History happened here. Though most of the 17th-century buildings of Maryland's first capital city are gone, their foundations covered by farmland, it was here that Cecil Calvert enacted laws that permitted anyone regardless of their faith to vote and participate in government. This freedom of conscience and separation of church and state were unheard of in those days and drew a wide variety of settlers. The first Catholic chapel in English America was established here at a time when they were forbidden elsewhere. The first African American voted in the legislature here. A woman demanded the right to vote here. Nothing's perfect; her request was denied.

St. Mary's City was founded in 1634 and in its heyday was home to 20,000 people. St. Mary's City was laid out in a traditional grid pattern, with the state house at one end of the town and the church at the other end. Taverns, shops, and homes filled the spaces in between. But by the end of the 17th century, the capital had moved to Annapolis, and St. Mary's City disappeared.

Today, the site is an archaeologist's dream. Through careful archaeological digs and painstaking research, some of the buildings have been reproduced. In the summer, visitors can watch the St. Mary's College field school conduct new digs, searches in the ground for bits of old buildings, artifacts, and even the marks left in the dirt itself that recall the buildings and the people who once lived in the early Colonial town.

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So what is there to see?

In the town center, you can see mostly small and simple buildings, such as an inn, an early print shop, the grander State House, and the Brick Chapel. You can even climb aboard a reproduction of a ship like the one that brought the first settlers here. Nearby are an early plantation and Indian woodland village. An archaeological museum has been built over the site of the building where the legislature sat. Allow at least 4 hours for your visit, wear comfortable shoes, and bring water, as it can get very hot and humid here. Guides will help you get a feel for 17th-century Maryland.

At the visitor center, get the gear for the state-of-the-art audio tour, watch the introductory video, and see an exhibit chronicling the rise and fall of St. Mary's City. It's open year-round, as is the St. John's Site Museum. Other exhibits close between Thanksgiving and Maryland Day (Mar 25).

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Don't miss the State House or Godiah Spray's 17th-century tobacco plantation. While the public building is formal, the plantation shows how hard life was for the early colonists. The house is simple, the fields rough.

The reconstructed Print Shop, Maryland's first, was run by a woman, and was the first one south of Boston in the 17th century. It opened in 2007.

Smith's Ordinary, a reconstructed 17th-century inn, features a medieval-style fireplace and tiled inglenook. A second inn, Farthing's Ordinary, built in the 1600s, has a pretty good gift shop.

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The newest re-creations are the St. John's Site Museum, which features modern galleries set atop a glass floor over the original home's foundation on display. At this site, Margaret Brent asked for a woman's right to vote and Matthias DeSousa was the first black man to participate in the legislature. The building is open year-round and there's no admission charge. The 1667 Brick Chapel has been built but is still empty. It is perhaps the grandest of the buildings so far reconstructed in St. Mary's. It is expected to be furnished by 2011 -- once the historians take their best guess about how it would have looked.

Walk down to the water to see the 76-foot Dove, a reproduction of a small mid-16th-century square-rigged merchant ship similar to the smaller of the two ships that brought Maryland's first settlers here in 1634. Children love to board the boat and talk with the costumed sailors.

A bonus is the waterfront setting. Walking trails through woodlands and near the water stretch 3.5 miles and recall how this area must have looked to early settlers.

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Special programs are offered on Maryland Day, March 25; Community and Trail Day, in June (free admission and special events); Tidewater Archaeology Dig day, in late June (join the archaeologists); Woodland Indian Discovery Day, the weekend after Labor Day (with storytelling, Native American crafts, and exhibits); and Grand Militia Muster Day, in October (a gathering of 17th-c. reenactment units).