Photo illustration by Alice Kresse

If wealth in 18th-century Montgomery County was measured in land, then the richest man in the county was Robert Peter. Born in 1726 near Glasgow, Scotland, Peter came to America in 1746 as a representative of the Glasgow firm of John Glassford and Co., the Washington, D.C., area’s most prominent tobacco firm, according to the website for Tudor Place, the palatial Georgetown estate built by Peter’s son Thomas (it’s now a museum). Peter initially began his import/export business in Bladensburg, Maryland, with warehouses and weighing stations built in the busy port on the Patuxent River. Eventually Peter helped establish trade centers in nearly every town along the Potomac River.

Peter played a key role in establishing Georgetown as a major point of commerce in the tobacco trade. Georgetown was located in Montgomery County before its incorporation in 1789 through an act of the Maryland General Assembly. The community was the Bethesda area’s sole port town, crowded with ships laden with goods sailing the Potomac River. In 1791, Georgetown became part of the newly created District of Columbia.

Tobacco was the currency of trade in the 18th century, and Peter made a fortune in the business. As he accumulated wealth, he began buying land—large parcels that eventually stretched from Georgetown along River Road to Seneca.

Land was bought and sold with great fluidity in those days, so it’s difficult to know how much property Peter acquired, but his purchases are believed to have covered more than 20,000 acres, including a large portion of what is Bethesda today, according to land records.

Peter eventually settled in Georgetown and soon became a leading figure in the growth of the town and communities across the surrounding countryside. White tenant farmers or Black enslaved laborers cleared his acreage and prepared the fields for planting tobacco. Planting, pruning and harvesting was labor intensive and done strictly by hand; unlike the management of wheat or corn, no machinery had been invented to automate the harvesting process. Peter became the area’s most successful tobacco broker, making a fortune off the “noxious weed,” as King James I of England called it.

For his civic involvement in the growth of Georgetown, Peter was elected to serve as a justice of the peace in a portion of Frederick County that became Montgomery County in 1776. He also sat on Georgetown’s board of commissioners for 32 years. In 1789 he was appointed the first mayor of Georgetown.

In 1795 Peter’s son Thomas married George Washington’s step-granddaughter, Martha, who was born in 1777 at Mount Vernon. The younger Peter continued to tend his father’s estate following the elder Peter’s death in 1806, according to Tudor Place. Thomas’ brother, George, was one of the first students enrolled in what eventually became Georgetown University, joining the school in 1792 at age 13. Two years later, at 15, he ran away to join the Maryland troops sent to Pennsylvania to quell the Whiskey Rebellion, an armed insurrection of farmers protesting new taxes. After fighting in the War of 1812, George Peter was elected to Congress in 1815 as a representative from Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District.

The Peter estates in the Bethesda area continued to cultivate tobacco well into the 19th century. Tobacco grew on sprawling tracts of land stretching across Montgomery County’s southern border, including tobacco plantations straddling today’s Rockville Pike.

Huge sections of the original estate remained in the Peter family for generations, with Robert bequeathing a portion of his estate to his daughter, Margaret Dick, who in turn left it to her son, Robert.

Today the National Institutes of Health rises from the former tobacco fields of the Peter family.

Author and historian Mark Walston (markwalston@comcast.net) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.