It’s easy to be transported back in time in Charles County. Rural roads meander through woods, across streams and between fields, some adorned with tobacco barns. Sprinkled throughout this typical Southern Maryland countryside are historic sites, villages, and quiet churches.
The final resting places of settlers and patriots, churchyards tell their own story of regional history.
The county composes the western part of the Southern Maryland peninsula. Established in 1658, it originally included a much larger area, extending to the North. U.S. 301 bisects the county, and connects Central Maryland to Virginia and points South across the Potomac River. The river forms the Southern and Western boundaries of the county.
The Charles County Historical Society has helped preserve the history of the county for nearly 50 years. They own and maintain Friendship House, in cooperation with Charles County Community College, where it was relocated to save it from destruction. Tours of this 18th. Century Tidewater dwelling offer a glimpse of the typical structure of the period and the life of yeomanry in the English tradition. It harkens back to European traditional craftsmanship. Timber framed, with a steep pitched roof, it is one of the oldest structures in the county. (Charlescountyhistorical.org)
Charles County parks offer a variety of activities: hiking, hunting, fishing, equestrian facilities, disc golf, an eagle cam, the state’s first certified foot golf (played with a soccer ball) course, skateboarding, aquatics, gymnastics are just some of the offerings. The county also features water trails, and information is available at their site on access, safety rules, regulations, and highlights of each. (CharlesCountyParks.com)
The Southern Maryland Heritage Area Consortium is an affiliation of people and organizations dedicated to developing tourism in the area through preservation, conservation, and education. Small business development and heritage tourism are promoted in certified heritage areas, with help from the state of Maryland. Heritage areas in Charles County are the towns of Port Tobacco and Indian Head, as well as Friendship Farm Park on Nanjemoy Creek. (Destination Southern Maryland has a link to this program)
(State park information, including the latest hours, programs, and activities, trail maps and other useful visitor tidbits, can be found at dnr.Maryland.gov)
Several trails connect points of interest in Charles County. These trails lead explorers to sites which share a common theme or history. They are a great help in planning a visit, especially if the theme is of particular interest to the visitor.
Rail trails are gaining popularity as a way to use abandoned railroad beds to offer recreational opportunities for biking and hiking. Indian Head Rail Trail crosses the county from Indian Head on the Potomac to U.S. HIghway 301 in White Plains, passing through marsh habitat along the upper reaches of Mattawoman Creek. The absence of motor vehicles here offers excellent wildlife viewing. Three Notch Trail, which starts near the Charles and St. Mary’s County line, is planned to follow an old railroad bed down to the Naval Base at Lexington Park. The name comes from the early 18th Century when 3 notches of equal distance carved on a tree indicated a road/trail to a ferry. (TrailLink.com)
The Religious Freedom National Scenic Byway is a scenic and cultural drive through Southern Maryland, celebrating the early attempts in Maryland to establish freedom of worship for differing Christian denominations. (destinationsouthernmaryland.com and visitmaryland.com both have information on this trail) Charles County is host so several sites:
- Smallwood State Park preserves Smallwood’s Retreat, home of Gen. William Smallwood. The leader of Maryland troops serving under Gen. Washington (they played a key role in saving the Continental Army from disaster at Long Island), he was later a legislator, governor, and called for the Maryland convention to debate the Constitution. He was a member of Durham Parish Episcopal Church. The park offers fishing, nature trails, camping, and a marina. Special events and craft demonstrations are held at various times, and the house is open on a seasonal schedule. Gen. Smallwood is buried nearby. The park is on Mattawoman Creek, across from Indian Head.
- Old Durham Church, c.1732, is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Maryland, and is located near Nanjemoy.
C . A scenic spot on the Potomac, Douglas Point has a rich diversity of wildlife.The site of a house built by Francis Shephard in 1798, and occupied by Rev. William Chiles in the mid 19th Century, it has been the site of archaeological digs, with the chimney ruins marking the location. Rev. Chiles, from Caroline County, Virginia, married into the Shephard family. A Baptist minister, he served as pastor at Nanjemoy Baptist Church. He established a nearby mission church in Newburg, and several African Americans he baptized broke off to form their own church.
- Thomas Stone National Historic Site, Habre de Venture (1771), was the home a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas’ ancestor, William, was the first Protestant governor of Maryland, and received acreage in Charles County in 1658. Thomas, his wife Margaret,and several family members are interred in the nearby family cemetery. It is located just North of Port Tobacco.
- Mount Carmel, Port Tobacco – Chandler’s Hope was the first home of the Carmelite Nuns in America. Until the Bill of Rights guaranteed religious freedom, American women had to travel to Europe and enter a convent to pursue a religious life because of anti- Catholic laws. Mother Bernardina Matthews, along with her two nieces Sister Mary Aloysia and Mary Eleanora, and Sister Clare Joseph came from Antwerp in 1790 to found the Carmel in Maryland. The 1830’s saw the Nuns move to Baltimore, where a larger population offered more support for their work. A group began to restore the original site in the 1930’s, with the hope of eventually bringing the Nuns back to Charles County, which finally occurred in the 1970’s. They live a life of prayer and hard work, and are supported by gifts and purchases from the monastery gift shop.
- St. Ignatius Church (parish founded in 1641 by Fr. Andrew White, S.J.), Cemetery, and St. Thomas Manor House are located at Chapel Point, on a 120 foot bluff overlooking the Port Tobacco River at its confluence with the Potomac. The church is possibly the oldest active parish in the country. A century ago, much of Charles County was served by Jesuit priests from St. Thomas Manor. Chapel Point State Park is being developed, and now offers fishing and game hunting.
- Christ Church (now Christ Church Wayside), one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the county, serves William and Mary Parish (Piccawaxen Parish before the Establishment Act of 1692). The oldest public building in the county (1690), it was enlarged in 1750, and remains essentially the same except for post Civil War repairs. It is located near Newburg and was the boyhood church of Thomas John Clagget. (consecrated as first U.S. bishop in 1792)
Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail is a network of trails showcasing the natural and cultural resources of the Potomac River region. (nps.gov/maryland) A portion of the trail passes from St. Mary’s County through Charles County, connecting Chapel Point, Port Tobacco Historic District, Thomas Stone Historic Site, Doncaster State Demonstration Forest, Smallwood State Park, and Mattawoman Creek Art Center. This hiking and bicycling trail links several Charles County parks and historic sites. Two other national park trails pass through Charles County. The Captain John Smith Chesapeake Trail recognizes the importance of the early colonial explorations of the intrepid mariner. It includes a Geotrail, featuring geocaches that can be discovered using a smartphone app.( nps.gov under the state of Maryland section) The Star-Spangled Banner Trail (www.nps.gov/stsp) features several sites in Charles County:
- Benedict on the Patuxent River is where the British troops under Gen. Ross landed and began their march towards Washington City in August, 1814.
- Lower Cedar Point, near the U.S. 301 bridge over the Potomac and Woodland Point near Cobb Island were sites of skirmishes during the War of 1812. (George Washington recorded a fishing trip to this area in his diary: “ Feb., 1766 catched none.”
- Port Tobacco and Chapel Point were camps for Americans in the War of 1812
- A gun battery at Indian Head failed to stop the British, as indeed most American attempts in the Lower Chesapeake region failed,
A Maryland Civil War Trail connects sites in Charles County relating to the assassination of President Lincoln. A large portion of Booth’s escape route passed through Charles County, and he had help from several friends. John Wilkes Booth: Escape of an Assassin follows the approximate path of his escape. (civilwartrails.com)
The Eastern edge of Charles County borders the Patuxent River. Benedict was founded in 1683. Nearby is Serenity Farm on the Patuxent River. It has seen much history, from Native Americans, to British soldiers, to African-Americans training for the Union Army (Camp Stanton) and an African-American cemetery. Today it produces pasture raised meats, Harvest House produce, and hosts events, tours, and agritourism. Farm Heritage Conservancy seeks to reconnect people to the land through preservation, cultivation, and education. St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church has been an active and vital part of the community since it was established in the 1860’a. The historic files of the church tell us that Reverend Abraham Dent was the founding pastor.
Nearby Maxwell Hall, built by tobacco planter and merchant George Maxwell around 1768, is known for its massive twin chimneys. The British stopped here in Aug., 1814, and camped at the nearby village of Patuxent. Old Fields is a chapel of Trinity Parish, Trinity Episcopal in Charlotte Hall. Built in 1769, the simple brick building is of Flemish bond construction. It is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the county. The small cemetery contains the graves of several British soldiers who died in he British camp at Benedict.
Hughesville is a former tobacco market center. It’s location, with roads leading to 3 counties, makes it an important center for services and regional economic development. Oak Ridge Park offers an equestrian area with riding rings, seven miles of trails, and a show area available for rental. Some groups schedule open events. Nearby Maxwell Hall Park has 14 miles of riding trails, including woods, fields, and shoreline. (Maxwell Hall Park requires a membership or guest pass.)(charlescountyparks.com)
Cedarville State Forest is a 3500 acre woodland park with a large swamp, wildlife viewing, fishing, riding, and camping opportunities which straddles Prince George’s and Charles Counties. The Piscataway Indians used this area as a winter camping ground because of the abundant game. Colonial attempts to drain the swamp for agricultural purposes failed.
St. Peter’s Church began in 1700 as a mission church on Upper Zacchia Swmp. During times of persecution from 1794-1776, priests disguised themselves as peddlers to avoid arrest. They designed ‘chalice saddles’ to look like a bell to make detection less likely. (one survives at St. Thomas Manor) Freedom to worship came with independence and a new Maryland constitution in 1776. The first diocese in the U.S. was in Baltimore, and Bishop John Carrol changed the name from St. Ignatius to St. Peter’s Church around 1792. A new church was constructed in 1860 on land donated by Thomas Reeves a mile from the original church. The current church was built on this site in 1971.
Boarman’s Manor, a proprietary grant with prerogatives of court baron from Lord Baltimore dates back to 1674, and comprised 3333 acres. This area later grew into Bryantown and became a prosperous trade center by the 19th Century. Approximately 19 structures comprise the Bryantown Historic District, including tobacco barns with gambrel roofs, Brick House which is noted for its fine Federal gardens, and Evergreen (1874), the finest Carpenter Gothic house in the county. The tavern is the oldest surviving commercial structure in the county.
The Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum is a couple of miles North of Bryantown. Dr. Mudd set Booth’s broken leg on April 15, 1865. The museum is a good place to learn more about the doctor’s life, his imprisonment, release and later life. He received a pardon in the 1970’s for his wrongful conviction as an accomplice in the plot. Sometimes a guided tour called “Tracking an Assassin” which takes visitors to rarely seen areas of the farm, including the route he and David Herold took to enter Zekiah Swamp.
A mile South of Bryantown is St. Mary’s Church and Cemetery, where Dr. Mudd worshipped, and met Booth at least a couple of times a few months prior to the assassination. Booth was probably trying to find Southern supporters who would help in a plan to kidnap President Lincoln. Dr. Mudd is also buried in the cemetery here. Several historical markers refer to sites in the county associated with John Wilkes Booth’s escape. Much of the escape route followed Zekiah Swamp.
The other end of Zekiah’s Swamp is at Allens Fresh, where it empties into the Wicomico Scenic River. This area of freshwater marsh changing to tidal salt marsh numbers among its residents eagles, osprey, and otters. This habitat is important for filtering water moving towards the Potomac/Chesapeake watershed. Zekiah Swamp is 21 miles of braided streams running the length of Charles County. It averages a mile wide, with much agricultural land adjacent. It is the largest hardwood swamp in Maryland, and more of its land is currently being preserved.. Swamp is managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as an undeveloped natural area, and offers a few opportunities for wildlife viewing/photography.
During early colonial times, it was a center for trade and the 1674 Courthouse at Moore’s Lodge was in the area. Though the exact site is not known, it is thought to have been in the Zekiah Swamp area. The site of a 1680 fort built to protect friendly Indians from hostile tribes to the North was located in 2011. The county seat was moved to Port Tobacco in 1727, and the land reverted back to agriculture, most as an estate named Greenland.
Nearby is Rich Hill, an 18th. Century farmhouse, and the home of Col. Samuel Cox, a Confederate sympathizer. On Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865 he aided John Wilkes Booth and David Herold, bringing them food and newspapers. They hid in the woods while Union soldiers searched for them. On April 21, 1865 Thomas Jones, Cox’s foster brother, helped them escape across the Potomac by night.
The Southeast portion of Charles County, along the Wicomico River, has several historic structures.Sarum c.1717, was built by Joseph Pile, on the site of his grandfather’s house.The land was patented by John Pile in 1662. This fine example of a smaller Colonial dwelling was in the Pile family until the 19th Century. St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church serves the Newport parish. The first church for this parish was started by Father Basil Hobart in 1674. Various Jesuit priests served this parish from the St. Thomas Manor at Chapel Point. Christ Church (now Christ Church Wayside) Episcopal Church building dates to 1690. The original parish was called Piccawaxen, but by 1692 it was changed to William and Mary parish. This was the boyhood church of John Clagett, the first bishop consecrated in the U.S. It may be the oldest public building in the county. It has served the Cobb Neck area for over 325 years.
Wolleston Manor was the home of Capt. James Neale. A marker on U.S. 301 in Newburg states he built his manor in this vicinity in 1661, though it has since been destroyed. The 1642 patent was for 2000 acres with court leet and court baron, a reference to the judicial powers granted to the patent recipient. Nearby, the Maryland Veterans Museum at Patriot Park offers exhibits and media to help educate the public about our military history and heritage. The museum hosts events to honour veterans, past and present. Living history, reenactments, performances and special tours help celebrate the sacrifices of veterans from the Revolutionary period to the present.
Cliffton was the home of Maj. Roderick Watson, located on the Potomac River near the present U.S. 301 bridge. Thomas Jones served as a Confederate agent in the area, forwarding mail northward. Watson’s daughter, Mary, hung signals in a window when it was not safe for the mail boat to cross. Many Confederate sympathisers crossed into Virginia from this area, especially early in the war.
Visitors who cross the Potomac River on U.S. 301 near Newburg have a chance to get the latest tourist information at the Crane Memorial Travel and Visitor’s Center, about a mile past the bridge. A state map and schedule of current events is always useful to the intrepid traveller.
A peninsula to the South, between the Potomac and Wicomico Rivers, ends at Cobb Island. This resort area has local seafood establishments in a waterfront setting, as well as marinas. On December 23, 1900 Reginald Aubrey Fessenden made history here when he sent and received the first intelligible speech via electromagnetic waves.
Loyola on the Potomac is a Jesuit Retreat House offering retreat weekends and other options for spiritual growth. The historical marker located at Popes Creek Road and Loyola Retreat Road, is for Huckleberry, home of Confederate mail agent Thomas Jones. He helped Booth and Herold set out from nearby Dents Meadow, providing them a boat on April 21, 1865, to cross the Potomac into Virginia.
About a mile South of Nanjemoy, on Route 5, is a marker of Efton Hills, the birthplace of Admiral Raphael Semmes, CSN. George Washington owned a farm west of Nanjemoy. He bought the 600 acres in 1775, and visited here in 1786 accompanied by Gen. Smallwood. Nanjemoy Wildlife Area consists of several parcels in the area, encompassing over 1300 acres. Bird watching, fishing, and hunting are popular activities. A variety of habitats and trails offer visitors chances to see turkey, fox, deer, turtles, eagles and ospreys.
Nearby Wilson Landing Road ends at Mallows Bay Park, 18 square miles of Potomac River which is being preserved as a sanctuary. More than 100 shipwrecks, dating back to the Civil War, have been colonized by plants, creating fish habitat and osprey nesting platforms. A guided kayak tour is a good way to explore this Ghost Fleet. Native American sites, Potomac fishing industry history, and Civil War connections make this a culturally rich area. The park also offers fishing, hiking, a boat ramp and excellent wildlife viewing.
The area along the Potomac in Charles County was occupied by 12,000 Union troops under the command of Gen. Joseph Hooker and Gen. Daniel Sickles from October, 1861 to March, 1862. Gen. Hooker had his headquarters at Chiccamuxen Methodist Church. Gen. Sickles had his headquarters near Doncaster Demonstration Forest. Budds Ferry was the site of a Union battery early in the war. Confederate troops across the Potomac were observed from a balloon from this area. Chicamuxen Wildlife Management Area along Chicamuxen Creek offers a variety of wildlife, including waterfowl, osprey, heron, hawks and eagles. Today, hunters can find white-tailed deer where soldiers once marched.
John Smith visited the Indian village of Potobac in 1608. Eventually Port Tobacco became the accepted name. It was the Charles County seat from 1658-1895, and an important port for two centuries. George Washington visited here often. Port Tobacco began to decline when the harbour silted up and the railroad passed through nearby LaPlata, leading merchants to leave. A destructive fire also helped the decline. Historic Port Tobacco, with a combination of restoration and recreation, is bringing to life the historic village. The reconstructed 19th Century Court House is a museum. The restored One Room SchoolHouse (1872) and two story Stagg Hall (1766) with its gambrel roof and original wood paneling are local landmarks. Archaeological research is bringing more of Port Tobacco’s past into focus. Locally, Part of Plenty B&B and Rosewood Manor (1930’s era French Style Manor) B&B offer accommodations to weary travelers seeking a rural retreat.
John Hanson, the first President of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, was born at nearby Mulberry Grove in 1721. He served in the legislature from Charles County, becoming a leader in the opposition to British policies towards the American colonies in the 1760’s. Nearby is Coates Retirement ( now Ellerslie), birthplace of Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer (1723-1790). He was active in colonial and Maryland state government and friend of luminaries of the founding generation.
La Grange was built c.1765 by Dr James Craik, friend and family physician of George Washington and Surgeon General in the Revolutionary Army. Its neoclassical design is architecturally significant, and the brickwork on the ends of the frame house was probably done by the same hands as those at nearby Rose Hill. It was probably named for Lafayette’s ancestral home and was built on land purchased from General Smallwood. Rose Hill, ½ mile North of Port Tobacco on Rose HIll Rd., was the home of Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown, whose grave is nearby. A friend of George Washington, he was one of the attending physicians at the death of the great citizen. It was also the home of Olivia Floyd, a Confederate agent and her brother Robert Semmes Floyd, who was killed in action in the Confederate service. Both are buried in St Ignatius Chapel Point, two miles to the South. A couple miles west of Port Tobacco,
Brentland was the Birthplace of Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Lancaster Brent (1826-1909). He served in the Trans-Mississippi Department.
Church of St. Joseph, near Pomfret, was established by Father Joseph Hunter, S.J. in 1763. Buried here is Maurice McDonough, an 18th Century merchant who left his ‘modest wealth’ to establish free schools for poor children in the area. The fund still helps area children with scholarships.
Chandler’s Hope was the home of Job Chandler, first settler in Charles County, and parts of the house date back to 1640’s. He was aided by Potopaco Indians. Archbishop Leonard Neale was born here; he and his five brothers were Catholic priests. Mount Carmel Monastery, founded 1790, was the first seat of Carmelite nuns in America. Its over 800 acres were donated to the monastery by Reverend Charles Neale, who became their chaplin. Three of the four founding nuns were also Charles County natives.
Christ Church Episcopal was established by colonists about 1683. It was one of thirty parishes established by the Assembly in 1692 and supported annually by a poll tax of 40 lbs.of tobacco. It was moved in 1904, stone by stone, from Port Tobacco to LaPlata, and rebuilt at it current site near the courthouse. The need for a chapel in the upper part of the parish led the General Assembly to establish St. Paul’s Chapel of Ease (known as St. Paul’s, Piney) in 1754. It remained a chapel of ease until 1967, when it was organized as a separate parish, and became St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Piney Parish in 1968.
The Maryland Assembly’s Establishment Act of 1692 divided the colony into thirty parishes, required taxes to pay for construction, rector, and the Book of Common Prayer to be used in the churches. The Anglican Church was thus recognized by the colony. After 1776, the tie to the Church of England was dissolved and the Maryland Vestry Act was passed in 1779 to reorganize the parishes. A 1780 convention met on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the Protestant Episcopal Church was formed.
Wedged between Indian Head Highway and the Potomac River is an area of natural beauty, Chapman State Park. Southern Maryland’s agricultural riches are on display in this park. Open Space park: pastures, woodlands, and vistas of the Virginia and Maryland shores up and down the Potomac. Woodland, marsh, and river trails are popular for wildlife viewing.
Mt. Aventine, the historic home of the Chapman family, friends of George Mason and George Washington, is set on a commanding hill with sweeping views of the Potomac. The property still
contains the entire acreage of the 1673 patent issued to Luke Gardner. Sold to Nathaniel Chapman, a wealthy Virginia planter, in 1751, the original house nearer the river burned. Pearson Chapman built the current mansion about 1840. Union forces used it as a signal/observation post during the Civil War. It was enlarged around 1860, and has had other alterations. With a central hall, two wings, and eight fireplaces, it is significant enough to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Friends of Chapman State Park open the house on Sundays, April-September, for tours and historic presentations.
The Chapman family sold the estate in 1914, and among the owners was the Countess Margit Bessenyey, late wife of the Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. An avid equestrian, she created a stud farm for Hungarian thoroughbred horses between 1954 and 1984. Barns, stables and the arena are still on the grounds.
Mattawoman Creek is noted for its excellent fishing. Mattawoman State Natural Environmental Area protects wildlife habitat along some of the creek. Popular for paddling, as well as hiking, this natural area has tidal wetlands, marsh, and woodlands full of wildlife, even some rare species. Part of the Indian Head Rail Trail offers hikers/bicyclists views of the wetlands along the creek. Over 20 species of waterfowl can be seen migrating in the fall.
Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area is largely hardwood forest, with wetlands and varied wildlife. Many game and fish species are found in a nearly 4500 acre expanse protecting some of the headwaters of Mattawoman Creek. Indian Head has seen Indian residents, John Smith and colonial settlers, and for more than a century has been a naval proving ground. Now the Naval Sea Systems Command: The Force Behind the Fleet, is the major presence on this peninsula.
Piscataway Park, mostly in neighboring Prince George’s County, oversees adjacent Marshall Hall Park. Marshall Hall was Thomas Marshall’s tobacco plantation, and the house, started about 1730, is now just a ruin. The late 19th Century saw this area develop as a park, served by steamboats, bringing visitors down from the Washington, D.C. area to Marshall Landing. Mt. Vernon is a scenic view across the Potomac. The 1890’s saw an amusement park develop on the site, and it entertained patrons until 1980. Across Indian Head Highway from the park is Eutaw, the home of Capt. William Fendlay Dement, 1st. Maryland Artillery, C.S.A.. It is located off Maryland 239. He served with distinction in many battles. He is buried in nearby Pomfret.
If you love sports events, catch a game in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs play at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf. Who knows, you may see a future major leaguer.
Get the most out of your travel experiences, check websites for local restaurants (many have menus online), special events, museums, parks and historic sites. Many update their sites to reflect any changes in hours or availability of facilities. Seek out local markets, check out the local cuisine, patronize Southern Maryland arts and crafts. Slow down, just around the next curve may be your new favorite place!