The history of Maryland's capital city reaches back 350+ years—and is being made today!
Annapolis Emerges In the late 17th century, the area that would become Annapolis was a sleepy hamlet of farmers exporting tobacco for a living. Then, in 1694, colonial Maryland's governor, Francis Nicholson, decided to move the capital from St. Mary's City in the south to a more convenient location.
Nicholson named this new seat of power Annapolis—or "Anne's city," after the then-heir to the Crown. He also devised the baroque street plan that continues to define Annapolis today, creating beautiful vistas and a sense of great variety in a relatively small area.
The city began to attract shopkeepers, artisans, and craftsmen: furniture and clockmakers, shipbuilders, tanners, bakers, painters, printers, and more. Its professional and landed classes also grew.
Annapolis became part of a network of bustling seaports extending around the globe.
The Golden Age Glows By the middle of the 18th century many people were coming to Annapolis because it was Maryland's capital. But they extended their visits or maybe even moved here because the city held many attractions.
Annapolis had shops offering exotic imports from around the world and the latest fashions from England. Its taverns and coffee house served up news and entertainment along with good food and drink. The city whirled with a glittering round of social events during horse-racing season.
A dozen of Maryland's elite families built grand houses in Annapolis—including the William Paca House—so they could experience the pleasures of this time of prosperity.
The American Revolution Changes Things The Golden glow faded as Annapolis became a center for gathering and transporting supplies and soldiers, and a way station for French and American troops hurrying south for the decisive battle at Yorktown.
Three of four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence—William Paca, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll—lived in Annapolis in 1776. The fourth, Thomas Stone, would move here in the 1780s.
Annapolis served as the first peacetime capital of the United States. In 1783 and 1784, Congress convened in Maryland's State House.
But the spotlight shifted away from the city. Wealth and influence followed maritime trade as it went north to Baltimore. As it turned out, however, this economic downtown was beneficial in the long run. Because townspeople simply couldn't afford to tear down colonial buildings to make way for new construction, many of the city's 18th-century structures survived.
Anchors Aweigh! The United States Naval Academy was established at Fort Severn in Annapolis in 1845. But not for long: During the Civil War it packed up and shipped out for safer quarters in Newport, Rhode Island. The Academy Yard was left to deteriorate.
But the Academy returned and eventually made Annapolis a Navy town. In the 1890s a vastly improved and expanded campus was built, reflecting the Navy's importance as an instrument of America's growing international power. (Legend has it that Anchors Aweigh! was written at the organ of the Naval Academy Chapel in 1906.)
The rest of Annapolis enjoyed a turn-of-the-century building boom as well. Along with state and local government, the Naval Academy provided employment and spurred growth—as they do to this day.
Two Sides, Two Cities Annapolitans' loyalties were divided during the Civil War. Given its strategic location, the city was occupied by Union troops. Thousands of Northern prisoners-of-war camped just outside, and sick and wounded Union soldiers filled hospitals set up at St. John's College and the Naval Academy. Yet area residents fought for both North and South.
Many African Americans from Annapolis, free and enslaved, enlisted in the Union cause. For nearly 200 years, the tobacco industry had fueled the demand for slave labor in the area. Thousands of people had arrived in Annapolis in chains; Alex Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte is now the most famous among them. By 1860, Maryland had the largest concentration of free African Americans in the nation. Nearly one of every two African Americans in Maryland, and in Annapolis, was free—but with political and legal rights that were strictly limited.
Black Annapolitans worked in many trades and professions and ran various businesses—but in their own community, in Annapolis's "uptown" area. For decades after the end of slavery, Annapolis society remained racially segregated.
A New Golden Age Dawns During Annapolis's colonial Golden Age, the waterfront welcomed ships from throughout the globe. In later times, it hosted the more localized commercial activities of ferries, steam boats, oyster boats, and other working vessels.
That changed in the 20th century. The city's first marina opened in the late 1930s. Soon, it was mostly pleasure boats that lined the shores of nearby creeks. Today, visitors can view an "armada" of pleasure craft that tie up or stream through City Dock, the downtown waterfront—otherwise known as Ego Alley. Annapolis has become known as "the sailing capital of America.
Yet the pleasures the city affords go far beyond its maritime amenities. Annapolis is also one of the preservation capitals of America.
The city has more still-existing colonial buildings than any other U.S. city, and many architectural gems from later eras as well. The beauty and charm of its diverse streetscapes live on because citizens have worked together to preserve the past. History lives on in Annapolis!
Step into Annapolis history... Take a Historic Annapolis walking tour.