Van Sweringen Site (18ST1-19)


Excavating the van Sweringen site, St. Mary's City (Courtesy Historic St. Mary's City)

The van Sweringen site (18ST1-19) is located along the former Aldermanbury Street on a high bluff overlooking the St. Mary's River in St. Mary's City, Maryland. The site is believed to have been occupied first as a Land or Secretary's Office and then later by Garret van Sweringen, his family, and household. Van Sweringen operated the property as an inn or lodging house for an elite clientele. The van Sweringen site is also the site of the colony's (and the Chesapeake region's) first coffee house.

The Land or Secretary's Office was apparently completed by June 1665, with surviving documents placing the building northwest of the Country's House and in the vicinity where the van Sweringen site is located. The first specific mention of the lot containing the site occurred in a 1672 patent of one-acre lots located along Aldermanbury Street when van Sweringen was granted one of these lots; the patent does not mention any standing structures.

Van Sweringen and his first wife, Barbara, had come to St. Mary's City about 1666 from Talbot County, Maryland. Van Sweringen, a Dutch Catholic immigrant who had initially settled in New Amstel, may have been solicited to settle in St. Mary's. The charter incorporating St. Mary's City in 1668 lists van Sweringen as one of six aldermen of the city. Van Sweringen soon rose to high social standing and political importance in St. Mary's, serving as alderman for St. Mary's City in 1668, 1671, and 1685, and as sheriff of St. Mary's County from 1686 to 1688.

In 1676, van Sweringen, who was operating Smith's Ordinary elsewhere on the townlands, considered setting up a brew house and a private lodging house. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was in the late 1670s when the site on Aldermanbury Street was first occupied as a domestic site. In 1680, the Maryland Council is reported to have met there. The inn catered mainly to members of the Council and other elite colonists. Services consisted of food, drink, lodging, and shelter for horses.

Van Sweringen's first wife, Barbara, was dead by 1676 and probably never lived at the van Sweringen site. He then married Mary Smith, a 16- or 17-year-old free immigrant with a household containing up to eight children. The number of servants and/or slaves at the van Sweringen household, however, is more difficult to estimate. At his death in 1698, van Sweringen owned four slaves and two servants, some or all of whom may have resided at his nearby plantation on St. Inigoes Creek.

The van Sweringen family remained in St. Mary's City after the capital moved to Annapolis in 1695, and van Sweringen may have even continued taking in a few lodgers. He died in 1698 at the comparatively old age of 68, leaving his Aldermanbury Street dwelling to his sons, Joseph and Charles, and providing for his widow and other minor children. He also left at least 1,500 acres of land at his plantation in St. Inigoes. The value of van Sweringen's estate, excluding land, was £381.

Mary van Sweringen died in 1714 and, by 1715, her son, Joseph, had married Mary Neale. Both Joseph van Sweringen and Mary Neale had inherited large estates. Joseph died in 1721, leaving an estate valued at 1202 pounds sterling and 1,500 acres of land, presumably his father's St. Inigoes plantation. Joseph's inventory lists a sloop and gear and two carts, items not frequently encountered in early 18th-century inventories, and 22 slaves and seven servants, one of whom was a tailor.

By 1723, Mary was married to William Deacon, the Royal Customs Collector for the north side of the Potomac. Deacon and Mary probably lived at the van Sweringen site for several years before moving to a newly constructed house at nearby Chancellor's Point. Archaeological evidence indicates that the van Sweringen site was occupied until ca. 1745, probably by tenants or servants.

Van Sweringen's probate inventory, taken two years after his death in 1700, describes the principal dwelling as divided into three rooms, including "the Councill House," "the inner roome," and "Mrs. Vanswerings Rome." The remainder of the inventory does not specify rooms or buildings, but significant breaks could be discerned in the inventory's text for the kitchen, the loft in the kitchen, the milk house cellar and the outbuilding. Items listed in the "Councill House" room include three furnished beds, five "old Turkey worked Chaires," one large table with a turkey work covering, five smaller tables, two pictures, and the King's Arms hanging over the fireplace. The inner room contained five chests varying in size, one cupboard, two small tables, two playing tables, one "old" table and five chairs. Mrs. van Sweringen's room, probably the sleeping chamber for the van Sweringens, contained two beds and bedsteads, a third bed, possibly concealed under one of the bedsteads, a large chest and two tables. The closet in this sleeping chamber contained some clothing items and linens.

Archaeological Investigations

The van Sweringen site was excavated between 1974 and 1980 and again in 1982, 1985, and 2005 by the St. Mary's City Commission (now Historic St. Mary's City) under the direction of Garry Wheeler Stone. Excavations over the immediate areas of the structures ranged from an 85 to 100 percent sample of the archaeological record. A strategy of stratified random sampling combined with a judgment sample was applied in the yard areas. Excavations to resolve specific questions and prepare the site as an exhibit were conducted in 1982, 1985, and 2005. The 2005 materials are not included in the online database.

The plow zone at the site was excavated in 10-by-10 and 5-by-5 foot units and screened through 3/8-inch mesh. The 10-by-10 foot units were excavated over the structures associated with the main dwelling and the 5-by-5 foot units were excavated over the area of an outlying outbuilding and in the yard. Subsurface features selected for investigation were excavated by stratigraphic level with fill screened through ¼-inch mesh.

Only five major feature deposits were encountered at the site, including two storage pits, a borrow pit, a 17th-century cellar, and an 18th-century dairy or milk house cellar. With the exception of the dairy or milk house cellar, four of the five features contained few artifacts. The dairy or milk house cellar contained a large quantity of domestic refuse in its lower levels, mostly deposited during the last years of the site's occupation. A sixth feature, a brick-lined cellar in the kitchen, was not excavated. Other features were primarily architectural, including post holes and molds, builder's trenches, and chimney bases. Numerous fence lines were also identified and some of these features were sampled.

The archaeological investigations revealed a total of five buildings at the site apparently constructed in two phases. The dwelling house measured approximately 55 by 20 feet with an exterior end and a central chimney partitioning the building into three rooms. At some point, a brick veneer was added to the west end of the front of the structure. The largest room, located at the west end of the dwelling, measured 20 by 20-feet and was probably the "Council Chamber" where van Sweringen entertained members of the Maryland Council and other patrons to his inn.

A 10-by-20 foot room was located in the center of the structure, heated by the west opening of the central chimney. This room appears to be the "inner roome" mentioned in van Sweringen's inventory. To the south of the central chimney was a brick-floored entrance lobby, and east of this was the van Sweringen's chamber, also heated. On the north side of the central chimney was a closet which opened into the van Sweringen's chamber. It is possible that a loft was located over the three ground floor rooms.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the kitchen was constructed soon after van Sweringen moved to the site as a pre-assembled post-in-the-ground structure. The building was not well-built, and one wall had to be extended with a block and sill section. A chimney constructed partially of Dutch brick was located at the west gable end of the house, and the door was located in the east gable end. A small brick-lined cooling cellar measuring 5 by 15-feet was located in the kitchen structure along its north wall.

At the northwest comer of the dwelling, evidence for a third service structure was recovered. This evidence consists of a shallow cellar, a portion of which was excavated. No architectural features, such as post holes and molds, were located in association with this structure, probably due to the limits of excavation in this area. The cellar extended less than three feet below the base of the plow zone, with fairly straight sides and a flat bottom. Artifacts recovered from the cellar suggest that it was filled by ca. 1690.

About 1685, an unusually large outbuilding was constructed approximately 55 feet east of the main dwelling. This structure measured 20 by 18.5 feet with a chimney on the east gable end. This building had glass windows, wood floors, and plastered walls. The chimney had two openings in the hearth area, perhaps to include support for a bake oven. Two storage pits were identified in front of the hearth, and two unusual pits were located outside the structure on the east gable end. These unusual features include an oblong pit approximately two feet deep containing two complete case bottles and an early 18th-century barrel-lined pit, possibly used for vegetable storage. A number of 18th-century post holes located on the east side of the structure suggested a work shed or work table. Artifacts recovered in association with this structure suggest it was abandoned ca. 1725. It is possible that this building, perhaps initially built as a bake- and brew-house, was repurposed as the coffee house mentioned in van Sweringen's will.

About 1690, van Sweringen undertook substantial renovations to the structures at the site. As noted, the cellar building was abandoned and filled. The kitchen was enlarged and the kitchen fireplace and chimney rebuilt. The cooling pit located in the kitchen was filled and the floor paved with brick. At about the same time, an approximately 10-by-10 foot frame milk house was constructed five feet east of the kitchen. The milk house stood over a cellar approximately four feet in depth lined with brick laid in a haphazard bond.

Two types of fencing were observed at the site: ditch-set palings and post and rail. A third type not visible archaeologically, worm fencing, was inferred from gaps in fencing in the archaeological record.

An artist's representation of what the van Sweringen site may have looked like in 1692 can be found at this link: This image was created as part of exhibit development for the van Sweringen site at Historic St. Mary's City.


Nearly 172,000 artifacts from the van Sweringen site are included in the database, including lithics, ceramics, tobacco pipes, bottle glass, brick, nails, window glass, plaster, animal bone, oyster shell, and many small finds. These materials include artifacts recovered from the archaeological investigations undertaken between 1974 and 1980 and again in 1982 and 1985. The materials recovered in 2005 are not included in this database.

Tobacco pipes include more than 12,900 fragments, the majority of which are white clay, or imported European pipes. Less than one percent of the tobacco pipes are red clay; of this number, some are rouletted and appear to have been Native-made.

Ceramics include more than 15,800 fragments, although some of these ceramics are post-colonial in date and are considered intrusive. A number of Native-made ceramics were also recovered; these ceramics probably pre-date the site's colonial occupation although some fragments could be contemporary with the colonial occupation. European ceramic types include tin-glazed, North Devon, Buckley, Staffordshire, and Manganese Mottled earthenwares and Rhenish brown, Rhenish blue and gray, English brown, and white salt-glazed stonewares. At least 150 ceramic fragments have been identified as Morgan Jones wares, a locally-made and generally utilitarian coarse earthenware produced from the 1660s until about 1690.

Nearly 10,000 fragments of bottle glass are included in the collection, predominantly wine and case bottle fragments (as with the ceramics, a small amount of the bottle glass is post-colonial and considered intrusive). Colonial pharmaceutical or vial glass is also found in the assemblage. At least 24 bottle seals, including seals with the names William Deacon (1741), John Young (1723), John Hicks, and "WM," were recovered from the van Sweringen site.

Architectural artifacts include large quantities of brick and brick fragments, mortar, plaster, and nails. Fragments of pantile (roofing tile), window glass, pintle and other architectural hinges, and lead calmes were also recovered from the van Sweringen site.

Small finds recovered from the van Sweringen site include awls, beads, bell fragments, brass tacks, bale or cloth seals, shoe and clothing buckles, buttons, clay figurine, curtain rings, gun parts, gunflints, furniture hardware, horse furniture, jewelry, keys, knives, lead bars and shot, leather ornaments, locks, mirror glass, pins, spoons, and table glass.

A clay Madonna figure, including just the head portion, was recovered from the site. This figurine fragment is believed to be part of a Madonna and Child figurine.

A 1652 silver "oak tree" two pence coin made in Massachusetts and later folded and pierced was recovered from the van Sweringen site. The coin was found in the plow zone overlying room believed to have been used as the "Council Chamber." Artifact density in this area was generally low, as would be expected inside a dwelling, and those few associated artifacts were overwhelmingly from the 17th century, suggesting that the person who lost this coin may have been a member of the colony's free, educated, and affluent population. Conversely, the person who lost the coin could have been an indentured servant or possibly a slave.

Kitchen, van Sweringen site, St. Mary's City (Courtesy Historic St. Mary's City)
Coffee house chimney base and associated features, van Sweringen site, St. Mary's City (Courtesy Historic St. Mary's City)


Carson, Barbara G. 1983. Conjectural Finishing Plan for Four Rooms in the van Sweringen Property, c. 1690. Ms. on file, Historic St. Mary's City, St. Mary's City, Maryland.

Historic St. Mary's City. 2006. Figures cast in clay. Available online at; accessed December 23, 2017.

Historic St. Mary's City. 2016. Garrett van Sweringen. Available online at ; accessed December 23, 2017.

King, Julia A. 1990. An intrasite spatial analysis of the van Sweringen site, St. Mary's City, Maryland. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of American Civilization, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

King, Julia A., and Henry M. Miller. 1987. The View from the Midden: An Analysis of Midden Distribution and Composition at the van Sweringen site, St. Mary's City, Maryland. Historical Archaeology 21(2):37-59.

McKitrick, Patrick. 2009. The Material Culture of Magic and Popular Belief in the Colonial Mid-Atlantic. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 25:59-72.

Miller, Henry M. 2008. "To Serve the Countrey:" Garrett Van Sweringen and the Dutch Influence in Early Maryland. In Margriet B. Lacy, et al., editors, From De Halve to KLM: 400 Years of Dutch-American Exchange, pp. 85-104. Munster: Nodus Publikationen.

Pasch, Christopher J. 2017. Negotiating Gender Identity at the Van Sweringen Coffeehouse Tavern Site (1677-1698); St. Mary's City, Maryland: A Research Proposal. Paper presented at the 2017 Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Available online at; accessed December 22, 2017.

Roviello, Caralyn R. 2001. Wine Bottle Seals from Colonial Southern Maryland. St. Mary's Project. Ms. on file, St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City.

Stone, Garry W. 1983. Garret van Sweringen's 'Council Chamber' Lodging House (1677-1699): An Historic Structure Report. Ms. on file, Historic St. Mary's City, St. Mary's City, Maryland.

Veit, Richard, and Paul Huey. 2014. "New Bottles Made with My Crest:" Colonial Bottle Seals from Eastern North America, a Gazetteer and Interpretation. Northeast Historical Archaeology 43:54

Webster, Rebecca J. 2016. Trinkets or Treasure: Re-Examining Seventeenth Century Beads from the Potomac River Valley. St. Mary's Project. Ms. on file, St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City.

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The van Sweringen site collection is owned by State of Maryland and curated by Historic St. Mary's City. For more information about the collection and collection access, contact Silas Hurry, Curator of Collections and Archaeological Laboratory Manager, at 240-895-4396; email

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