MHT File Photo
Port Tobacco Historic District
Port Tobacco, Charles County
Located along both sides of Chapel Point Road immediately south of Maryland Route 6, in a rural setting approximately 3 miles southwest of La Plata, Port Tobacco is one of Charles County's three incorporated municipalities. Founded as a port in 1684 and designated the county's seat of government in 1727, the town comprised more than 80 homes, commercial structures and public buildings by the third quarter of the 18th century. But after 1895, when the county seat was moved to La Plata following a fire that destroyed the courthouse, the town all but ceased to exist as a physical entity. Today, only a handful of buildings remain from that period when Port Tobacco was one of Maryland's most economically viable ports and a major center of commercial, political, and social activity for the entire region. Of the five surviving 18th and 19th century buildings, four have been privately restored as single family residences. Another was recently renovated for use as a children's museum. Two of these buildings, Chimney House and Stagg Hall, are immediately adjacent to one another at one corner of the town square and are considered particularly significant examples of local 18th century architecture. In 1972, the 1821-1892 courthouse was reconstructed on its original site for use as a museum of local history. Other buildings include several private residences built after 1940, and a brick wellhouse that was erected in 1958 over a 19th century hydrant to commemorate the county's tercentenary. Approximately 90 percent of the historic features of the community constitute archeological sites, nearly all of which have remained undisturbed by later development since the end of the 19th century.
In the context of lower Southern Maryland, Port Tobacco is a singularly unique cultural resource. Believed to be the region's oldest continuously occupied site, it was Charles County's largest and most important town from the late 17th century through to the end of the 19th century, and from 1727 until 1895, its seat of government. Established in 1684 on the site of an Indian settlement of the Late Woodland period whose existence was noted by Captain John Smith in 1608, by the mid 18th century Port Tobacco was recognized throughout the colonies as one of Maryland's premier centers of commerce and trans-Atlantic trade. A gathering place for the dissemination of information and the training of soldiers during the American Revolution, it also produced several individuals who attained considerable political prominence during the Revolutionary period, including Thomas Stone, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Hanson, first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. By the early 19th century, Port Tobacco's status as a port had declined, but it remained central to the economic, political, and social life of the county until other commercially viable communities began to develop following the advent of rail transportation in this locality in the early 1870s. During the Civil War, Port Tobacco was well known for the pro-southern activities and sympathies of its citizens, and then again in 1865 when Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was traced to this location. When the courthouse burned in 1892 and the county seat was moved to La Plata, Port Tobacco seemingly disappeared overnight. Little now remains to recall the town's former existence, although two architecturally significant 18th century buildings survive, and its 1819/21-1892 courthouse, a visual focal point for the town, was reconstructed on its original site in 1972. Port Tobacco's history and physical development is remarkably well documented in the county's archives and other historic documents. This information, in combination with its large number of known building sites, supports the conclusion that it is an archeological resource of inestimable value whose continued study will greatly advance our knowledge of the material culture of the Chesapeake region.