Unearthing the Calverts: The Search for the State’s Seminal Documents

King James I to George Calvert, Patent under the Great Seal creating Calvert Baron Baltimore of Baltimore in Ireland, 1624, MS 174, Document #38, MdHS. “Patent of Nobility” Known as the “Patent of Nobility” the 26” x 17” parchment gave George Calvert his title as Baron Baltimore. Five of his descendant would also hold the title.

King James I to George Calvert, Patent under the Great Seal creating Calvert Baron Baltimore of Baltimore in Ireland, 1624, MS 174, Document #38, MdHS.
Known as the “Patent of Nobility” the 26” x 17” parchment gave George Calvert his title as Baron Baltimore. Five of his descendant would also hold the title.

The story of how the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) acquired the papers of the state’s founding family is not well known. In fact it isn’t even a singular story. Simply preparing this piece about the collection unearthed a tale that highlights shaky provenance, the concept of authenticity in an archive, and the importance of institutional knowledge.

In 1839, a scientist and “student of Maryland history” named John Henry Alexander noticed two large trunks labeled “CALVERT PAPERS” while visiting the British Museum in London. Intrigued, he tucked the information away in the back of his mind. Thirteen years later Alexander returned to the museum in the hopes of examining the contents of the trunks, but was dismayed to find that the no one on the current staff had any recollection of the trunks or the documents. It would be another three decades before the mystery was solved.

In 1887, five years after the Maryland General Assembly passed “An act to provide for the preservation, arrangement, publication, and sale of Ancient Documents pertaining to Maryland,” MdHS finally traced the location of the long disappeared Calvert Papers to the estate of Colonel Frederick Henry Harford, a distant descendant of Henry Harford, the “illegitimate heir of the last Lord Baltimore.”

An initial investigation determined that the papers had been stored for an indeterminate time in a chest in Harford’s greenhouse, in no apparent order, mixed with other family papers. They were also in very poor condition, with “some signs of damp . . . on a few of the papers, so that, if the chest should remain for some years longer in it’s present place, the papers may be seriously injured.” Even more distressing, Colonel Harford, obviously not a scholar, had directed his gardeners to use a large portion of the papers to fill a divot on the grounds of his property.

MdHS Librarian, John Wesley Murray Lee, not dated, PVF, MdHS.

MdHS Librarian, John Wesley Murray Lee, not dated, PVF, MdHS.

Acting swiftly under the leadership of Mendes Cohen, the society raised money from prominent Baltimoreans including Enoch Pratt, Charles Bonaparte, and Albert Ritchie, and sent a representative to England for the purposes of acquiring the papers. In April of 1888, MdHS Librarian John Wesley Murray Lee arrived in England and negotiated the purchase of the 1,300 plus documents for approximately $1,100 (about $27,000 in 2014). After carefully packing the papers in iron trunks, Lee escorted the historic acquisition to Baltimore aboard the steamship Servia, and the manuscripts were soon safely stored in the society’s fireproof vault.

The Calvert Papers contain many of the Maryland’s oldest and most historically important documents. The manuscripts, “on paper and parchment . . . ranging from the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth,” down to the second half of the eighteenth century, are a varied assortment of materials including Council books, journals of the Colonial Houses of Assembly, rent rolls, grants of land, heraldic and genealogical parchments and scrolls, and hundreds of pieces of correspondence of the Lords Baltimore, governors, and private citizens.

One of the most important documents in the collection related specifically to Maryland is Cecilius Calvert’s instructions to the colonists setting off for the Americas aboard the Ark and the Dove. Dated November 13, 1633, the letter from the Second Lord Baltimore to his brother Leonard, the first governor of the colony, lays the foundation for Maryland’s laws. Perhaps it’s most important feature is the statement on religious toleration in the opening clause:

“His Lo requires his said Governor & Commissioners th in their voyage to Mary Land they be very careful to preserve unity & peace amongst all the passengers on Shipp-board, and that they suffer no scandall nor offence to be given to any of the Protestants, whereby any just complaint may hereafter be made, by them, in Virginea or in England, and that for that end, they cause all Acts of Romane Catholique Religion to be done as privately as may be, and that they instruct all the Romane Catholiques to be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion; and that the said Governor & Commissioners treate the Protestants wth as much mildness and favor as Justice will permitt. And this to be observed at Land as well as at Sea.”

The papers also contain “a great mass of documents illustrating every phase of the Maryland-Pennsylvania boundary dispute between the Calvert and the Penn families.” Among these are two copies of surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s map of the famous boundary line that today bears their names. In 1763, the Calvert and Penn families commissioned the two Englishmen to determine the border between the two colonies, and settle the argument over 4,000 square miles of contested land. After five years of slow, painstaking work through rigorous frontier, the survey was completed, the dispute settled, and Dixon drew an exquisite map of the line. The surveyors printed two hundred copies of the large 76” x 27” map in early 1768. The pair of copies discovered in Colonel Harford’s greenhouse more than a century later are two of only nine extant copies known today.

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, A Plan of the Boundary lines between the Province of Maryland and the Three Lower Counties of Delaware, 1768, MS 174-1051, MdHS.

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, A Plan of the Boundary lines between the Province of Maryland and the Three Lower Counties of Delaware, 1768, MS 174-1051, MdHS.

One of the most notable items in the Calvert papers didn’t come from a greenhouse trunk in England, but the equally unlikely location of Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1894, Mendes Cohen, Chair of the Library Committee, received a letter from a man named John Roland Phillips, who upon his father’s death inherited an accumulation of documents collected by his father relating to the Calvert Family. In this batch of documents, added to the original Calvert Papers and given manuscript number MS 174.1, was a copy of an amazing manuscript entitled “A Briefe[sic] Relation of the Voyage Unto Maryland” written by Father Andrew White, one of the Jesuit priests who accompanied the Maryland colonists aboard the Ark and the Dove. Written in English this narrative describes the entire voyage of the first settlers.

White produced two versions of this manuscript, one in English and another in Latin entitled Relatio Itineris in Marilandium. The two versions were composed with different audiences in mind, and vary in certain aspects. The Latin version was intended for his superiors in Rome, whereas the English, with descriptions of the Maryland climate, soil, and “products of the earth,” was written in the hopes of drawing investors to the new colony.

It is entirely possible that the copy in the papers acquired from Phillips was written in Father White’s actual hand. Evidence of this possibility exists in another manuscript bundled in this batch of documents; a dictated and signed letter from Leonard Calvert, that refers to this English copy as having been written by “a most honest and discreet gentleman, wherefore you may be confident of the truth of it.” The body of the letter contains very similar handwriting to that in the Brief Relation. They appear to have been written by the same scribe, so there is a good chance Father White penned both.

Settlement of Maryland by Lord Baltimore, ca 1861, Emaniel Leutze, Oil on Canvas, 1884-2-1, Museum Department, MdHS.

Settlement of Maryland by Lord Baltimore, ca 1861, Emaniel Leutze, Oil on Canvas, 1884-2-1, Museum Department, MdHS.

Father White’s original Latin text returned with the Ark to London in the summer of 1634. Once it arrived a copy was made which was then sent to the Jesuit archives in Rome. Shortly thereafter the original manuscript went missing and remained unaccounted for until 1998. The MdHS purchased what is presumed to be this missing copy in auction from Sotheby’s, bringing the English and Latin version together again 364 years after they were created.

Although there is a good chance that MdHS has three original documents written by Father Andrew White (the two Relatios and the dictated Leonard Calvert letter) it should be acknowledged that there is a chance that we have none at all. Evidently there were at least two other possible scribes aboard the ship. We make no claims to be handwriting experts, but these documents do seem to share remarkably similar penmanship. It is likely that the scribe is the same in all of the manuscripts.

After doing a little research we found that GeorgetownUniversity has a document entitled “Prayers written in English, Latin, and Piscatawayas which has been authenticated as being in Father White’s hand.” We welcome handwriting experts out there to do your own research and let us know what you think.

In a final postscript to the story behind the acquisition of the Calvert Papers, the society sponsored another excursion to England in July of 1889 in a last ditch attempt to recover the missing portion of the Calvert papers buried in Colonel Harford’s yard. Meeting with the Colonel Harford, MdHS member Julian LeRoy White discovered that Harford had originally directed his butler to burn the documents, but he had buried them instead. With the aid of two of Harford’s workmen and the butler, White began the excavation:

“We dug all that day through all that part of the heap which might possibly, according to the butler, contain the Papers . . . We went down to water almost, and found nothing except some enormous worms . . . almost the size of small eels . . . If there were papers there the damp could not have failed to destroy them.”

Marylanders may lament the loss of a portion of the Calvert papers to the worms, but it should be noted that much care has been put into the stewardship of the extant collection in the 127 years since their arrival. The papers have been arranged, described, conserved, and then microfilmed in 1972. Though much work has been done with this collection our query into the provenance of the Father White letter reminded us how much work can still be done. Take some comfort in the fact that the continued metaphoric excavation of the remaining documents will prove to be fruitful. (Eben Dennis and Damon Talbot)

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the MdHS News.

Sources and further reading:

A Brief History of the Mason Dixon Line.

Anderson, Patricia Dockman, “A History of the Maryland Historical Society, 1844-2006,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Volume 101, No. 4 (Winter 2006).

Andrew White, Apostle of Maryland.

Ellis, Donna M. and Karen A. Stuart, The Calvert Papers: Calendar and Guide to the Microfilm Edition (The Maryland Historical Society: Baltimore, 1989)

MHS Fund Publications, The Calvert Papers, 1888-1889.

MS 174, Calvert Papers, 1621-1775.

MS 174.1, Calvert Papers (additonal), 1633-1638.

Thaler, David S., “Mason & Dixon and the Defining of America,” MdHS News, Fall 2008.


4 Responses to “Unearthing the Calverts: The Search for the State’s Seminal Documents”

  1. I am an 8th generation descendent of George Calvert and my great grandfather was the last person to file a suit against the federal government regarding the property which the White House sits upon, which the Calvert family leased to the newly formed union, but it was never returned. I really enjoyed this article and it provides excellent information on our family tree.

    Yours truly,
    Robert J. Larsen

    Posted by Robert J. Larsen | 30. Jul, 2015, 3:27 pm
    • This article on the discovery of the Calvert Papers is an absolute miracle! I found it while searching for my genetic connection to the Calvert family.

      The 14th Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot, claimed to be the uncle of my ancestor, Anne Talbot, daughter of John Talbot who married Henry Darnall,III.

      If anyone is able to help me on that I would love to hear from you.

      If by chance Robert J. Larsen or Damon Talbot can help please feel free to contact me.

      I have visited Maryland a few times. I have been to St. Mary’s to see the archeological findings and discovery of Philip and Ann Calvert’s graves.

      Have a blessed day,

      Posted by Shirley Talbott Shaw | 26. May, 2019, 8:58 pm
  2. What a great find. My husband is also a descend of George Calvert, 9th gr grandfather.

    Posted by Kathleen Wiley | 18. May, 2020, 10:14 am
  3. I am a ninth great granddaughter of George Calvert. His daughter, Grace and her husband, Robert Talbot would be my eighth great grand parents.

    Posted by Anita (Talbott) Brann | 01. Jun, 2020, 3:40 pm

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