Lesson Plan

The Chesapeake Bay in John Smith's Time

A Native American observes a shallop on the Chesapeake Bay
First contact: A Native American observes a shallop on the Chesapeake Bay

Image via Captain John Smith 400 Project, courtesy of Marc Castelli

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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade-Ninth Grade
American Indian History and Culture, Climate Change, Colonial History, Ecology, Education, Environment, History
2/3 class periods
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)
National/State Standards:
Life Sciences, Environmental Science, Historical Investigation
Jamestown, John Smith, Chesapeake Bay, Captain John Smith Voyages, Early exploration, Chesapeake Bay health, water quality


Students will examine resources that describe the animals and plants that John Smith and his crew encountered on the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. They also will read reports about the habitats that Smith described during his travels. Students will issue a “report card” on the Bay’s health in 1608, using evidence from primary sources to support their assessment. Students will compare the health of the Bay’s fisheries and habitats in the 17th century with the Bay’s health today.


  • Students will analyze primary sources in order to assess the presence of various animals and the quality of the Chesapeake Bay habitats in the 1600s.
  • Students will compare the Chesapeake Bay of the 1600s with that of today.



In the summer of 1608, Captain John Smith made two voyages from Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Smith documented the natural environment, features of the land and waterways, and encounters with the Native peoples he met along the way. From this he created a remarkably accurate map of the Chesapeake Bay that played an influential role in the future colonization of the region. Accompanying this map was a pamphlet guide entitled "A Map of Virginia.

With a Description of the Country, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion" which gave readers in Europe their first comprehensive picture of the great Chesapeake estuary. In his voyage narratives, Smith described the Bay's shorelines, rivers, and creeks and provided names for islands and other land features. He described forests along the shoreline that were "frequented with wolves, Beares, Deere and other wild beasts [sic]." The dense forests surrounding the Bay and its rivers slowed sediment and freshwater runoff. Some scientists believe that the Bay was actually saltier in the 1600s than it is today because so much rain water was absorbed by the massive canopies of these old growth forests. The Bay also had exceptional water clarity due to the natural filtration provided by oysters, marshes, swamps, and submerged grass beds.

Aside from the obvious changes to the region brought by four centuries of development, the most significant differences are found in the quantity and variety of animals living in the Bay's ecosystem. Though the quantity of oysters has been in sharp decline until very recently, Smith writes that oysters in the early 17th century "lay as thick as stones." The Bay's fish population included "sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays … brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], trout, soles, perch of three sorts" and a variety of shellfish. At one point, Smith and his men were surrounded by schools of fish so massive that they attempted to catch them with frying pans!

In this lesson, students use primary sources to summarize the variety and abundance of plant and animal life witnessed by Smith and other explorers of the 17th century Chesapeake. They will use this information to make inferences about the water quality of the Bay in 1608. They will then compare the health of the estuary in Smith's time to the health of the Bay today using data from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2005 State of the Bay Report.

Additional Sources of Background Information:

The following selections are included at the end of this lesson plan:

  •  Chesapeake Bay Watershed
  •  Wetlands: Food, Filter, Habitat
  •  Submerged Aquatic Vegetation
  • The Eastern Oyster

This information has been selected from Sultana Projects' ecology workbook entitled Chesapeake Bay Ecology Unit for Classroom Teachers.


All materials can be found in lesson plan pdf.

Teachers: Transparency #1 The Chesapeake Bay in 1608

Transparency #1a The Chesapeake Bay Today

Transparency #2 Healthy Habitats

Students: Handout #1 Common Animals Seen on the Chesapeake Bay by Captain John Smith

Handout #2 Quotes from Early Explorers of the Chesapeake Bay

Handout #2a Student Data: Animals of the Chesapeake in the 1600s

Handout #3 Healthy Habitats: Captain John Smith's Descriptions of the Chesapeake

Handout #3a Student Data Sheet

Handout #4 Chesapeake Bay Report Card in the 1600s

Handout #4a The State of the Bay in 2005



  1. Explain to students that they will now grade the condition of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1600s. They will need to think about what they learned from Captain John Smith and other explorers of the 1600s and what they now know about the importance of healthy habitats.
  2. Review the instructions on the worksheet entitled "Chesapeake Bay Report Card in the 1600s" (Handout #4) with students. Grades for each category are based on a scale of 0 (worst) to 100 (best). After giving a grade for each item, students should assign one overall grade to the Bay. They should support their choice of a grade with information.


Now present students with data in the same seven categories from the worksheet entitled "The State of

the Bay in 2005" (Handout #4a). This data is taken from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual

State of the Bay Report. Students should compare the two report cards and summarize what changes

have occurred in the Bay since John Smith's time.


  1. Visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's web site at www.cbf.org
  2. Double click on the "State of the Bay" icon on the blue horizontal bar near the top of the page.
  3. Double click on "Download". The download requires Adobe Reader 6.0 software.


Habitat - an area where a plant or animal lives that provides it with food, water, protection for survival and reproduction

SAV -(Submerged Aquatic Vegetation) rooted underwater plants that provide an important source of food and habitat for many Bay-dwelling animals

Forested Buffer - wooded areas which help filter polluted runoff before it enters rivers or streams

Wetlands - areas such as marshes and swamps typically found along the Bay’s edges in shallow areas where the water meets the land. These areas are often called “nurseries” because they provide food and shelter for small, juvenile animals.

Last updated: February 26, 2015