Search Uncovers Roots Of Charles's First Courthouse

Scott Tucker, left, with Claire DeRieux and Jackie Mastny in the field that housed Charles County's original courthouse.
Scott Tucker, left, with Claire DeRieux and Jackie Mastny in the field that housed Charles County's original courthouse. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

After nearly 75 years of searches, the original Charles County courthouse is no longer missing.

A team of archaeologists led by St. Mary's College of Maryland professor Julia King found the site in a La Plata soybean field last week, just in time for the county's 350th anniversary celebration. What they found was not a building or even its foundation but enough broken shards of pottery, stone and glass to convince them that the courthouse and an adjacent ordinary, or tavern, once stood on the site.

As King spoke about the team's find, five of her students continued searching for artifacts in the field, which is on Springhill Newtown Road on the southern outskirts of La Plata. When team members complete their search of the field, once part of a 150-acre tract called Moore's Lodge, they will prepare a detailed report about the courthouse's location for county officials and other interested residents.

"This courthouse stood for [about] 50 years [from 1674 to 1727], and it did become very important, because there was a lot going on in the colony," said King, an Anne Arundel County native who specializes in colonial Maryland history. "There were a lot of political and legal decisions being made on the local level that set important precedents."

The discovery occurred about three months after local developer and amateur historian Mike Sullivan delivered a well-attended presentation at a Charles County commissioners' meeting about the search, which he began when he learned that the location of the courthouse had never been identified. Sullivan hired a genealogist, Diane Giannini, to trace land deeds and birth records and a surveyor, Kevin Norris, to plot the records using a Global Positioning System device.

"I've always had an interest in history, and it struck me that this is an important part of Charles history that we didn't really know about," Sullivan said. "In an anniversary year, I thought we should try to find it."

Other searches had been conducted in 1934, during Maryland's 300th anniversary, and 1958, about the time of the county's 300th. Neither search ended in success, and the Maryland State Archives deemed the courthouse site "impossible to locate."

About two weeks ago, King and her students began searching for the courthouse within the 150-acre Moore's Lodge parcel. After spending a week in a wheat field that yielded no results, they moved on to the soybean field at Greenland Farm.

The searchers knew they were looking for a site that covered three acres, information they had gathered from the original plat drawing of the courthouse. The drawing is considered one of the most famous depictions of a 17th-century building in Maryland.

"It's an iconic site among historians and archaeologists, and almost all of the relevant records survive," King said. "The colonists drew for us exactly what they had built."

The team dug small holes at 25-foot intervals in the field, then sifted the soil to check for artifacts. The searchers found dozens of items -- decorated pottery, green window glass and pieces of tobacco pipes. As they began finding remnants closer together, they realized they had found the location of the courthouse and ordinary.

The site lined up perfectly with Norris's GPS plots, King said, and geographic and man-made features. What is now Greenland Farm's driveway was probably a road leading to Port Tobacco, she said.

"It really does make sense with what we already knew," King said. "I'm usually pretty hesitant to say conclusively that we found something, but I feel really confident in this."

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