Montgomery County has always been a bellwether of national trends. Living in the backyard of the nation’s capital, the county’s residents have been both witness and party to many of the United States’ most significant historical events since before the Revolutionary War.
The land that eventually would become Montgomery County was already abuzz with human activity when the English explorer Captain John Smith arrived at the Potomac River in 1608
. Piscataway Native Americans had beaten him there by about 10,000 years and laid the groundwork for Montgomery County’s current infrastructure, forging paths through the forests
that evolved into colonial trading routes before being paved into major roads like River Road and Rockville Pike.
European settlers—predominantly English, Irish and Welsh—cleared the forests in the late 17th century, pushing the Native Americans west and planting the crop that would dominate the region’s economy for more than a century: tobacco.
In 1688, Henry Darnell patented the first tract
of land in the area, a strip on the east side of Rock Creek. The region was part of Prince George’s County, which spanned much of the present-day Washington, D.C. suburbs in Maryland, until 1748, when the county was divided and the western portion became Frederick County.
In 1776, Dr. Thomas Sprigg Wootton pushed through the state legislature a measure to divide Frederick County into three new counties, and Montgomery County—named for Continental Army Major General Richard Montgomery
, who never set foot in Maryland—was born. The state allotted four acres for a courthouse and jail in the center of the county. That hub grew steadily and is known today as Rockville, named for Rock Creek. Other communities later carried the family names of early settlers
: Layton, Clarke, Poole, Hyatt, Neel, Browning, Clagett, King, Dawson, White, Dickerson, Spencer, Burton, Darne, Brooke and Gaither.
Early Rockville bustled with political activity. Hungerford’s Tavern
was a popular meeting place for anti-royal revolutionaries, with notable patrons including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. In 1774, Maryland patriots congregated at the tavern to denounce the British taxes and proclaim their support for Boston following the blockade of its harbor. They issued “the Hungerford Resolves,” statements protesting the Crown that were published in the Maryland Gazette
and ginned up support for American independence.
Independence came, and, in 1791, the Maryland Assembly ceded 36 square miles of Montgomery County—including the coveted port of Georgetown—to the newly established capital of Washington, D.C.
Early Relationship with Washington
Montgomery County’s proximity to the capital proved vital in the nation’s early days. On August 26, 1814, President James Madison and his cabinet members fled to Brookeville and took refuge there for the night
while the British laid siege to Washington.
The county also served as a significant commercial transportation corridor in the 19th
century with the construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal
, which brought raw commodities from the Alleghenies to Washington and boasted powerful locks that were pinnacles of engineering at the time.
Antebellum and Civil War
By 1840, unsustainable farming practices had rendered much of the land unsuitable for crops. The agricultural economy suffered briefly but rebounded when the Sandy Spring Society of Friends (Quakers) introduced new farming methods like crop rotation, deeper plowing and fertilization. By 1860, the county’s agricultural economy had rebounded, having diversified from tobacco into corn, wheat and oats.
The shift to ne
w crops precipitated a decline in Black slave labor, though abolition would not reach Maryland until 1864. The story of one Montgomery County slave, Josiah Henson
, who worked on a plantation in northern Bethesda, became the basis for the main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
. Located between the plantations of northern Virginia, the massive slave markets of Washington, D.C., and the large community of free Blacks in Baltimore, the county served as a major route for escaped slaves via the Underground Railroad.
The county played a major role in the Civil War despite never seeing battle. Maryland was a border state and Montgomery County was deeply divided, with many Confederate sympathizers crossing the river to join the rebels. Rebel armies marched and countermarched through the county, plundering the countryside for horses and food. President Abraham Lincoln ultimately sent troops into the county to protect Maryland—and, by proximity, likely Washington—from falling into Confederate hands. Montgomery County remained Union territory and was spared from the perils of Reconstruction following the war.