The Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network is a system of over 170 sites located within the Chesapeake Bay region. The Network tells the story of the connections between people and nature in the Chesapeake region through its historic sites and communities, trails, parks, wildlife refuges, maritime museums, and more. The Network’s goal is to help connect people to the natural and cultural heritage of the Chesapeake region. Each partner site in the Network contributes its own perspective on a Chesapeake component or theme so that, together, Network partners offer visitors a fuller range of Chesapeake experiences on water and on land.
The Chesapeake Bay was home to many generations of American Indians before Europeans charted the area in the 1500s. Today, eight recognized tribes of Virginia keep their cultures alive and thriving. Visit the Pamunkey Indian Reservation and find out more about that tribe’s history and museum. Riverbend Park is the site of the Virginia Indian Festival where people celebrate American Indian culture; it is also a popular place to go kayaking, canoeing, fishing, or hiking. Along the Patuxent River in Maryland, archeologists have found evidence of over 9,000 years of human habitation at what is now Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Its interactive visitor center, historical and garden tours, Indian Village, and educational archeological programs give visitors a chance to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay area and the people who once lived there. On the Potomac, visit Piscataway Park for more information about Maryland Indians and early colonial settlement. Piscataway Park is also included as another site in this travel itinerary. Use the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail to learn more about Chesapeake region American Indian communities, both historic and contemporary.
In early human history on the Chesapeake, the waterways served as transportation corridors. American Indians as well as Captain John Smith and his fellow colonists preferred bald cypress trees as boat building material. At Trap Pond State Park in Delaware, visitors can take pontoon boat rides, or paddle a canoe or kayak, to see up close the northern-most stands of bald cypress trees. Many of the Gateways Network partners offer opportunities to learn about maritime trades. At Annapolis Maritime Museum, learn how valuable the oyster industry was to the Chesapeake or take a ride on an historic oyster dredging vessel, the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester, or the Martha Lewis out of Havre de Grace, Maryland. Visit the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Baltimore to try your hand at the skill of boat caulking, a trade practiced by Frederick Douglass before he escaped slavery, and learn about African Americans in the maritime industry.
In the Chesapeake region, the Bay's many tributaries were often used as routes for escaping slaves. Harriet Tubman, born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, escaped to freedom and returned nearly 20 times to lead as many as 300 slaves northward. Visitors today can drive the 64-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway to learn about her life and the many historic places connected with her in Chesapeake Bay country.
South of the Byway, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is Onancock Historic District and Town Wharf , called the “Gem of the Eastern Shore”. Explored by Captain John Smith in 1607 and chartered in 1680, Onancock is one of King James’ original 12 royal ports in Colonies. Onancock today remains a working port for watermen and waterborne commerce while offering recreational boaters a unique port of call.
Early colonists, and many of the fledgling country’s most famous patriots, often sited their working plantations along rivers to facilitate commerce and trade for tobacco and other products. Today, visitors can arrive by boat or auto to tour Stratford Hall Plantation, built by Thomas Lee in the 1730’s. Lee descendants included signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Stratford Hall was the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Also on the Potomac is the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and, on the Rappahannock River, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, his boyhood home.
Chesapeake river communities were later harassed by the British during the Chesapeake Campaign of the War of 1812. Learn about young America’s struggles against the world’s most powerful navy through the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. Trail sites include many Gateways Network partners, including Sotterley Plantation, the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, North Point State Park and Baltimore’s Fort McHenry National Monument as well as Fort Boykin and Tangier Island in Virginia.
Whether learning about the diverse human history of the Chesapeake, or the natural beauty and bounty of the Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network opens a door for enjoyable and refreshing experiences.
European Contact and Exploration: Captain John Smith National Historic Trail
The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail encourages visitors to learn about the people and land that Englishman Captain John Smith encountered when he and fellow colonists chartered by the Virginia Company of London reached the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. The trail stretches 3,000 miles through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. For information on access points, land and water trails, and information centers, as well as a map that charts John Smith’s voyages around the Chesapeake Bay, marks Indian settlements, and describes several historic points of interest, visit this website.
Captain John Smith (1580-1631) was an English explorer who played a pivotal role in the exploration and settlement of America. His leadership at Jamestown, his contacts with Chesapeake Indians and his Chesapeake Bay voyages — documented in maps and journals — helped ensure the success of early English colonization efforts.
The water trail is currently being developed and interpreted, and will soon be enriched with interpretive kiosks, maps, and guides. Today, visitors can retrace Captain John Smith’s journeyby water and land, while enjoying the natural splendor that he and his men encountered. Coming from England where forests had been cut for domestic and industrial use, Smith and his colleagues marveled at the thousands of acres of sea grasses and deep forests. As Captain Smith wrote, "Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation." Today, visitors can tour, hike, and camp near the area where John Smith landed in 1607 at First Landing State Park in Virginia. For a full list of outdoor activities along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, click here.
Captain John Smith and the London Company founded Jamestown in 1607, the first permanent English settlement of the United States. Visitors to Jamestown can see many exhibits, including a replica of the Powhatan Indian Village and recreations of the ships that brought the English colonists to America. To learn more about colonial settlement in the Jamestown area, visit Jamestown National Historic Site and Colonial National Historical Park, which both are featured in this itinerary.
An important contact for Smith was with Powhatan, the chief of several tribes in the Tsenacomoco area (part of present-day Virginia), and his daughter Pocahontas. Smith described the Indians in glowing terms and referred to their chiefs as kings and emperors. Although Smith negotiated an alliance with the tribes that allowed the colonists to survive their first difficult year in North America, it later collapsed. Read more about the American Indian—English relationship here.
A free, online resource, A Boater’s Guide to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, introduces paddlers and boaters to the Bay and tributary rivers. Author John Page Williams expertly weaves practical information for today’s boaters with the historical context of the Chesapeake’s waters explored by Captain John Smith four centuries ago.
Users of the Boater’s Guide can learn where the trailheads are (including GPS coordinates), see suggested trip itineraries, and compare on-the-water experiences for paddlecraft, skiffs and runabouts, and cruising powerboats and sailboats. The Guide’s interactive features include links to additional maps, NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System, navigation charts, and information on facilities and points of interest.
The new Captain John Smith Geotrail offers a new way for adventurers to explore more than 40 sites highlighting places associated with Smith’s explorations, the natural resources of the Chesapeake, and American Indian communities then and now. Located along the James, Rappahannock, Potomac, Susquehanna, and the Nanticoke Rivers, the geotrail’s sites complement and promote the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
For more information about the many places to visit on the Chesapeake, see the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail website.
Chesapeake Bay Region and the War of 1812: The Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail
The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail highlights the Chesapeake Campaign of the War of 1812. The trail follows more than 300 miles of land and water routes in Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland used by British forces and American defenders. The Chesapeake Campaign influenced the course of the war and the development of the young nation, inspired the lyrics that would eventually become the national anthem, and solidified the United States flag as a beloved national symbol. Through sites and landscapes, the Trail tells the stories of the events, people, and places that led to the birth of our National Anthem.
During the War of 1812, the Chesapeake Bay region was a prime target for Great Britain. The Bay was a center of international trade, maritime-related commerce, shipbuilding, and government. The nation’s capital was relocated in 1800 to Washington, D.C., on the Potomac River, a Bay tributary. In addition, excellent soil, favorable climate, and an extensive network of navigable waters provided a strong foundation for a thriving agricultural and slave economy. The Chesapeake region was viewed by the British as a hub of decision-making, political power, and hostility, making it a strategic target.
The growing city of Baltimore, with its versatile deep-water port, also developed a reputation as a “nest of pirates.” Ship captains based in Fell’s Point operated privateers or private vessels licensed by the government under a “Letter of Marque” to attack foreign ships including those of the British. Many privateers were built in Baltimore shipyards such as Fell’s Point and the British viewed them – and the city – as a military and commercial threat. African-Americans, free and enslaved, worked in these shipyards as carpenters and caulkers. Today, visitors to Fell’s Point can learn about ship building skills, the experiences of African Americans, and try their hand at caulking at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park.
During this war, the U.S. Congress authorized the enlistment of African Americans, for the first time, in the U.S. Navy. But the British competed for these recruits. Almost seven hundred former slaves, entire families, took refuge with the British who removed them to Tangier Island which the British used as a naval base during the Chesapeake Campaign. About two hundred African American men were drilled in military skills and maneuvers and formed the Colonial Marines of the British navy.
Maryland’s largest naval battle took place during the War of 1812 at the point where the Patuxent River meets the mouth of St. Leonard Creek. The British navy, known as the world’s most powerful, defeated the small Chesapeake Flotilla under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney. Trail users today can visit the nearby Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum to read about the flotilla, Commodore Barney, and free African American Charles Ball, a seaman and cook on the flotilla whose autobiography is on display at the museum. Ordering his own vessels to be burned and sunk, Barney and his men marched to Bladensburg where they joined American land forces trying to stop the British march on Washington. Visitors to the region can see the site of this battle from Bladensburg Waterfront Park. After this battle, the British went on to Washington and burned the city on August 24, 1814. Leaving the White House, the Capitol, and other government buildings engulfed in flames, British troops continued north to Baltimore.
In what is known today as the Battle of Baltimore, American soldiers, including free and enslaved African Americans, defeated the British invasion of Baltimore Harbor after a standoff that lasted 25 hours into the morning of September 14, 1814. Upon viewing the American flag still standing at Fort McHenry after the battle, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words to what is now the National Anthem of the United States, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
At Fort McHenry Memorial and National Historic Shrine, visitors can tour the fort and participate in outdoor activities and scheduled events year round including presentations, music performances, and nature walks. The museum and visitor center offer exhibits of historical and military memorabilia. Visitors can also see the daily flag change at 9:30am and 4:20pm, weather permitting.
The Star Spangled Banner Flag House, a National Historic Landmark, at 344 East Pratt Street in Baltimore, is where Mary Pickersgill, along with her daughter Caroline, nieces Eliza and Margaret, and indentured, African-American servant Grace Wisher, created the flag Francis Scott Key saw waving over Fort McHenry at the end of the Battle of Baltimore. The house is open for tours. Visitors can participate in interactive activities and view historic artifacts such as the $405.90 invoice for Mary’s work on the flag. The flag itself is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
The Battle Monument in downtown Baltimore commemorates the lives lost during the Battle of Baltimore. Architect Maximilian Godefroy designed the monument, which resembles a tomb. Finished in 1825, the monument has a base with 18 layers, each one representing a State during the War of 1812. The column contains the names of soldiers and officers who died during the war.
The new Star Spangled Banner Geotrail offers visitors the chance to geocache, or hunt for treasures hidden outdoors, along a trail of over 30 sites connected to the Chesapeake Campaign. Each site along the trail describes the people, places, and events that led to the establishment of our National Anthem during the War of 1812.
Visitors can also take a ride along the scenic Star Spangled Banner Byway, and retrace the path that the British troops and American defenders took during the Chesapeake Campaign. The Byway will take you along the Bay and lead to the scene of the crucial battle that inspired Francis Scott Key.
The Chesapeake Gateways and Watertrails Network is located in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. For more information, visit the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Office, the Network’s official website, or call 410-260-2470. Also, visit the Friends of Chesapeake Gateways website.