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Humans have occupied the Chesapeake Bay area for at least 12,000 years. No one knows when the first humans arrived, but archeologists have found evidence of Paleoindians from 11,500 years ago. The Archaic and Woodland peoples followed. European explorers first arrived in the 1500s, and European colonies began to take hold following the founding of Jamestown in 1607. With the increase in population came landscape changes that continue today.

 

Natives of the Bay

The Chesapeake Bay was a very different place between 18,000 and 11,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. As the climate moderated and rivers found their modern-day courses, plants and animals became established, and the once-barren plain was replaced with swamps, lagoons, grasslands, and forests. These changes made the area habitable for humans. Archeologists generally agree that the first inhabitants of the Chesapeake region arrived between 12,000 and 11,500 years ago, while glaciers were retreating; some, however, suggest an arrival several thousand years earlier.

The first residents, known as "Paleoindians," probably organized themselves in small groups and moved across the country living off the land. They established temporary camps, obtaining all they needed from the local environment, and left when game or other resources became scarce. They fashioned tools and weapons from natural materials like rock and animal bone. The presence of "foreign" rocks and technologies, such as spear throwers and notched projectile points, traced to other parts of the country indicate that early residents of the Chesapeake region traded with other peoples.

From the end of the ice ages to about 3,000 years ago is called the Archaic Period. With the warmer conditions that followed the ice ages, narrow river canyons became wide transportation corridors, and the shallow Bay offered access to clams, oysters, fish, and other invertebrates. Remains of aquatic species found by archeologists indicate increased use of the Bay's estuaries and rivers by Archaic peoples.

The Chesapeake region continued to offer abundant resources for the Woodland peoples who populated the region, beginning about 3,000 years ago. Food, tools, and household products came from many sources. The Bay and rivers teemed with fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Birds were plentiful, varying by season as migratory species passed through. Plant species were numerous. Mature forests, with closed tree canopies that kept the sun from reaching the forest floor, towered over the Coastal Plain. Trees may have stood 50 feet (15 m) higher than today's forests.

Early Woodland inhabitants began to fire pottery. Clay pots and jars facilitated cooking, transportation, and storage of food and water. As time progressed, tools, pottery, and textile production became more sophisticated. Domestication of animals and cultivation of crops increased as Woodland peoples settled in larger groups.

Perhaps one of the greatest advances was the introduction of new cultivated species, including squash, beans, tobacco, and corn. To ensure adequate supplies, native farmers used fire to clear fields from forested land. They used raised beds, hoes, and digging sticks to improve crop yields and let shrubs grow between garden plots for erosion control. Woodland peoples began to live in towns generally located near sources of firewood, water, and fertile soil. Towns lasted as long as the resources did—typically 10 to 20 years. When soils became depleted, the people moved to a new location.

As towns, technology, and agriculture became more complex, so did political systems. Over time, small bands, or tribes, became larger, forming chiefdoms, a political unit that included a number of permanent towns headed by a single powerful leader. Generally, chiefdoms encompassed large geographic areas. The Powhatan tribes, headed by a paramount chief known as Powhatan who lived from about 1545 to 1618, included many Coastal Plain settlements between the York and James rivers. We know about Powhatan and the late Woodland people of the Chesapeake through archeology and through the writings of Captain John Smith and other Europeans who explored the region and began to settle here in the 17th century.

 

European Exploration

The best-known explorer of the Chesapeake Bay is Captain John Smith because of the detailed map and descriptions he made of his travels through the region between 1607 and 1609. But he was not the first European to enter the Bay. The earliest written record of possible contact was in a 1524 report describing the voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sailing under the French flag. In 1525, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón explored the coast of North America as far as the Delaware Bay and established a short-lived Spanish mission settlement near the future site of Jamestown. Another Spanish explorer, Diego Gutiérrez, showed the Chesapeake Bay on his large-scale map of North and South America in 1562.

John White, an English explorer and artist, provided the first detailed information about the native people, flora, and fauna of the eastern coast of North America in his paintings and drawings between 1585 and 1593. White sailed with the earliest expedition to the area then called "Virginia" on the present-day North Carolina coast. His drawings of the Algonquian Indians and the region's plants and animals are the only surviving visual record of England's first settlement in North America—the famed Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Most of the early interactions between the Woodland people and Europeans were brief occasions of trading, but this changed in 1607 when the English established a permanent settlement at Jamestown on the James River in what is now Virginia.

 

Settlement

The Virginia Company of London organized an expedition to the "Bay of Chespioc" in search of gold, silver, and a water route through North America to the riches of the Far East—the famed "Northwest Passage." Over nearly five months, three ships (the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery) carried 140 men from England to the West Indies and then to the Chesapeake Bay. They landed on April 26, 1607, near present-day Cape Henry, Virginia.

The English moved their ships up the James River looking for a place that had potable water, a deep channel for anchoring close to shore, and an inland location hidden from rival Spanish ships. On May 14, 1607, the leaders selected an island near the north shore, which they named "Jamestown" in honor of King James.

Establishing a permanent colony was not easy. Food and potable water were in short supply. Diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever preyed upon the colony. Of the original 140 settlers, only 38 were alive to greet the first supply ship in January 1608.

As the colonists built Jamestown, they also began exploring neighboring lands for riches and food. Captain John Smith, one of the expedition's leaders, made two voyages that explored nearly 3,000 miles of the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries, and nearby lands.

The English foothold at Jamestown was the beginning of waves of immigration and settlement that forever transformed the Bay and its people. Although many colonists did not survive the disease, starvation, and conflicts that challenged the new settlements, Europeans continued to found new colonies across the region. They were motivated by reports of the region's abundant resources, the desire to escape unpleasant conditions in Europe, or simply the search for a new life.

In 1634, English Catholics under Leonard Calvert (Lord Baltimore) established the Maryland colony and Saint Mary's City. In 1681, William Penn received a charter to establish the Pennsylvania colony.

With each new colony, settlers cleared land for farms and harvested timber for fuel and the growing shipbuilding industry. As they moved to the interior for farmland, they met increasing resistance from the native population. At first the Indians were willing to trade and form alliances, but as they saw their land consumed, conflicts escalated.

Diseases introduced by the colonists hastened the decline of the Indians. By 1650, the Indian population was down to 2,400 inhabitants, about one-tenth of the estimated pre-contact population. Decimated by epidemics and forced from the fertile land and productive waters of the Chesapeake, Indians moved to other parts of the country or adapted to non-native lifestyles.

Europeans now dominated the landscape with a population that had reached 13,000 by 1650. With growing numbers and more efficient land-clearing tools, they moved into the Piedmont and higher elevations. They cleared the majestic virgin forests for wood products and farmland. The rivers became sources of energy for mills, and roads crisscrossed the countryside connecting farms and new interior towns.

A number of cities emerged along the fall line including Baltimore (Patapsco River), Richmond (James River), Petersburg (Appomattox River), and Alexandria (Potomac River). The fall line became a cultural divide in the colonial development of the Chesapeake region. For Maryland and Virginia, the fall line limited expansion of plantation society. The upland areas were typically characterized by small farms and diversified economies. Below the fall line, plantations developed along navigable rivers—especially the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac, which were navigable for long distances. Direct shipping between the plantations and London merchants led to close economic and political ties with Great Britain.

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Impact on the land

By the mid-1700s, almost the entire Chesapeake Bay region was settled by Europeans. The impact of humans on the environment had changed drastically from the time of native hunter-gatherers. Before the arrival of the European colonists, old-growth forest covered approximately 95 percent of the region; by 1775, the forest acreage had dropped to 70 percent. The use of plows led to permanent tillage that deterred reforestation and increased soil erosion. Eroded soils began to fill in streams and wetlands. Where the Indians had lived lightly on the land, the colonists built permanent settlements, using more natural resources for their towns, farms, industries, and a growing export business.

In addition to exploiting the region's natural abundance, the colonists also introduced alien species of animals, insects, and plants. These exotic species upset the natural balance. The settlers introduced destructive grazers like cattle, pigs, and other livestock. They eliminated large predators, such as wolves, cougars, and bobcats, through hunting or loss of habitat. This had both environmental and economic consequences.

An example of the changing relationship of people and the land can be seen in the rise and fall of the fur trade. The lucrative transatlantic trade, particularly in beaver pelts, involved Indians, colonial traders, and English entrepreneurs and played a significant role in the development of Chesapeake Bay colonies. The popularity in England of felt hats made of beaver fur spurred intense hunting throughout the Chesapeake region. The native people were more adept at hunting and trapping than the newcomers and acted as hunters and middlemen for European traders. Thus, Indians became connected to the consumer markets in England and Europe, and the growing profitability of the fur trade encouraged exploitation of the land and its people.

By 1700, beavers had virtually disappeared from the Chesapeake watershed. (Today's beaver are descended from those re-introduced to the area in the 20th century.) Indians continued to trade in deer skin and other furs. However, as colonial settlements took over their lands and reduced the forest habitat of many species, the fur trade declined in the Chesapeake and moved farther north and west.

 

Building a Nation

The exploitation of natural resources to supply European markets increased with the growing population. The Chesapeake region was perceived as the land of opportunity, and its resources seemed limitless. The region offered rich farm land to grow high-demand crops such as tobacco, large supplies of commodities such as wood and fur, and ample navigable waterways for accessible ports and connections to the country's interior. As nations competed for control of these resources, armed conflict was inevitable. The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries were used to transport troops and supplies and became targets of opposing forces to blockade trade.

 

French and Indian War (1754–1763)

In the mid-1700s, a group of Virginia investors set their eyes on the land beyond the mountains in the Ohio River watershed. They had a vision of linking the Ohio Valley with the Chesapeake to open the way for harvesting western resources for southern and European markets. French possessions stood in the way, leading to the French and Indian War between Great Britain and France. This war was part of the larger Seven Years War that involved several European powers.

England won the war, forcing France to abandon almost all its land in North America. Two other outcomes affected the Chesapeake region: (1) formation of a new national identity as English colonists began to think of themselves as American and (2) England's decision to tax the colonies to pay for the war.

 

American Revolution (1775–1783)

Following the French and Indian War, anger among the colonists grew, eventually erupting in armed conflict and the start of the American War for Independence in 1775. Similar to the rest of the colonies, the residents of the Chesapeake Bay region had divided opinions on breaking away from England. Some supported the rebellion while others remained loyal to the British king. The Chesapeake Bay and several key rivers figured prominently in the Revolutionary War as British warships blockaded American ports, American merchant ships ran goods to cities along the East Coast, Loyalist boats plied their trade to British-held ports, and rebel privateers preyed on English shipping.

France came to the aid of the colonists. The pivotal Battle of the Chesapeake between French and British navies ended with a French blockade of the Bay, preventing Lord Cornwallis and his army from retreating by boat from Yorktown. American and French armies under the joint command of George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau pinned Cornwallis in Yorktown, causing his surrender on October 19, 1781, and effectively ending the fighting in North America.

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially ended the Revolutionary War and marked the birth of a new nation. In 1790, the Residence Act established a new national capital (replacing Philadelphia), to be located on the Potomac River. The establishment of the District of Columbia as the capital of the new United States of America brought added attention and influence to the Chesapeake Bay region. See a larger version of the City of Washington plan.

Following the Treaty of Paris, Great Britain and the United States were officially at peace, and trade was strong for a time. However, tensions grew once again when war between England and France impacted the United States. England restricted supplies from entering France, which Americans saw as interference of free trade. Americans also objected to the impressment of American sailors forced to serve on British warships. Closer to home, the United States objected to Great Britain arming Indians in America's frontier areas, seeing this as interfering with the settlement of newly acquired western lands. Although "Mr. [President] Madison's War" was controversial, the U.S. Congress, by a slim margin, declared war on Great Britain in June 1812.

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War of 1812 (1812–1815)

The war brought new devastation to the region. The Bay was the economic and political hub of the young nation, and Baltimore was a major port. The British conducted coastal raids in 1813. Controlled by an English blockade, the Bay was used by the British Navy to disrupt trade. In 1814, Maryland was hard hit when the British attacked several towns, defeated an American army at Bladensburg, burned public buildings in Washington, D.C., and defeated the Americans again at North Point. The Americans repelled the British at Baltimore. Some fighting continued, but both sides were ready for peace. They signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, ending America's Second War for Independence.

The war's aftermath was a time of great change for the Chesapeake Bay region. Wealthy families in the Coastal Plain concentrated on expanding the plantation system, based on the labor of enslaved Africans. Though the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers retained importance for travel and trade, a new road system connected plantations to rural towns, larger cities and ports, and interior communities. Baltimore and Richmond became urban centers. On the same day, July 4, 1828, construction began on two competing transportation routes: the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The race was on to link the promising resources and markets of the western territories to the Chesapeake Bay—and the world beyond.

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Civil War (1861-1865)

Located between two increasingly diverse sections of the country, the Chesapeake Bay became a microcosm of a divided nation in the years leading up to America's Civil War. The differences between the primarily industrial North and the agrarian South led to political tensions particularly hard felt in the Chesapeake region. Conflicting opinions divided states, communities, and even families.

The issue of slavery in the United States was especially divisive. For many years leading up to the war, the Chesapeake Bay was a vital part of the Underground Railroad. This was not an actual railroad but a series of routes and hiding places that led from slave states to free states and Canada.

The tributaries and waterways of the Chesapeake region were often used as safe passages along the Underground Railroad. Routes from Baltimore led west to southern Pennsylvania and northeast towards eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Another route went northwards through the eastern shore of Maryland to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. An ocean route left Norfolk, Virginia, and headed toward the New England states. Harriet Tubman, born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake, became one of the most famous "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. She guided some 300 people to freedom through the Chesapeake portion of the railroad.

The Chesapeake Bay's strategic location between the northern and southern states meant its lands and waters were important to both sides during the Civil War. The capitals of both the Confederacy and the United States were located on Bay tributaries: Richmond, Virginia, on the James River and Washington, D.C., on the Potomac. The short distance between the two capitals saw frequent combat. Both sides wanted to control the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers for the ability to receive supplies, quickly transport troops, and penetrate into enemy territory.

While most of the action occurred on land, the Chesapeake Bay was itself a player on the stage of the Civil War. The famous clash of the ironclads that occurred in the waters off Hampton Roads, Virginia, is one example of how the war played out on the Bay. The clash of the first ironclad vessels on March 9, 1862, was one of the most important naval battles in history. The Confederates converted a captured warship, the USS Merrimack, into an ironclad ram designed to sink wooden Union warships. The Union also converted a battleship, the USS Monitor, into an ironclad, with the added feature of an iron turret that could rotate with two large guns. The bloody battle ended in a draw but significantly changed naval history.

The Civil War raged on until 1865, devastating the Chesapeake landscape as opposing armies trampled the fields, pillaged the land for food and fuel, and tore families and communities apart. It was a defining time for the Chesapeake region and the nation. Recovery would take many years. The impacts of the war years and the reconstruction period that followed were especially hard on the Chesapeake Bay, as industrialization and urbanization increased and economies changed.

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Evolving economies

The economic history of the Chesapeake Bay is a prime example of how people and places are interconnected—how human interaction with the natural environment affects the Bay, which, in turn, affects the people who live and work here.

Humans have always manipulated the land to provide for their needs. Early Woodland Indians, for example, used fire to make their canoes and to clear forest areas for crops. But the arrival of European settlers beginning in the 17th century brought economic and environmental changes that transformed the Chesapeake Bay for all time.

Captain John Smith and other early explorers of the Chesapeake described a lush landscape like nothing they had known before. The Bay held an awesome abundance of life. Descriptions of this "New World" attracted waves of people eager to leave the crowded, impoverished cities of Europe.

As the settlers claimed land for homes and farms, they cut, burned, plowed, and fenced ever bigger tracts. Largely a self-sufficient economy, the colonists introduced new species of plants and animals, including destructive foragers such as cattle and hogs. Many of the native species were lost, either killed off as nuisances, or hunted for food and other products.

The cultivation of tobacco, beginning in Virginia about 1612, moved the colonial economy beyond basic subsistence. Tobacco became a popular commodity in England, and the colonists shipped increasing amounts overseas in exchange for manufactured goods.

Boatloads of indentured servants came to America to work the tobacco fields, but more labor was needed for the increasing demand. The English began importing enslaved Africans to Jamestown in 1619. By 1700, the population of enslaved people represented about half the region's workforce and 40 percent of the total population.

Agriculture dominated the economy, but manufacturing and trade developed in the colonies as well. Timber shortages in Europe drove a lucrative trade in lumber and wood products. Wood was needed for ships, barrels, fuel, and other products.

By the time of the American Revolution, Chesapeake forests were nearly depleted. Serious erosion resulted from tobacco farming and destruction of forests. Runoff increased sediments, altering Bay water quality and making rivers shallower. Some ports and plantation wharves were cut off from navigation—including the Maryland town named Port Tobacco.

Technological innovations that heralded the Industrial Revolution in Europe and in America also brought changes to the Chesapeake Bay. The advent of steam power, canals, and mechanization led to environmental as well as economic changes. Poor farming practices depleted soils, resulting in the collapse of the tobacco economy. Labor shifted to milling and manufacturing areas; cities grew.

The young nation began to invest in public projects, such as canals and roads. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal opened in 1804, linking the Bay to Philadelphia and northern cities. The first commercial steamboat appeared on the Bay in 1813. By 1820, Baltimore was a major port and the nation's third largest city.

The pace of development quickened through the 19th century. Commodities and immigrants flowed into Chesapeake Bay cities, particularly the deepwater ports of Baltimore and Norfolk. Foreign trade and the manufacture of oceangoing vessels linked the Chesapeake Bay to worldwide ports. Markets for Chesapeake Bay goods grew, and entrepreneurs rushed to improve transportation, communication, and production to meet foreign and domestic demands.

The Civil War devastated the region, but the war also spurred industrial expansion and economic diversification. Post-war Chesapeake prospered in large part because of an oyster boom. Expansion of railroads and improvements in processing and canning increased the market for oysters. By 1880 the Chesapeake's oyster output exceeded that of the rest of the world combined. As American and foreign demand increased, Bay-side towns filled with oyster-packing houses and with immigrants and African Americans to work in them. Baltimore especially thrived on the oyster trade; hundreds of schooners and skipjacks lined its wharves. By the turn of the century, however, the effects of overharvesting were already apparent.

Overharvesting occurred among fishing grounds as well, and harvests of shad, herring, and menhaden began to decline along with the oysters after 1890. One-industry towns along the Bay suffered, but urban areas continued to grow.

World War I fueled prosperity in the region into the 1920s; Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk grew as shipbuilding and industrialization increased. Industrial mass production dominated the region's economy.

With prosperity came more leisure time. Amusement parks, Bay-side resorts, and water-based recreation developed on the Chesapeake.

The stock market crash of 1929 plunged the Chesapeake region into the Great Depression as it did the nation as a whole. Recovery began with the New Deal and could be seen in bridge, dam, road repair, and other public works throughout the region. It was again the nation's involvement in a world war that spurred economic recovery. Laborers moved into Baltimore and other Bay cities to work in plants that manufactured arms and munitions. The shipyards of Newport News and Norfolk bustled; Norfolk and Baltimore were major ports for departure of troops. Textile mills in Richmond and Petersburg flourished, making fabric for uniforms. Washington, D.C., boomed as agencies expanded to support the war effort.

The region continued to prosper after the war. Federal agencies expanded beyond Washington. Cities spread out over the landscape, as affordable automobiles and better roads made it easier to travel for work and leisure. Businesses and residents left the cities to escape the congestion. Urban sprawl meant further deforestation and environmental distress.

As a new century began, the region was moving from an economy based on producing goods to one based on providing services. Population growth continued to stress the environment, but there was increasing awareness of what can and must be done to reduce the effects of human activity on the land.

 

The Bay today

Today's Chesapeake Bay is a product of its history. While it has changed greatly as a result of human and natural forces, it remains a place of extraordinary ecological, cultural, economic, historic, and recreational value. The Chesapeake Bay continues to be one of the nation's most economically important maritime corridors. Each year, ports on the Bay handle 10,000 ocean-going vessels carrying 200 billion pounds (90 million metric tons) of cargo. Some 17,000 men and women working on Bay waters catch and process one-quarter of all oysters and one-half of all clams consumed in America. Although annual harvests are only a fraction of their historic levels, the yearly haul of blue crabs is the largest in the world.

In 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge provided a highway link between Maryland's eastern and western shores and facilitated access between the Baltimore-Washington area and the eastern shore of Maryland. Twelve years later, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel linked southeastern Virginia to the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. These two spans provide efficient routes across the Bay, opening the way for development but also increasing the opportunities for recreation and tourism. Today, millions of people enjoy the waterways and landscapes throughout the watershed for fishing, hunting, boating, water sports, hiking, picnicking, bird-watching, and heritage travel.

The Chesapeake Bay region continues to be a desirable place to live, as it has been for centuries. Nearly 18 million people now call the watershed home. While the Bay and rivers show unmistakable signs of distress from changes that have occurred over the years, the watershed is also the object of a growing concern for the Bay's critical needs and of a national commitment to solving the Bay's problems.

The success of efforts to restore the Bay today will determine the quality of life for the Bay of tomorrow.

Last updated: August 1, 2018

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