A costumed interpreter greeted us at the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation, our final stop at the Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC) complex. “Good afternoon. I’m William, one of Master Spray’s indentured servants.” He was the only St. Mary’s interpreter to speak to us – in a serviceable working class English accent — in character. His female compatriot, standing silently next to him, didn’t commit one way or the other.
I wondered if an indentured servant really would call himself an indentured servant. Probably not, but then he also wouldn’t have had to address his next topic, “I’m expecting a school group.” We know. We saw them communing with the cows by the tobacco barn. “I can tell you something about the plantation until they get here. Then I’ll need to speak with them.”
It was the first week of June and the last week of school in Virginia and Maryland before the summer holidays. That apparently meant a week spent taking the students on field trips. They were present in droves at Monticello and Jamestown Settlement, but those venues were large enough to accommodate them on a plane completely separate from the rest of us. Monticello, in particular, moves visitors with military precision.
At HSMC, much smaller and much less sophisticated, the students were more in evidence. We heard the same “I can speak with you only until the next school group comes” speech from every interpreter we met. As I’ve said before, we’re happy wandering on our own, so the monopoly the school groups had on the interpreters didn’t bother us. But this is fair warning to those who might feel slighted when the interpreter goes running off in the middle of your conversation. The interpreters always offered, “You’re welcomed to stay and hear what I have to say to the students.”
We were the only people at the Spray plantation besides the school group, so had the place to ourselves as long as we stayed a step ahead of them.
There was no real Godiah Spray or a plantation at that location. The Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation is a reproduction 17th century plantation, built by HSMC using period tools and methods, and Godiah Spray is based on 17th century Maryland tobacco planter Robert Cole. Cole emigrated from England in 1652 and prospered, marrying and having five children before he died on a trip back to England in 1662, at about age 34. His was a short but well-documented life – he left several inventories and lots of government petitions — and it’s from those documents that the Spray exhibit was developed.
Mention “plantation” and most people think of Gone with the Wind’s Tara, George Washington’s Mount Vernon or any one of the hundreds of 18th century estates, anchored by large, columned houses, which dot the southern US. While I knew that wasn’t true, HSMC taught me that my definition of “plantation” — a southern, pre-20th century term for a farm – was equally untrue. There was a difference between a plantation and a farm, at least anti-bellum. A plantation was owned by the person – called a planter — who worked it (or had servants or slaves work it). A farm was leased land and a farmer the person who leased it.
In HSMC world, it is 1661 and Godiah Spray is a middling planter who works his tobacco plantation with a wife, several children and a handful (Robert Cole had four: three men and a woman) of indentured servants. There were very few slaves in 17th century Maryland.
Most of the approximately 130 colonists who came on the Ark were indentured servants. The term of their indenture was about four years, at the end of which they received one year’s provision of corn and 50 acres of land (although less than 30% of people identified as indentured in Maryland before 1643 actually became land owners).
We ducked into the main house as the students descended on William. It was a small, wooden, three room building. Downstairs, half the house looked like storage, with lots of shelves filled with lots of stuff. The other half was a parlor. Upstairs was an attic where, judging by the pallet on the floor, the children slept.
Outside, William was teaching the students how to work the fields. “You’re very good,” he said to a student he’d pulled from the group to hoe. “Very strong and hearty.” He looked toward a group of chaperones. “Whose boy is he? Master Spray may have use for him.”
The plantation is about a quarter mile from the main settlement. You could walk the road from the settlement to the plantation, but the road is narrow and there’s no sidewalk, so most visitors will want to drive. The plantation has heritage animals (rare breeds that are similar to those that were around back in the day), a tobacco barn, and a manor house. It won’t take more than 30 minutes to tour the entire exhibit, unless there’s a lack of students and you get nabbed by William for a hoeing session.