- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A white historical marker in St. Mary’s City describes Mattapany Road as “the first road built by the colonists in Maryland.” But most of the road as it exists today, connecting St. Mary’s City to St. James, does not follow the original Mattapany Path, according to Pete Himmelheber.
The path originally ran from St. Mary’s City north to Cedar Point. Most of its course was never paved and much of it is now concealed in the woods.
Himmelheber and Ray Wise, a guide at Historic St. Mary’s City, recently tracked down the path, and Himmelheber gave a presentation to about 100 people earlier this month on the history and the search for the old Mattapany Path.
“When our colonists first came here there was an Indian town there” at St. Mary’s City, Himmelheber said the next day. Native Americans “had to come in somehow,” he said. Colonists followed the paths of least resistance, usually already laid out by Native Americans. These sometimes followed trails created by wildlife.
The Indian path along the spine of St. Mary’s became Three Notch Road (Route 235). “It never crossed a body of water. It never crossed a stream,” Himmelheber said. The alignment was straightened out over time as the highway was improved, after a movement in 1908 to establish a good network of state roads.
Himmelheber first found the Mattapany Path in records from 1637, the year St. Mary’s was established as a county. At the time St. Mary’s City was the capital of the Maryland colony. Its name, spelled Mattapanient Path, appeared in 1640. But its path isn’t revealed in records until 1765, he said.
It ran from St. Mary’s City north to the Mattapany plantation at Cedar Point between today’s Route 5 and Route 235. Himmelheber and Wise took to the woods using a map from 1826 to find the path. On the first trip they began at the athletic field at the northern end of the St. Mary’s College of Maryland campus. They walked the northern edge of Fisherman Creek and came to a path. It was not the Mattapany Path, but a four-wheeler trail. But the gulch next to it was the old road.
They walked the gully north as far as they could until they hit a thick patch of mountain laurel. They were coming up on houses, too. Himmelheber said at that point they asked owners for permission to enter private property.
The second trip was made south of Fisherman Creek. The third trip took them to the intersection of Park Hall Road and Courtneyville Road, the location of the old Hangman’s Tree, according to county folklore.
Grif Alexander, local correspondent for The Washington Post and lyricist of the official St. Mary’s County song, wrote in 1935, “There are many ... people in St. Mary’s County who are afraid to be in the neighborhood of Hangman’s Tree after dark and never will go there alone.” He continued, “the name seems to have been applied under a misconception and, as far I as have been able to learn, nobody was ever hanged there.
“The tree is dead; this portion of the Mattapany road is seldom if ever used since people drive and no longer ride, and the lane, formerly merely a bend in the road, has been extended to Park Hall and is now a thoroughfare in its own right,” Alexander wrote.
Himmelheber and Wise made their fourth trip at St. Mary’s City next to the existing Mattapany Road near its intersection with Route 5. Today’s Mattapany Road is shown as Courtneys Road in 1700 records.
The next trip, the two were in the woods between Route 5 and Route 235. They found a small depression through the woods, indicating an old road. They followed it. The problem, Himmelheber said, was that it ran east to west, not north to south. Wrong road.
Himmelheber said he tracked down the length of the Mattapany Path, except for the section that entered into Cedar Point. Forty years before Patuxent River Naval Air Station moved in, there were three roads that led in. One of them is today’s Forest Park Road, which leads to Gate 3. But the records aren’t clear as to which one of the three was part of the Mattapany Path.
There may have been an older path in St. Mary’s County than Mattapany, but Himmelheber hasn’t verified one. “That’s the oldest path that I found,” he said. There may have been another that lead south to Jutland Creek. “That path was mentioned five or six months before the [Mattapany] Path,” he said.
“Pete is well known in the community for his scholarship, and he’s a great presenter,” said Regina Faden, executive director of Historic St. Mary’s City. “Not only is it based in great scholarship, he takes you out into the landscape. He makes sense of the environment, the things you see every day,” she said.