One of the marvels of Prince George’s County is the fact that you can walk into the woods or along the creeks and rivers today and still see a Prince George’s County that the first settlers might have seen almost 400 years ago. Yet Prince George’s County is a highly developed area adjacent to our Nation’s Capitol, and linked to other Maryland Counties and Suburban Virginia by I-495, otherwise known as “The Beltway”.
The first recorded visit to Prince George’s County by a European came in the summer of 1608, when Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac River, probably as far as Great Falls. Two groups of Indians inhabited the county in Smith’s time: the Piscataways, whose villages ranged from the Anacostia River southward into Charles and St. Mary’s counties; and the warlike Susquehannocks, who roamed and hunted in the northern part of the county, constantly pressing the Piscataways for more and more land.
John Smith’s visit in 1608 was an exploring expedition only, and no settlement was intended. Over the next 25 years, however, English traders paid frequent calls upon the Indians here – sometimes to trade, sometimes to fight.
But the most significant early contact came in 1634, just days after the first Maryland colonists landed near the mouth of the Potomac River. Advised by an English trader to seek permission from the Piscataways before establishing a settlement there, Governor Leonard Calvert sailed up the Potomac to the tribe’s principal town, located on Piscataway Creek in the southern part of Prince George’s County. Governor Calvert established good relations with the Piscataways, and with their permission he returned downriver to found St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first settlement.
The Maryland colony flourished at St. Mary’s City and enjoyed peaceful relations with the neighboring Indian tribes. Settlers soon left the confines of the original settlement. New counties were created, and within 30 years farms and plantations lined both the Patuxent and Potomac Rivers well into the land we call Prince George’s County today. The land was not called Prince George’s County then, however. The area along the Patuxent was part of Calvert County; the area along the Potomac was part of Charles County.
By 1695, sixteen or seventeen hundred people lived here enough, Governor Francis Nicholson thought, to deserve the right of self-government. The General Assembly agreed, and on St. George’s Day, April 23, 1696, a new county was established, named for Prince George of Denmark, husband of the heir to the throne of England, Princess Anne. Extending from the Charles County line on the south all the way to the Pennsylvania border, the new county marked Maryland’s western frontier. It remained the frontier county until 1748, when the westernmost regions were granted their own government, and Prince George’s County’s northern boundary became basically the line it is today.
Prince George’s County grew in the 1700’s. Its land was settled, and frontier became civilization. Men and women from all parts of the British Isles, as well as other countries of Europe, came to find homes here. Some came as freemen, others as indentured servants. Africans were also a part of the growing population, brought here to work as slaves. As the years went by, trading centers along the rivers grew into towns places like Marlborough, Nottingham, Bladensburg, Queen Anne, and Piscataway.
Merchants built stores; lawyers and doctors established practices; clergymen consecrated churches; and innkeepers opened their doors to travelers and residents alike. Some iron was even mined and worked in the upper Patuxent region. But Prince George’s County, despite this growth, remained predominantly agricultural. Agriculture was the basis of the economy and directly or indirectly provided the livelihood for every resident. One crop was at the heart of this agricultural economy and that crop was tobacco.
Tobacco created wealth for Prince George’s County, wealth that built fine plantation homes, educated the children of the leading families, supported the work of our religious faiths including Maryland’s established church, the Church of England and fostered the arts such as theater, dance, and music that flourished in Upper Marlborough and other places. That wealth also provided the means to enjoy leisure time in activities such as theater, dance, and music that flourished in Upper Marlborough and other places.
That wealth also provided the means to enjoy leisure time in activities such as cricket, fox hunting, and horseracing 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, a sport still very much a part of our county today. Tobacco, too, provided modest livelihoods for smaller farmers, and even served as legal tender for debts. That one crop contributed more to Prince George’s County than anything else, and created a prosperous, sophisticated tobacco society which traded its staple with English and Scottish merchants for goods from all over the world.
The tobacco society that was Prince George’s County was not untouched by the great tide of national events during those years. When the Revolution came, Prince Georgians organized county committees to assist the Revolutionary effort here at home; and they sent many of their sons to fight gallantly for the cause of independence. One of their fellow citizens, John Rogers of Upper Marlboro, sat in the Continental Congress which in July of 1776 voted to make the colonies free and independent states. A Prince George’s County native, Daniel Carroll, was one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution. In 1790, when the Congress in Philadelphia decided to locate the new federal capital somewhere along the Potomac River, Prince George’s County ceded most of the land necessary to establish the District of Columbia.
Today, each of the great symbols of our three branches of government the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court building stands on land that was once part of Prince George’s County. The development of the federal city was aided immeasurably by Benjamin Stoddart of Bladensburg, who acquired much of the land needed by the federal government from local landowners and later served as the first Secretary of the Navy.
As American religion began an independent life of its own in the new nation, two Prince Georgeans were chosen to assume roles of leadership. John Carroll of Upper Marlboro became the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, and Thomas John Claggett of Croom became the first Episcopal bishop consecrated in this country. When the American Catholic Church formulated its first constitution, it met at White Marsh, one of the oldest Catholic establishments in Maryland.
The county had been spared extensive military action during the Revolutionary War, but such was not to be the case in the War of 1812. In August 1814, the British sailed up the Patuxent to Benedict and began a march through Prince George’s County through Nottingham, Upper Marlboro and Forestville all the way to Bladensburg, where they defeated an ill-prepared army of American defenders and marched on into Washington to burn the capital city.
On their way back to their ships, they seized a Prince Georgian, Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, and took him with them to Baltimore. Francis Scott Key was on a mission to plead for Dr. Beanes’ release when he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry and wrote the poem which became our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.
Those early years of the nineteenth century brought changes to the county, too. Although tobacco remained predominant, farmers throughout the county began to experiment with new crops on worn out land. In 1817, the first county agricultural society in Maryland was founded here in Prince George’s County, and agriculturalists such as Charles B. Calvert, Horace Capron, and Dr. John Bayne attracted national attention with their agricultural experimentation. The location of the nation’s first research agricultural college here in the 1850’s further attests to the leadership of Prince George’s County in that field.
New developments were not limited to agriculture. A new way of working involving great machines, mass production, and hundreds of workers had evolved in England and the North during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This new way of working known as the Industrial Revolution crept into Prince George’s County across its northern border with the establishment of cotton mills at Laurel in the 1820’s.
Further evidence of change came with the laying of the first rail line across the county in the 1830’s and the stringing of the nation’s first telegraph line across Prince George’s County a decade later. In politics, two sons of Prince George’s County achieved national distinction in those early years of the nineteenth century. Gabriel Duvall of Marietta sat for many years on the Supreme Court, and William Wirt, a Bladensburg native, served for 12 years as Attorney General of the United States.
Prince George’s County, then, as the nineteenth century passed its midpoint, was prosperous. Its agriculture was diversifying, some industry was developing, the fisheries of the Patuxent and Potomac yielded rich harvests, steamboats plied the Patuxent linking the County to Baltimore, while proximity to Washington afforded a second market, and above all, the growth of the staple crop, tobacco, remained a profitable enterprise. In fact, more tobacco was grown here than in any other county in Maryland, and more slaves tilled the fields here than in any other place in the state.
The labor of Prince George’s County’s black community 90 percent of it slave in 1860, and comprising almost 60 percent of the total population helped guarantee that prosperity. But the old tobacco society was to end, for forces beyond the control of any Prince Georgian would soon plunge the nation into a bitter Civil War. When that war was ended, the old Prince George’s County was gone, and the county began a second life.
Some changes were immediately noticeable, such as the freeing of the slaves. Others were more gradual, like the changes 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 as the nineteenth century drew to a close, small farms growing tobacco and a good many other crops played 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. Many of these new smaller farms were operated by freed blacks, but many more were owned by newcomers to the county. As our agricultural population grew, so did commercial life and the importance of local commerce in the overall economic picture.
Better roads and better rail service encouraged the growth of new towns places like Suitland, Lanham, Glenn Dale, Huntington, Hyattsville, College Park, and Brandywine. As Prince George’s County entered the twentieth century, its population was 30,000 30 percent higher than it had been in 1860. But this second life of Prince George’s County of small farmers and local commerce soon gave way to a force that would affect this county as profoundly as tobacco had in the old days. That force was the growing, expanding federal government, and more particularly, its growing, expanding capital city, Washington.
Until the 1880’s Washington was not much more than a small town tucked into one corner of the District of Columbia. There was much more farmland in the District than city. People had settled in Prince George’s County because of its proximity to the capital; but on the whole, they were a small percentage of the population. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, the town of Washington became a city-growing larger and larger until it spread into Prince George’s County. All along the county’s borders with the District, towns were built — like Takoma Park, Mount Rainier, Colmar Manor, Cottage City, Brentwood, Capitol Heights, Fairmount Heights, and Seat Pleasant.
Farming remained the way of life for many in the vast rural areas beyond these new towns, but year by year the percentage of the population earning their livelihood through agriculture declined as the denser suburban population close to Washington grew. The federal government itself moved out beyond Washington, as huge government installations were placed in Prince George’s County Andrews Air Force Base, the Census Bureau complex in Suitland, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center , and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, among others.
As the twentieth century progressed and the automobile freed suburban commuters from rail, trolley, and bus lines, new communities grew farther out Greenbelt, Cheverly, District Heights, New Carrollton, Glenarden, Bowie, Kettering, and more. What had been a county of 30,000 in 1900 became a county of 60,000 in 1930. By 1950, there were almost 200,000 people. Ten years later, in 1960, there were 350,000; in 10 years more, 661,000. But finally the explosive growth seemed to come to an end, as the next 10 years saw a small decline.
The end of the population boom seemed to bring a new assessment of Prince George’s County’s place in the region, for county leaders in the 1970s and early 1980s began to seek a new type of growth an economic life not so closely tied to the federal government, and one not limited to providing homes for workers in Washington. What they began to seek was industry and commercial enterprise that would assume a life of its own in Prince George’s County and transform the county from a bedroom suburb into an equal partner in a dynamic metropolitan area. The challenge of that search is as formidable, adventuresome, and exciting as the taming of the frontier so many years ago.
The witness of 300 years, then, has seen great change come to Prince George’s County. Once a struggling wilderness outpost where men like Colonel Ninean Beall and his county militia rode the frontier to guard against Indian raids the county developed during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries into a prosperous, sophisticated tobacco society. When that society met its end in war, the small farm, growing tobacco and other crops, and local commerce became the dominant ways of life, until Prince George’s County finally became part of the growing metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C. and a place where men and women of all creeds, religions, races, national origins, and economic positions live and work.
But despite these great changes, reminders of the past are all around us — sometimes hidden from sight, and sometimes unrecognizable to the newcomer. Even if the large majority of our citizens live in an urban setting today, it must be remembered that much of our land still retains its rural character, and agriculture is still the way of life for many.