Chesapeake Bay History - War of 1812 Bicentennial

Mount Calvert allows visitors to re-imagine War of 1812
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network / By Lara Lutz - Bay Jouranl

When the first gunboats exploded on the Patuxent River, everyone at Mount Calvert heard the blast. It was an ominous sound.

The year was 1814, and the United States was once again at war with Britain. Thousands of British troops were marching through southern Maryland to attack Washington.

At the same time, British ships sailed up the Patuxent River, moving more troops inland while chasing a troublesome collection of U.S. gunboats. Led by the bold U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney, these gunboats had been the only naval force to challenge British invaders on the Chesapeake Bay.

"The British wanted to keep Barney bottled up," said Ralph Eshelman, author of "The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake." "He kept going upriver and the British kept following."

Eventually, Barney's Flotilla reached the upper Patuxent River in Prince George's County. They anchored above the Mount Calvert plantation, just north of the modern-day nature preserves at Jug Bay.

On Aug. 22, a stifling summer day, British ships rounded the bend near the foot of Mount Calvert. Barney's boats came into view. "One by one, they blew up," Eshelman said.

Barney's Flotilla was destroyed by its own men rather than falling to enemy hands.

The people of Mount Calvert witnessed the firestorm of 16 exploding boats before the British called at their doorstep. With Barney's Flotilla out of the way, the British shipboard troops could now join the attack on Washington, DC.

The Brown family who owned the plantation, along with enslaved people who labored there, saw hundreds of marines and seamen disembark at the wharf at Mount Calvert and begin on a dusty march north.

In two days, Washington, DC, would burn.

Nearly 200 years later, Mount Calvert and its spectacular view of the Patuxent River have remained much the same. "Mount Calvert has one of the most attractive views of the Patuxent River," Eshelman said. "In many ways, it evokes what the scene may have looked like in 1814."

Despite its proximity to the city, the plantation house stands in regal isolation on a commanding crest above the river. Below, the Patuxent is joined by its western branch and forms dramatic curves and patterns through dense and textured wetlands.

Thanks to conservation efforts, the shores on all sides are thick with trees. The most visible structure on the opposite shore is the Billingsley House. But even this house, built in about 1740, was part of the 1814 viewshed.

Mount Calvert itself is now the Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park, operated by The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It is also a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.

As the War of 1812 approaches its bicentennial, Mount Calvert is drawing renewed attention for its part in the conflict and for the preservation of a setting that so strongly evokes the past. Adventurers will find Mount Calvert on the Star-Spangled Banner Geotrail, and the National Park Service is incorporating the park in its Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.

But the archaeologists who study Mount Calvert say the heightened drama of that distant August day is just one small part of its appeal. Mount Calvert marks one of the most significant historical and archaeological places in Prince George's County for reasons that stretch far beyond the War of 1812.
"We have 10,000 years of human history here, on just one site," said Don Creveling of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Creveling's team has recovered thousands of artifacts at Mount Calvert since excavations began in 1996. Each year, volunteers aid the effort on specially scheduled public archaeology days.

Most of the artifacts discovered at Mount Calvert originated with American Indians, a reminder that human history along the Patuxent belongs largely to them. The American Indian presence began with seasonal hunting camps and grew to include permanent settlements and farms along the river's edge. The artifacts - including spear points, pottery, smoking pipes and remains of stone hearths - date from as recently as the early 1600s to the oldest reach of the Archaic Period more than 9,000 years ago.

Certainly, the site was a good one for settlement. In colonial times, Maryland had hoped to make it a major town.

"The General Assembly created towns to encourage settlement," said archaeologist Michael Lucas, also with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "It picked Mount Calvert for a town site in 1684."

The name was drawn from its original owner, Philip Calvert. When Prince George's County was established 12 years later, Mount Calvert was renamed "Charles Town" and became the county seat.
Charles Town evolved into a busy community of legal business and maritime trade, including a courthouse, jail, church, taverns and wharves.

"Most towns at the time were temporary spaces," Lucas said. "But in this case they had the court, so that was the glue holding the town together."

Ships as large as 350 tons called at Charles Town, and major London merchants used it as a base. But the town's future dimmed in 1721 when Upper Marlboro replaced it as the county seat. Like Charles Town, Upper Marlboro had access to the river, but it also had a better network of roads for distributing goods.

"The theory was that this place died out," Lucas said. "Was that really true? It seems to pan out."
None of the Charles Town buildings stand today, but Lucas has been exploring five building sites along the waterfront, quite close to the plantation house. So far, none of the artifacts dates past the 1720s.

Mount Calvert re-emerged as a plantation and ferry landing. Ironically, the War of 1812 played a direct role in its new enterprise.

"Capt. John Brooks, one of the people who were here for the war, liked it so much that he ended up buying the property," Lucas said.

Brooks' plantation depended on slave labor. Cowrie shells found at Mount Calvert - tied to the slave trade in Africa - date to the early 18th century. By the time Brooks died in the mid-1800s, 51 enslaved people lived and worked there.

The plantation's next owner, Samuel Berry, was an outspoken defender of slavery. "After emancipation, he basically rented out parts of his property and sold other parts," Lucas said. Berry's family wanted to sell the remaining property when he died, but the area was so depressed that they had difficulty finding buyers.

Today, an interpretive trail and exhibits in the plantation house tell the story of three cultures รข€” American Indian, African American and English colonists - that have shaped Mount Calvert's past.
The War of 1812 is noted, too, and the exhibits describing those events will be expanded for the war's bicentennial.

Creveling said that approximately 3,000 people visit the park each year, and half of them arrive by water. Most paddle in from a downstream launch site at the Jug Bay Natural Area. But these guests are more likely to picnic than to march on Washington, DC.

They land at the Mount Calvert dock in the same spot once visited by trade ships, ferries and the invading British army, with the plantation house on a peaceful rise above them. The stillness is a marked contrast to the many footsteps that have traveled this same route, but it offers an unparalleled opportunity to imagine them.

Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park
Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park is open from April through October. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday and weekdays by appointment.
Admission is free. Relic or artifact collecting is strictly prohibited.
To arrive by land: Take Route 301 in Upper Marlboro, MD, turn onto Route 382/Croom Road. Go 3 miles, turn left onto Mount Calvert Road, then go 3 miles to entrance.
To arrive by water: Launch canoes or kayaks at the Jug Bay Natural Area, 16000 Croom Airport Road, Upper Marlboro, MD, and paddle to the landing at Mount Calvert. Rentals are available. Call 301-627-6074 or visit www.pgparks.com.
For information about Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park, visit www.pgparks.com/Things_To_Do/Nature/Mount_Calvert_Historical_and_Archaeological_Park.htm or call 301-627-1286; 301-699-2544 (TTY).
Details about the Star-Spangled Banner Geotrail, including the Mount Calvert cache, can be found at http://friendsofchesapeakegateways.org, under "Projects."

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD.

Chesapeake Bay History War of 1812
Article from Bay Journal April 2011

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