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


Prince George's County, at its founding in 1696, was still frontier. But as more and more settlers came, and more and more land was taken up, the frontier receded. Within a decade or two the danger of Indian raids from the unknown beyond disappeared. In a generation's time, or perhaps a little longer, Prince George's County became a well-settled land of farms and families, good roads and byways, of doctors, lawyers, storekeepers, and merchants. The southern areas of the county, particularly on the Patuxent side, experienced this change first, but gradually, as the decades of the eighteenth century rolled by, so too did the other sections of the county. By the midpoint of the century not a section of the county was unsettled. The frontier was gone. The pioneers were now the men and women of Western Maryland, beyond the Monocacy, out toward the mountains. Prince George's County had become a populous, well-established agricultural community, where all the amenities of civilized colonial country life could be found.

The foundation upon which the development of Prince George's County rested was the culture of tobacco. Both small farmers and rich planters were tobacco growers. When the tobacco market was good, Prince George's County prospered. When the market was depressed, all Prince Georgeans felt it.

The yearly cycle of tobacco cultivation began in the late winter or early spring with the sowing of the seeds in seedbeds. In June the small plants were transplanted into the fields, into rows of tobacco hills. Every day, all summer long, the tobacco was weeded, hoed, and inspected for worms and insects. When flowers began to appear, the plant tops were broken off to encourage fuller and stronger leaf growth. A few weeks after topping- by September -- the plants were four to seven feet high and ready to be harvested. The entire plant was cut and hung in barns to dry. Over the winter, the leaves were stripped off the stalks, tied into hands, and packed into huge casks called hogsheads. The tobacco then was ready to be sold or stored. Tobacco commanded such a leading place in Maryland's colonial economy that it became a medium of exchange. Taxes were assessed, debts paid, and land priced not in pounds sterling but in pounds of tobacco. Maryland could truly be called a tobacco colony, and Prince George's was without a doubt a tobacco county.

It was during the eighteenth century that African slaves were first brought to Prince George's County in large numbers. Most of the settlers came as small farmers and worked in the tobacco fields with their families. But tobacco demanded daily attention, and the most a farmer could tend himself was two or three acres. To increase production beyond this subsistence level -- to better himself economically -- the farmer needed additional labor. In the seventeenth century, those who could afford extra hands usually took on indentured servants. But that changed in the eighteenth century. As the farmers and planters became more numerous and prosperous, they found that their need for additional labor could no longer be met by the supply of indentured servants, whose numbers were limited and terms of service temporary. So instead of indentured servants they turned to slave labor. By the early eighteenth century approximately a quarter of the households in Prince George's County owned slaves. By the 1750s that figure may have reached half; it was indeed that high by the time of the American Revolution. Slaveholding, then, was not confined to a small upper class. It was widespread in eighteenth-century Prince George's County.

What kind of lives did slaves lead in Prince George's County? Whether they lived on large plantations or small ones, working with other slaves or alone, most were farm laborers. They worked in the tobacco fields in the summer and did other farm chores during the rest of the year. Some, on the largest plantations, were taught trades such as carpentry or cooperage, but their numbers were few. In the early years most slaves, of course, were African-born and spoke a bewildering assortment of African tongues. Wrenched from their homelands, deprived of their freedom, and thrust into an alien environment, they must have had most difficult lives, for they had neither families, friends, nor familiar institutions to comfort them. By the 1750s, however, most slaves here were American-born, born into an evolving and distinct Afro-American culture that helped them cope with slavery and maintain feelings of personal worth and dignity. They grew up with brothers, sisters, and other relatives; as adults they often worked with their families and others they had known since childhood. Their lives were much different from those of the first generation of slaves. Although their destinies were controlled by whites, their personal lives, at least, were lived in a supportive, sympathetic, and familiar Afro-American culture.

Family and kin relationships were particularly important to the slaves, even though they were denied traditional family life. While slave marriages were allowed, even between slaves of different plantations, there were no guarantees that husbands and wives could ever live together or would not be separated. Women thus raised the children. While babies and small children were rarely taken from them, the older ones sometimes were. However, since most slave sales were between relatives or planters who lived near each other, separation did not always mean total loss of contact. Just as particular areas and neighborhoods were identified with certain white families, so too were the slaves of those neighborhoods often interrelated. A community life did develop among slaves, even if it was constrained by the realities of the slave system. Christianity was encouraged, and it was embraced by many.

By the middle of the eighteenth century almost half of this county's population was slave. Some areas, such as the rich plantation neighborhoods near Upper Marlboro, were 60 to 70 percent black. Slavery was a part of life here, and the contributions of the slaves to the building of colonial Prince George's County cannot be overstated.

First the planters and slaves grew tobacco in Prince George's County, and then they built towns. Actually, towns developed slowly in colonial Prince George's. From the earliest settlement, the population was widely scattered and so was economic and social activity. Inns, churches, mills, blacksmiths, and artisans were scattered across the countryside.

Planters and farmers sold their tobacco to merchants or their agents at local landings, and there they received goods shipped from abroad. Sometimes wealthy planters kept stocks of merchandise for sale, but most often shopping was done when the ships came in. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, on several occasions, the Maryland General Assembly directed the establishment of towns. The purpose was to encourage trade and commerce. The assembly further ordered that no tobacco be exported nor goods imported except at these locations. This order proved unenforceable, however, and trading went on in the usual manner, as the planters preferred. The General Assembly's towns did not really develop into trading and social centers until the surrounding neighborhoods were populous and prosperous enough to encourage merchants to open year-round stores there. Only then did local planters find it more convenient to concentrate their buying and selling in these places, and only then was there enough activity at these sites to warrant calling them true towns.

Charles Town, at Mount Calvert on the Patuxent River, was established by law in the 1680s and was the only town in Prince George's County when it was erected in 1696. Despite its designation as a county seat, Charles Town never became much more than a small village. Several stores and inns operated there, but there was never much of a resident population. Later, when the county court moved to Upper Marlboro, it disappeared.

In 1706 and 1707 the General Assembly directed the establishment of six more towns in Prince George's County: Upper Marlboro, Nottingham, Queen Anne, Mill Town, Piscataway, and Aire (also known as Broad Creek). The first four named were on the Patuxent side of the county, the last two on the Potomac side. Upper Marlboro was the first of these to develop. It lay in the heart of rich tobacco country, in an area that became the most densely settled in colonial Prince George's County. Merchants saw the possibilities of the place and located there; so did innkeepers, tradesmen, and craftsmen. It so eclipsed nearby Charles Town that it was made the county seat in 1721. Among the inhabitants of colonial Upper Marlboro could be found a wigmaker, weaver tailor, staymaker, coachmaker, and saddler. Concerts, balls, and horse races were among the diversions that entertained the townspeople and brought planters to town; sometimes traveling theater troupes also came through. Slaves could be bought in Upper Marlboro, too. The Maryland Gazette for March 14, 1765, advertised "Eleven valuable negroes: three men, three women three girls, and five children." By mid-century, several hundred people lived in and around the town, many of them Scottish immigrants who built Prince George's County's first Presbyterian church.

Nottingham, Queen Anne, Piscataway, and Broad Creek did not grow as quickly or as large as Upper Marlboro, but they did become thriving little places in themselves, centers for buying, selling, and socializing in their Patuxent and Potomac river neighborhoods. Of the five towns established by the assembly in 1705 and 1706, only Mill Town failed to develop. As the northern sections of the county were settled, towns developed there, too. The first town in the northern section was Bealltown, located on the Northwest Branch near present-day Hyattsville. Bealltown grew up in the 1720s and 1730s, and like the older towns it became the home of merchants, innkeepers, and craftsmen. But Bealltown was located a little too far upstream, and the inhabitants could not keep the stream open for larger vessels. In 1742, the assembly therefore directed the establishment of Bladensburg a mile or so downstream. Bladensburg grew quickly, and soon Bealltown was abandoned. Bladensburg's port, located on the Anacostia River (then called the Eastern Branch), easily accommodated the large vessels Bealltown could not. By the time of the Revolution, Bladensburg was one of the most active tobacco ports in Maryland, exporting more tobacco than any other on the Western Shore. Some early industrial concerns were also built there: a tannery, a shipyard, a ropewalk, and a gunpowder plant. The traffic on two new important roads-the road up to Frederick County and the road north (today's Route One) added to the town's bustle Bladensburg, in the colonial era, was second only to Upper Marlboro in population and importance, and there were many -- particularly in Bladensburg -- who wished to see the county seat moved there.

A change in the method of marketing tobacco further encouraged the growth of towns in Prince George's County in the second half of the eighteenth century. In 1747, in response to years of poor prices for Maryland tobacco and numerous complaints from merchants concerning its quality, the General Assembly established a formal system of tobacco inspection and quality control. No longer could planters sell their tobacco directly to tobacco merchants. Instead, they first had to bring it in to public tobacco warehouses for inspection and grading. There, after inspection, the hogsheads could be stored, and the planters would receive certificates stating the quantity deposited. Tobacco marketing thus moved away from all the small local landings and became concentrated at the sites of these warehouses. Of the seven tobacco warehouses initially established in Prince George's County, six were in towns --Upper Marlboro, Bladensburg, Queen Anne, Nottingham, Piscataway, and Broad Creek. The other was at Magruder's Landing, a place on the Patuxent River in the county's southeastern corner. This system of tobacco inspection seemed to work, and the planters themselves sought its renewal in subsequent assembly sessions. The towns benefited, too, for they profited from the increased activity the warehouses brought them.

In concluding the story of Prince George's colonial towns, it is necessary to mention four other towns, two in Prince George's County and two nearby. The first, Hamburgh, was located on land which is now part of the District of Columbia, on the Potomac River near Constitution Avenue. Founded in 1767, it was a German town, the only colonial settlement of non-Britons within the post-1748 bounds of Prince George's County. The other county town, Carrollsburgh, was founded in 1771 and was located at Buzzard's Point, now in southwest Washington, D.C. Neither Hamburgh nor Carrollsburgh grew to much size, however, and they existed more on plat maps and in sales books than they did in reality. Two nearby towns outside of Prince George's County did, however, become important centers of commerce. Alexandria, on the Virginia side of the Potomac, became a leading seaport and the commercial center for all of Northern Virginia. Georgetown, at Rock Creek, was located just below the falls of the Potomac River, and in the 1750s and 1760s it became the center of trade in lower Frederick County. When Montgomery County was erected in 1776, Georgetown was its only port accessible to seagoing ships.

The colonial towns of Prince George's County were important in the county's development, for commercial, social, and cultural opportunities could be found there that were not present in the countryside. But it must be remembered that most inns, churches, mills, black-smiths, artisans, and even merchants were still out in the country, and that colonial Prince George's County remained very much an agricultural county.

To those acquainted with our history, the phrase "colonial Prince George's County" brings to mind the great homes that are the enduring legacy of that era. They are our pride, testaments to the wealth and grace that once were the hallmarks of Prince George's society. Not everyone in the colonial era lived in such houses, though; indeed, most did not. But in an age much more deferential to wealth and social position than this one, the owners of those homes set the tone of public life, and Prince George's County gained a reputation as a place of fine and gracious living.

How different the Prince George's County of the late colonial era was from that of 1696! The frontier was gone, and with it the unbounded opportunity and social mobility that could be found there. The plantation system of tobacco and slaves brought wealth to many, but it also transformed the frontier into a much less fluid, more stratified society. Families who accumulated wealth in the early years -- wealth in the form of land and slaves -- passed it on from one generation to the next, giving rise to a hereditary gentry of wealth, power, and social position. It became harder and harder for people of average means to buy the land and labor necessary to raise enough tobacco to become wealthy; indeed, it became more difficult, even with a slave or two, to maintain a moderately comfortable lifestyle. No longer could an indentured servant like Ninian Beall expect to become a man of wealth and power. By the end of the colonial era, new immigrants from Europe, ambitious men and women of lesser means, and even the younger sons of the local gentry were leaving Prince George's County behind for opportunity elsewhere. By 1790 the free population of Prince George's County reached 10,000 and stopped growing. It would not grow again as long as the plantation system survived.

The Prince George's County of the late colonial era was much different from the frontier county of 1696 in another important respect, too: the matter of religion. The Church of England was newly established as the state church of Maryland when Prince George's County was erected, and most residents were still unchurched, with little contact with organized religion. But gradually, over the years, that unchurched society became an Anglican one. Small Catholic and Presbyterian minorities clung to their faiths, but through the course of the eighteenth century most Prince Georgeans came to think of themselves as Anglicans, at least at baptism, wedding, and burying times. Methodism was introduced here in the 1770s and quickly attracted many adherents, but religious diversification went no further. Save for a few scattered individuals, Prince Georgeans at the close of the century were either Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, or Presbyterian.

Prince Georgeans, like their counterparts elsewhere in the thirteen colonies, participated in the great events of the Revolution. They formed local committees of correspondence and safety, organized boycotts of British goods, and went off to war to fight for the cause of independence. A few-notably members of the Anglican clergy and the Calvert family -- sat out the conflict, but active Loyalists were hard to find. British ships occasionally entered the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, harassing the planters on their banks, but the enemy never launched a serious invasion. The greatest excitement came in 1781 when British ships put some men ashore at the mouth of Piscataway Creek to forage for food. Several parties came ashore over the course of several days, each time encountering resistance from the local militia. The ships finally departed.

Since Maryland was not the scene of any major fighting during the Revolution, Prince George's Revolutionary War heroes won their glory elsewhere: Rezin Beall at Harlem Heights, Luke Marbury at Germantown; and Edward Duvall at the siege of Ninety-Six, South Carolina, to name only three. Others contributed to the cause of independence through statecraft. Prior to the war, William Murdock, of Padsworth Farm (near Queen Anne), represented Maryland at the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. John Rogers of Upper Marlboro sat in Congress on the day the Declaration of Independence was approved -- and voted for its adoption -- but failed to return to Philadelphia to add his signature to the document once it was engrossed. Thus Prince George's County cannot claim to be the home of a Signer, and the name of John Rogers, remembered locally, is forgotten in other parts of the nation he voted into being.

Perhaps the most noteworthy contribution Prince George's County made to the Revolutionary cause came not in battle or in statecraft, but in the less dramatic field of military supply. Stephen West -- importer, exporter, and owner of several stores in the county -- turned his plantation, The Woodyard (once a Darnall property) into a great gun manufactory. His slaves built and repaired muskets for Maryland troops, and they made powder, blankets, stockings, and woolen cloth as well. Another county merchant, Christopher Lowndes, supplied the infant Maryland navy with cordage from his ropewalk near Bladensburg. The economic sacrifices of the families at home were great during the war, but at its conclusion, with peace and nationhood secured, Prince Georgeans returned to their lives of old, whatever their places were in the tobacco society of two hundred years ago.

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

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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.:

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