Maryland: Annapolis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Annapolis was the capital of colonial Maryland. The downtown area is a registered National Historic Landmark District; the most notable landmark is the State House, the oldest state capitol in the United States. Annapolis also is the site of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Site Office

Historic Annapolis Foundation

18 Pinkney Street

Annapolis, MD 21401

ph.: (800) 603-4020; (410) 267-7619

fax: (410) 267-6189

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Situated at the mouth of the Severn River, where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, Annapolis has been the capital of Maryland–first as a colony, then as a state–since 1694, and it boasts the oldest state capitol still in use in the country. With its eighteen miles of scenic shoreline and beautifully preserved colonial buildings, Annapolis is also famous for the U.S. Naval Academy, which has been part of the Annapolis landscape since 1845.

Early History

Few would guess that present-day Annapolis, peaceful, quaint, and capital of a small, progressive-minded state, had its origins in violent religious conflicts carried over from the Old World. Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, was a Catholic who desired to carry out his dead father’s wish–to establish a haven of religious toleration in the New World, since he despaired of ever realizing such a haven at home. Charles I, king of England, was himself a Catholic and sympathetic to the young Lord Baltimore’s aspiration. In 1632, the king granted him a charter to establish a colony in an area ceded from the colony of Virginia, which Lord Baltimore promptly named in gratitude Terra Mariae (after Charles I’s wife), or Maryland. The first boatload of one hundred fifty colonists arrived shortly afterward–ironically, few of them Catholics. The majority of them, Puritans and Anglicans, soon sowed the seeds of religious bigotry and discord. In 1649, a law, progressive for that day and age, was enacted by the Maryland legislature that guaranteed religious toleration to all Christian creeds. This only encouraged more Puritans to emigrate from heavily Anglican Virginia to Maryland.

A group of Puritans, disdaining to settle in the only city in Maryland, St. Mary’s, because of its Anglican majority, opted instead for land on the Severn River (where the future U.S. Naval Academy would be established). They would become the first European settlers in the area that would one day become Annapolis. Naming their new settlement Providence, they proceeded to defy the governor, Thomas Stone, who had generously granted them their land, by refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the proprietor of Maryland, the Catholic Calvert family. When they also defied Governor Stone’s ultimatum, a contingent of Maryland militia under Stone’s command confronted the aggressive Puritan force, who in short order killed over twenty of Stone’s men and captured the governor himself, in what would come to be known as the Severn, in March, 1655.

Religious Conflicts in England

The Puritans had been encouraged in their bellicosity by happenings in England, where the Roman Catholic monarchy was violently overthrown in 1649 by Puritans, who established a religious dictatorship under the helm of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell revoked Lord Baltimore’s charter, ending his ownership of Maryland, to the glee of the colony’s Puritans. However, when opposition to Cromwell slowly swelled and he stood in need of allies, he restored the charter, enabling Lord Baltimore once again to reassert his authority over the wayward colonists.

Even with the overthrow of the dictatorship and the restoration of yet another monarch, the Anglican Charles II, religious dissension simmered and finally exploded when Charles II’s son James, a Catholic, became king in 1685. He was himself overthrown in 1688 in a peaceful revolution, bringing Protestant monarchs, William and Mary, to the English throne. One year later, in 1689, Protestant Marylanders overthrew the government of the Catholic Calverts. At this point the real history of Annapolis begins.

Until then, Annapolis was a sleepy hamlet called Anne Arundel Towne, situated just outside the Puritan settlement of Providence. Because most of the Catholic population of St. Mary’s now harbored antigovernment sentiments, the Maryland legislature voted in favor of changing the capital to the town of Anne Arundel. The change occurred in 1694. Three years later, the legislature voted to change the name of the town to Annapolis, or “City of Anne,” after Princess Anne, the sister of Queen Mary, who would herself become queen of England in 1702.

Early Years as State Capital

Despite the strong religious motivation in moving the capital, religious dissension in Annapolis soon took a back seat to more worldly issues. For the first fifty years of its history as capital of Maryland, Annapolis was a rough frontier town, with pigs freely roaming the unpaved streets and garbage strewn wherever it happened to fall. Francis Nicholson, the governor of Maryland in the 1690’s, had designed the new capital city himself and awarded contracts for a church, state capitol building, and school. Major streets were to radiate from the two circles in the city center, one containing the church and the other the state capitol. This neat arrangement was violated time and again, however, by the helter-skelter arrangement of the buildings and private residences. Nicholson left the state in 1698 and subsequently became governor of Virginia and the founder of Williamsburg.

Annapolis grew slowly. When the State House was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1704, all the land deeds literally went up in smoke, halting new housing construction until the disorder could be straightened out. With the years, the raw town grew and gentrified. Unlike the planters in Virginia to the south, Maryland plantation owners gravitated to city life in the fall and winter months. Prosperity, derived from tobacco and wheat exports and the slave trade, enabled them to begin building the Georgian homes for which Annapolis is now famous and to throw lavish entertainments.

Development of the Port

Annapolis was becoming the most important port on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. Moreover, every year the Maryland assembly gathered in the State House and the courts began their sessions, creating the need for hotels, shops, and taverns and supplementing the town’s prosperity. By the mid-1700’s, Annapolis entered its golden age, which lasted from approximately 1755 to 1775. Leading families such as the Pacas, the Prices, the Scotts, and the Ridouts engaged architects for their splendid homes and were patrons of the town theater and horse racing and founders of the Jockey, Tuesday, Homony, Forensic, and South River Clubs. Prior to the Revolutionary War, George Washington traveled at least eighteen times to the lively city on Maryland’s eastern shore, no mean undertaking in the eighteenth century for someone who lived over fifty miles away, at Mount Vernon in Virginia (his travel would have been along the riverways, by boat). Washington would bring his family to enjoy Raceweek in September and was a member of the Homony Club, which had been founded to “promote innocent mirth and ingenious humor.” King George I in 1715 restored the charter of the Catholic Calvert family, who once again became proprietors of the province of Maryland. This time no discord or rebellion ensued, in part because the citizens were too busy making money.

The peaceful climate would soon end, however; by the early 1770’s, revolutionary fervor ran high in Annapolis. In 1774, just prior to the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the colonies, a crowd of Annapolitans burned the ship Peggy Stewart because its owner, a native of the city, had paid the tea tax. Two years later, three Annapolis men–William Paca, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll–signed the Declaration of Independence.

The Revolutionary War

War, when it arrived, did not touch Annapolis directly. Famous men, such as Generals Marquis de Lafayette, Comte de Rochambeau, Baron de Kalb, and George Washington, spent time in the city during those dramatic years, either to provision or assemble their forces. Far more stirring were the events following the conclusion of peace. The Treaty of Paris ending the conflict in 1783 was ratified in the Maryland State House by the Continental Congress. On December 23 of that year, George Washington resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army in the State House, an event that artist John Trumbull sentimentally commemorated in a painting now hanging in the U.S. Capitol. For a period of ten months, from November, 1783, to August, 1784, Annapolis served as the de facto capital of the thirteen independent states. Annapolis also witnessed a convention of representatives from five states in 1786, gathered to determine how to strengthen the central government. Before adjourning, the delegates voted to meet again in Philadelphia the next year, setting the stage for the historic constitutional convention.

Nineteenth Century Decline

By 1800, if not before, Annapolis had begun a slow decline into provincial obscurity. The city lacked Baltimore’s deep water harbor; consequently, Annapolis’s port facilities grew increasingly inadequate and shipping declined. Furthermore, its location, away from western markets and hemmed in on three sides by waterways, limited its growth and discouraged the building of canals and, later, of railroads. There was even talk in the Maryland State Assembly of removing the capital to Baltimore. Agricultural spokesmen, distrusting “big city” Baltimore, successfully exerted pressure on the assembly to retain the capital in rural Anne Arundel County.

The War of 1812

Times grew dangerous again when the fledgling United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812. Although Admiral George Cockburn sailed with a sizable fleet of fifty ships into the Chesapeake Bay, the vessels did not touch down in the insignificant harbor of Annapolis. Instead, they decided to move on to more tempting ground–Washington, D.C.–which Cockburn’s forces burned to the ground. Annapolis did score more than a footnote in this drama. A native son and graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Francis Scott Key, was moved to compose “The Star-Spangled Banner” as he watched Fort McHenry being bombarded by the British. Prior to that attack, Major William Barney in Annapolis had observed the British fleet sailing past the city from his vantage point in the State House (on the highest hill in the city). He was able to relay to the commander of Fort McHenry the number of British ships, and as a result, the Americans were prepared, the British were trounced, and a national anthem was born.

When the war ended in 1814, Annapolis returned to its sleepy isolation. Not until 1840 would a railroad line come to the city, and this would remain the only one until 1887. Improvements in the hygiene and comfort of the town were made as well: for instance, sidewalks were paved in brick in the 1820’s. It was in that decade that the Maryland Assembly began lobbying Congress to establish a naval academy in Annapolis. This project had been in the docket for years. Old Fort Severn, an army base, was decaying and useless. However, it was difficult to persuade congressmen to fund an institution that they feared would turn out “trifling or effeminate” men and, worse, men who upon graduation would become dissatisfied and possibly dangerous in times of peace.

In the early 1840’s, President James K. Polk finally appointed the historian George Bancroft secretary of the navy. Unwavering in his belief in a professional navy, he declined to lobby Congress to support a naval academy, fearing long-winded hearings. Instead, he overrode Congress during a recess and turned directly to the War Department. With no use for the decaying fort on the Severn River, the army gladly ceded it to the navy on August 15, 1845. It took two months to prepare the school to open as a naval academy. Situated just outside the city limits on a campus of three hundred acres, it would in time help lift the veil of obscurity from the beautiful colonial town.

The Civil War

At a time when sectional differences were flaring up between North and South, there was little doubt that the city of Annapolis, like the rest of the state, was clearly pro-Southern. The only exceptions were the mayor of Annapolis and the editor and publisher of the Annapolis Gazette. However, this was not enough to save the city from Union occupation throughout the Civil War years. Those cadets at the naval academy whose loyalties were with the South returned to Dixie; the rest were transferred from Annapolis to Newport, Rhode Island, the home of the academy for the rest of the war. The academy grounds and buildings at Annapolis served as a Union hospital.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not affect the status of slaves in Union or technically “loyal” states, such as Maryland. However, knowing which way the wind was blowing, the Maryland legislature voted to free all slaves in the state on November 1, 1864, nearly two years after the Proclamation. This liberated from bondage nearly five hundred slaves in Annapolis, although real freedom would take another century.

Annapolis dwellers yearned for an end to the occupation and a return to normalcy. When Southern forces finally accepted surrender, Annapolitans submitted to the return of the old order. The U.S. Naval Academy reestablished itself in the city, which would also witness a steady growth of prosperity, an expansion of state and local government, and the beginnings of a historic preservation movement.

Twentieth Century Development

The expansion of state government was reflected in the doubling of the size of the State House in the early twentieth century, followed in the late 1930’s by a row of new state office buildings that would continue to expand until well after World War II (including one of the least favorite, a state income tax building, in 1967). With over half of all employed residents working for either state or local government by 1976, the mainstay of the city’s economy no longer was centered on fishing and agriculture. The need for ever greater expansion of government, usually requiring the demolition of old buildings for the erection of modern ones, fueled an incipient historic preservation movement in the city as early as the late nineteenth century. The Local Improvement Society, led by Annapolis native Frank Mayer, decried the modernization of the State House and began raising the consciousness of the city’s inhabitants to the priceless historic character of their buildings. In 1925, the Company for the Preservation of Colonial Annapolis was established.

In 1940, when Henry Ford tried to acquire the Hammond-Harwood House, one of the finest colonial homes in America (which he planned to dismantle and reassemble in Michigan), another Annapolis group, the Hammond-Harwood Association, came together to thwart him and succeeded. Historic Annapolis, Incorporated, founded in 1952, became more successful than any other preservation group in Annapolis. This group labored intensively on behalf of the preservation of downtown Annapolis, which in 1966, thanks to their efforts, became registered as a National Historic Landmark District. Annapolis now ranks with Williamsburg, Virginia, as the most authentic colonial urban area in the nation. This active preservation group has proved time and again the economic value of saving historic buildings from destruction. The downtown area of Annapolis, which for decades had been slipping further into shabby decline (the growth of state and local government deprived the city of a tax base), has led in the revitalization of the area and the burgeoning of small businesses.

Historic Buildings

There are numerous buildings of notable historic interest, including the U.S. Naval Academy, with which the city has become increasingly identified. Not until Theodore Roosevelt became president did the academy witness major expansion, which necessitated razing some buildings of historic interest. In their place were established new classrooms, Bancroft Hall (a dormitory), a chapel, and other buildings centered on a quadrangle. The campus houses a museum displaying naval mementos going back to 1812, a collection of sailing ship models from 1650 to 1850, and many other historic artifacts.

Within the city limits lie a rich array of historic buildings, the most prominent of which is the State House, which boasts the largest wooden dome in the country. On view within the State House are the Old Senate Chamber, with eight pieces of original furniture dating from the period 1783 to 1784; the Old Senate Committee Room, with exhibits on Washington’s original resignation from the Continental Army; and the Constitution Room, with paintings depicting Maryland’s history. The Old Treasury Building, on the grounds of the State House, was constructed in 1737 and is now the tour office of Historic Annapolis, Incorporated.

St. Anne’s Church, on Church Circle, was built in the 1780’s and lovingly restored after a fire burned it to the ground in 1858. On display in the church is a silver communion service that was the gift of King William III, husband of Queen Mary. In the church burial ground, the oldest grave (containing the remains of Amos Garrett, the first mayor of Annapolis) dates from 1727; this cemetery also contains the grave of the last colonial governor of Annapolis (Sir Robert Eden).

In Annapolis’s dock area stands the birthplace of Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the wealthiest men of his day. This house is only one of several outstanding examples of eighteenth century colonial architecture in Annapolis. On Prince George’s Street, for instance, there is the Paca House, whose namesake was another signer of the Declaration of Independence. Consisting of thirty-seven rooms situated on a two-acre formal garden, the house was considered the most elegant home in colonial Annapolis. It was saved from demolition after World War II by preservationists, who in the 1960’s and 1970’s extensively restored it to its original splendor.

Rivaling the Paca House in historic importance are the Hammond-Harwood House on Maryland Avenue, designed by famed Annapolis architect William Buckland in the 1770’s, and the Chase-Lloyd House across the street, the interior of which was completed by Buckland. Maryland’s first public school, King William’s School, established in 1694, was transformed into St. John’s College in 1696. George Washington’s two nephews graduated from this school, as did Francis Scott Key. From 1937 to the present day, St. John’s has adopted the Great Books program of liberal education, which eliminates specializations; professors are called tutors and often teach outside their fields. A famous landmark on the campus is the four hundred-year-old Liberty Tree, which witnessed earnest discussions of independence from Great Britain and a return visit of General Lafayette in 1824.

For Further Information
  • Anderson, Elizabeth B. Annapolis: A Walk Through History. Centreville, Md.: Tidewater, 1984. For a solid, readable, and illustrated discussion of Annapolis history and a tour of its most important historic landmarks, this is still one of the best accounts available.
  • Calnek, W. A. History of the County of Annapolis. Edited and completed by A. W. Savary. Bowie, Md.: Heritage, 1999. According to the subtitle of this book, it includes Old Port Royal and Acadia, with Memoirs of Its Representatives in the Provincial Parliament, and Biographical and Genealogiical Sketches of Its Early English Settlers and Their Families.
  • Miller, Roger. Annapolis: A Portrait. Baltimore: Image, 1987. Similar to Anderson’s work above, although less solid.
  • Papenfuse, Edward C. In Pursuit of Profit: The Annapolis Merchants in the Era of the American Revolution, 1763-1805. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. Specialized, but highly informative and readable.
  • Warren, Mame. Then Again–: Annapolis, 1900-1965. Annapolis, Md.: Time Exposures, 1990. Specialized, but highly informative and readable.
Categories: History