Maryland Day Explained
By Kathryn Marchi
Many of us who were educated in the Maryland school system might remember a legal holiday on March 25 called “Maryland Day.” Maryland history is traditionally studied during 4th grade, but it’s hard to remember that far back. So for those who forgot or who are not native Marylanders, this is an explanation of this unexpected day off.
“Maryland Day” celebrates the anniversary of the first pilgrims stepping foot on what was to become the colony of Maryland. In March 1634, approximately 140 European settlers from two ships, the Ark and the Dove, landed on a small island in the Potomac River. It was named St. Clement’s, after Pope Saint Clement, Patron of Mariners. Included in the party were Leonard Calvert, three Jesuit priests, including Father Andrew White, 17 Catholic gentlemen investors and a number of indentured servants. One of the first things the settlers did was to erect a large wooden cross and celebrate the first Roman Catholic Mass in the original colonies. They then took ownership of the new land for their “Savior and sovereign Lord, King of England.”
St Clement’s Island was not the final destination of these settlers, however. The site became the temporary base from which they explored upriver until they reached the shore of the New World. Because of the location and the friendly Indians, the group set about building the St. Mary’s City.
Before explaining how St. Mary’s progressed, here is some background on why these settlers showed up on Maryland’s shore. In 1660, George Calvert, the first Lord of Baltimore, tried to set up a colony called Avalon in Newfoundland. Calvert, a Catholic, was searching for a place where Catholics could worship freely. He also planned to grow crops for income, but found the climate too cold in Canada. On his way back to England, he stopped in Jamestown, a colony of Virginia. Since the land was to his liking, he persuaded King Charles 1 to grant him land to the north of this colony. As part of the agreement, George named his new colony “Mary’s Land” in honor of the King’s wife, Henrietta Maria. Thus the name evolved to Maryland.
A charter was then drawn up allowing Calvert to rule the colony much like a king. Though the colonists were still English citizens, the charter allowed them to attend the church of their choice and therefore, they no longer had to join or support the English monarch’s church with their taxes. Not only was this “freedom of religion” in the colony, it was also the first time church and state were separated. The Maryland colony was the only one where all faiths could worship freely.
Unfortunately, Lord Baltimore died before visiting his colony. His oldest son, Cecil Calvert, inherited the title of Lord Baltimore II and began making plans for the first settlers to begin their journey to the new colony. He stayed behind in England to protect the charter and chose his brother, Leonard Calvert, to join the expedition and appointed him the first governor of the Maryland Colony.
Now back to St. Mary’s City: The settlement was the first in Maryland and was named the capital of the colony. Over the years it flourished, with a strong tobacco economy and population growth. However, political and religious factions rose up against Lord Baltimore. The king of England intervened and decided to move the capital to Annapolis. Thus began the demise of St. Mary’s City and no other growth or construction took place until the beginning of the 20th century when archeological excavations began. As a result, this little 17th century city became one of the finest colonial archeological sites in the country. It was named to the National Historic Landmarks in 1969 and now thrives as a tourist center.
St. Clement’s Island is also open to the public; it is now a Maryland State Park. A 40-foot commemorative cross has been erected there in honor of the first landing in Maryland. Visitors can reach the island from the St. Mary’s City area by water taxi.
It can be said that Maryland Day isn’t just about the pilgrims landing on St. Clement’s Island on that day in 1634. In fact, the Maryland State Board of Education proclaimed the holiday in 1903 to honor Maryland history. The legislature agreed in 1916 and authorized it as a legal holiday.
Kathryn, a former 4th grade teacher in Maryland can be reached at email@example.com