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|A Peaceful and Simple Life
Colton's Point & St. Clements Island
Story by Kathy Warren
Each year, Southern Marylanders gather off of Colton's Point, to celebrate our rich and diverse history with the annual Blessing of the Fleet. In 1634, just off this shoreline on St. Clement's Island, two small ships known as the Ark and Dove sailed up the "Patowmeck" or Potomac River, filled with colonists seeking a new life in a new land. Over the years, much has changed in the area, both natural and man made, but the determination and free spirit of these colonists still lives on today.
On behalf of his brother Cecilius Calvert, a young Leonard Calvert sailed from England with over three hundred colonists aboard two ships named the Ark and the Dove. Not an easy voyage at the time, the colonists, who were seeking religious tolerance, prayed to Saint Clement for a safe journey across the ocean. Four months after their voyage began they landed on an island just off the mainland, which we now call St. Clement's Island, in St. Mary's County. Greeted with trepidation by the Native Americans, they eventually befriended the Indians and maintained a good relationship with them. Though the colonists laid claim to the island and surrounding area, they would not stay on St. Clement's for very long before moving further south to St. Mary's City, where Leonard would serve as Maryland's first Governor.
In August of 1636, Lord Baltimore, granted the 400 acre island and over 600 acres on the mainland, together known as the Manor of St. Clement's Island, to Thomas Gerard. Though his home was located at what is today Colton's Point, the manor itself would later grow to nearly 20,000 acres, up and down the Potomac River.
One of Gerard's daughters, Elizabeth, married Nehemiah Blackistone in 1669 and for a wedding present received St. Clement's Island, Dare's Neck, and Longworth Point (later renamed to Colton's Point). Descendents of the Gerard and Blackistone families still live on both sides of the Potomac today.
The land bequeathed to Elizabeth and her husband in 1669 would remain in the Blackistone family for the next 150 years as it passed from generation to generation. Over time the island became known as Blackistone Island instead of its earlier name of St. Clement's. During those 150 years, nature took its toll on the island, slowly eroding the shoreline, and war would also put its mark on the area during that time.
During the Revolutionary War, British troops maintained headquarters on St. Clement's Island. It is reported that troops came ashore at Longworth Point, burning the homes of local residents including Nehemiah Blackistone's house. Just over 30 years later, the War of 1812 would bring British troops back to Colton's Point and the surrounding area when troops overtook Blackistone (St. Clement's) and neighboring Cheseldine's (St. Katherine's) Islands. It was at this location in 1814 that Admiral Cockburn, commanding 1,200 Royal Marines, landed and proceeded to burn and pillage the surrounding areas.
Following the War of 1812, St. Clement's Island was acquired by prominent St. Mary's County resident Benjamin Gwinn Harris who later sold the property to Dr. Joseph McWilliams in 1845. In a historic account of the island written by noted local historian Edwin W. Beitzell, there are accounts of a coffee company owning the island and also the Abner Drury Brewing Company having ownership of the island prior to the purchase by Dr. McWilliams in the 1840s.
Dr. McWilliams, who married Eliza S. Coombs, owned St. Clement's Island when in August of 1848 the island was chosen by the U.S. Congress as a location for a light station. The lighthouse was completed in 1853 at a cost of just under $5,000.00 and was tended early on by McWilliams' son Jerome. In 1875, Dr. McWilliams' daughter, Josephine Freeman, became one of the few female light keepers in the area. She would tend the light for the next 37 years, a feat that many male keepers never accomplished. The lighthouse later burned in 1956, and it's still unknown whether the fire was an accident or intentionally set.
Steamboats were frequent visitors to the area during the late 1800s, bringing tourists from Baltimore and Washington for fishing, dances, and general relaxation from city living. By 1883 a hotel had been built on the island and a development plan, which included numerous lots for cottages, avenues, and even a park, was laid out by Dr. McWilliams. The plan would never come to full fruition, but cottages were built and a "beer garden" attracted tourists to the area to enjoy the local seafood, swimming, and boating.
By 1896, the island contained little more than 100 acres and went through a succession of owners including Swann's, Chase's and eventually the Butterfield family. The Butterfield's would continue to live on the Island until 1919 when the property (surveyed at just 66 acres) was sold to the United States Government. Captain John Butterfield, a watermen and talented machinist, stayed on as caretaker of the island after the purchase as an employee of the Navy.
Alice McWilliams, a 92 year old resident who is directly descended from the first settlers, recalls life in and around Colton's Point and St. Clement's island as peaceful and simple. Living on St. Katherine's Island until the age of 12, she recalls rowing ashore to the mainland and walking to the three room River Spring's School which went up to the seventh grade. Her family later moved to the mainland where she remembers that during the summer months the area would be teaming with visitors from Washington and Baltimore who arrived on one of the three weekly steamers. Dances were held at the old Blackistone Hotel Pavillion. She also recalls the store at Colton's Point and the storm of 1933 that destroyed the hotel, then known as Kopel's Point Hotel, which was never rebuilt.
In 1934 a large cross was erected on St. Clement's to commemorate the birthplace of religious tolerance in America. During the 1940s, the island was used by the Department of the Navy for training and weapons testing. By the 1960s, the St. Mary's County Historical Society, with the help of many active local residents, fought to save the Island from severe erosion, and the property's ownership was transferred from the federal government to the State of Maryland. Through their hard work and dedication, this historic site, so critical to our state's history, was preserved for future generations. By 1968, the first annual Blessing of the Fleet was held, a tradition which still continues. In the 1970s, the St. Clement's Island-Potomac River Museum was established on the old Longworth Point very near where Thomas Gerard's original home once stood. The museum has grown greatly since that time, and provides visitors with a vast amount of information on life in and around the area through its many wonderful displays.
If the colonists returned to Colton's Point and St. Clement's Island today, they would see a far different place which has undergone many changes. But they would be pleased to see that so many of their descendents and numerous others have worked so hard to preserve their legacy.
St. Clements Island - Potomac River Museum, Bayview Drive, End of Route 242 onto Bayview Drive, Colton's Point, MD 20626. 301-769-2222.
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