Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore Colonial History
On sea or land, our ability to weather the elements has changed
Past is Prologue / By Dr. Kent Mountford - Bay Journal
Inspired by the extraordinarily fierce and repeated north to westerly gales these last few weeks, I picked up a copy of “a VOYAGE to VIRGINIA” by Col. Henry Norwood. His trials in 1649–50 merit consideration by all of Chesapeake’s modern residents.
Norwood, a relatively well-connected investor in New World ventures, considered Surinam, Barbados, Antigua and the Leeward Islands before selecting Virginia on the basis of his “being nearly related to Sir William Barkeley” (Colonial Governor Berkeley).
Norwood, his servants and a party of colonists aboard The Virginia Merchant captained by John Locker departed Gravesend, England, on Sept. 23, 1649, and set sail for Jamestown.
In stormy weather and rough seas, “the officer of the watch shewed me a more than ordinary agitation of the sea in one particular place above the rest; which was the effect of what they call a (water) spout, a raging in the bowels of the sea, striving to break out, and at last springs up like a mine at land, with weight and force enough to have hoised our ship (she weighed 300 tons) out of her proper element, into the air…and have made her do the supersalt; but God’s providence secured us from that danger.”
The sight of Bermuda, which is east of Hatteras, encouraged those aboard that they would soon reach their destination. Driving ahead without clear knowledge of their westerly position, they were nearly lost among the breakers of the Hatteras shore, barely coming about after striking bottom.
Making sail for the Chesapeake, they encountered incredibly fierce gales from the northwest and were driven far to sea with amazing rapidity.
Norwood recalls the sea was alive with porpoises, which seemed to “cover the surface of the sea as far as our eyes could discern.” The seamen took this astounding appearance as an omen of still worse weather, which was shortly upon them: The foretopmast came crashing down and the ship was overwhelmed by a great wave which carried away her entire forecastle, bowsprit, galley and one cook, as well as six cannon and all but one anchor. Only the presence of many carpenters among the passengers enabled them to deck over the gaping hole which was admitting tons of water into the hull. The mainmast also fell and was lost; only the mizzen mast remained.
After 17 days, the winds began to abate and they saw a number of English ships, a couple of which tried to assist them but were driven away. Two crewmen, in a superhuman effort, were able to lash the surviving main yard to the stump of the main mast and set what sails remained.
They were able to set their mangled ship on a course that brought them, according to the mate, Mr. Putts, to the coast north of “Achomat” (Accomac), which would have put them off Parramore or Hog Island.
Their rations were down to half a biscuit (1.6 ounces) per person a day, and the water virtually gone, as they approached the Virginia Capes and were close enough to distinguish trees on the shore.
Then, another gale, blowing westerly, again drove them far out to sea. After 19 days, the wind went east, but fell to the lightest breeze. Rain with the gale gave them something to drink, but they were reduced to eating the rats inhabiting the ship’s bilges, “A well grown rat was sold for sixteen shillings as a market rate. Nay, before the voyage did end (as I was credibly inform’d) a woman great with child offered twenty shillings for a rat, which the proprietor refusing, the woman died…Many sorrowful days and sad nights we spun out in this manner, till the blessed feast of Christmas came upon us.”
Over the next 10 days, they worked the ship toward Cape Henry, sailing into the then poorly understood Gulf Stream, which flows north and a little east off the U.S. coast. One pump was broken beyond repair and each passenger spent three hours a day at the second pump lest they sink. The ship sailed so poorly that they were set north of the Capes, and their entry into the Bay again denied.
They came inshore at some unknown point, which they judged to be south of the Dutch colony at New York. Seven miles from shore, they put out a boat with 12 of the most sickly passengers. After leaving them on the beach, the boat returned to the ship, and reported that there was an inlet sufficient to serve as a harbor. Major Morrison, who was left ashore, sent Norwood a bottle of excellent sweet water, and reported “that the shore swarm’d with fowl.”
Norwood was for going in, unloading the ship, and once ashore to “try our fortune amongst the Indians.” The boat prepared to return ashore a second time with more people. Norwood was about to climb into her when his manservant told him that in the parcel sent with him he’d included 30 cakes of biscuit, their chief shipboard ration. The man had, from his own meager food allowance, put this aside and was giving it to Norwood.
Morrison took him to the running source of fresh water where “without any limitation of short allowance…I prostrated myself on my belly, and setting my mouth against the stream, that it might run into my thirsty stomach without stop… this I thought the greatest pleasure I ever enjoyed on earth.”
Exploring near their landing site, Capt. Locker shot into a flock of birds, killing a duck which they roasted on a stick, supplementing it with oysters gathered from a neighboring tidal gut. Being apart from the others survivors, Morrison, Locker and Norwood devoured this small repast, which would, they reasoned, have done nothing to relieve so many others.
Verifying that the inlet had sufficient depth, Locker allowed that he would bring The Virginia Merchant in to anchor, then asked Norwood if he would go back aboard with him at daybreak. Norwood refused, saying that this was the sharpest cold he’d ever experienced. He didn’t relish more time in the jolly boat.
Norwood looked east at daylight and was stunned to see the ship was sailing away from them toward the Capes, with Lockwood, still in the jolly boat just barely avoiding abandonment himself.
Thus it was that Norwood and his sickly companions on that bitter cold morning of Jan. 6, 1650, were “cruelly abandoned and left to the last despairs of human help, or indeed of ever seeing more the face of man.” Dividing the 30 biscuits among his fellow castaways, he now knew why his circumspect servant had packed them among his things. The tale of Norwood’s struggle for survival provides us one of the earliest glimpses of the 17th century Delmarva Peninsula.
For a leader, the little band of about 20, turned to Colonel Norwood, a bulky man, still physically fit and imposing in his silver-threaded, brocaded “camblet” great coat with “gaboon lace,” gold and silver buttons. Where people don’t know how to judge competence, he later said in retrospect, they go to someone well-dressed.
Considering the coast and the group’s later experiences, I believe they were on the upper end of what is now Maryland’s Assateague Island, across relatively narrow Sinepuxent Bay from the mainland.
Inlets piercing what’s today a long unbroken island have appeared and disappeared at other sites on the Atlantic Coast and the portion of Assateague on which they were marooned was a relatively small island.
Norwood’s young cousin, Fransis Cary, was able to hike around half of it in little more than a hour. During that walk, he stumbled through a small creek, and reaching down, wrenched loose a large cluster of oysters.
He brought these back to the group, announcing that the ebb tide had exposed a whole bank of them. These were stewed up with a short grass about 4 inches long, which Norwood compared to house leek, and which may have been the succulent saltwort, Salicornia, which is sometimes used in salads today. The above-tide parts of this oyster bank would only sustain the group six days, though.
The men of the party were able, at first by bright moonlight, to shoot from among “great flights of fowl [which] frequented the island, geese, ducks, curlieus and some of every sort we killed and roasted on sticks, eating all but the feathers.” Norwood shot into a flock of “oxeyes” killing a number. I suspect these were a species of plover, which were later hunted almost to extinction.
The shooting frightened the birds away, and when the full moon was past, spring tides, heightened by stormy winds, submerged almost all of the remaining oysters.
One of the weaker women “had the envied happiness to die about this time; and it was my advice to the survivors, who were following her apace, to [convert] her dead carcase into food, as they did to good effect.”
Fierce wind, hail and snow now assailed them. Norwood, strongest among them, struggled to gather firewood from the only trees on the island—pines. He removed and staked up his great coat as a windbreak, sheltering as many as possible. The next Sunday, four men died, chiefly of hunger, and were eaten by the survivors.
After nine days, they were in desperate straits. With his strength still remaining, Norwood went out to reconnoiter. He shot a goose and hung it off the ground, wedging the bird’s head in the fork of a tree. It would, together with a bottle filled with cooked oysters he’d scavenged, provide a last fortification of his energy before he attempted wading out, then swimming across in water bone-aching cold, to the visible mainland. When he returned to collect the bird, its carcass had been torn down by wolves.
Then his cousin, Cary, saw an Indian walking along the mainland. A log canoe was sighted pulled up on a distant bar. More natives were seen but not until the night of the 10th day did some quietly approach the women in their shelter, giving them shellfish to eat and trying to communicate. The survivors sought to rethink their position: Would Indians coming on the morrow be friends or destroyers?
One man, an officer during England’s late Civil War, thought they were doomed. Had these been Powhatans, he might have been right because many English had thus met horrible ends despite friendly overtures designed to disarm them. Norwood was trusting, and argued strongly for an open welcome.
When the Indians returned, they brought corn, the cooked leg of a swan which Norwood described “by how much it was larger than the greatest limb of any fowl I ever saw.” The natives, especially their women, sympathized with the loss of the survivor’s comrades.
In a few more days, the Native American rescuers brought canoes hollowed out, as Norwood noted, “Like a pig trough…very heavy for its proportions…from the body of an oak or pine about twenty-two foot in length.” They were propelled, not by paddles in this shallow coastal bay, but by long poles, pushed against the estuary bottom as the boatmen walked precariously along the narrow rails. This suited travel in water so shallow that at ebb tide the survivors continued to pluck oysters from the banks as they passed, their desperately hungry stomachs never getting enough food.
Once ashore, they were conducted to the regional werowance or chief, who probably resided in what appears as a village along “Assateacq Creeck” that appears on Augustin Herrmann’s map 20 years later.
Norwood describes his joy and comfort at being so well-treated by these native people, while shipwreck survivors on England’s shores were as likely to be robbed and barbarously used by countrymen who considered the misfortune of others their own “God’s good.”
He described, in great detail, the inside of the mid-17th century Algonkian lodge: 18–20 feet in breadth, 20 yards in length, fur-covered sleeping benches 2 yards long, upright locust poles at the corners and partitions, oak sapling beams and the roof tied securely with strong rushes.
He went on to describe the ineffectiveness of the smoke holes and internal mats which cordoned off the werowance’s queen, pounding corn into hominy for her husband’s dinner. The king’s daughter offered him his first taste of the meal (similar to today’s grits) which he ate with a spoon of “well shap’d muscle-shell,” almost certainly Geukensia demissa, a ribbed and opalescent salt-marsh mussel.
A boiled swan made their supper and they were “thus refreshed with meat and sleep, comforted by fires and secured from all the changes and inclemencies of that sharp piercing cold season.” To these bedraggled survivors, after all their trials at sea and near death exposed to the elements on a windswept barrier island, the lodge stood, according to Norwood, “in competition with Versailles.”
Hominy was again served at breakfast, but with a milk made from “pokickery” (hickory) nuts pounded, shell and all, to powder, fermented slightly with water to “partake so much of the delicate taste of the kernel of that nut, that it becomes a rarity to a miracle.” Their bodies responded vigorously to such a full regimen.
The local werowance, who wanted to see them happy, provided much entertainment, although the stronger among the men chafed to strike out on foot for Virginia. The chief, unbeknownst to them, had already sent a messenger south, where scattered English plantations had been established, and sought to dissuade them from attempting the swamps and cold streams dissecting a country they knew nothing about. South lay another chiefdom, Kickotank, and farther still “Achomack,” (John Smith’s “Accowmack”), where English had settled. The distance was still to be 50 miles on foot.
He also described the festoons of Spanish moss which hung the oak trees, which he noted was used as “the linen” of the country for wiping grease from one’s fingers at table or drying the hands. Spanish moss is not seen on the Chesapeake Eastern Shore today, although it is found at Cape Henry in the cypress swamp at First Landing State Park.
Days later when, returning from a visit to one of the werowance’s other lodges, Norwood found his compatriots in an uproar. A man had arrived in English dress. He was planter and trader Jenkin Price, master of Littleton Plantation, with his interpreter, a Kickotank named Jack. Jack was to serve the survivors with zeal and was a superb woodsman: “He was our sheet-anchor in this our preregrination.” Norwood would later employ Jack, who served him the rest of his life.
Their journey south was difficult and wearing. They would traverse much of the Pocomoke River watershed. In Norwood’s description: “We were not gone far till the fatigue and tediousness of the journey discovered itself in the many creeks we were forc’d to head, and swamps to pass [like Irish bogs] which made the way at least double to what it would have amounted to in a strait line: and it was a wonder to see our guide Jack lead on the way…Howbeit he would many times stand still and look about for land marks.”
This wet woodland was largely a trackless land, without paths and Jack navigated by the appearance of a deformed tree, or other sign and orient himself by the mosses which, Norwood noted, grew uniformly dense on the northwest side of oak trees.
This region of the Eastern Shore straddling Maryland and Virginia was a remarkable wet woodland ecosystem, filled with huge cypress that proved a resource too valuable to resist for later timber merchants and shipwrights.
This difficult course took them to “Gingo Teague” (Chincoteague) where the local werowance, advised of their coming as honored friends, treated them well. Norwood, though, awoke before daybreak to find the king’s eldest daughter at his side who had, as he put it “completely finished the rape (pilfering) of all the gold and silver buttons” from his coat! Jack put her in her place and the king restored all to order, chastising the girl.
The journey across wintry Delmarva was not easy, and Norwood was soon virtually unable to walk. When he was almost at his last reserve, Price led him to a bed of sweet straw in his plantation house near Accomac. Taking a more practical suit of colonial farmer’s clothes, Norwood sent back his ornate coat—and its buttons—to the first werowance who had aided him. The chief, for his part, promised to wear the coat all of his life in honor of Norwood.
It was February before Norwood crossed the Chesapeake, landing aside the York River and making his way on horseback to Jamestown and Virginia’s governor, who made him his house guest until May 1650. Norwood was eventually appointed treasurer of the colony.
The Virginia Merchant, meanwhile, had been afraid to enter the inlet at Assateague, having only one anchor left. She had to be pumped continually and their sailing on the fair northwest wind, which had caused Norwood’s party such misery and death, had been a matter of self-preservation. They had barely reached Jamestown, where the Merchant grounded and was abandoned. Her crew immediately sounded the alarm and while the Indians were rescuing Norwood and his party, parties sent out by the governor were already searching the Eastern Shore.
The wild barrier island and swampy land braided with icy streams that challenged Norwood and his companions was not to last. By 1670, just 20 years after their adventure, Augustine Herrmann’s landmark map, shows the homes of about 260 planters on the Eastern Shore south of “Assateacq.”
The logging of cypress , probably Atlantic white cedar, and a variety of oaks was a mainstay for Eastern Shore shipbuilding over the next two centuries. At a sustainable rate, this could have gone on indefinitely but the competition for market timber, accidental fires and the encroachment of agriculture removed much of the extensive swamps where Norwood had struggled.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists Owen Bricker, Wayne Newell and Nancy Simon note that plantation agriculture was more successful on parcels of higher ground, the relict dunes formed by Parsonburg sands from the late Pleistocene thousands of years earlier, and the well-drained soils which formed atop them. These lie in what geologists call interfluves—wedges of land between the rivers and streams—and early colonial farms prospered close to the navigable waterways.
As Chesapeake agriculture changed in response to collapses in European tobacco markets, the eventual switch to plow-based grain and row crops began to impact wetlands with soil erosion. Newell and his USGS colleagues have found sandy sediment deposits a meter thick burying the stumps of old cypress trees, presumably logged during the colonial period. The levelling of original topography has been such that in some places, the loss of fine sediments into the rivers is now minimal. Precipitation goes into the land rather than across it in eroding sheet flow.
Agricultural demands outstripped the relatively smaller areas of dry upland and stimulated interest in reclaiming some of the former wet woodlands through which Native Americans, Norwood and generations of subsequent residents slogged. This was accomplished through the construction of drainage ditches, a large, mind-numbing job made possible with African slaves. On the Chesapeake’s Western Shore, there are still areas where the boundaries of flood plain fields are lined with the remains of these slave ditches.
The amount of ditching by land-hungry agriculture determined to reclaim “waste land” from swamp and wet forest, was limited by the availability to mechanically cut into the landscape. With petroleum-fueled machinery, the process accelerated in the 1930s. Farmers believed it was in their interest to remove water from the soils so that the modern, heavier equipment could work these fields.
The USGS, in a study of the Pocomoke watershed, discovered that the river basin has 800 miles of natural streams, and an additional 1,200 miles of cut ditches.
Col. Norwood would no doubt be bewildered by the changes in the Eastern Shore landscapes that threatened his life three and a half centuries ago. But how much more bewildering would one of us be if we were to suddenly find ourselves in his situation? Could any of us, safe in our cushion of fossil fuel energy, with Polartec jackets, polypropylene socks, L.L Bean boots, Thinsulate gloves and double-knit long underwear have survived what Norwood endured, and then, within days begin to immerse ourselves in the politics and economy of that raw colonial world?
We can take a lesson of courage and endurance from him. Let’s profit from the freedom our lifestyles give us today, and turn the energy we have available to solving the ecological problems we residents continue to cause.
Dr. Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and estuarine ecologist.
On sea or land, our ability to weather the elements has changed
Article from Bay Journal - Jan, Feb 2004
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