Our research is focused on expanding the current understanding of Chesapeake society by moving beyond traditional studies of 17th and 18th century sites that emphasize first settlements and the estates of important personages such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Other projects have highlighted central points of commerce and politics such as Jamestown, Williamsburg, Annapolis, and St. Mary’s City as gravitational centers for outlying estates. However, this often gives a false impression of centralization throughout the Chesapeake, particularly for the area along Maryland’s southern rivers and the eastern shore. In reality, despite the intent of the second Lord Baltimore, Cecilius Calvert, towns and commercial centers characteristic of England, specifically manorial estates, did not flourish in Maryland. The region lacked a true urban center and even Annapolis did not rise to the level of northern ports like Boston and Philadelphia. Rather, the landscape of major rivers, tributaries and bays meant that plantations and middling farms were dispersed along these waterways and were the points of production and commerce through much of the late 17th and 18th centuries rather than towns. These “home” ports enabled colonists to engage in local and overseas commerce and connected them to the colonial capital first at St. Mary’s City (1646) and later Annapolis established in 1695 and the broader Atlantic World.
We will investigate one of those “home ports,” the former estate of West Ashcom (located at Cremona Estate in Mechanicsville, Maryland). This was the family seat of the Ashcoms in Maryland from the mid-17th until the early 19th century. The estate’s rise and decline embodies the broader shifts within Maryland tied to religious tensions, the tobacco economy, and transition from a British colony to an American state. West Ashcom exemplified the notion of the estate as a “commercial center.” It was jointly a point of agricultural and livestock production, small port, local haberdashery, and respectable cider producer. Thus, it and other such estates served as dispersed commercial and social centers, setting the tone for gentility in the colony.
The richness of the West Ashcom site has the potential to reveal specifics about land owners, servants, and slaves, as well as information about trade, land use and changes in social conditions through time.
Archaeologists and students from SMCM have directed excavations and site documentation at West Ashcom since 2012. Beginning in 2013, research has focused on the original estate complex and have uncovered two former structures. This work has generated artifact collections that include historic ceramics, glass, fauna, various metals, and small finds that will be accessible to REU students. These collections as well as fieldwork during the REU will form the basis of student projects that will focus on one of the following research questions:
Does the built environment of West Ashcom reflect the purported expansion of the Ashcom wealth and control of land by the beginning of the 18th century?
What local industries were undertaken by the Ashcom family that allowed them to present a gentile status through the goods they consumed? How were they linked to the global economy?
Did West Ashcom take on any characteristics of the Calverts’ Manor project or does it represent a new type of estate unique to the Chesapeake?