Submitted By: Alice Warner Brosey

From the book "Potomac Landings" published 1921 by Paul Wilstach.


Towns on Tidewater ?- Paper Towns -? The Provincial Capital at St. Mary's, Its Rise and Fall -? Kinsale, Leonardtown, Port Tobacco, Dumfries, Colchester, and Occoquon -- Piscataway and the Annapolis Players -- Historic Alexandria -- Georgetown at the Head of Navigation.

THE plantations, as will be seen, were communities sufficient each unto itself. Such was the depth of water and the continual series of natural harbours for sailing vessels in the creeks throughout tidewater Potomac, that the ships as a rule came to the planter's own landing and he had no need for ports. The river valley from the first remained the home of agriculture and fishing, to the exclusion of manufacturing, which would have stimulated town building. Except at the head of tidewater, where later the vessels put off their consignments for settlements in the hill country beyond their reach, only a few towns survive. This is not because the effort and, in at least the case of St. Mary's, the cause were wanting.

The old records and papers are full of references to "towns." Most of these were "paper towns," or perhaps a landing head with a tobacco warehouse and a store, for it has been said, "the settlers call /town/ any place where as many houses are as individuals required to make a riot; that is twenty."

St. Mary's City was the pioneer in town life on the Potomac as it was in colonization. But its example and its results in town making were not so effective nor so permanent as in colony making. To-day the landing at St. Mary's heads on a quiet shore almost as innocent of habitation as on the first spring day when Captain Henry Fleete led Governor Calvert and his pilgrims up to its beautiful green sweeps.

Yet here for over half a century stood the capital and only town of the whole province of Maryland. Hither, to attend court and to sit in the Assembly, and to adjust their taxes and other county business, the settlers came sailing down the Potomac from as far as Anacostin Indian Town opposite the site of the present national capital and down the Chesapeake from distant Kent Island and the mouth of the even more distant Susquehannah. Here Governor Calvert and his kinsman, Lord Baltimore, held a court and a control with princely powers over a territory equalling a principality. It is a unique instance in all American history of a colonial capital which has perished and left no trace of itself above the fields to which time has levelled it.

For thirty years after the arrival of the pilgrims St. Mary's made little real civic progress. It was Charles Calvert, later Lord Baltimore, who raised the little capital to its highest distinction. In 1668 it was incorporated into a "city" with municipal officials and the privilege of holding a weekly market and an annual fair. Thomas enumerates the civic improvements of St. Mary's at its highest stage of development as the "fort, or palisado, which though a rude structure compared with those of more modern date, was solidly built and well enough mounted to protect the inhabitants against the warfare of that day; its massive and dignified State House, with its thick walls, tile roof, and paved floors; its stout jail, with its iron-barred windows; its market-house, warehouses, and several ordinaries; its unique brick chapel, the victim of the persecution of the Roman Catholics of later times; its quaint Protestant church; its pretentious and fortress-like executive mansion; which, with its offices, private houses, and shops?of varied architectural design?numbering, it is said, about sixty, and scattered over the elevated but level plain, studded as we are told, with primeval forest trees, constituted the picturesque little metropolis of early Maryland."

At the west end of Middle Street, on the point where Horseshoe Bend begins, stood the Great Mulberry Tree which saw the rise of the capital as well as its decline and obliteration, and became, in the isolation of its endurance, a traditional landmark in Maryland akin to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. It survived until 1876 when some of its wood was worked into the decorations of near-by Trinity Episcopal Church, and smaller cuttings went, the way of General Washington's coach, into canes, gavels, and other souvenirs. It is said that relic hunters found crude nails embedded deep in the wood of the old mulberry, used, no doubt, in the early days to post Calvert's proclamations and other public notices for the enquiring gaze of the colonists. Almost within the shade of the historic tree stood the jail on the east in "Gallow's Green" and the state house on the south. The fort was still farther south where Key's Branch joins the St. Mary's.

The heart of the capital lay between this branch and St. John's Creek on the other side of Middle Street with its taverns, chapel, coffee house, and homes of the various dignitaries. Charles, Lord Baltimore, when governor, lived in the Palace of St. John which overlooked the St. Mary's from the north side of St. John's Creek. South of Middle Street was the town house of Leonard Calvert and then, along the St. Mary's in succession, beyond the Branch, "the White House" of Treasurer Giles Brent, "Sisters Freehold" of Margaret and Mary Brent, "Greene's Rest" of Governor Thomas Greene, the home of Chancellor Philip Calvert on Chancellor's Point, and the home of Daniel Wolstenholme, Royal Collector, at the junction of St. Mary's with St. Inigoes. The Collector's house survived in part as beautiful Rose Croft which burned away only a few years ago. It may be identified by the curious reader as "the Collector's House" in Kennedy's romance of early Maryland, "Rob of the Bowl."

All the while the little city was building, however, there were forging the weapons which were soon to strike it to the heart. Unwisely Calvert had placed his capital at the uttermost end of the province. With every shipload of immigrants the centre of population ebbed farther away. Moreover, the unqualifiedly Catholic character of the capital city alienated it from the Protestant settlers farther north and across the Bay on the Eastern Shore.

There were two temporary removals of the capital before the final stroke. When the Puritan Commonwealth came into power in England its colonial partisans in 1654 seized the documents and records at St. Mary's and moved them to Mr. Preston's house on the Patuxent River. The city's ancient rights were restored, however, in 1659. A calm of twenty years succeeded. Then, in obedience to popular clamour for a capital nearer the centre of the province, the courts and offices were removed to "The Ridge" in Anne Arundel County. One session of the Assembly was held here when the peripatetic capital, after a three-days' session at Battle Creek on Patuxent, returned to its original home on the Potomac. When William of Orange mounted the English throne in 1689 and Protestantism again became the established religion, the Catholic capital was doomed. The renewed proposal to wrest the capital from St. Mary's provoked a bitter controversy, but in the end the northern party won and ever since then the Maryland Assembly has sat at Annapolis on the Severn.

Bereft of all that gave it life St. Mary's City succumbed to the inevitable and peacefully passed away. All of it that is known to survive are the scattered fragments of the old Mulberry Tree, the bricks from the Catholic Church said to have been used in building the Manor of St. Inigoes a few miles away, and at Georgetown University, the council table, and the bell which in 1681 was hung in the State House the more economically to convene the Assembly and Court which formerly had gathered at the drummer's roll.

All but a few other towns on the Potomac refused to blossom. Community life kept to the private basis of the plantation. The situation pleased the planter. He was practically a feudal lord. Besides his family, he controlled his white indentured servants as completely as his black slaves who were his personal property. Yet, when towns refused to sprout spontaneously these same planters in Assembly struck the soil with the wand of legislation and ordered towns to spring forth.

Virginia led the way in legislating towns. In 1679 the Burgesses ordered that each county should purchase fifty acres of land. The price allowed was ten thousand pounds of tobacco and cask. It was directed that all goods for exportation should be brought to the towns and all servants, chattels, and other importations should be landed at the towns. Certain curious immunities were offered prospective residents, among them was that by which tradesmen and mechanics who took up permanent residence in the towns were to be free from arrest or seizure of their estates for debts contracted previously elsewhere. William Fitzhugh wrote optimistically to "Capt. Fras. Partis, near East Smithfield, London": "We are also going to make towns, if you can meet with any tradesmen that will come in and live at the Town they may have large privileges and immunitys."

Thus spurred, Maryland, as time ambled in those days, quickly followed Virginia's suit. Let there be towns, declared the Assembly at St. Mary's four years later, in 1683. "They shall be ports and places where all ships and vessels, trading in this province," declared the act as finally passed, "shall unlade and put on shore, and sell, barter and traffic away."

The three town sites selected on the Virginia shore were, in the original terms: "In Northumberland County, Chicacony," now Coan River Landing; "In Westmoreland County at Nominie on the land of Mr. Hardwicke"; and "In Stafford County at Pease Point at the mouth of Aquia on the north side." Maryland ordered just double that number in 1683. The sites selected were: "The City of St. Maries, Brittons Bay, Between the Mouth of Chaptico Bay and Westwood house, In Wiccocomoco River in or near Hattons Point, in Port Tobacco Creek near the Mouth, and At Chingo Muxen." The following year she added: "And at the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek att or neare Lewisses Neck." But of the making of paper towns on this side there seems to have been no end for at least three others were added in 1686 and two more two years later. Scraps of paper all, torn up by time. There are places at which, said Thomas Jefferson, "the /laws/ have said there shall be towns; but /Nature/ has said there shall not."

Virginia's legislation touching the river seems to have been an example to Maryland in other things besides ordering towns. For when the southern colony established ports in 1691 for the collection of all import and export duties, the northern colony followed suit in 1706. Again when Virginia established eight public warehouses for the inspection of tobacco on her shore in 1730, Maryland was spurred to order half a dozen similar warehouses on her side of the river. Those on the Maryland side were brick. This creeps out of the records. Perhaps the old Virginia tobacco warehouses were of brick also. There are no apparent remains to contradict a theory.

Among the legislated towns only a few seem to have had more than a paper existence. Kingsale then, Kinsale now, on the West Yeocomico, though never more than a village, brisk at boat-time, served as a public landing for a settled inland neighbourhood. Leonardtown, at the head of Bretton Bay, fell heir to the court house of St. Mary's and survives as the leading trading point of southern Maryland.

Port Tobacco once rivalled St. Mary's. It enjoyed a fine harbour, a protected position surrounded by prosperous plantations, and was on one of the most favoured colonial routes between the North and the South. Weld wrote of it, in the beginning of its decline in 1795: "Port Tobacco contains about eighty houses, most of which are of wood and very poor. There is a large Episcopalian church on the border of the town, built of stone, which formerly was an ornament to the place; the windows are all broken, and the road is carried through the church-yard, over the graves, the palings which surround it having been torn down." Nearly all the eighty houses have long since gone the way of those at old St. Mary's, but the few remaining, with their mossy brick and sagging roofs and crazy chimneys, compose a unique and very quaint specimen of a derelict colonial town.

The thrifty Scots who sailed up the river and came to anchor in Quantico Creek discovered near its mouth a beautiful meadow and there founded a substantial town which they named Dumfries. Evidences remain of the handsome stone-trimmed brick buildings which ornamented the place. It was for a while the centre of a considerable trade. These same Scots divided and some of their number settled on the Maryland shore farther up river. They left their mark in the name of one of the early (1696) political divisions, New Scotland Hundred, which included within its limits the present territory of the District of Columbia.

Before Parson Weems went to Belle Air to live he made his home at Dumfries. Here he had his book shop and his base of supplies whence he travelled up and down both sides of the river preaching, fiddling, and peddling. A more dignified figure was that of William Grayson who practised law in Dumfries after he returned from across seas from his studies at Oxford. He was one of Washington's most active supporters before and during the Revolution though he sided with George Mason in opposing the Constitution as adopted. However, when the nation was duly constituted, Virginia chose Grayson as one of her first two United States Senators. The other earliest Senator from Virginia was, as already noted, another Potomac man, Richard Henry Lee of Chantilly.

At the head of Occoquon Bay, where it meets the creek of the same name, at the waterside once stood the little town of Colchester whose reason for being was the ferry at that point which united the roadways north and south on the Virginia shore. Later an arched stone bridge supplanted the ferry, itself in turn to crumble and disappear. But in its heyday Colchester was a lively junction point for travellers who sampled its tavern's delicacies while the stable boys shifted the horses. "On this side the bridge stands a tavern," wrote rhapsodic Davis in 1801, "where every luxury that money can purchase is to be obtained at a first summons."

The same Davis spent some months a few miles up the creek where stood, and still stands, the village of Occoquon. He doesn't mince matters in the description: "No place can be more romantic than the view of Occoquon to a stranger, after crossing the rustic bridge, which has been constructed by the inhabitants across the stream. He contemplates the river urging its course between mountains that lose themselves among the clouds; he beholds vessels taking on board flour under the foam of the mills, and others deeply laden expanding their sails to the breeze; while every face wears contentment, every gale wafts health, and echo from the rock multiplies the voices of the waggoners calling to their teams." It would seem after this as if nothing more remains to be said of this town. However, attention should be called to the fact that the "mountains that lose themselves among the clouds" are nowhere above two hundred feet high, and Davis himself naively admits elsewhere that, in addition to two mills, "Occoquon consists of only a house built on a rock, three others on the riverside, and a half a dozen log huts scattered at some distance."

Piscataway Town, which took its name from the creek of that name, has at least one distinction. As already noted it was here, and one wonders where in a little colonial river village, the troupe of actors from the theatre in Annapolis presented one of the plays of their classic repertoire in 1752. This appears to have been the first theatrical performance ever given on the Potomac. It is possible that among the audience gathered for so distinguished an event were seen the Hansons and Addisons and Digges from near-by manors, perhaps entertaining their Virginia neighbours, George Mason and his lady of Gunston Hall and a certain eligible young man of twenty years, recently heir to his brother's Mount Vernon.

The two river towns which evolved from natural causes, and hence grew to importance and survived, were Alexandria on the west bank and Georgetown on the east bank, and only about seven miles apart. They took root near the head of tidewater Potomac where focussed (sic) the journey's end of most of the ships with cargoes for inland settlements to the north and west.

Among the public warehouses ordered in 1730 was one to stand at "Great Hunting Creek, on Broadwater's land." Here, or at least near by, grew a settlement at first called Belhaven, later the city of Alexandria. Its old streets and houses are rich in history. Especial interest attaches to the fine mansion which Colonel John Carlyle built near the shore on a high terraced foundation, in 1752. Three years later in this house five royal colonial governors met General Braddock, who had recently arrived to take command of the British forces in America, and evolved plans for the campaigns against the French and Indians on the west. Out of this meeting grew, it is said, the British determination to tax the colonies, which taxation in turn fermented the Revolution. It was from Alexandria that Braddock made his start on his fatal campaign beyond the mountains on this occasion. He gave George Washington a commission as aide-de-camp on his staff in Colonel Carlyle's house. Braddock took Washington with him, but he did not take his advice, and acknowledged his mistake as the breath left his body. When Washington returned and married and settled at Mount Vernon as a planter he made Alexandria his market town, driving up there occasionally to worship at Christ Church, more regularly after the Revolution, to vote, and to attend the balls and routs, among them the first public celebration of his birthday. Here again in the Carlyle house an eventually significant conference was held in 1785, attended by General Washington and the Governors of Virginia and Maryland, to settle certain disputes between the two commonwealths. This meeting adjourned to Mount Vernon and from it sprang the call for a meeting of delegates from all the commonwealths in 1787. This convention met in Philadelphia and framed the Constitution of the United States. In Alexandria, in comparatively early days, was built the first permanent theatre on the river, not reputed to have been a handsome structure, and the resident companies at Annapolis came to Alexandria in the eighteenth century to repeat their plays. It became the metropolis of the northern end of tidewater Virginia.

Georgetown rose apparently on the site of the Indian town of Tohogae, visited by Captain Fleet in 1632. Its position at the head of tidewater, below but near the falls, was a natural position for a shipping point in the days of almost exclusive water transportation. Similar natural conditions established and maintained Richmond at the head of tidewater on the James, Fredericksburg at the head of tidewater on the Rappahannock, and Baltimore at the head of tidewater on the Patapsco.

There was a ship's landing at Georgetown at least as early as 1703. Then and thereafter estates were fast developed back on the hills to the north, as well as south and east over the site of the future national capital. Georgetown was incorporated in 1751; and immediately became an important little metropolis. It was the main stopping place between Fredericksburg and Baltimore Town on the colonial highway from South to North. A continual round of celebrities were entertained in the coffee rooms and tap rooms of the ordinaries whose courtyards resounded with the pleasant excitement of shifting coach horses and exchanging coachmen and passengers. When the Federal Capital first came to the Potomac, it, too, was for a time largely a paper town, and the foreign ministers established their legations in the mansions on the heights of Georgetown. Its union with Washington City has destroyed neither its individuality nor its charm.

The rise and development of the Capital City at the head of tidewater Potomac is living history, the topic of a considerable literature, another story apart from this brief chronicle of the river.

With this glance at the location and at the fate of these towns on the river the survey of the general development of life along the Potomac is completed. The native Indian has been seen to give way to the explorers, and the explorers to the planters. In the planter group are the dominating and determining figures in the story of life along the shores. Established in their seats above their landings, be they manor houses of Maryland or mansions of Virginia; with an ordered civil life developed; with parishes laid off and churches built; interest may now attach to more intimate features of the planter's daily existence, the domestic and social life of his home and neighbourhood.

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