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Recreation & Parks - Museum Division

St. Clement's Island Museum

image of saint clements islandSt. Clement’s Island Museum rests on the east shore of the Potomac River overlooking St. Clement’s Island, Maryland's First Colonial Landing in 1634. The museum’s mission concentrates on Maryland’s earliest history and Potomac River heritage.

The museum focuses on the English history that preceded the voyage to Maryland relating the religious and political issues of the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, visitors can discover the vision of George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore, to found a colony incorporating religious views of tolerance and his sons’ implementation of this vision.

Visitors will learn of the voyage of the Ark and the Dove departing from the Isle of Wight in England on the feast day of St. Clement, the patron saint of mariners, following their treacherous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, braving pirates and dangerous storms, and their venture up the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac River.

Visitors will also learn about Father Andrew White’s written account of the voyage and landing on St. Clement’s Island and view the 7 x 20 foot mural depicting the colonial arrival along with an exhibit regarding their negotiation with the Native Americans for a permanent settlement.

The Potomac Room shares this river’s heritage of the Blackistone Lighthouse once on St. Clement’s Island along with the industries of hunting, crabbing, fishing and oystering.

Also located on the Museum grounds you will find the “Little Red Schoolhouse,” an authentic 19th century one-room school. Click here to learn more.

The museum is also host to an authentic historic watercraft, the Doris C, a Potomac River dory boat that worked the waters of the Potomac for decades in the early 1900’s.

St. Clement's Island

image of saint clements islandMaryland's First Colonial Landing in 1634

Their reasons for leaving England were simple. For the Catholics aboard the Ark and the Dove, it was to escape persecution and being marginalized socially and economically. For Protestants, it was to seek a better life, and like their Catholic shipmates, be open to opportunities the New World offered – opportunities that made the risks worthwhile.

George Calvert, a Catholic, was well-regarded by the English court. The King, James I, admired Calvert’s diplomatic skills and knighted him, making him Lord Baltimore. To the Protestant King, Calvert’s Catholicism was not significant, although Catholics throughout England and its Empire were constrained from practicing their religion openly. Nevertheless, Calvert resigned his royal posts and asked the King for a land grant in the colonies where he, his family and others seeking religious freedom could settle. King James I soon died, but his successor, Charles I, acceded to Calvert’s request, granting him the land “to the true meridian of the first fountains of the River Pattowmeck.” The land would be named for the wife of Charles I, Henrietta Maria.

George Calvert died before he could visit Terra Mariae, or “Mary’s Land.” His son, Cecil, accepted the charter and made plans for the voyage. Each adult going to Maryland would be granted 100 acres, and each child, 50. Indentured servants would receive personal supplies and food.

Cecil’s brother, Leonard, led the small group of colonists to the New World. Seventeen Catholic gentlemen signed up to go, along with three Jesuit priests and about 140 others, most of whom were probably Protestants. A small number of women also made the trip. On November 23, 1633, the Ark, a 360-ton ship, and the Dove, a 60-ton pinnace, set sail from Cowes, Isle of Wight, England. The ships entered the Chesapeake Bay on March 3, 1634. They sailed up the Potomac River and landed at an island which they named for St. Clement, patron saint of sailors, on whose feast day they had departed. On March 25, the Catholic passengers assembled at a mass celebrated by Father Andrew White, S.J. – the first Roman Catholic mass in the 13 English-speaking colonies.

George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, had decided before his death that Maryland was not to be a colony just for Catholics, but a place where Christians of different denominations could practice their faith without impediment. The Maryland colony did not recognize any one religion, keeping separate those issues of church and state. Religious toleration became the official policy of the Maryland colony, as did recognition of the Native Americans as a separate people with inherent rights. This was extraordinary for the time, as views in the other colonies and the mother country were sharply different. These two progressive pieces of 17th-century policy foreshadowed the provisions of the U. S. Constitution guaranteeing separation of church and state and subsequent laws enacted to protect civil rights.

Since those earliest days, St. Clement’s Island lay witness from its vantage point, swept by wind, storms, and tide, to many evolutions. The colonial years saw plantations spring up along the river shores, producing an infant tobacco industry and the promise of wealth. From those early years to well into the 20th century, it would inherit the name of Blackistone Island, as signature to more than 200 years of ownership by the Blackistone family. The Blackistone Lighthouse, built in 1851 by master lighthouse builder John Donahoo, stood on the south end of the island serving Potomac River mariners until it was decommissioned in 1932. The vacant lighthouse was burned by vandals in 1956 and was forever lost as an important monument to Potomac River heritage.

In 1934, to celebrate Maryland’s 300th birthday, Governor Albert Ritchie, dedicated a 40 foot commemorative cross recognizing this site as the location where religious toleration in America had its foundation. It stands tall today and welcomes all with the same tribute to the brave colonists who risked their lives to seek an ideal America cherishes today.

In 1962, the island returned to its original identity as St. Clement's Island when the Federal Government leased the island to the State of Maryland. Since that time, the island was designated as a state park and is managed by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. Today, the island is accessible by private boat or by seasonal water taxi transportation provided by the St. Mary's County Museum Division at the St. Clement's Island Museum in Colton's Point, MD. There is a covered picnic pavilion with tables, and picnic tables and benches dot the scenic riverside shoreline on the east side of the island. There is a marked hiking trail and interpretive panels that offer visitors information about the island from colonial landing in 1634 to the present.

Through the efforts of the St. Clement's Hundred, a local community organization created for the preservation of St. Clement's Island, a replica of the Blackistone Lighthouse was constructed and completed in June of 2008. The replica is located on the southern end of the island and stands on higher ground and overlooks the ruins of the original lighthouse. This magnificent 2-story structure was built using the original blueprints of the 1851 lighthouse and offers a modern generation insight to the historical and cultural heritage of the island, the Potomac River, and the people who lived, worked, and visited here in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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