Greg Alexander

Sotterley: A Riverbank Treasure

Mason-Dixon Arrive, December 2006

When Americans look to hit the road to visit a historic home museum, the names Monticello and Mount Vernon immediately may pop to mind. Monticello, the grand mountaintop mansion that was home to Thomas Jefferson, and Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home for 40 years, are American icons. However, if you’re looking to step back in time and explore a grand estate that actually predates both Monticello and Mount Vernon, head south to Sotterley Mansion, a National Historic Landmark located in St. Mary’s County, less than 15 miles from historic St. Mary’s City, the site of the founding of the Colony of Maryland in 1634.

“We just discovered that we are older than we originally thought,” says Nancy Easterling, marketing manager for Sotterley Plantation. “We recently had a test where they take a core sample of wood to discover the age of a home. Turns out, the home was built in 1703, making it older than both Monticello and Mount Vernon. Another aspect that makes Sotterley’s history unique is that with many other historic homes, the house you’re visiting is the second, third or fourth one that has resided on the property as many homes burned down or were demolished. Sotterley is different – the home you visit here is the original one,” says Easterling, noting that while improvements and additions have been made over the years, the original main house still resides at Sotterley.

Overlooking the tidewaters of the Patuxent River, Sotterley has a long and storied history. According to a 1961 Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) report, Lord Baltimore granted 4,000 acres of land to Captain Thomas Corwallis on the western shore of the Patuxent River in 1650. The large tract of land was sold several times over the next 50 years until 1710, when George Plowden sold 890 acres of the land to James Bowles, a Freeman and a member of the Council of Maryland. The purchase represented the first substantial division of the original manor.

It was Bowles who built a two-room house, which today stands as a unique record of a method of construction called post-in-ground architecture, once common in the Tidewater region. Bowles also expanded on his almost 900 acres of land by obtaining 400 additional acres in the neighborhood. In addition to the mansion, the property also contained a dairy, meat house, accounting house, barn, shop and many other outbuildings. Bowles, however, died in 1727, and in 1729, his widow, the former Rebecca Addison, married George Plater II. This marriage would be the beginning of occupancy of Sotterley by four successive generations of Platers, who would, over time, convert the simple residence into an 18th-century mansion. When Rebecca died, the land reverted to the ownership of her three daughters (Plater’s step-daughters). However, Plater purchased Sotterley from his stepdaughters so that he could raise his son there.

Plater died in 1755, and his son George Plater III inherited it and named it Sotterley after the ancestral home of the Platers in Suffolk, England named Sotterley Hall. It was under George Plater III, sixth governor of Maryland, that the house reached its distinctive form, which was much admired by George Washington. George Plater IV and V also lived at Sotterley, but eventually it was passed on to extended family members not named Plater.

In the early 19th century, Sotterley was the site of one of the largest communities of enslaved African-Americans in the Southern Maryland region, and it continued its role as a significant steamboat landing.

Unfortunately, Sotterley began a slow decline and was in a sad state of disrepair until it was bought in 1910 by Herbert Satterlee, who would bring the home back to its glory. He would live there until his death in 1947. Ironically, the Satterlees, like the Platers, traced their ancestry to Sotterley Hall in England. Satterlee’s daughter, Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, would reside at Sotterley until 1961. Due to her love of Sotterley and her fond memories of spending summers there as a child, she created the non-profit Sotterley Mansion Foundation which holds the historic site trust for the public. In 2000, Sotterley Plantation was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior, making it one of only 2,200 sites with this high designation.

“Until 1961, Sotterley was always primary residence, which is pretty amazing,” says Easterling. The 100-foot long, low white house still boasts beautiful architecture and a captivating view of the Patuxent River. Inside, the Chinese Chippendale staircase is a showstopper, as are the shell alcoves in the drawing room. The exquisite staircase, designed by Richard Boulton, is one of the elements that is described during the mansion and garden tours held May through October. The tours, led by trained interpreters, provide visitors an in-depth look into the lives of those who called Sotterley home, says Easterling. “To see the mansion, we do charge a small admission fee, as we are strictly a non-profit; we don’t receive state or federal funds. Members, though, get into events and have tours for free, and some events are only for our members. They help us keep our doors open.” Also included on a mansion tour are the elegant drawing room where former slave Frank Kane was married, a glorious portico and the elegant English furniture given by financier J. Pierpont Morgan to his daughter Louisa Morgan Satterlee when she and her husband Herbert completed Sotterley’s restoration in 1924.

Although the mansion tours are only offered May through October, Easterling notes that tours for groups of 15 or more can be arranged year round. Groups of 20 or more are split into two groups to ensure a relaxed and intimate experience. Tours also can be customized for special interests, such as gardening or the life of African-Americans at Sotterley. Also, group tours have the option of dining on the mansion’s portico for breakfast or lunch.

Year-round self-guided tours on the grounds or on the Nature Trail are additional options for visitors. Stops along the Nature Trail include the 18th century Customs Warehouse, the early 19th century Slave Cabin, the Smoke House, flower and herb gardens and the 19th century North Gatehouse Plantation School.

“Sotterley also has a host of educational programs for school children to learn about plantation life. Over 1,000 kids visit Sotterley each year,” says Easterling. “From May to October, we have several special events, including a Quilt and Needlework Show, Fourth of July concert on the lawn, Riverside Winefest, ghost tours and many lecture series.”

This month, Easterling says that Sotterley’s two big holiday events occur. On Dec. 1-2, visitors can step back in time at Sotterley’s Holiday Candlelight Tours. The tours feature “A Sotterley Christmas Carol” produced by the Port Tobacco Players and run from 6-10pm. Visitors will take a guided tour through Sotterley’s historic mansion and visit the past in a special dramatic recreation. Live seasonal music by area high school choral groups will set the festive mood, and complimentary cookies and mulled cider will be available.

On Dec. 2, Sotterley will have its annual A Family Plantation Christmas from 10am-4pm with visits by Santa and Mrs. Claus, horse-drawn taxi rides, children’s games, seasonal music, food for purchase from Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen, unique gifts at Sotterley’s Museum Shop and a Kid’s Secret Shop where children can do their own holiday shopping.

When visiting Sotterley, check out other nearby attractions, including St. Mary's City, the first capital of Maryland, Piney Point Lighthouse, St. Clement's Island, Potomac River Museum, Point Lookout State Park and the Calvert Marine Museum, less than 12 miles away in neighboring Calvert County.

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