Search for 1st Charles Courthouse Nears a Verdict

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

About the time of Maryland's 300th anniversary in 1934, someone launched a search for the original Charles County courthouse, which stood from 1674 to 1727, but failed to find it. On the county's 300th anniversary 24 years later, someone tried again, with no better results.

Finally, as the county prepares to celebrate its 350th birthday this summer, a group of surveyors, archaeologists and genealogists thinks it has been found -- almost.

Officially, the first Charles courthouse remains the only one in Maryland whose exact location is unknown. For years, the Maryland State Archives has carried a note on its Web site stating that finding the precise site of the building was impossible. In an acknowledgment that local officials have given up the search, the county's tourism information Web site says the first courthouse was built in 1727, not 1674, a declaration that will change if the location is found.

"Everybody just figured it was lost," said Michael Sullivan, a developer and an amateur historian in the region. "They said it was impossible to find, which felt like a challenge."

Armed with the courthouse's records, almost all of which have survived, and plenty of historical maps, Sullivan decided to try one more time. After months of work, the team he assembled has concluded that the location is on a 150-acre tract on Springhill Newtown Road in southern La Plata. By this summer, the team hopes to find the exact parcel, which took up three acres, according to surveyor's markings on a 1697 plat drawing.

"I usually try not to get excited about potential finds, but I'm really optimistic," said Julia King, an archaeology and anthropology professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "I believe we're on the verge of finding the courthouse."

When Sullivan first set out to find the courthouse, he enlisted the help of a local genealogist, who combed through records to match names with property sales in the county. Eventually, the team found a land patent showing a 150-acre tract that had been combined with several other properties after a man willed it to his daughter and son-in-law in 1737.

Using private funds raised through St. Mary's College and other donors, the group hired Kevin Norris, a surveyor from Lorenzi, Dobbs & Gunnill, a Waldorf engineering and architecture firm. By lining up historical roads with known family names and existing landmarks, he concluded that Moore's Lodge, a large plot of land that housed the courthouse, sits along the modern-day Springhill Newtown Road.

The land belongs to the descendants of Patrick A. Murphy, who bought it in 1872. Barbara Howell, Murphy's great-great-granddaughter, was surprised to learn that the area held historic value and was more than willing to allow the team to explore the land.

"It's very exciting," said Megan Donnick, Howell's niece, who is planning to build a house on the land. "It's neat to be part of history."

The next step will be to begin a full archaeological dig on the 150-acre parcel, which leaders estimated would run from May through midsummer. King will lead St. Mary's College students in "shovel tests," creating holes every 50 feet or so, looking for artifacts in the excavated areas, then plotting their finds on a map to look for a dense concentration of materials. Where the broken pieces of pottery, pipes and other items are most heavily clustered probably will be the site of a building, King said, adding that she also expects to find Indian artifacts indicating trade between native tribes and white settlers.

"The site was occupied for over 50 years, so we expect the concentration to be fairly dense," she said. "They can tell us about the life of the people who were here."

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