With the 1634 arrival of two ships, The Ark and The Dove, on the shores of a tribal tributary of the Potomac River, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the fourth Colony in North America was founded as a Baroque planned settlement called St. Mary’s City. Who were these early settlers and what role might music have played in their lives?

This essay, “Music in Colonial Maryland 1634-1776”  by Marit K. Rodman, is a continuation of the Preservation Maryland series on the history of museum in Maryland. Read our first post by Stephen Israel on “Music Traditions of Indigenous People of Maryland.”


It is particularly difficult to find direct evidence of music in the new colony because musical instruments are typically made of natural materials and the kind brought across the Atlantic Ocean were also likely to be small and portable, so easily dispersed or moved as populations shifted. Silas Hurry, curator of collections at Historic St. Mary’s City, has noted that the only actual instruments found with any regularity in 17th century sites around Southern Maryland are jaw harps, a small ancient plucked instruments of ambiguous origin, held in the mouth.

Despite documentary evidence that jaw harps were largely intended for the Indian trade in the 17th century, there is doubt as to how widespread their use was outside of English settlements because archaeological finds rarely date that far back. Many of the jaw harps found at rural colonial sites appear to date from only the 18th and even 19th centuries. Still, Dr. Julia King of St. Mary’s College suggests that the enslaved African and white servant populations throughout the early colony may have used this simple instrument to pass the time, particularly in winter. She even suggests that the gentry of St. Mary’s themselves may have engaged in informal musical entertainments using jaw harps. King notes that the archaeological evidence in Maryland and other colonies does not confirm that the intended trading of this instrument with American Indian populations actually happened on the scale Europeans intended. While trade beads and other trinkets have been frequently found at Native American sites, a survey of regional tribal sites by her student, Ginger Williams, revealed only one specimen on Heater’s Island, a Piscataway settlement occupied c. 1699-1712.

The earliest settlers would certainly have had drums and trumpets associated with military operations and there are also some probate records indicating the presence of fiddles and English guitars, all brought over from Europe. However, as Peter Friesen, director of Education at Historic St. Mary’s City observes, out of 2550 inventories from the 1650s-1770s, only 50 – or less than 2% – “contain references to anything which can be construed as a musical instrument.” Of course, probate records presuppose a level of prosperity—often including land ownership— that was beyond the means of most settlers, so we need to look beyond archaeological evidence and documentation to understand how music factored into the daily lives of the typical colonist.

As tobacco farming increased, so too did the reliance on slavery from Africa and the Caribbean in Maryland. Dr. Henry Miller notes that there is “a reference in the Archives of Maryland from the 1680s about Africans using drums and dancing when they were able to gather together. Hence, some African derived music would have been in the colony for a time. The authorities tried to stop this, however, as such gatherings were seen as potentially dangerous. But the relatively open nature of society for most to the 17th century in Maryland would have allowed musical expression by the African’s as well.”


At this point the religious basis for the founding of Maryland becomes relevant as the Jesuit Missionaries who came over with Calvert and on subsequent ships would have brought a tradition of sacred music into their worship as was practiced in England and continental Europe. Since Maryland was the first colony to have a separation between government and religion, there were no tax funds available to build protestant churches until the 1690s. So despite an integrated population which included Anglicans as well as Puritans fleeing Virginia invited to settle in northern Maryland in 1649, the primary congregations would have been Roman Catholics.

The Catholic missions and churches would have been sponsored by prominent landowners like the Calverts, Carrolls and Brents, whose children in Europe would have been taught in Jesuit schools or by tutors of that order. Eventually, by 1668, construction of The Brick Chapel in St. Mary’s City would be underway providing a more noble structure for the services of the Jesuit Missionaries.

Dr. Miller made significant early discoveries about the foundations of the unearthed center of Roman Catholic worship in the 1980s and has been integral in the research for the 2009 reconstruction. Miller observes that while it is impossible to say if the Masses were accompanied by any instruments, “[o]ne of the major discoveries in reconstructing the brick chapel as precisely as possible is that it had magnificent audio qualities. This was almost certainly one intent of the design used for Jesuit churches, and one we could never have known about without full and accurate reconstruction.


Singing, of course is free so one can suppose popular songs may have made their way over from England especially as people fled the conflict of the British Civil War, but since these traditional and popular songs were rarely written down until the 19th century, it is difficult to narrow down. However, inns and taverns in 17th century England as well as on the continent would have provided a convivial atmosphere for drinking songs and ballads with subject matter encompassing courtship, marriage, politics, scandals, crime/murder, chivalric adventures and moral guidance, according to Friesen. This popular music was shared in inns like Van Sweringen’s or government regulated inn/tavern where most common people would stay, called ordinaries like the ones reconstructed at Historic St. Mary’s and could be accompanied by a fiddle and drum and possibly a tin whistle.

Broadside Ballads, or songs usually about drinking and good fellowship printed on one side of paper to be cheaply reproduced could be sold by peddlers and posted in taverns, sometimes with images of woodcuts which may or may not have correlated with the printed lyrics. Few examples survive since many were reused as kindling or toilet paper and the purveyors of these cheaply and sometimes unskillfully reproduced songs were looked down upon by the educated classes in England and the colonies. The first printing press did not arrive in St. Mary’s City until the 1670s so before that broadsheets would have had to have been imported by ship from other colonies or England.


Wealthy landowners in Europe in the 17th century would certainly have had dance masters come into their homes to instruct in the latest court dances which they would perform along with their peers at social functions. There is no concrete evidence that the wealthiest families in and around St. Mary’s City were able to mount such formal festivities though a century later this upper crust would certainly have been emulating their Old World counterparts, even if ballrooms were on a reduced scale.

The English and Irish indentured servants who arrived in the early decades of the colonies may have brought some country dancing traditions from their home villages for seasonal festivities. In this spirit, Historic St. Mary’s City periodically invites Morris Dancers to perform often around a May Pole as may have been done in 17th century England, though there is no proof such celebrations actually happened on the site.

  • Towson University’s Early Music Ensemble
  • “Over the Hills and Far Away,” an album by The Colonial Music Institute
  • Main, Gloria Lund, Tobacco Colony: Life in Early Maryland 1650-1720, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1982
  • Skeaping, Lucie; Broadside Ballads;Faber Music; 2005; London, England
  • While books specific to Maryland have been rare, Johns Hopkins University Press is scheduled to publish a comprehensive text in the spring of 2017 on the Music of Maryland from the Colonial times to the age of radio (working title), co-authored by David Hildebrand and Elizabeth Schaff.

Author and Acknowledgements

Though a native of New England, Marit K. Rodman is now a proud resident of Maryland having moved to Silver Spring to teach Film Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She has graduate degrees from NYU in Cinema Studies and Museum Studies, and a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Kent at Canterbury in the U.K., where she specialized in European Cinema. With an undergraduate degree in Art History, Marit has broad interests in all the arts and the conservation/preservation of our history and culture, which includes involvement in historic dance groups as well as jobs in museums and art galleries. She is currently pursuing an advocacy role in promoting the arts and historic preservation with an emphasis on community outreach and engagement. The author acknowledges all those scholars and museum professionals that assisted with enthusiastic participation via email and telephone: Peter A. Friesen, Silas Hurry, Dr. Henry Miller (Historic St. Mary’s City), Professor Julia King (St. Mary’s College), Dr. Katherine Preston (College of William & Mary), Dr. David Hildebrand (Colonial Music Institute), Chrystelle Bond (Gaucher College), and Marc C. Bellassai (Towson University).