal entertaining and signaled to visitors Sewall’s allegiance to the British throne.

Maryland prides itself on having been an early pioneer in the principles of religious toleration, welcoming Catholics, Puritans, Anglicans and Quakers.  The colony’s proprietary government was often led by Roman Catholic governors closely tied to the Calvert family from 1634 to 1689.  This religious tolerance marked the colony for the first five decades of settlement. But as the 17th century drew to a close, political events in England led to turbulent times in the Maryland colony. The 1689 Protestant Uprising sparked by the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England, which replaced the Catholic king with Protestant monarchs King William III and Queen Mary II, ended Catholic governance in Maryland. For the next two and a half decades, the Maryland colony was governed directly by the British crown.

Nicholas Sewall retained his loyalty to the Calvert family during the rebellion and fled from his home at Charles’ Gift to refuge in Virginia. He returned to his plantation only sporadically in the ensuing years. It is tempting to hypothesize that the headless king figurine may have been a victim of the political and religious turmoil.  Is it possible that Sewall, after Catholic King James was deposed and replaced by Protestant monarchs, destroyed and discarded this depiction of the new royal authority?  Or, was it damage and discard just the result of an unintended household accident?  We will never know, but it is interesting to consider this object in light of the tumultuous early history of the colony.

There are several other 17th-century sites in southern Maryland where artifacts containing depictions of kingly figures have been recovered.  Another broken white clay kingly figurine was found at the Middle Plantation site in Ann Arundel County (Grulich 2008).  A fragment of a tin-glazed earthenware charger with a painted depiction of an unidentified royal figure was found at the Angelica Knoll site (18CV60) in Calvert County (Figure 2) and a complete German Hohrware jug with a portrait of England’s King William III was found at Westwood Manor in Charles County (Figure 3).  Archaeologists who studied this site speculated that property resident John Bayne used this object, as well as stoneware tankards bearing the king’s initials and a set of framed likenesses of William and Mary listed in his estate inventory, to demonstrate his loyalty to the Protestant monarch and the Church of England at a time when the King had just supported the overthrow of the colony’s Catholic-run government (King, Arnold-Lourie, and Shaffer 2008; Alexander et al. 2010).  

Figure 2. Fragments of a tin-glazed charger with a royal figure similar to the one depicted on the complete example shown to the right. These fragments were recovered from a cellar at the Angelica Knoll Site (18CV60), whose artifacts date from c. 1650 to 1770. Photographs courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.
Figure 3. Hohrware jug from the Westwood Manor site (18CH621), depicting King William III. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Julia A. King, St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

These kingly artifacts may be emblematic of the power struggles between Protestant and Catholic political factions in early Maryland. After the Protestant uprisings of 1689, religious toleration would not be regained in Maryland until the end of the 18th century. Regardless of their political and religious meanings, they hold a fascination for us today as enigmatic objects.  In fact, the headless king figurine was the subject of Maryland’s 2005 Archeology Month poster – an entry which won a prize in the 2006 poster contest of the Society for American Archaeology.

Figure 4. The headless monarch figurine featured on the 2005 Maryland Archeology Month poster. Poster image courtesy of the Archeological Society of Maryland.


Alexander, Allison, Skylar A. Bauer, Patricia H. Byers, Seth Farber, Alex J. Flick, Juliana Franck, Ben Garbart, Grace Gutowski, Julianna Jackson, Mark R. Koppel, Amy Publicover, Maria Tolbert, Verioska Torres, Alexandra Unger, Jerry S. Warner, Justin Warrenfeltz, Julia A. King, editor and Scott M. Strickland, researcher.

2010. The Westwood Manor Archaeological Collection: Preliminary Interpretations. Report prepared by the Archaeology Practicum Class, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

Anne Dowling Grulich. 

2008. An Enigmatic Monarch:  The Biography of a Headless, Mold-made, White Pipe Clay King Recovered in 17th-Century Maryland.  Website accessed May 12, 2020 at

King, Julia, Christine Arnold-Lourie, and Susan Shaffer

2008. Pathways to History; Charles County Maryland, 1658-2008. Smallwood Foundation, Inc., Mt. Victoria, Md.

Christopher Polglase. 

2001. Phase III Archaeological Data Recovery at Site 18ST704 Naval Air Station Patuxent River, St. Mary’s County, MD.  Final report by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, Inc., Frederick, MD.  On file at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.