Halfhead Lesson 2

Meet John Halfhead

Lesson 2 – Plantation Master


John Halfhead, Plantation Masteris the second in a series of lessons and activities developed by Historic St. Mary’s City. John Halfhead, Plantation Master is about one of Maryland’s first settlers who observed and participated in the building of the colony from his arrival in 1634 until his death in 1675.
We encourage you to use these materials in your study of Maryland’s colonial beginnings. The lesson plan below provides educators with a quick guide.


Grade Level:
4th & 5th-grade students studying Maryland history


Students will be able to identify some of the unique adaptations made by Maryland’s early colonists



Background Information for Teachers

John Halfhead:
John Halfhead was an actual colonist who sailed on the Ark from England and arrived in Maryland in 1634. Although Halfhead left no written documents in his own hand, he was illiterate, his name appears many times in the public records documenting Maryland’s early history. It is known that he was born in England and was Protestant. He was indentured to Leonard Calvert, brother to Cecil Calvert (the second Lord Baltimore and founder of the colony) and he apparently was skilled as a brick mason.

Fortunately for us, John Halfhead was present in the early days and years of Maryland and witnessed some of the most significant events as the colony struggled to become established. In the first lesson in this series, titled Meet John Halfhead, Halfhead was just arriving in the New World as an indentured servant. In this lesson, we now see Halfhead as the owner of a newly established tobacco plantation, facing the struggles of adapting to his new home. Subsequent lessons will follow John Halfhead through the 17th century as he becomes a member of the General Assembly, a successful plantation owner, a husband, and a father.

The student reading, John Halfhead, Plantation Master, should be introduced by way of stating . . . if you could travel back in time to the 17th century and talk to John Halfhead, this is what he might say to you.


Maryland’s earliest colonists had many challenges to face in the New World. As a result, there were many adaptations made to conditions in Maryland. The following are among the most prominent:

    • Environment: Maryland colonists were coming to a place with an environment completely different from that of England. The land was, for the most part, covered with virgin forests. The first Englishmen arriving in Maryland were awestruck by the size of the trees, the width of the river, and the sheer beauty of the place. Most of this land was also unclaimed. Those bringing indentured servants to Maryland and the servants, themselves, were entitled to grants of land. Many of these colonists, especially the servants, could never have hoped to own land in England.A notable challenge this new environment brought was battles with diseases for which these colonists had no immunity. Diseases like typhus, dysentery, influenza, and malaria were all serious problems for new immigrants. During the first year of life in Maryland, one was said to be going through the “seasoning,” a sometimes-deadly combination of all of these ailments. As much as one third of new arrivals may not have survived through the seasoning. Ironically, it was probably Europeans who originally brought malaria, the most pervasive of all the diseases, to the New World.


    • Livestock: In 17th-century Maryland, pigs and cows were not kept in pens as they were in England. It was much more cost-effective to let these animals forage in the woods for food, thereby leaving the planter to concentrate on growing tobacco rather than grains for animal feed. In the 17th century, most cows had horns and most pigs had tusks (many modern breeds have these bred out of them). These animals could easily defend themselves against predators in the woods and, therefore, did not require constant attention. To identify his animals from those of his neighbors, a colonist would mark the ears of his pigs and cows in a distinctive pattern. This mark was registered with the clerk of the court and ears were kept when an animal was butchered as proof of ownership.


    • Agriculture: Farmers in England were accustomed to using plows to cultivate land and prepare it for crops. In Maryland, farmers found largely virgin forests which could not be plowed. The large root systems of huge trees would break any plow that tried to get through them. Instead, colonists adopted the native method of field clearance in which trees were girdled (a strip of bark was removed around the trunk of the tree) and then lost their leaves and died. The low brush was cleared with a controlled fire. Once clear, the loose dirt was hoed into hills, and tobacco and/or corn were planted in the hills.


    • Foodways: The most noticeable change to the diet of the Maryland colonists was the addition of Indian corn as a replacement for many European grains like wheat, barley, and oats. Corn was seen as a miracle crop that could deliver a return of hundreds of seeds (kernels) for each single seed planted. European grain could deliver as few as five to ten seeds for each one planted. Maryland colonists probably had some form of bread made of corn with virtually every meal3/4either in the form of baked corn bread or fried corn cakes.


    • Economy: The Maryland economy was based almost exclusively on the production of tobacco. There were few goods manufactured in the colony. Almost all finished goods were imported from England or Europe and purchased with tobacco. Colonists would have been accustomed to largely self-sufficient towns and villages in England. In Maryland, they might receive some supplies only once a year.


  • Laws: For the most part, Maryland law was based upon English law, but Lord Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, did have some leeway when it came to legal matters. There were some laws such as those governing religion, livestock, orphans, and relationships between servant and master that were uniquely colonial. For instance, the theft of livestock was considered a felony in England, but livestock were easily mistaken in the colonies so accidental theft was probably a fairly common occurrence. The crime, therefore, was reduced to a misdemeanor and could be heard in county, rather than, provincial court.