Jefferson Patterson Park - Insights into Chesapeake Bay History

Jefferson Patterson Park unearths new insights into Bay’s history
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network / By Karl Blankenship - Bay Journal

From his office overlooking the Patuxent, Michael Smolek has a panoramic view of more than just the river: He also sees the sweeping story of more than 9,000 years of human occupation at the site — a saga as old as the Bay itself.

Here in Maryland’s Calvert County, the region’s earliest inhabitants once pursued such now-vanished animals as bison and elk, and perhaps even mastodons and mammoths.

It is the site of the first capital punishment in Maryland. In the 1600s, John Dandy — who had earlier gone unpunished for the killing of a Native American — was hanged for murdering his servant. The evidence against him: The corpse bled in his presence.

It is also the site of the U.S. gun batteries in the largest naval engagement of the War of 1812 — the Battle of St. Leonard Creek, an adjacent stream.

And those are only a few of the stories archaeologists have dug up — often literally — at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, a 550-acre preserve that is considered one of the richest archaeological sites in the region. Jefferson Patterson is part of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which highlights Bay-related historic, cultural and natural areas.

It contains one of the nation’s leading archaeological laboratories, active excavations, a working farm, nature trails and more than 2 miles of Patuxent shoreline. But the central message of the park, told through exhibits, walks, tours and published material, is what archaeology reveals about past events, especially when there is no written record.

“Our underlying theme here is how we know about the past, not just what we know about the past,” said Smolek, who is director of the park, which is operated by the Maryland Historical Trust.

For instance, archaeologists know Native Americans probably hunted animals no longer present in the region — and others no longer found anywhere — from the animal remains that have been discovered, some of which were located near spearheads. A display in the visitor center points out where evidence of those long-gone creatures — such as a mastodon tooth on display — were found nearby.

The display shows the evolution of spearheads and other instruments over time, and tells of the beginning of agriculture in the region a millennium ago as residents began growing corn. How do they know that? By dating kernels of burnt corn found at excavations. “We have quite a few from the property right here,” Smolek noted.

But not everything was tranquil. The exhibit also shows excavations from a defensive pre-European palisade discovered on a riverside bluff just two miles away.

The display also shows the importance of the Bay to the original settlers of the region. It has the only known Indian petroglyph — a fish — in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Smolek first visited the site that would become Jefferson Patterson in 1982 after a local resident found a prehistoric, notched axe-head that had been eroded from the banks of the river. Such a find was not unusual — other prehistoric sites were known in the area, which probably attracted Native Americans because of its location on the river and its abundant natural resources.

But Smolek thought the site had the potential to yield much more. In a quick survey of the area, he and a colleague, Wayne Clark, with a handful of volunteers identified 43 archaeological sites in just one week. “We were kind of blown away by the quality of the sites,” he said.

The next year, the owner of the property, Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, donated the Point Farm to the Maryland Historical Trust to serve as a lasting memorial to her late husband, Jefferson Patterson.

Since then, archaeologists have unearthed a previously unknown plantation dating to 1690, which has been dubbed “King’s Reach.” The park is rich in 17th century artifacts, and is helping to shed new light on rural life in early Chesapeake plantations.

Excavation has begun on a cabin site used by slaves in the early 1800s. Museum staff learned the identity of the occupants when their descendants visited the park in 1996; an oral history provided by these relatives revealed other nearby sites.

Much of Jefferson Patterson is largely untouched by the trowel, and will likely remain that way for years. “We’ve scratched one-tenth of 1 percent or less,” Smolek said.

This is because the park setting preserves its buried treasures. Meanwhile, across the state, other sites are facing the bulldozer under the crush of development. It would be almost unethical, Smolek said, to excavate Jefferson-Patterson and, in effect, sacrifice other sites for all time. As a result, most excavations at the site have taken place through volunteer and educational programs conducted through the park.

Nonetheless, Jefferson Patterson is the nerve center for archaeological research and conservation for the state — and much of the region — because of the presence of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. The MAC Lab, as it is known, is a state-of-the-art facility where archaeologists painstakingly work to not only identify artifacts, but also to clean and preserve them for future generations.

The MAC Lab’s hallways are big enough to drive forklifts through. It has to be, because some artifacts are huge: entire dugout canoes, cannons and so forth.

A giant X-ray, shielded by 2,000-pound doors, allows artifact conservators to examine large items, such as those that have become compacted masses while sitting on river bottoms, before they start working on them. “If it’s a cannon, you want to make sure it’s not loaded,” Smolek said. Even after a couple of hundred years, black powder can be “extremely unstable.”

Some archaeological artifacts, particularly those from underwater sites, tend to be extremely fragile and can decay rapidly once recovered. Treatment may involve cleaning by hand, freeze-drying, soaking in chemicals (sometimes for years) and a variety of other methods.

Because the lab is specially equipped to handle underwater artifacts, relics from many places are sent there for conservation. They include pieces of the helm and mast of the Confederate ship Alabama, which sank off the coast of France after sinking more than 60 Union ships, more than any other Southern raider during the Civil War. The lab has been working on parts of the ship for a decade. It recently completed the conservation of Native American fish weir poles estimated to be about 7,000 years old, which was discovered in Maine.

Once restored, Maryland artifacts are preserved on-site in a three-story warehouse maintained at a stable temperature and —umidity. Among the items in storage: the oldest marine steam engine in the United States, from the steamship Columbus, which sank in the Bay in 1850.

Conservation work at the park begins before some artifacts are even dug up. Human occupation at Jefferson Patterson predates the Chesapeake, and many Native American sites were covered as the Chesapeake formed and water levels rose.

To preserve the unexplored treasures that remain, the park installed innovative breakwaters along its Patuxent shoreline. The breakwaters create a series of small coves which allow beaches to build up, protecting steep banks along the river from erosion. “There are Native American sites all along here,” Smolek said.

The breakwaters can be seen from walking trails that also take visitors to archaeological sites where Native American and early tobacco farmers lived.

Visitors not only see evidence of long-gone occupants, but also learn about changes in the land. Those early settlers found the area covered with dense forests — today, it has large farm fields that colonists would have found far too big to work by hand.

Jefferson Patterson Park
Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, from April 15 through October 15. Admission to the park is free. To get to the park, take Maryland Route 4 south of Prince Frederick for 3 miles, then take Route 264 (Broomes Island Road) and travel for 2 miles; turn left on Route 265 (Mackall Road) and follow for 6 miles; turn right into Park entrance.

The park also has a number of special events during the year, including a War of 1812 Reenactment, Celtic Festival, African American Family Community Day, Children’s Day on the Farm, and Native American Technology Day. To learn more about events, or for information, call the park or visit its web site at http://www.jefpat.org/ or link to the site through http://www.baygateways.net/

Tours of the MAC Lab are available the first Friday morning of the month, but should be arranged in advance by calling 410-586-8500. Visitors may also arrange, on the first Friday, tours of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Benedict Estuarine Research Laboratory, which is also located at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.

Karl is the Editor of the Bay Journal.
Article from Bay Journal
April 2001

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