t's Fourth of July weekend, a time to reflect on the country's roots and independence -- and perhaps a chance to discover how much early history was created just a short drive from the nation's capital.

Everyone seems to know about the fledgling communities in Jamestown, Va., and Plymouth, Mass., but few realize that Southern Maryland quickly followed with its own European settlements. Calvert County celebrates its 350th birthday Saturday with an old-fashioned family picnic at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, plus live music, pony rides, jousting, birthday cake and plenty of dignitaries recognizing the longevity of the county. And it isn't even Maryland's oldest -- St. Mary's takes those honors.

Members of the Calvert family landed on the banks of what is now St. Mary's County 20 years earlier in 1634, which means Southern Maryland spans nearly 400 years of modern American history. Its three counties -- St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles -- trace the creation of the United States, from Colonial days and the American Revolution to the Civil War and the industrial boom. Bounded by the Potomac and Patuxent rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and filled with fertile farmland, the three counties demonstrate the dependence on waterways and agriculture in building a new nation. And the early colonists understood the importance of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, laying the foundation for many American liberties long before the Bill of Rights.

Following are eight great historical places in Southern Maryland. Each shares a story, and together they portray important and interesting elements of Maryland history. The first three destinations are in St. Mary's County and cover some of Maryland's early history. The Charles County locations highlight the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, and the Calvert County sites cover more modern innovations and experiences. The final historical "place" is not a single destination, but a series of cultural icons that unite all three counties: the tobacco barns of Southern Maryland, recently added to a list of America's most endangered historic places.

ST. MARY'S COUNTY

ST. CLEMENT'S ISLAND-POTOMAC RIVER MUSEUM

On March 25, 1634, less than 15 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, 140 English colonists anchored their boats at a small island to take possession of the province of Maryland. The group had sailed the Ark and the Dove across the Atlantic seeking religious freedom and the chance for a better life. They erected a wooden cross and celebrated the first Roman Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies. Leonard Calvert, Maryland's first governor and one of the new arrivals, named the island St. Clement's in honor of the fourth pope and patron saint of sailors. While the colonists departed the island the same day, setting sail for St. Mary's City, they had established Maryland as a new colony.

Today, the Potomac River Museum sits on the banks of Colton's Point and details Maryland's earliest days. On weekends, visitors can take a 10-minute, half-mile water taxi ride to the 40-acre St. Clement's Island State Park for an afternoon exploring Maryland's birthplace. A massive stucco cross rises from the island's southern end, a magnet for visitors arriving at a nearby dock. Erected in 1934 on Maryland's 300th birthday, the cross offers a towering tribute to the colonists who ventured to the New World to escape religious persecution. Signs near the cross describe the colonists' short but critical visit to St. Clement's.

Over the years, the island had several owners, including the Blackistone family for 200 years. The Blackistone Lighthouse helped watermen navigate through the area starting in 1851, withstood a Confederate raid and stayed in operation until the 1930s. The story of the lighthouse, and its demise in the 1950s, is just one of the historical highlights chronicled along a grassy hiking trail that spans much of the island. Picnic tables also dot the land, which once sported a beer garden and later a tomato cannery.

The museum offers more in-depth history in a handful of rooms. One chronicles the generations of lighthouse keepers that lived on the island and a current effort to rebuild the lighthouse. Another focuses on the English history that led to Maryland's founding, as well as the colonists who developed St. Mary's City, more than 20 miles downstream.

ST. CLEMENT'S ISLAND-POTOMAC RIVER MUSEUM -- 38370 Point Breeze Rd., Colton's Point. 301-769-2222. www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/museums. Museum open through September weekdays 9 to 5 and weekends noon to 5; open Oct. 1 through mid-March Wednesday through Sunday noon to 4. $1 for adults; children 12 and under free. The water taxi to St. Clement's Island runs weekends only through October between 12:30 and 4; $5 for adults and $3 for children 12 and under. Island is accessible by boat during daylight hours.

Upcoming Events

* July 10: Potomac Jazz and Seafood Festival. Enjoy oysters, shrimp and crab cakes while listening to jazz musicians. Admission $30 in advance, $35 at gate; includes museum admission and water taxi.

* Aug. 7: Children's Day. The museum features a day of crafts, games, music and food.

* Sept. 16: Senior Citizens' Day. The museum offers a day of bingo, door prizes, music and companionship.

* Oct. 2-3: Blessing of the Fleet. Celebrate the tradition and culture of St. Mary's County with food, music, a parade, a boat blessing and fireworks.

HISTORIC ST. MARY'S CITY

Soon after declaring Maryland a colony, the newcomers landed on the banks of the St. Mary's River and started carving a small hamlet out of the Southern Maryland wilderness. Their enclave, St. Mary's City, was one of the first settlements outside Plymouth and Jamestown. It served as Maryland's first capital until 1695 and laid the foundation for many of America's democratic ideals. The St. Mary's City residents were the first to practice separation of church and state, and their laws mandated tolerance of diverse religious groups. The first man of African descent voted in a St. Mary's legislative body in 1642, and the first woman sought a vote in St. Mary's in 1648.

Today, Historic St. Mary's City is a fascinating living history museum. Extensive archaeological investigations over the past 35 years, coupled with fragmentary historical documents, have unearthed many details of St. Mary's City's past and continue to guide the reconstruction of the early settlement. Visitors to this 850-acre national historic landmark see a rebuilt three-story brick courthouse and the in-progress redevelopment of a chapel surrounded by unmarked graves. The town center includes several structures reconstructed on original foundations, while an Indian hamlet highlights the relationship between the European colonists and the native Yaocomaco tribe. Other structures have been re-created and many "ghost frames" mark known residences and other buildings. These wooden outlines illustrate the size and scale of many Colonial buildings that once filled this town, which expanded to several hundred residents by 1645. The Maryland Dove, a replica of a 17th-century trading ship, provides a glimpse of how colonists likely arrived in Maryland, while a re-created 1660s tobacco farm details how many made their living.

A visitors center with many recovered artifacts sits near the center of Historic St. Mary's City. About five miles of grassy paths and asphalt trails weave through the expansive grounds, and costumed workers help interpret the history of each area. Dressed as farmers, sailors, politicians and indentured servants, they spin tales about life in Maryland more than 350 years ago, filling in the pieces of this archaeological puzzle.

HISTORIC ST. MARY'S CITY -- Route 5, St. Mary's City. 240-895-4990 or 800-762-1634. www.stmaryscity.org. Open Wednesday to Sunday 10 to 5. $7.50 adults, $6 seniors and students, $3.50 children 6 to 12; audio tour is an additional $3.

Upcoming Events

* Saturday: Declaration of Independence readings. Excerpts from the document will be read on the lawn of the Historic St. Mary's City State House at 1:30 and on the grounds of St. Mary's College at 6, followed by patriotic music and fireworks.

* July 24: Seven C's Wine Tasting with live music. Reservations required.

* July 31: Captain's Choice Beer Tasting with live music. Reservations required.

* July 31-Aug. 1: Tidewater Archaeology Days. Work side by side with archaeologists from 10 to 5.

* Sept. 11: Woodland Indian Discovery Day. Learn the skills and culture of Maryland's first residents from 10 to 5.

SOTTERLEY PLANTATION

While many historic properties represent a single era, Sotterley Plantation spans nearly 300 years of Maryland history. This 100-acre national historic landmark on the scenic banks of the Patuxent River includes a manor house that dates to 1717, a brick customs warehouse built in 1757, an 1830s slave cabin (one of only two remaining in Maryland) and Colonial Revival gardens designed in 1910. Sotterley remained a family residence into the 1960s, and today it is the state's only surviving Tidewater plantation open to the public.

A 45-minute guided tour of the manor house tells the story of the many people who lived at Sotterley, including first owner James Bowles, a farmer, statesman and customs collector; Maryland's sixth governor, George Plater III; dozens of indentured servants and slaves; and two generations of Satterlees, who had ancestral ties to England's Sotterley Hall -- the namesake of the Maryland plantation. The manor house started as a simple two-room home built around cypress tree trunks (called post-in-ground architecture) and ultimately expanded to more than a dozen rooms over two stories. Some of the home's original hardware and stunning hand-carved woodwork remain, such as a 1780-era Chinese Chippendale staircase and two Georgian shell-shaped alcoves, all designed by an indentured servant. The dining room, wallpapered in an intriguing lime-yellow palm tree pattern favored by the final owner, contains Gov. Plater's antique sideboard and punch bowl.

The buildings and grounds provide more details of this plantation, which served as a prosperous farm, a sizable Potomac River port, a busy steamboat landing and a grand escape from urban living over the years. The corn crib, once a holding area for the popular crop, now houses a variety of old agricultural tools. A plot of tobacco serves as a reminder of Sotterley's primary cash crop. A 16-by-18-foot slave cabin that likely housed at least 20 adults and their children hints at the harsh conditions endured by Sotterley's slaves. A brick privy sits in the far corner of gardens bursting with herbs, vegetables and colorful flowers. Trails lead to the scenic waterfront, visible from many parts of the plantation. Future plans call for opening the vista to its sweeping grandeur of bygone days. It's just one of many initiatives the nonprofit foundation that runs Sotterley hopes to achieve in its quest to keep the plantation thriving this century.

SOTTERLEY PLANTATION -- Sotterley Road (Route 245 north), Hollywood. 301-373-2280 or 800-681-0850. www.sotterley.org. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 to 4 and Sundays noon to 4 through Oct. 31. Guided tours of the manor house offered every hour with the last tour starting at 3. $7 adults, $6 seniors, $5 children ages 6 to 16.

Upcoming events

* Sunday: Family Celebration at Sotterley with the Chesapeake Orchestra Brass Quintet, plus children's activities and a silent auction. $10 per vehicle.

* Oct. 2-3: Riverside WineFest at Sotterley with Maryland vintners and food vendors. $15.

* Oct. 15-16: Ghosts of Sotterley Tours with music and Civil War drama re-created. $12. Reservations required.

CHARLES COUNTY

PORT TOBACCO AND

THE THOMAS STONE HOUSE

Before the American Revolution, Port Tobacco served as the Charles County seat and reigned as one of Maryland's busiest cargo and passenger ports, second only to St. Mary's City. It was also a hub of social and political activity. But by the Civil War, the harbor had silted up, limiting trade to small boats and reducing Port Tobacco's prominence. (The town really faded into the background after the county seat moved to La Plata in 1892). If it weren't for a few roadside signs along Route 6, visitors might bypass several interesting historical sites altogether, including the Thomas Stone House and the re-created Port Tobacco Courthouse.

Thomas Stone was one of four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1770, the respected lawyer purchased about 440 acres on the edge of Port Tobacco. He called the plantation Haberdeventure and planned to construct a small brick house for himself, his wife and their two young daughters. But his father soon died, and several siblings came to live with them, spurring the addition of east and west wings. Stone didn't spend as much time in his five-part Colonial house as he might have liked. By 1774, he was part of the Charles County Committee of Correspondence, responsible for communicating with the other colonies. Within a year, he was chosen as a member of the Second Continental Congress and faced the prospect of war. He initially spoke against independence but changed his mind and supported it with his signature. He lived less than a dozen more years, but his home stayed in the family until the Depression. Fire nearly destroyed it in 1977, and the National Park Service purchased it a few years later, restoring it and opening it to the public in 1997.

Other Port Tobacco sites are a short drive away, including the Port Tobacco Courthouse, which is a re-creation of the third Charles County courthouse (originally built between 1819 and 1821). The federal-style brick building had burned in 1892 in a suspicious fire that sparked the relocation of the county seat. The building was reconstructed in 1972, and costumed docents share more than three centuries of Port Tobacco's history.

THOMAS STONE HOUSE -- 6655 Rose Hill Rd., Port Tobacco. 301-392-1776. www.nps.gov/thst. Open daily 10 to 4. Free.

Upcoming events

* Sunday: The Daughters of the American Revolution carry out their annual wreath-laying ceremony on Thomas Stone's gravesite within the national historic site. The Charles County Independence Day fireworks display will be at the Charles County Fairgrounds in La Plata; games and activities begin at 5 p.m., and fireworks start at dusk.

* Dec. 4: Christmas at Haberdeventure includes candlelight tours from dark until 7 p.m.

PORT TOBACCO COURTHOUSE -- At the intersection of Route 6, Rose Hill Road/Chapel Point Road and Causeway Road. Open 11 to 4 Saturdays and Sundays.

DR. SAMUEL A. MUDD HOUSE MUSEUM

While Samuel A. Mudd clearly played a part in Charles County's Civil War history, his role remains open to speculation. Was he an assassination conspirator or a compassionate country doctor? He set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth hours after Booth had shot President Abraham Lincoln and jumped to the stage at Ford's Theatre. Mudd was tried along with several accomplices and found guilty of conspiracy to murder. He escaped the death penalty by one vote and was sentenced to life in prison, but later pardoned. The family of Mudd maintains his innocence. Along with a dedicated corps of volunteers, they share his story in his home, restored to its 1860s grandeur.

Costumed docents describe how a disguised Booth (and a companion, David Herold) arrived early in the morning April 15, 1865, with a broken leg he said he injured in a horse accident. Mudd led him to a sofa that still sits in the living room. After Mudd set the broken limb, his visitors retired upstairs, where some original furnishings remain. Many of Mudd's personal effects, including various medical tools, are displayed throughout the house. All rooms have been returned to their Civil War color scheme.

Booth and Herold departed later that day on a path still visible on the property. When questioned about the incident, Mudd -- a known supporter of slavery and a Confederate sympathizer -- said he did not recognize the men. Within days, he was under arrest for conspiracy; he had met Booth twice the previous year. Docents say these meetings were chance encounters, not part of a plot to assassinate the president. In the end, Mudd spent less than four years at a remote Florida prison in the Dry Tortugas. During his confinement, yellow fever broke out, killing the prison doctor and others. Mudd cared for ailing patients despite contracting the disease himself. His efforts earned him a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, who also cited doubts about his guilt. Mudd returned to his home and was later elected to the Maryland legislature in 1876. He died of pneumonia in 1883, soon after his 49th birthday. His original headstone remains on the 10-acre property, although he is buried a few miles away.

DR. SAMUEL A. MUDD HOUSE MUSEUM -- Route 382, east of Route 5 in Waldorf. 301-645-6870. Open April to November on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 4 (last tour is at 3:30). $4 adults, $1 children ages 6 to 16.

Upcoming event

* Dec. 4 and 5: The Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society sponsors an annual Victorian Christmas at the Mudd House, with period decorations, music and candlelight tours.

CALVERT COUNTY

CALVERT MARINE MUSEUM

Solomons Island, at the southern tip of Calvert County, has prospered in many ways because of its watery surroundings. In the late 1800s, it reigned as the world's bugeye capital, building more of these oyster-industry work boats than any other Chesapeake Bay community. During the early 1900s, the J.C. Lore & Sons Oyster House canned more oysters than any other Maryland cannery. And at the outbreak of World War II, Solomons harbored the nation's first naval amphibious training base, which prepared soldiers for the Normandy invasion. The Calvert Marine Museum details all of this history and more.

But it's not a typical small-town museum. The exhibits encompass prehistoric fossils, room-size aquariums loaded with Chesapeake Bay critters, scores of historical photos, tools for harvesting oysters, a World War II torpedo and interpretive signs that rival anything at the Smithsonian museums. And that's just the inside. The exhibits continue outdoors with the Small Craft Center, a collection of more than a dozen bay-built boats. There's a three-log canoe (circa 1905), a pre-1920-era crab skiff, a 26-foot dory dating to 1934 and a 40-foot deadrise built in 1944. The Wm. B. Tennison, an 1899 bugeye, bobs in the water nearby. This national historic landmark and "floating exhibit" takes nearly 50 passengers on hour-long cruises of the Patuxent River. Landlubbers can stay behind and tour the 1883 hexagonal Drum Point Lighthouse, moved to the museum grounds nearly 30 years ago.

In more recent years, the Calvert Marine Museum purchased and restored the J.C. Lore & Sons Oyster House, located a half-mile south of the museum. The 90-year-old family business closed in 1978 amid the Chesapeake's dwindling oyster harvests. Now the building -- with all its canning and packing equipment -- is preserved as a separate exhibit space and recognized as a national historic landmark. It sits across the street from the Solomons Riverwalk. This 16-foot-wide boardwalk offers unequaled views of the expansive Patuxent River flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Historical markers line the route, which parallels many of the town's shops and restaurants. The Riverwalk, combined with the museum and oyster house, reveal the rich past of Solomons Island.

CALVERT MARINE MUSEUM -- 14200 Solomons Island Rd., Solomons. 410-326-2042. www.calvertmarinemuseum.com. Open daily 10 to 5, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. $7 adults, $6 seniors and $2 for children 5 to 12. A cruise on the Wm. B. Tennison is $7 for adults and $4 for children 5 to 12. The J.C. Lore & Sons Oyster House is free and open daily June through August 1 to 4:30 and weekends in May and September.

Upcoming events

* Sunday: Solomons fireworks. Find a spot on the Solomons Riverwalk for a festive display of fireworks.

* July 10: Sharkfest: A day of kid-centric activities focused on the large, toothy fish.

* July 18: Merle Haggard in concert at the Waterside Pavilion; tickets required. $35-$45.

* Aug. 6-8: Cradle of Invasion WWII Weekend celebrates the role Solomons Island training bases played during the war. Some activities, including special Wm. B. Tennison excursions, require a fee.

CHESAPEAKE BEACH RAILWAY MUSEUM

An old railroad station may seem an odd place to recall Washington's original beach getaway, but a railroad made the summer escape possible. The Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum is housed in the former Chesapeake Beach train station, which sat at the end of a 32-mile eastward journey from Washington. From 1900 to 1935, the narrow-gauge railway carried passengers from the city heat to a refreshing bayside community.

Conceived as an Atlantic City-style summer resort for Washingtonians, Chesapeake Beach seduced visitors with cool breezes, saltwater beaches and plenty of amusements. An extensive swimming beach lined the shore, and the Great Derby roller coaster roared in the background. A casino and racetrack operated nearby. By the water, a 1,600-foot-long boardwalk teemed with restaurants, souvenir shops, a dance hall, a carousel, carnival games and a bowling alley. One end of the boardwalk flaunted a mile-long pier, where steamships from Baltimore unloaded more passengers. On average, 5,000 people a day visited Chesapeake Beach in the early 1900s, and several upscale hotels welcomed overnight visitors.

Over the years, fire and winter storms damaged many of the attractions. Some were moved further inshore in the early 1930s and continued to operate for a few more decades. A hurricane wiped out the boardwalk in 1933 and whisked away some of Chesapeake Beach's allure with it. The advent of the automobile coupled with the Depression put the passenger railroad out of business in 1935. By the 1950s, oceanfront destinations accessible by car were in vogue.

The small but information-packed museum keeps the bay-beach heyday alive through old photos, postcards, maps, memorabilia and a town diorama. It details the route of the railroad and traces the town's history. It even houses a Model T, the car that initiated the railroad's demise. Outside the museum, a passenger car named Dolores is undergoing restoration, and two small sections of a locomotive hint at the engines that once powered the Chesapeake Beach Railway. They're the only surviving relics that transported throngs of people to this once-exotic destination. It's still a magnet for visitors, lured by a wealth of charter fishing trips or a day of splashing and sliding at the Chesapeake Beach Water Park.

CHESAPEAKE BEACH RAILWAY MUSEUM -- 4155 Mears Ave., Chesapeake Beach. 410-257-3892. www.cbrm.org. Open daily through September and weekends in October 1 to 4. Free.

Upcoming events

* Saturday: Chesapeake Beach fireworks. Watch the largest fireworks display on the Chesapeake Bay.

* Thursday: Pure Luck Band performs as part of a free summer concert series.

* Thursday, July 15, 29 and Aug. 5: The Good Old Days Today is a program designed for preschoolers to celebrate the days of railroading. Free.

* Aug. 12: The Dixie Ramblers play bluegrass.

* Aug. 12: Grandmother's Trunk introduces kids ages 6 to 16 to clothing worn by swimmers and sports lovers in the early 20th century. Free.

* Sept. 9: The Calvert Brass Consortium performs patriotic songs, show tunes and classical music.

ALL THREE COUNTIES

SOUTHERN MARYLAND'S DISAPPEARING

TOBACCO BARNS

Just a few years ago, it was nearly impossible to drive even a few miles without spotting a handful of tobacco barns in the communities and countryside of Southern Maryland. From the early 1600s through the end of the 20th century, tobacco dominated the region's rolling farmland, and wood-framed structures with vertical planks and sharply pitched roofs freckled the landscape. But in the new millennium, Maryland wanted out of the cigarette business and offered farmers a tobacco buyout. It quickly made the barns obsolete.

Within a couple of years, scores of weathered barns toppled. Some owners who no longer needed them for air-curing their crop tore them down, while others were bulldozed amid rapid residential and commercial development. The spiraling loss of these Southern Maryland icons spurred the National Trust for Historic Preservation to add the barns to America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list several weeks ago. While the list is no guarantee of salvation, it raises the awareness and focuses funding efforts.

And that's good news for anyone who enjoys a leisurely drive exploring back-road scenery. Every trip through Southern Maryland calls for a detour to search for the disappearing tobacco barns. Some can be explored up close in local and state parks, such as Hallowing Point and Greenwell parks. Others need to be viewed at a distance from a car window to respect the privacy of landowners. In any location, these humble yet majestic structures rise from the ground as enduring monuments to Southern Maryland's agricultural history and culture.

Karen-Lee Ryan, a freelance writer based in Washington, finds inspiration along the rivers and roadways of Southern Maryland.

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"Ghost frames" of Colonial buildings stand tall in Historic St. Mary's City, a living history museum in St. Mary's County. The city was Maryland's capital until 1695.At the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum in Charles County, visitors can learn about the physician, who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassin shot Abraham Lincoln.Chris Gary of Lexington Park, Md., and daughter Jessica, 10, search for shark's teeth and shells by the Maryland Dove, a replica of a trading ship in Historic St. Mary's City.With its worn corn crib and other historic structures, including a manor and slave cabin, Hollywood's Sotterley Plantation spans nearly three centuries of state history. Nicki Yochim, 11, left, and Alyssa Yochim, 9, both of Lexington Park, Md., encounter a playful otter at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. The museum features aquariums, old photographs, a World War II torpedo and several historical boats.