Rural, Agricultural Past Continues to Affect Region

A mural by George McWilliams in the St. Clement's Museum depicts the landing by English colonists in March 1634 on St. Clement's Island, in what would become St. Mary's County.
A mural by George McWilliams in the St. Clement's Museum depicts the landing by English colonists in March 1634 on St. Clement's Island, in what would become St. Mary's County. (File Photo)

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By Tom Lansworth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

In the United States, there are two kinds of areas or communities: those that predate the nation, and those where settlement came as new Americans expanded across the continent.

Southern Maryland is in the first category. For those of us who grew up in the vast territory west of the Mississippi River, the historical sweep of places like Southern Maryland can be astonishing. In my Great Plains home, I was just two or three generations removed from the time when homesteaders were still arriving. In St. Mary's County, today's residents are more than three centuries away from the first settlers.

Of course, all of these places have similar Native American beginnings.

In Southern Maryland, traders at the beginning of the 17th century estimated some 5,000 people from several American Indian groups that shared the Algonquian language lived along both sides of the Potomac River. Various bands and tribes included the Piscataways along the Potomac, the Yoacomacos on the St. Mary's River, as well as the Pomonkeys, Nanjemoys and Chopticos, among others.

Capt. John Smith, whose voyages of exploration on the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay are being commemorated -- and retraced -- this summer, found a large American Indian village in 1608 near what is now Port Tobacco.

As all Southern Maryland schoolchildren know, Maryland's first European settlers arrived in March 1634 at St. Clement's Island, in what would become St. Mary's County. Shortly after landing, they sought a more sheltered place and sailed up the St. Mary's River to establish St. Mary's City, which became Maryland's first capital and a center of religious tolerance in the new colony.

Settlement spread from there to what would become Calvert and Charles counties. The Southern Maryland jurisdictions are among the oldest in the original colonies. St. Mary's was established in 1637, Calvert in 1654 (although it was called Patuxent until 1658) and Charles in 1658.

Soon after the first colonists arrived, tobacco emerged as the area's staple crop, and it would remain the foundation of the local economy for 300 years. The work-intensive tobacco crop required large tracts of land and cheap labor. Slavery made tobacco plantation culture viable.

Slavery was introduced soon after the European colonists arrived. Some historians say the first slaves shipped to Charles County went to a plantation on the Potomac owned by Francis Pope.

The reliance on tobacco and slave labor to cultivate it explains to some degree why Southern Maryland did not give rise to any significant population centers until the explosive suburban development of the late 20th century.

In the Colonial era, the highly profitable crop was raised on large plantations that were generally self-contained economic enterprises. Labor was imported in the persons of slaves. The crop was processed (cured) in barns built where it was grown, and then the leaves were shipped from private wharves. There was little or no need for local cities to sustain such a socioeconomic system.

So there are deep historical roots to the rural and agricultural traditions -- and the regional identity separate from nearby urban centers -- that Southern Maryland residents and leaders struggle today to preserve. Although the plantations are long gone from the countryside, the sense of place established by the tobacco culture that dominated nearly until the Civil War remains.

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