St. Clement’s Island was scene of historic landing


St. Clement’s Island, a 62-acre state park in the Potomac River off the shore of St. Mary's County, MD, is accessible only by boat. If you take the water taxi from the mainland, you will have a faster and more pleasant trip than the English settlers who arrived there on March 25, 1634.

Those travelers — about 140 Protestants and Catholics — left England four months earlier on Nov. 23, 1633, on the feast day for St. Clement, patron saint of sailors. They sailed on the Ark, which carried the passengers, and a smaller pinnace called the Dove, which carried additional supplies. Within three days, a storm separated the ships and the Dove was presumed lost at sea. Another violent storm soon split the Ark’s mainsail. At Christmastime, an illness struck 30 of the passengers and 12 died.

The colonists spent most of January in Barbados, where they were reunited with the Dove. In February, they sailed up the Atlantic Coast and entered the Chesapeake Bay. After stopping at Point Comfort for supplies, they sailed north and eventually came ashore on an island in the Potomac River. They dubbed it St. Clement’s, in honor of the saint.

Father Andrew White, a Jesuit priest, celebrated Mass on the island the day they landed. Maryland was the first of the colonies to offer religious tolerance to Catholics, who were persecuted in England. White wrote in his journal that this was the first Mass celebrated “in this region of the world.” After the sacrament, they erected a “great cross which we had hewn from a tree” while chanting the Litany of the Holy Cross “with great emotion of soul.”

Although the English laid claim to the land for a new colony, St. Clement’s Island was part of a large landscape that had been inhabited by the Piscataway people for thousands of years. The colonists lingered there for a few weeks, while English leaders met with Piscataway leaders. Then, having decided that the 400-acre island was too small for their settlement, the English moved downriver to the site that would become St. Mary’s City and Maryland’s first capital.

The landing at St. Clement’s Island marks the founding of Maryland and an important moment for religious heritage in the United States, for Catholicism specifically, and the broader principle of religious tolerance.

The anniversary of the landing is marked by Maryland Day, which takes place each year on or near the date of the colonists’ arrival. This year, the commemoration at the St. Clement's Island Museum, located on the mainland across from the island, takes place on Thursday, March 24. Activities will also take place at Historic St. Mary’s City on Saturday, March 19. Both sites offer free admission for the day.

You can dock a private boat at the island or at the museum during daylight hours year-round. The seasonal water taxi starts running in June, and visitors are welcome to spend a full day on the island (which has eroded over time to just 62 acres). The island includes both woodlands and meadows, with flat trails that run along the perimeter of the island and travel through the woodlands. Along with scenic vistas and wildlife, you’ll see a replica of the Blackistone Lighthouse and several osprey nests.

Plan a Landing on St. Clement’s Island

  • Maryland Day 2016 will be commemorated on March 24 at the museum with free admission and a ceremony at 2 p.m. (The water taxi will not be running.) Other events take place on Saturday, March 19, at Historic St. Mary’s City, about 45 minutes away, with free admission to living history and museum exhibits.
  • Two piers are available on the island year-round for docking private boats. The water taxi to the island leaves the museum on weekends, June–September. The schedule depends on the weather, so call ahead for details. A replica of Blackistone Lighthouse, located on the island, is open on select dates; call for information.

Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors of the Chesapeake region.

February 29, 2016

Main image: St. Mary's County Museum Division
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