Van Sweringen Exhibit

The Van Sweringen Archaeological Site



Meet Garrett Van Sweringen


One of the most intriguing residents of Maryland’s first capital was Garrett Van Sweringen. Originally a leader of the Dutch colony of New Amstel in Delaware, he lost most of his property when the English captured that settlement in 1664. Afterward, many Dutch and Swedish settlers moved from Delaware to Maryland. In 1667, Garrett Van Sweringen, his wife Barbara, and their children began running an inn at St. Mary’s City in a building called Smith’s Ordinary. Later he opened a “private lodging house” at the site you are now exploring. Van Sweringen had a major role in developing Maryland’s first capital.


Garrett Van Sweringen died here in 1698 and is buried somewhere on the 1667 chapel site grounds.



Scholars have dug here many times. The first work was in the 1930s by architectural historian H. Chandlee Forman. Historic St. Mary’s City archaeologists started excavations here in 1974, with the work continuing until 1985. These excavations produced a wide range of valuable insights. To answer more questions, diggers returned in 2005. We now understand the Van Sweringen site in a general way. However, despite many years of exploration, this complex site still holds many mysteries that future archaeologists can try to solve.



This painting shows how the site may have appeared on the morning of May 10,1692. On that day, the new royal governor, Sir Lionel Copley, met with the legislature for the first time in the Council Chamber, and officially took control of Maryland from Lord Baltimore. The bird’s eye view depicts Garrett Van Sweringen’s busy enterprise along Aldermanbury Street, a main route in St. Mary’s City. Although streets were important, the river remained a vital highway for both trade and travel.


Read more about Garrett Van Sweringen




The Inner Room – The Sot-weed Factor


The verse below was taken from the Sot-weed Factor, a satirical poem written by Ebenezer Cooke in 1708. He has been called “the best American writer of satire before Benjamin Franklin.” He lived in St. Mary’s City in the 1690s. The poem is based on Cooke’s experiences in Maryland and conveys the rough and ready nature of the early colonial society. This poem was the inspiration for John Barth’s best selling novel of the same name.



To every Room and Nook I crept,
In hopes I might have somewhere slept;
But all the bedding was possest
By one or other drunken Guest:
But after looking long about,
I found an antient Corn-loft out.
Glad that I might in quiet sleep,
And there my bones unfractur’d keep
I lay’d me down secure from Fray,
And soundly snor’d till break of Day.




A Mystery Room

A: Gysbert Jansz House 1662      B: Tennis Cornelisz Slingerlandt House 1658        C: Van Sweringen’s Closet

A built-in bed box could be closed up at night with curtains or doors to retain heat; they were popular among the Dutch and used by settlers.  These are two examples of Dutch houses with bed boxes in New Netherland and the possible location of box bed in Van Sweringen’s closet.




Bake, Brew, and Coffee House Archaeology


The base of the chimney is unusual in that it seems to have a second firebox outlined on the right. This is believed to be the support for a bake oven.

The process of brewing beer required many different tools and materials including large metal pots for boiling water over the open fire, blankets to cover the cooking vessels to keep in the heat, sieves for straining, hops to provide scent and flavor, and barrels for storage.


Archaeologists digging this outbuilding found a wooden barrel that had been buried near the chimney. When excavated, the wooden hoops that once held it together were seen as soil impressions and the nails that fastened the hoops were still in place. Why did someone intentionally bury a barrel? Could it have been a mini-cooling chamber or did it capture rain water?

The barrel as first discovered. The fully excavated barrel with
half the soil around it dug
Detail of barrel during excavation showing the impressions of the wooden hoops

Coffee House

In his will, Garrett Van Sweringen left the Council Chamber and “Coffee house” to his wife and children. It is one of the earliest references to a coffee house in English America. Although built as a brew and bake house, archaeological evidence implies that it became the coffee house in the early 1690s. Coffee houses were a new and very fashionable institution in England during the second half of the 17th century. They became popular places for people to talk, exchange news, and conduct business. A coffee house in St. Mary’s City is another example of Van Sweringen’s innovative efforts to develop the urban character of the capital.


Early coffee houses in England opened their doors to both gentry and tradesmen. Many establishments had rules to promote civilized behavior such as extracting a 12-pence penalty for those who swore. Card games and dice were forbidden but good conversation was encouraged.



Excavators found fragments of rare Turkish coffee cups at the site that date to the late 17th or early 18th century. According to rules for an English coffee house, if a man started a quarrel, he was expected to buy a “dish” of coffee for each patron. It is possible Garrett Van Sweringen was serving guests from such cups.




Smoking was a key part of the coffee house experience in the 17th century. Archaeologists excavated more pipes associated with this small outbuilding than were found on the rest of the Van Sweringen site.




The Kitchen


The kitchen may have looked like this in May 1692. It is based on archaeological information, artifacts, and clues about the furnishings and the room’s inhabitants found in an inventory of Van Sweringen’s property made in 1700. The painting depicts late morning with Mary Van Sweringen, her daughter, and her staff busy cooking a special dinner that will be served mid-day to Governor Copley and his council. Mary is eager to make a good impression on the governor so mother and daughter are dressed for the event.

Kitchen Archaeology



Most everything we know about the Van Sweringen site is the result of years of careful archaeological research.


View of the archaeological remains of the kitchen looking from the east. In the 1970s, archaeologists uncovered the ruins of the Council Chamber and kitchen. Archaeology has a unique ability to give us glimpses into the past and to see long lost peoples.


Run mouse over image to see archaeologists
in period costume.

The evidence for the foundation of the kitchen was the different soil color left where a post hole had been dug to hold a wooden post. The image on the left shows the post and hole remains before excavation while the picture on the right shows the hole and post half excavated.


Kitchen Artifacts


The artifacts found in the excavations informs our understanding of the past.

These 17th-century pottery fragments were found here by archaeologists.

Click on the title to learn more.

English Staffordshire combed slipware cup
    • Staffordshire mug
      from St. Mary’s City.


      • Staffordshire slipware is decorated by trailing, and then combing, liquified clay, know as slip. While made in a number of English potting localities, it is primarily associated with the area around Staffordshire.


Dutch tin-glazed earthenware fluted or lobed dish
      • Fluted or lobed dish
        from the Museum of London.

        • These fluted or lobed dishes were most likely made in the Netherlands though some have been attributed to Italy. They commonly appear in Dutch still life paintings.


Tin-glazed earthenware decorated in a Chinese Wan Li style
      • Complete tin glazed earthenware bowl decorated in the Wan Li style.

        • Large punch bowls decorated in imitation of Chinese porcelain where made in both the Netherlands and England. Our specimen appears more likely Dutch. The ceramic is a low fired earthenware decorated with a white glaze and blue painting.


Can you find the artifacts in the Van Sweringen Kitchen painting below?