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History of Columbia, Maryland

April 6, 2021

The history of Columbia, Maryland, begins with the broader history of the surrounding Howard County, Maryland. The region had been inhabited by Native Americans, particularly the Susquehannock, a group of Iroquoian tribes who were also known by the British as the Conestoga.

In 1632, the British established the Province of Maryland, a Chesapeake Bay-area colony that fought with the Susquehannock for territorial control. In 1652, an English/Susquehannock treaty ceded the territory of what would become Howard County to the British.

British provincial lords ruled Maryland for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, establishing tobacco plantations there based on indentured and slave labor. In 1776, delegates of Maryland declared independence from Great Britain, ending colonial rule.

Colonel John Eager Howard (1752-1827) was a Maryland native, American Revolutionary War commander, and the fifth governor of Maryland from 1788 to 1791. He also ran as a vice-presidential candidate (albeit unsuccessfully) in 1816.

Maryland's Howard District was named after Howard in 1839. The district eventually became known as Howard County in 1851.

Before the Civil War, some residents of Howard County participated in the Underground Railroad. The county, though, was still home to many plantation families, who participated in slave ownership until Maryland's constitutional abolishment of slavery in 1864.  

After the war, Howard County was involved in localized alcohol prohibition (1883) and survived an early outbreak of the Spanish Flu (1918). The county was largely agricultural in nature until the mid-1960s.

In 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act established Interstate 95 along Howard County's eastern border and Interstate 70 running along the county's northern boundary. Over the next fifteen years, the formation of Columbia -- a city and planned community -- would begin.

Columbia was the idea of real estate developer and Maryland native James W. Rouse (1914 - 1996). Rouse had worked for federal governmental housing authorities during the Great Depression, and eventually formed his own real estate company by the 1950s.

Rouse's work in the late 1950s and early 1960s consisted of establishing shopping centers throughout the United States. But Rouse would also profess a desire to develop housing to combat problems of urban decay, and family-oriented communities based around an ideal balance of work and living.

In 1962, Rouse's company was able to secure land between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Zoning was approved in 1965, and the construction of Columbia began in June 1966. June 21, 1967, marked the dedication of Columbia, a city of around 30,000 housing units and an intended population of 100,000.

Columbia consists of 10 villages with amenities like parks, schools, shopping and community centers, and designated places of worship. These villages were built in a period from 1967 to 1990. In 2010, Columbia unveiled a 30-year plan to expand its downtown area.

Columbia has come a long way from its agricultural county origins to a city specifically designed for idealized community living. In Rouse's words, Columbia has indeed fulfilled an altruistic vision "to grow better people; more creative, more productive, more inspired, more loving people."

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