There was great wealth in Prince George's County in the years before the Civil War, wealth that came from the land, from tobacco, and from slaves. Prince George's County was the greatest tobacco-producing county in Maryland. More slaves worked here than in any other county in the state, and the gentry, the old families who led our social and public life, lived in a style befitting the legends that linger about them. The romantics say that Prince George's County was a grand and gracious place then, an important place, and they are right, it was. But Prince George's County was not important because of the style the romantics so admire. There was substantial achievement along with the style. In no other age have Prince Georgeans played such conspicuous roles in state and national affairs. In no other age have Prince Georgeans contributed so much to the advancement of agriculture, the foundation upon which the economy here rested for more than two hundred years. The Prince Georgeans of the antebellum era built institutions their forefathers never did: banks, newspapers, small industries, and associations of every kind. Prince Georgeans were confident in those years. If the county had an image then, it was one of leadership and innovation, as well as wealth and style.
Prince George's leadership in state and national affairs actually began before the antebellum era, in the first years of the Union. Daniel Carroll, a native of Upper Marlborough, participated in the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention and became a signer of that document. His brother, John Carroll, founded Georgetown University and became the first Roman Catholic bishop (and later archbishop) in the United States. Thomas John Claggett of Croom played an important role in the organization of the Protestant Episcopal Church after the Revolution and became the first Episcopal bishop consecrated in this country. Thomas Sim Lee, Benjamin Ogle, Robert Bowie, Samuel Sprigg, Joseph Kent, and Thomas Pratt all became governors of Maryland. Benjamin Stoddert became the first secretary of the navy, William Wirt (a native of Bladensburg) became attorney general of the United States, and Gabriel Duvall sat for twenty-three years on the United States Supreme Court.
Prince Georgeans were also in the forefront of the agricultural research movement that developed early in the nineteenth century. Dr. John H. Bayne, a physician, gained a national reputation as the "prince of horticulturalists." W. W. W. Bowie, a tobacco planter near Collington, wrote extensively for agricultural journals and government publications. Charles Benedict Calvert of Riversdale conducted all sorts of agricultural experiments on his plantation; led county, state, and national agricultural societies; and lobbied hard for the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The University of Maryland at College Park is his monument, for he was the leader of the planters who founded the Maryland Agricultural College, as it was first known, in 1856. One of the earliest agricultural colleges in the nation, it was built upon Calvert's Ross Borough Farm, part of the great Riversdale estate.
The second technological marvel Prince Georgeans saw developed in the antebellum years was the telegraph. Samuel F. B. Morse, working under a congressional appropriation, conducted early experiments at Riversdale, the plantation of Charles Benedict Calvert of agricultural renown. On April 9, 1844, the first experimental telegraph message into Washington was sent from Riversdale, from a point on the rail line. Several weeks later, on May 24, the famous telegraph message from the U.S. Capitol -- "What hath God wrought" -- coursed its way through wires strung along the railroad all the way to Baltimore. It was the first intercity telegraph communication in America.
During the antebellum years, Prince George's County was touched by the Industrial Revolution. Early in the nineteenth century Nicholas Snowden of Montpelier built a large grist mill by the side of the Patuxent River. Larger than any other mill in Prince George's County, it was converted into a cotton mill in the 1820s, spinning cotton yarn with power provided by the falling Patuxent. Soon a loom was installed, and then, in the 1830s, the railroad was built nearby. By the 1840s several hundred people lived around the mill and a town was born, named for the greenery in the vicinity: Laurel. The railroad, the power of the river, and the town's location midway between Baltimore and Washington encouraged other industries to locate there, and Laurel flourished. It was an anomaly in Prince George's County, a town whose base was industry instead of agriculture. Laurel has always stood apart, and been somewhat different from the rest of the county; to this day that is true. For decades Laurel was the largest town in Prince George's County, until the residential suburban towns near Washington surpassed it in population.
As the nineteenth century passed its midpoint, the plantation economy of Prince George's County was at the height of its development. By 1860 the county was producing more than thirteen million pounds of tobacco annually, more than twice as much as Calvert or Anne Arundel. Tobacco was not the only crop raised here, though: farmers produced more than 300,000 bushels of wheat and about 700,000 bushels of corn, and owned 5,000 horses, 4,000 milk cows, 9,000 sheep, and 25,000 swine.
Much of the farm work in the county was done by slaves, of course. Among the 2,000 white families in the county there were 850 slaveholders, holding 12,500 slaves. Half of the slaveholders held fewer than ten slaves, and 145 held only one, but there were 50 slaveholders who owned more than 50 slaves. None held more than 200. Not all blacks were slaves, however. There was also a small free black population, to the number of 1,198 in 1860. Most of the free blacks were small farmers or laborers, although a very few, like John Cooper early in the century, acquired some measure of wealth. Cooper, who died in 1815, owned a plantation of more than 100 acres in the Forestville area. Perhaps the largest of the free black families in Prince George's County before the Civil War were the Queens, most of whom lived near Queen Anne.
The white population of the county -- totaling 9,650 in 1860 -- was mostly of British stock, and the early colonial distinctions between the Scots, English, and Irish had faded with intermarriage over the years. While they had not increased their numbers in at least seventy years -- which meant that many sons and daughters left Prince George's to make a living -- it seemed not to affect the overall economy, as long as slaves continued to labor in the tobacco fields. According to the United States census, there were sixteen Methodist churches here, fourteen Episcopalian, four Catholic, and one struggling Presbyterian church at Bladensburg -- the lineal descendant of Ninian Beall's Upper Marlboro church of 1704. Most of the descendants of those early Scots had become Episcopalians!
The politics of this county were markedly conservative in the antebellum period, and the voters usually elected Whigs to local office. There was virtually no sympathy at all -- among the whites -- for the radical tenets of abolitionism, and the leaders of Prince George's were firm in their defense of the slave system. Thomas J. Turner was publisher of The Planters'Advocate, an Upper Marlboro newspaper begun in 1851. In the inaugural issue he wrote, "We believe domestic slavery, as it exists among us, to be a truly conservative and beneficial institution -- right in view of God and man, and as such, we will ever maintain it." He expressed well the sentiments of most Prince Georgeans. But within fifteen years, the system and society he vowed to maintain forever would come crashing down in ruins.
Then go -- but go alone the while -- Then view St. David 's ruin 'd pile; And, home returning, soothly swear Was never a scene so sad and fair!