Thoreau once wrote:
rivers must have been the guides which conducted the footsteps of the first travellers. They are the constant lure . . . the natural highways of all nations.
Flowing through a densely forested landscape, the Patuxent was indeed a natural highway for travelers: Native Americans navigated the river in dugout canoes, and Europeans explored unknown territory in ocean-going vessels. As colonists gradually cleared the land, the river remained the most convenient, economical means for travel and commerce. Sailing ships loaded with hogsheads of Maryland-grown tobacco set out for
The rivers were super highways of the early colonial period. There were virtually no roads and the only efficient means of moving people and material was along the many rivers. European settlements and plantations were established along the Patuxent and in 1657 a frontier outpost known as Mount Calvert was established 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. Just across the marsh, Billingsley Manor, which was first built in 1692 still stands. 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 today is the Mount Calvert house which was built in the 1790's. The site is of archeological interest and various digs continue around the site. Both Mount Calvert and Billingsley Manor are part of thePatuxent River Park administered by the Prince Georges County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
A few miles upriver of the Sanctuary is the location of the last stand of Barney's Fleet in the War of 1812. After harassing the British Fleet that was attacking American cities in 1814, the motley collection of 17 American sloops and gun barges was forced to retreat up the Patuxent River. Being unable to retreat further, Barney scuttled the fleet on August 22, 1814 at this site to avoid capture. When the new Route 4/Hills Bridge was built in 1990, remnants of Barney's ships were found buried more than five feet below the river bed. After the destruction of the American fleet, the British landed an army a few miles down river of Jug Bay at the town of Nottingham. This force marched on Washington, about 20 miles away. After defeating the American defenders at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British burned Washington and returned to their fleet at Nottingham. They sailed down the Patuxent on August 30 enroute to Baltimore and their unsuccessful attack on Fort McHenry that was immortalized in the Star Spangled Banner.
Throughout the 1800's, steamboats traveled the waters of the Patuxent River, carrying passengers and cargo. This traffic continued until the early 1900's when sedimentation due to erosion of the surrounding land finally closed the upper river to large ship traffic.