Opened to the public as a historic house museum in 1988, Darnall’s Chance House Museum is dedicated to the interpretation and study of the history and culture of 18th century Prince George's County, Maryland, with special emphasis on the lives of mid-18th century women. The Museum seeks to interpret the story of Lettice Lee, who lived at Darnall's Chance in the decades just prior to the American Revolution. The house and grounds reflect 1760, the year Lettice Lee’s first husband died and a room by room inventory was taken of the contents of the house.
Darnall's Chance was built between 1741-1742 for Scottish immigrant James Wardrop, who amassed a fortune as a merchant and entrepreneur in the bustling 18th century port town of Upper Marlborough, Maryland. In 1747, he married Lettice Lee, daughter of Phillip Lee, the progenitor of the Maryland branch of the illustrious Lee family of Virginia. The Wardrops’ 15-room Georgian mansion was the mainstay of a dwelling complex that included eight brick outbuildings, a rare brick burial vault, ornamental and vegetable gardens, apple and peach orchards, and livestock. Their household included 32 slaves -- house servants, skilled craftsmen and field hands – who worked in the house, outbuildings, gardens and at Mr. Wardrop’s store.
Following Wardrop's death in 1760, Lettice Lee married medical pioneer Dr. Adam Thomson and later Revolutionary War patriot Colonel Joseph Sim. She died on April 3, 1776.
The house was remodeled in 1857, which produced such a drastic change that the home’s original 18th century heritage was forgotten. In 1986, the history of the house was rediscovered; it was saved from demolition and returned to its 1742 appearance.
Museum tours highlight the similarities and differences between Lettice Lee’s life and the lives of other 18th century women who lived at Darnall’s Chance. In addition, the museum offers special events and programs reflecting the history and culture of 18th century Prince George's County.
Darnall's Chance Burial VaultAn 18th century underground brick burial vault was discovered in 1987 during an archaeological survey of the rear yard of Darnall's Chance. In 1990, an archaeological excavation of the structure was conducted to gather information for future restoration and interpretation.
The burial vault, which measures 17 feet long, 10 feet wide and eight feet high with a stairway on the west end, is one of only two known vaults of this kind in Maryland. During the excavation it was discovered that the interior of the vault was filled with eight feet of 18th and 19th century household trash and building debris. The trash is thought to have originated from a nearby kitchen midden (trash pit) and dumped into the vault through two openings in the roof. Beneath the debris rested the remains of nine individuals -- 3 adults and 6 children – who were exhumed with the assistance of forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Numerous tests were conducted on the remains, including Mitochondrial DNA testing and Stable Isotope Analysis. The isotope readings determined that the five oldest individuals interred in the vault were native-born Americans. The presence of numerous cavities and slight arthritis suggest that they lived a sedentary lifestyle featuring a sugar rich diet and light workload. The test also aided historians in determining the identities of the three adults entombed in the vault -- Lettice Lee who died in 1776 at the age of 50, her 30-year-old brother Hancock Lee who died in 1759, and her 22-year-old sister Elizabeth who died in 1752.
The restoration of the roof, steps and sub-crypt were completed in 2002 and the remains were re-interred on June 18, 2004, in a religious ceremony attended by the descendants of Lettice Lee. To find out more about the excavation of the vault come to Darnall’s Chance for a museum tour!