Friday, June 13, 2014

“A Venerable Relic” That Guards the State House

While the Old Senate Chamber is still closed to the public while in the final stages of construction, the Maryland State House is still filled with enough history to make it worth a trip this summer. One item in particular sits outside of the Old Senate Chamber on the State House grounds, and has some of the strongest ties to Maryland’s early history! The cannon, a popular attraction for many visitors to the State House, has long since been believed to have been one of approximately eight cannons to have arrived on board Maryland’s “Mayflowers,” the Ark and the Dove.

Image of the historic cannon in its current location, outside of the State House. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1430-00211, August 1949.

In 1634, European settlers first landed on the banks of the St. Mary’s River on board the Ark and the Dove. While seventeenth-century settlers are generally believed to have been encouraged to supply their own weapons, it was the expectation that the colony’s proprietor, Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, would supply the settlers with larger ordnance.[1] According to a receipt dated August 23, 1633, Lord Baltimore included “four sakers ordnance” and four demi-culverins to be taken on board the Ark.

The origins of the cannons have long since been a mystery to scholars, and some go as far as to suggest they may have been confiscated pieces of the Spanish Armada.[2] It is further unclear whether the cannons were intended as cargo or if they were used as defense, but recent scholarship suggests that they were likely used to fit out the Ark for its journey across the Atlantic into what was then considered some of the most dangerous waters in the known world.[3]

Once at St. Mary’s, the cannons make an early appearance in record. Father Andrew White recorded that they were fired when the Ark was near land, likely as an intimidation technique against the Yaocomaco Indians living in the Chesapeake region. White remarked, “Our cannon filled [the Yaocomaco] with astonishment, as indeed they were not a little louder than their own twanging bows, and sounded like thunder.”[4] The cannons appear to have been taken off the boat and used to fit out a fort that was built as per Lord Baltimore’s requirements. Three years later, in 1637, another fort was constructed two miles downstream to a more strategic spot called St. Inigoes, and several of the cannons were moved to St. Inigoes to better equip the new fort.

The cannons continued to appear sporadically in Maryland’s early history. When the Catholic population at St. Inigoes was under siege in 1645 by the Puritan Captain Richard Ingle, the Catholics sought to honor the festival of St. Ignatius with a cannon salute that continued throughout the night. The Puritans, “aroused by the nocturnal report of the cannon, the day after, that is, on the first of August, rush[ed] upon us with arms, [broke] into the houses of the catholics, and plunder[ed] whatever there [was] of arms and powder.”[5] In this final moment where they sounded throughout the night, the cannons tragically played a starring role in the complete seizure of the Maryland colony until late in 1646 when Governor Leonard Calvert was able to retake the colony.

Francis Blackwell Mayer's depiction of Maryland's early settlement can be seen in the State House's Old House of Delegates Chamber. The Planting of the Colony of Maryland, 1893, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1125.

Unfortunately, St. Inigoes was built on an eroding shoreline that fell into the water before the beginning of the eighteenth-century, taking the cannons underwater with it. The cannons that had remained at the original fort at St. Mary’s were buried near the shore on farmland, and the early relics were forgotten.

In 1824, Father Joseph Carberry of St. Inigoes Church took an interest in the supposed cannons and determined that these relics of Maryland’s early history needed to be recovered. Together with his brother, Carberry recovered seven of the original cannons, three at the St. Mary’s site and four in water up to twenty feet deep at the St. Inigoes site. Carberry’s successful excavation was one of the first attempts in the United States to recover underwater artifacts of historic significance.[6]

Once recovered, the cannons were dispersed and largely left to rot. Three of least well-preserved were used as boundary markers in St. Mary’s, until recovered for the state’s bicentennial in 1934. Two others went to Georgetown University after Carberry’s death where they now stand in front of Healy Hall. Another cannon, one of the largest, was given away by Carberry in 1845 to Charles Benedict Calvert, a direct descendent of the first Lord Baltimore. With the delivery of the cannon to the Calvert estate of Riversdale, Carberry wrote sentimentally, “I can assure you that I hold it as a venerable relic of antiquity.”[7] But what became of the final cannon?

The last cannon, a nearly exact twin of the Riversdale cannon, had been the first to leave St. Mary’s County. In 1840, a St. Mary’s delegate urged Carberry to offer one of the cannons to the state of Maryland. Carberry complied, and one year later, the saker arrived at the Maryland State House, where it was displayed in the rotunda.

The State House's cannon today, sitting outside of the Old Senate Chamber. Image courtesy of Jay Baker, 2007.

On Maryland Day in 1908, the Peggy Stewart Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (the same who famously marked the spot where Washington stood to resign his commission) moved the cannon outside to its permanent home on the State House grounds, and laid a plaque.[8] The cannon now rests next to the oldest part of the State House, where it points out towards the sea. Even today, Maryland’s cannon symbolically continues its duty to defend the state.

The Maryland State House is certainly a building where nearly every object has a long and significant past. We encourage you to visit the State House this summer to see the Ark’s cannon, and hope you will keep in mind the centuries of history the State House represents when you visit the Old Senate Chamber this December!

[1] Ralph, Gary Denis, “Provision of Arms to Maryland’s First Settlers: Part One Private Initiative.” Maryland Historical Magazine, Spring 2009, p21.
[2] Georgetown University Library, “Is it true that the cannons outside Healy Hall were on the Ark and the Dove?”, Infrequently Asked Questions. Last accessed: 5 June 2014,
[3] Lowe, William, “Letters to the Editor.” Maryland Historical Magazine, Fall 2009, p.345-347.
[4] E. A. Dalrymple, ed. Narratives of a Voyage to Maryland, Maryland Historical Society Fund, Publication no. 7. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1874, p.32. From Shomette, David G., “The Guns of St. Mary’s.” Maryland Historical Magazine, Winter 1998, p.479.
[5] Dalrymple, p.94-95. Shomette, p.482.
[6] Shomette, p.482.
[7] Carberry to Leruy, November 6, 1845, Georgetown University Library. From Shomette, p.485.
[8] “The Historic Cannon, a Relic of Old St. Mary’s Will at Last be Properly Placed,” Baltimore Sun, 24 March 1908.

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