PG Tricentennial Prince George's County:
Over 300 years of History


If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright, Go visit it by the pale moonlight; For the gay beams of lightsome day Gild, but to flout, the ruinsgray.
-- Sir Walter Scott
"The Lay of the Last Minstrel "
With his ancient tales of bravery and valor, chivalry and romance, Sir Walter Scott was one of the favorite poets of the antebellum South. The Southerners of that day saw themselves in his poems, for as W.J. Cash has written in The Mind of the South, they believed their society to be the last great realm of chivalry in the world. Later generations of Southerners living in harder times, looked back upon the prewar years as a golden age. To the modern conscience, a society based upon slave labor cannot be called a golden one, yet there was a romance about the Old South, a South of which Prince George's County was very much a part.

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.

Prince George's County was witness to technological as well as agricultural advancement in the antebellum era. In 1835 one of the first rail lines in the country, the Washington branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was built through Prince George's County. Coming from Baltimore, the line entered the county at Laurel and ran southwesterly to Bladensburg, then into Washington. The first trains to enter Washington-and pass through Prince George's County-were greeted with much fanfare. "It was a glorious sight," reported the National Intelligencer on August 26, 1835, "to see four trains of cars, with each its engine, extending altogether several hundred yards in length, making their entry by this new route.... " The rail line immediately brought about the birth of a new community called Beltsville. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad established a rail stop and freight depot on land purchased from Trueman Belt, and they named the place for him. Beltsville was doubly blessed, for the Baltimore-Washington Turnpike crossed the rail line there. It soon became a thriving little trading center, eclipsing the older community of Vansville further north on the pike. Beltsville would not be the only community the railroad would spawn. Later in that century, all along the line, residential towns would be built, the first of Washington's suburbs in Prince George's County.

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.

Into this narrative of wealth and style, leadership and innovation, must be inserted the story of the county's greatest embarrassment, the Battle of Bladensburg. The battle took place in 1814, during the final year of the War of 1812. Americans were fighting the British for the second time. As in the previous war, British ships in the Chesapeake harassed Maryland, but without invasion, until British troops on the European continent were suddenly freed for American duty by the defeat of Napoleon. Then they came to Maryland in large numbers. They entered the Chesapeake, sailed up the Patuxent River, and marched overland through Prince George's County to Nottingham, Upper Marlboro, Long Old Fields (Forestville), and then to Bladensburg. There, on August 24, 1814, on the grounds and heights to the west of town, they met an untrained and ill-prepared defensive force of Maryland and District of Columbia militia. The defenders were no match for the British army. After a brief engagement they scattered, all except a contingent of 500 regular American marines and sailors led by Commodore Joshua Barney. They fought valiantly, but with no support were forced to retreat, too. The flight left Washington unguarded, and the victorious British marched into the city and burned it. The battle was a rout, and a profound embarrassment to President Madison, who was on hand to witness the sad affair with most of his cabinet. Fortunately, the taking of Washington had little military significance, for the British departed the next day. The successful defense of Baltimore a few weeks later -- at Hampstead Hill and Fort McHenry -- restored American pride, but for years the very name Bladensburg was synonymous with national humiliation.

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!
Return to the Index of "Prince George's County: a Pictorial History" or continue reading from here.

Prince George's History page.
Support our county history by joining the Prince George's Co. Historical Society
These pages were created as a part of the 1996 PG County Tricentennial celebration. Additional history resources are listed on the bibliography page. These pages are not being updated. They are now located on the Prince George's County Historical Society's web site. Contact links: web site manager - Society information. You can search the entire site through this search form.:

Search For:


Any word All words Exact phrase
Sound-alike matching