Halfhead Lesson 3

Meet John Halfhead

Lesson 3 – Citizen of St. Mary’s


John Halfhead, Citizen of St. Mary’s is the third in a series of lessons and activities developed by Historic St. Mary’s City. John Halfhead, Citizen of St. Mary’s is about one of Maryland’s first colonists 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 gain an understanding of daily life in the city of St. Mary’s and the role of a prominent citizen in early Maryland society.
  • Students will read primary source documents in order to gain an understanding of writing, literacy, and recordkeeping in 17th-century Maryland, and to make connections between these documents and what we know about our history today.


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 that document Maryland’s early history. It is known that he was born in England and was Protestant. He was indentured to Leonard Calvert, brother of 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 John Halfhead, Indentured Servant, Halfhead was just arriving in the New World as an indentured servant. In the second lesson, John Halfhead, Plantation Master, he was the owner of a newly established tobacco plantation, facing the struggles of adapting to his new home. In this lesson, Halfhead has become a prominent member of St. Mary’s City, dealing with the courts and government on a regular basis. The records of these interactions are very important to historians today. The lesson focuses on how the documents were created, who used them, what they can tell us about life in early Maryland, and some of the challenges involved in studying them. Subsequent lessons will follow John Halfhead through the 17th century.


The student reading, John Halfhead, Citizen of St. Mary’s 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.


Literacy in 17th-century Maryland

On a day-to-day basis in 17th-century Maryland, most men, even those who owned land, spent their time cultivating tobacco, building and repairing their houses and barns, tending animals, and occasionally traveling to town to take care of government and court business or to trade. In an agricultural society, there was little need to read or write. Gentlemen such as Leonard Calvert, first governor of Maryland, and John Lewger, secretary of the colony, would have been educated in Europe. However, only a few men in Maryland received a gentleman’s education. Some colonists probably had basic reading, writing, and math skills. Most, however, were not literate. In Maryland. . .at the Beginning, historians Lois Green Carr, Russell Menard, and Louis Peddicord state that nearly all the matters of daily life were conducted by word of mouth. Surviving election returns of 1639 show only 25 of 52 voters were able to sign their names. The others made marks on their ballots. From this, it appears that at least half of the colonists who were not gentlemen or priests lacked a basic literacy.


The difficult tasks of building a new colony and maintaining labor-intensive tobacco plantations left little time to establish formal schools. Parents may have passed along reading and writing skills to their children, but there were few options for formal education in 17th-century Maryland.


Some people have fallen through the cracks of history because there is no surviving written record of their life. John Halfhead used a signature mark in government documents instead of writing out his name. However, we still have many records about his life. His affairs were documented in court proceedings, inventories, and records of Assembly meetings. Provincial court records are very helpful, but St. Mary’s County court records, which would have dealt with lesser, everyday matters, burned in the 19th century. Historians have only the remaining documents on which to base their interpretations. Other documents, such as letters, journals, and maps have also survived. Researchers have studied these primary source documents, culling every bit of information in order to learn more about life in Maryland in the 17th century. It is as a result of this painstaking research that we know what we know about John Halfhead today.


Challenges for Historians

Studying primary sources is by no means an easy task. English in the 17th century was very different than English today. Vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and pronunciation have changed greatly since the 17th century. Then, there was no standardization of spelling or punctuation. The same word could, and often did, appear on the same page spelled a variety of ways. Even proper names, including John Halfhead’s, were spelled many different ways during one’s lifetime. These inconsistencies can cause confusion when studying the records, as can the drastically different styles of handwriting. Using quill pens, writers in the 17th century often abbreviated to save time, ink, and paper. Decoding the penmanship and abbreviations, as well as different word usage, spelling inconsistencies, and grammatical quirks of the 17th century can be quite a challenge. Many documents have been transcribed several times over, which can lead to further discrepancies in information. Through careful study and analysis, historians are continuing to piece together the details of life in 17th-century Maryland.


Using Primary Sources with Students

It may seem counterintuitive that elementary school students should be able to study these same documents that are so problematic for historians. However, research has shown that students can gain an appreciation of the process of doing history by walking through the same processes historians use. (See In Search of America’s Past: Learning to read history in elementary school by Bruce VanSledright for more information on such research.) This lesson is designed to help students begin to learn to read primary source documents from early Maryland, to gain an understanding of writing, literacy, and recordkeeping in 17th-century Maryland, and to make a connection between the creation of these documents and what we know about our history today.