Port Tobacco, officially Port Tobacco Village, is a town in Charles County, Maryland, United States. The population was 13 at the 2010 census, making Port Tobacco the smallest incorporated town in Maryland.
Areas along the waterways of present-day Maryland were inhabited for thousands of years by various cultures of distinct indigenous peoples. At the time of European exploration, this coastal area along the Port Tobacco River was the territory of the Potapoco, an Algonquian-speaking tribe. They called their settlement Potapoco. Overall, the dominant tribe on the north side of the Potomac River was the Algonquian Piscataway tribe, which later absorbed some of the smaller tribes' survivors.
Within a generation of the first Maryland settlers' landing at St. Clement's Island, they pushed the frontiers of the colony north and west toward the Potomac and Port Tobacco rivers. The English developed a small village about 1634 on the east side of the Port Tobacco tributary. It became the nucleus for trade and government. It was first called Chandlers Town. The town was one of the oldest English-speaking communities on the East Coast of the United States.
Later the English adapted the Native American name as Port Tobacco. Its name also referred to what became the colony's chief export commodity crop. The town grew as it became a major port for the tobacco trade, with export product transported by ocean-going sailing ships. During the late 17th century, Port Tobacco became the second largest river port in Maryland. In 1658, it was designated the first county seat of Charles County.
The early immigrants to Port Tobacco were products of the religious turmoil in England. Their deeply felt convictions were powerful influences in Maryland's history. The area had both Catholic and Church of England congregations. The Jesuits established a mission in 1641 and later a church at what became St. Thomas Manor at Chapel Point. The manor's chapel was expanded to what is called St. Ignatius Church, a center for local Native Americans converted to Christianity. The oldest continuously operating Catholic parish in the United States, the complex is now a National Historic Landmark.
Freed from restraints by the Toleration Act of 1649 and feeling a need for spiritual guidance, some settlers gathered their first Anglican church in a log building at the head of the Port Tobacco Creek. The year was 1683, nine years before the Establishment Act. Supported by the tobacco poll tax of 40 pounds per head from 1692–1776, Christ Church prospered. The community built a second structure in 1709. After the American Revolution, the Anglican Church was disestablished in the US. Parishioners rallied to contribute directly to Christ Church. After the building was destroyed by a tornado in 1808, they financed a new brick structure by a lottery. The new Christ Church was first occupied in 1827. Falling into disrepair after 60 years of use, it was demolished and replaced with a stone edifice in 1884.
For two centuries, Port Tobacco area residents had central roles in state and national history. John Hanson was elected first President by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation; Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer was a signer of the United States Constitution; and Thomas Stone was one of four of the Maryland delegation who signed the Declaration of Independence.
The town started declining as it became cut off from access to Chesapeake Bay and ocean as silt and tidal action changed the Port Tobacco River. At the same time, coastal ships became larger and were unable to use the river. When the former seaport was bypassed during construction of railroad lines in the late 19th century, its decline continued. In 1895 the county seat was moved to La Plata, which further contributed to the decline of the town.
Its remains today are identified as Port Tobacco Village. Because of the town's abrupt decline and silting of the river, many archeological sites have been preserved, making it one of the richest areas for studying the mixed history of Native and colonial cultures, including that of enslaved Africans.
During the Civil War, the town was occupied by Union troops, leading to the emancipation of many local slaves after 1863. When the railroad built a stop at La Plata, it began to lobby the legislature to move the county seat there, which was accomplished in 1895.
Visitors may see the reconstructed Port Tobacco Courthouse, furnished as a 19th-century courtroom. The second floor has exhibits on the important tobacco culture and archaeological finds, which reveal early colonial and Native American life. This work was sponsored by the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco, which is helping a public archeology project on the entire town. Other notable historic sites are:
The St. Thomas Manor and Cemetery at Chapel Point provide insight into early Catholic history and Jesuit missionary activity in the colony; it is the oldest continuously operating Catholic parish among the Thirteen Colonies.
In 2007 the Port Tobacco Archeological Project was begun by a partnership among the Archeological Society of Maryland, the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco, the Southern Maryland Heritage Area Consortium, Preservation Maryland, and Preserve America. It has encouraged participation by the community, with an Internet blog and regular chances for volunteer participation at many levels.