Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 1, Page 5
Fall 1991
Unwrapping 'My Lord's Gift'

     On a blistering hot July day, Jay Custer, professor of
anthropology, crawled on his hands and knees through a Maryland
cornfield searching for 17th- and 18th- century artifacts. He had
briefly forgotten about the temperature, which rose in excess of 100
degrees. All he could think about was a fragment of a 17th-century
ceramic jug he had just found while walking at the edge of the crops
on farmland near Queenstown, Md.
     As he scoured the ground, Custer saw another ceramic piece
protruding out of the soil. He quickly probed into the earth and found
more fragments, including pieces of tobacco pipes and Italian glass
beads. "Oh my heavens! This is it. This is the place!" Custer said to
     Custer, director of the University's Center for Archaeological
Research, had found the lost site of the home of Henry Coursey, a
wealthy colonial businessman, farmer and prominent politician who
lived near Queenstown from 1658 to 1697. With the permission of the
current landowners, the Arthur Birney family, Custer then directed a
summer-long archaeological excavation project, which has yielded
surprising and important clues on how early settlers of Maryland's
Chester River region lived.
     "They could have grabbed me by the seat of the pants and thrown
me out," says Custer of the Birney family, who is developing the
property into a golf course. Instead, they contacted authorities to
request the excavation and donated $5,000 to the project.
     Custer says that his archaeological field crews found many
artifacts indicating that colonists traded with the Dutch to a much
greater degree than previously thought. In fact, the excavation
revealed that Coursey's lifestyle was elaborate and he imported goods
from many European countries.
      The structure of Coursey's home and other estate buildings as
well as the size of his plantation is indicative of his lifestyle. By
last October, the field crews, made up of more than 100 students,
archaeologists and others, completed the excavation of the foundations
of a large and rare, two-story, wooden-framed house with an unusual
two-story fireplace. A few dozen feet from the house site, they found
evidence of a large servants' quarters and kitchen that had a massive,
stone fireplace. A small storehouse and well also stood nearby.
Fragments of hefty jugs and tobacco pipe fragments in adjacent refuse
pits indicate that Coursey entertained guests who drank "punch" and
smoked tobacco, a popular colonial crop that Coursey probably grew.
Historical documents, in fact, indicate that during his lifetime,
Coursey owned 3,225 acres of land and 15 slaves, an extremely large
number for a Maryland estate during that period.
     Coursey's life and how he acquired such massive holdings
illuminate the political and social intricacies of Maryland's colonial
society. Born in Ireland in 1629, he migrated to Virginia in 1649.
Historical documents indicate that Coursey moved to Maryland in 1653
where he became an ardent supporter of Cecilius Calvert, Lord
Baltimore. At that time, Calvert was involved in a bitter struggle
with Virginia colonists as he tried to assert his royal land grants to
what is now the state of Maryland. When Calvert finally asserted his
rights, he rewarded Henry Coursey for his loyalty with a land grant
known as the "Thumb Grant."
     Lord Baltimore gave as much land to Coursey as the tip of his
thumb could cover on a map. His thumb landed on the southern bank of
the Chester River extending past the mouth of Queenstown harbor to the
east. Obviously pleased, Coursey called his estate "My Lord's Gift."
     Using his estate as a base, Coursey may have traded with Native
American tribes, some as far away as New York, probably swapping
Italian glass beads for beaver furs. In fact, Custer suspects that
Coursey's estate sat at "the edge of the world," near a point where
Native Americans sought to stop whites from migrating north.
     During his lifetime, Coursey used profits from his estate and fur
trading activities, and his political favor with Lord Baltimore, to
increase his wealth and social standing. He became a frontier diplomat
who negotiated important Indian treaties for the colony of Maryland
and was a member of the provincial council of Maryland.
     "My Lord's Gift"  was enriched by wildlife, says Custer, an
expert on early Native American tribes and prehistoric archaeology.
From the abundance of wild and domesticated animal bones found in
small rubbish pits near the kitchen, Custer says he's sure that estate
dwellers ate a diet rich in meat. They also enjoyed seafood, judging
from the large oyster shells and fish bones found in the pit.
     Custer can partially assess the health of the environment and
colonists who lived in Coursey's day by evaluating the animal remains
and artifacts. The abnormally large skeletal parts of land and aquatic
species is clear evidence of ecologic vibrancy, Custer says, and the
rich meat diet and smoking habits of the colonists will shed light on
what diseases affected their mortality, he adds.
     In his campus office recently, Custer looked at a tray of
artifacts on his desk. In front of him were nails, milkpan pieces and
a crucifix made in England; porcelain from China; parts of a horse bit
and stirrup, Delft pottery and smoking pipes from The Netherlands, as
well as a large fragment of a German-made jug. During the summer, his
field crews filled 275 of the two-foot-square cardboard trays with
relics that are being washed, evaluated and cataloged by students and
the center's researchers.
     The owners of the site  plan to place a plaque or some other
monument in memory of the land's rich past. "We didn't want to just
plow (the land) up," said son Charles S. Birney. "We were really
thrilled with the whole thing."
     Custer was also exhilarated. "To dig such a site was a
once-in-a-lifetime chance. To find one at all is extraordinary. It was
a real victory for everybody involved."
                                   - Donald Scott