When Captain John Smith first saw the Patuxent River, it ran deep, cold, and crystal clear. As Europeans cleared the land for farming, the river turned muddy, but it still teemed with life.
In the colonies tobacco, which was exported to Britain and Europe, quickly became the most important cash crop. The spread of tobacco determined the development of rural colonial life. Houses and plantations bordering the river became the norm. The biggest planters along the Patuxent built docks large enough to accommodate their tobacco crop and send it out on oceangoing ships. And, a number of industries quickly became instrumental to colonial life: shipping, shipbuilding, canning, and construction. The Patuxent became an important shipping and transportation artery.
Far more than the Indians who had lived along the river for thousands of years, the early colonists changed the Patuxent River and its wetlands: To create more farmland for tobacco and corn, thousands of acres of forest were stripped, leaving topsoil to wash into the river. Large tracts of land had been granted to wealthy colonists, who according to the headright system, received fifty acres for each indentured servant they brought with them from England. And, if indentured servants won their freedom, they too were granted land along the river.
In 1657 Mount Calvert (visible across the river from the Sanctuary's
Observation Deck), a frontier outpost, was established over a former Indian settlement on the bluff where the Western Branch flows into the Patuxent. Because sea-going vessels could sail this far upriver from the Bay, the area soon became a thriving seaport, later known as Charles Town.
In 1696 the county of Prince Georges was established, and Charles Town became the county seat or capitol of the county. At this time the town had at least five London tobacco merchants, a courthouse, a jail, a church, two taverns/inns, a dozen stores, an arsenal, a ferry, and - as an official Maryland Port of Entry, a customs house. Archeological digs continue to reveal unexpected discoveries of life at the site during colonial times. Just across the marsh from Mt. Calvert, Billingsley Manor, which was first built in 1692, still stands. Both
Mount Calvert and Billingsley Manor are part of the Patuxent River Park administered by the Prince Georges County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
In 1721, the county seat was moved up the Western Branch of the Patuxent to Upper Marlboro and the heyday of Charles Town passed. Today all that remains is the Mount Calvert house built in the 1790s.