Drinking jugs lead to previously unknown location of 17th-century courthouse

LA PLATA, Md. (AP) – It was spirits — the alcoholic kind, not ghosts — that led archaeologists to a 17th-century courthouse.

Around the 1670s, it seems, councilmen and judges spent a fair amount of their time guzzling liquor. Remnants of their wine bottles and beer tankards are, therefore, easy to find.

It was pieces of those stone and glass vessels that led a team of archaeologists to find the original Charles County courthouse, the oldest government building in Maryland whose remnants could never be located – until now.
“Oh, they drank at night when they were sitting around talking about the day, they drank on breaks and they might even have been doing it when they were in court,” said Julia King. She’s an anthropology professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and she led a group of students in searching for the courthouse. “You can see pieces of their glasses everywhere you turn.”

Recently, those discoveries were marked with small flags, making a sea of fluttering orange markers in the soybean field that makes up the front yard of a farmhouse on the southern outskirts of La Plata. When King and her students began finding dozens of shards of stoneware, pottery and glass in one small area, they knew they had found the courthouse.

What would seem to be a simple task of finding the courthouse had taken almost 75 years. Then, a group of county officials launched a search around the time of Maryland’s 300th anniversary. Another group tried during the county’s own 300th anniversary celebration 24 years later.

The Maryland State Archives’ Web site called the courthouse “impossible to locate.” And the county tourism Web site says Charles’ first courthouse was built in 1727.

“They gave up!” said Mike Sullivan, a developer and amateur historian who paid for much of the $40,000 search. “They said it was impossible and they just gave up!”

The team Sullivan assembled included a genealogist and a surveyor as well as King. It had a few advantages on its predecessors — technology.

The surveyor, Kevin Norris, used a Global Positioning System device to align historic land deeds with current geography, concluding that the courthouse could be within a 150-acre tract called Moore’s Lodge along Springhill Newtown Road. King and her students took to the field, digging test pits to search for artifacts that might indicate there was once a building on the site.

The group’s biggest help, though, was a 1697 plat drawing depicting the three-acre parcel that was home to the courthouse, stocks, inn and tavern.

Long before the courthouse site was located, it became an icon through the drawing, which King said is included in every book on Maryland’s history. Even St. Mary’s City, the collection of re-created 17th-century buildings at the site of Maryland’s first capital, was built based on the Charles plat.

“There are no buildings in Maryland or Virginia from the 17th century that survive, so this is as close as we get to seeing how tens of thousands of colonists lived their lives,” according to King, who specializes in the Colonial history of Maryland.

Over several days, she and her students have gotten even closer, endlessly sifting piles of dirt through screens to see what artifacts might be hiding. Along with the steady stream of broken drinking jugs, they’ve found pieces of windowpanes and brick — and a few broken tobacco pipes. The torrential rains of the week brought many of the items to the surface, making them easier to see.

Scott Tucker, 24, a St. Mary’s College, said he experienced “pure delight” when the group found the remnants of the courthouse. After days of trudging through a nearby wheat field and finding no signs of life, he was relieved to see evidence of success.

“Oh, last week all we were wishing for was to stumble on the courthouse,” Tucker said.

Now that the long search has ended, King and her team will continue looking for other artifacts in the area. They will also contact the state archives and local government about changing those out-of-date Web sites, Sullivan said.


Information from: The Washington Post,

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