PG Tricentennial Prince George's County
Celebrates 300 years of history 1696-1996

Susan G. Pearl

For thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived, the land known today as Prince George's County was occupied by native Americans. Considerable evidence of their settlements can be found along both the Patuxent and the Potomac rivers; hundreds of prehistoric sites indicate the presence of many villages and temporary camps in the centuries before the arrival of European colonists. Contact between the native inhabitants and Europeans came in 1634, after the first Maryland colonists landed near the mouth of the Potomac River. Governor Leonard Calvert sailed up the Potomac to trade with members of the Piscataway tribe before establishing St. Mary's City, Maryland's first settlement.

The Maryland colony flourished at St. Mary's City and enjoyed peaceful relations with the neighboring tribes. The population increased, new counties were created, and within thirty years farms and plantations lined the Patuxent and the Potomac well into what is now Prince George's County. In the mid-seventeenth century all of this land was included in Calvert and Charles counties, established in 1654 and 1658, respectively; the land along the Patuxent was part of Calvert County, while that along the Potomac was part of Charles County.

By 1695 about seventeen hundred people lived in the area. The following year, on St. George's Day, April 23, 1696, a new county was established, named for Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Princess Anne of England. The new Prince George's County extended from the Charles County line on the south all the way to the Pennsylvania border, marking Maryland's western frontier. It remained the frontier county until 1748, when the northern boundary became basically the line it is today.

Four years before Prince George's County was founded, the Church of England became the established church of the Maryland colony. When Prince George's County came into being in 1696, two parishes had already been created within its boundaries; St. Paul's in the area that had been part of Calvert County, and Piscataway (or King George's) in the area that was once part of Charles. At this time, there was already a church at Charles Town, the busy port on the Patuxent that was to be Prince George's first county seat. St. Paul's Parish had a rural chapel about twelve miles south of Charles Town, while in Piscataway Parish a church was built in 1696, at the site of present- day St. John's Church on Broad Creek.


The land of Prince George's County was gradually settled during the 1700s. From all parts of the British Isles as well as the countries of Europe, men and women came -- some free, others indentured servants. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, landowners had turned to slave labor for the operation of their tobacco plantations, and large numbers of Africans were brought to Maryland to work at the cultivation of that labor-intensive crop.

In 1706 the colonial General Assembly established five new port towns: Queen Anne, Nottingham and Mill Town on the Patuxent, Marlborough on the Western Branch of the Patuxent, and Aire at Broad Creek on the Potomac. A year later, Piscataway was established at the head of Piscataway Creek.

Marlborough developed more rapidly than the other port towns, and by 1718 it had become such an active center that its inhabitants petitioned to have the court proceedings moved there from Charles Town; the county court met for the first time in Upper Marlborough in 1721. From this time until early in the twentieth century, Upper Marlboro (as it is now written) was the commercial, political, and social center of Prince George's County, and it has remained the county seat to this day. Charles Town, on the other hand, has ceased to exist: only the late eighteenth-century plantation- house known as Mount Calvert stands on the site of this early port town.

In 1742 Bladensburg was established on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac. Commissioners were appointed to purchase sixty acres and lay out a town of sixty one-acre lots, most of which were sold right away. Each of the new owners were required to construct a 400-square- foot house, with a brick or stone chimney, within eighteen months of purchase. Bostwick, the Market Master's House, and the Hilleary- Magruder House are good examples of the earliest dwellings built in this important port town. Together with Upper Marlborough, Nottingham, Aire at Broad Creek, Queen Anne and Piscataway, Bladensburg became an official tobacco inspection station in 1747.

Although some industry was established, agriculture was the basis of the county's economy and directly or indirectly provided the livelihood for every resident. The heart of this agricultural economy was tobacco. It created the wealth that built fine plantation houses such as Compton Bassett near Upper Marlboro and His Lordship's Kindness near Rosaryville, educated the children of the leading families, and supported the work of the churches. It also provided the means to enjoy leisure time in activities such as fox hunting and horse racing and enabled planters to devote such care to their horses and their breeding that Prince George's County became the cradle of American thoroughbred racing. Tobacco created a sophisticated society that traded its staple for goods from all over the world.

Chief among the county's notable industries in the eighteenth century was the Snowden Iron Works, which provided wealth to the Snowden family and made possible the building of Montpelier, one of the county's grandest mansions. Water-powered mills also were built on the various tributaries of the Patuxent and Potomac rivers.


Although the land of Prince George's County was spared the experience of actual battle, its residents were deeply involved in the great tide of events during the Revolution. Prince Georgians organized county committees and sent many of their sons to fight for the cause of independence. John Rogers of Upper Marlborough sat in the Continental Congress, which in July 1776 voted to make the colonies free and independent states. In September 1787 Daniel Carroll, also of Upper Marlborough, was one of the thirty-nine men who signed the newly framed Constitution of the United States. Four distinguished Prince Georgians attended the Ratification Convention in Annapolis in April 1788 and voted unanimously in favor of approving the Constitution.

In 1790, when the Congress in Philadelphia decided to relocate the new federal capital, Prince George's County ceded most of the land necessary to establish the District of Columbia. The development of the capital was aided immeasurably by Benjamin Stoddert of Bostwick, who as George Washington's agent acquired much of the needed land. Stoddert later served as the first secretary of the navy.

After the Revolution two Prince Georgians assumed leadership roles in the newly independent churches of Maryland. Thomas John Claggett of Croom became the first Episcopal bishop consecrated in this country, and John Carroll of Upper Marlborough became the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States. Beginning in 1783 the Catholic Church formulated its first constitution, meeting at White Marsh, one of the oldest Catholic establishments in Maryland.


Prince George's County was not spared military action during; the War of 1812. In August 1814 the British sailed up the Patuxent to Benedict and marched through the county, camping at Nottingham and Upper Marlborough, and continuing past the brand-new Addison Chapel and north along the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (the Anacostia River). At Bladensburg they defeated poorly prepared American troops and continued into Washington to burn the capital city. On their way back through Upper Marlborough, they seized Dr. William Beanes and took him with them to Baltimore. Francis Scott Key was on a mission to plead for Dr. Beanes's release when he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry and wrote the poem that became the national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."

Changes came to the county in the early years of the nineteenth century. Although tobacco remained predominant, farmers throughout Prince George's County began to experiment with new crops on land worn out by continuous cultivation of tobacco. The efforts of Charles B. Calvert of Riversdale brought about the establishment in 1856 of the nation's first agricultural research college, now the University of Maryland at College Park. Industries also were established here, employing machines, mass production, and hundreds of workers. In the early 1800s the first turnpike was constructed, linking Washington and Baltimore; about fourteen miles of convenient, nearly straight roadway ran through Prince George's County In the 1820s the Snowden family established textile mills on the Patuxent River at a place soon to be known as Laurel. In 1835 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line was completed between Baltimore and Washington bringing momentous change to the area, altering traditional methods of travel, transforming small crossroads Communities into population centers and, eventually, sites for suburban expansion. The railroad provided the right-of-way on which Samuel F. B. Morse strung the nation's first telegraph line in 1844.

Several Prince Georgians achieved distinction in nineteenth-century politics. Gabriel Duvall of Marietta sat for many years as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and five other residents were elected governor of Maryland: Robert Bowie of Nottingham, Samuel Sprigg of Northampton, Joseph Kent of Rose Mount, Thomas G. Pratt of Upper Marlborough, and Oden Bowie of Fairview.

As the nineteenth century passed its midpoint, Prince George's County was prosperous, its society and economy solidly based on agricultural pursuits. But the old tobacco society was soon to end, as the nation plunged into the bitter Civil War. Prince George's County, like the state and the nation, was divided during that monumental struggle from 1861 to 1865. Although Maryland did not secede from the Union, there was great sympathy in the county for the southern cause. The county had a plantation economy and a population in 1860 that was more than half slave. The prominent families were slave holders and southern-oriented, and many of their sons went south to fight for the Confederacy. When the institution of slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia in 1862, many of the slaves in Prince George's County fled to freedom there. Emancipation took effect in Maryland in January 1865, bringing to an end the old plantation system. When the Civil War ended three months later, the old Prince George's society was gone, and the County began the difficult process of creating a second life.


The Civil War brought significant changes to Prince George's County; some were immediately noticeable, such as the freeing of the slaves. Small communities of blacks began to develop soon after the cessation of hostilities, such as Rossville near the Muirkirk Furnace and the black communities near Queen Anne and Upper Marlborough. Each of these communities were centered around a place of worship, usually Methodist, and in Rossville the residents established a benevolent society hall to provide aid to newly freed blacks. The newly emancipated citizens proceeded to build their homes, while supporting themselves working in the iron furnaces or railroad construction, but principally in farming. With the assistance of the Freedmen's Bureau, these communities soon had schoolhouses and teachers, beginning the significant movement toward black education.

Changes also occurred in the county's economy.. Agriculture remained the predominant way of life. Tobacco continued to be the most important crop, and the large plantations by no means vanished. But in the last decades of the nineteenth century, small farms producing a variety of crops placed a larger role in the county's economic life. Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, the number of farms in Prince George's County doubled; while the average farm size decreased dramatically. Local commerce and the growth of towns such as Hyattsville placed a part in the overall economic picture. Hyattsville had its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, when C.C. Hyatt established his store and post office at the intersection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the turnpike. In the 1870s Hyatt platted a residential subdivision; the community prospered and grew, becoming an attractive and desirable place to live. Within a decade, it was a thriving commercial center.

The county also was affected by the expanding federal government in the neighboring capital. As Washington grew from a small to a major city, it began to spill over into the adjoining counties. A new phenomenon - the residential suburb developed to accommodate the increasing number of federal employees and city workers. A new branch line of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad had opened in l872, joining with the main line to southern Maryland at the Bowie junction and creating a second rail link between Washington and Baltimore. In the 1880s and 1890s more and more residential communities were developed along with both of the railroad lines, offering federal employees the opportunity to live away from the city in the healthful surroundings easily accessible by rail. In towns such as Hyattsville, Takoma Park, Riverdale, Charlton Heights (now Berwyn Heights), and College Park, fine Victorian dwellings of the 1880s and 1890s still give evidence of this booming period of suburban expansion. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the county's population was 30,000, thirty percent higher than it had been in 1860.


As the new century began, new types of transportation spurred additional residential development along the borders of the federal City. Brentwood and Mount Rainier, for example, grew up along the new streetcar line, which offered an easy commute between home and work. Several black communities (for example, North Brentwood and Fairmount Heights) were established, attracting members of an increasing group of black professionals from Washington. And although farming remained the way of life for man in the rural areas, the denser suburban population close to Washington continued to grow, spurred by the increasing use of the automobile; Cheverly, Greenbelt, District Heights, and Glenarden are examples of this trend. Prince George's had been a county of 30,000 in 1900; by 1930 its population had doubled, and by 1950 it had increased to almost 200,000. Population growth has continued, registering some 730,000 today. The 1990s promise a new and active image for Prince George's County: the development of professional educational establishments, the revitalization of older communities, and the preservation of the county's proud heritage of historic resources and rural areas.

Learn more about Architecture: From Tidewater to Modern,
Preserving these Landmarks,
or return to the top of this page.

Special thanks to

Prince George's County Historic Preservation Commission
Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr.
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772

for letting us use these excerpts from Landmarks of Prince George's County History -- available in local libraries.

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.:

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