After 200 Years, Has Maryland Governor Plater’s Unmarked Grave Been Located?
On a windswept February morning over 200 years ago, Maryland’s leaders huddled together outside the State House. Inside, lying in state, was the body of Governor George Plater III, dead as of the night before. Elected in December, 1791, sickness had ended his term only three months in; now, the final preparations were being made to transport his body back to Sotterley, his ancestral home in St. Mary’s County. As the casket was borne outside into the cold, the assembled mourners took up their positions around it. Then the procession, with the governor in the center, slowly made its way to the Annapolis docks, where a boat was ready to take Plater’s body to its final resting place. As it left the dock, the official record of what happened to Governor Plater’s body ends. In the last 223 years, no definitive evidence has ever been put forward that proves where the Governor was buried… until now.
In life, George Plater III loomed as one of colonial Maryland’s leading figures before, during, and immediately after the Revolutionary War. George Plater III,only son of George Plater II, was born in 1736 in St. Mary’s County. Educated at his father’s estate at Sotterley Plantation, he graduatedfrom the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1752. Six years later he was elected to the colonial House of Delegates. He was afterwards made the king’s naval officer of the Patuxent, a judgeof the Provincial Court, and a member of the Governor’s Council. When theRevolutionary War erupted, Plater fell on the side of the pro-independencepatriots. The Southern Marylanderbecame, during the war years, a member of Maryland’s Council of Safety and amember of the Constitutional Convention of Maryland. Later, after the war, he was a member and, ultimately,president of the Maryland Senate, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a member of Maryland’s convention for the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, and a Presidential Elector when Washington ascended to the office in 1789. The pinnacle of his career came at the end, when finally, almost forty years after serving in his first public office, he was elected Governor of Maryland in 1792.
Governor George Plater III
No other contemporary statesman with similar accomplishments has an end as mysterious as Plater’s. As said above, when Governor Plater died on February 10, 1792 his body lay in state for a day, then was carried in a public procession to the Annapolis docks, to be loaded on a ship bound for Sotterley. No direct evidence remains of what happened to the Governor’s body after that ship departed Annapolis, or where he was ultimately buried. Many different theories have been suggested. One theory puts Plater’s gravesite at an abandoned church in modern-day Hollywood,Maryland, alongside his father’s grave; another at a different church Governor Plater helped build and for which he served as a vestryman; and yet one more places him in another church graveyard, in modern-day Medley’s Neck. In none of these locations, though, has a headstone for Governor Plater ever been found, nor was there any mention of his death or burial in the parish records.
Many stories and tales suggest instead that Governor Plater’s body never left Sotterley at all after the ship unloaded his body at its dock. As these legends have it, the Governor was buried somewhere on his own land, and more than a little evidence supports the idea. Governor Plater, one of the wealthiest men in Southern Maryland, certainly had the means to afford burial on his own land. Doing so was a common custom at the time, and many estates as large as Sotterley housed graveyards for the families that owned them. Though no headstone for George Plater III has ever been found, an early 1800s deed of sale makes reference to a Plater family graveyard located north of Sotterley; one of the conditions of the sale was that the Platers would be allowed to visit the graves of their ancestors. That sale was completed, but after the estate left the Plater’s hands their family graveyard fell into disuse. Some references to it remain; a few years after the plantation was sold by the Platers it became the property of the Briscoe family. One story has Dr. Walter Hanson Stone Briscoe scolding his kids for playing underneath a cherry tree near the main house; the reason for the doctor’s ban, evidently, was that “the governor was buried underneath.” It stands to reason that Dr. Briscoe, only two decades removed from the Sotterley’s ownership by the Platers, should know who was buried on his property.
Governor Plater’s Resting Place?
No cherry tree from the 1840s remains on Sotterley’s grounds today, but a likely location for the governor’s grave stands out nonetheless. The Briscoe family kept ownership of Sotterley until the early 1900s, when they sold the declining farm to a wealthy New York lawyer named Herbert Satterlee, a son-in-law of J.P.Morgan, and a future Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Satterlee, convinced there was a connection between his family’s name and the name of Sotterley, bought the property with the idea of restoring it to its former glory. This he did, completely renovating the main house, modernizing the farm,and putting many acres of the farmland back into production. It was the latter that led to the next clue about Governor Plater’s burial place. An oral history has it that, while plowing land north of the main house which theBriscoes, for unknown reasons, never plowed during their ownership, a tenant farmer walking behind a horse-drawn plough suddenly called for Herbert Satterlee. The plough had struck a coffin lid in the middle of the field. The same oral history claims that Herbert Satterlee believed the coffin was Governor Plater’s. The coffin, its nails, and the black plate on it all bore hallmarks of a style popular at the time of the Governor’s death. The location of the gravesite, a few hundred feet from the main house and on the cusp of a hill overlooking the Patuxent, seemed perfect. Immediate plans were made by Satterlee and the Maryland legislature to construct a monument to Governor Plater on the site, but, as the ploughman told it, at the last minute Satterlee changed his mind. Satterlee had bought the farm as an escape from New York City, and as a place he and his family could go for quiet and peace during the summertime. The monument, he feared, might attract crowds of people, and that cars and tourists would bustle past his front gate on their way to visit the resting place of one of Maryland’s great revolutionary leaders. And so with that thought in mind, Satterlee ordered the ploughman to rebury the coffin, to leave the site unmarked, and to keep quiet what he found; so the story goes.
Several decades later, after Satterlee’s death,the ploughman eventually revealed his secret discovery, and enough details arethere for visitors to follow in his footsteps. To read his full account for yourself, read Chapter 7 of the John Hanson Briscoe Historical Project, “Sotterley – Sites Unseen,”