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Many people in St. Mary’s County want to preserve its rural landscape and celebrate its agricultural heritage. But not so many stop and think about how the people involved in the county’s farming past lived, and the inequality of their lives.

Julia King, professor of anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, has written a book exploring how the past of St. Mary’s County is interpreted.

Some sites, like Historic St. Mary’s City, celebrate the past. At others, like Point Lookout, it is an afterthought, she said.

“Every time a farm was lost to a new subdivision or an old barn was burned for practice by the fire department, community members reacted as if the loss was one more assault on the region’s identity,” King wrote in “Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland.”

She continued, “But, because I saw the world through an archaeological lens, I also understood that the landscapes we were struggling to preserve were not ones associated with some imagined bucolic tobacco past, but were the material remnants of the landscapes of oligarchy and slavery. These were the landscapes of colonialism — of race, class and even gender, but few of us want to dwell on ‘those’ topics.”

King said recently she doesn’t mean to be critical of the effort to preserve the county’s rural character. “I’m fascinated by this place. I love this place,” she said from her office at the college.

King, as a member of the St. Mary’s County Planning Commission, saw firsthand the development pressure on the county.

“When we preserve the rural landscape, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What are we preserving?’” she said. “There was slavery. There was inequity.”

For generations, a select few owned most of the land in St. Mary’s County. That land was worked first by indentured servants, then slaves, then sharecroppers, none of whom owned the land.

“King’s book shows how a careful archaeologist can bring deep insights to things we thought we knew,” said Scot Danforth, director of The University of Tennessee Press, publisher of the book. “This gracefully written book brings lightly worn but deep scholarship to bear on fundamental issues about public memory, historical fact and fiction, and the political uses of certain stories about the Chesapeake Bay area and its peoples and cultures.”

The book focuses on the rise of St. Mary’s City as a memorial to the founding of Maryland. The founders of Maryland settled at St. Mary’s City in the spring of 1634. The waterfront land was divided up into a fledgling town.

It was there that the Religious Toleration Act was passed in 1649, prohibiting the impressments of faith onto Christians — legislation, which is now celebrated as the birth of religious freedom in Maryland.

But after the state capital was moved to Annapolis in February 1695, it didn’t take long until St. Mary’s City and all its structures were forgotten.

The Maryland Gazette noted on Nov. 1, 1838, that St. Mary’s City “has now existence in name only. A few old graves stones are now the remains of this ancient city.” The original state house was already gone.

St. Mary’s City would see a resurgence with the establishment of the St. Mary’s Female Seminary in the 1840s, King wrote.

The largest celebration of what is called Maryland Day took place on June 18, 1934, for the 300th anniversary of the founding of Maryland. A new state house was built for the occasion and Route 5 was upgraded to accommodate travelers.

Despite the heat, The (Baltimore) Sun reported some 15,000 to 20,000 revelers turned out for the occasion.

Historic St. Mary’s City today shows its past using social history (the everyday lives of people during the colonial era), archaeology and the reconstruction of ancient structures.

King wrote, “Through the work of the state, St. Mary’s City has been recast as a Maryland utopia.”

Point Lookout State Park is another matter though, she wrote.

The southern tip of St. Mary’s County is flanked by the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Before and after the Civil War, Point Lookout was a recreational area.

But during the war, it was home to a Union hospital and prisoner-of-war camp for Confederates. From 1863 to 1865, some 3,500 prisoners would die there, wrote Edward Beitzell in his book “Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates.”

There are some Civil War reminders still at Point Lookout State Park, but its main uses today are swimming, camping and fishing.

“The state park’s interpretation of the site’s Civil War history, while not completely absent, is designed to avoid controversy,” King wrote.

“Many people aren’t even aware of the Civil War history there,” she said.

But ghost hunters often visit Point Lookout. “Ghosts are a critical component of the memory work at Point Lookout, raising the subject of the Civil War without officially confronting the social and cultural issues of the war’s history raises, including questions about race and its meaning in American history,” she wrote.

jbabcock@somdnews.com