Chesapeake Bay - Glimpses of Bay's Past Reveal Paradise Lost

Chesapeake: Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John Smith
History Lessons for the Future
Glimpses of Bay's Past Reveal Paradise Lost
Past is Prologue / By Dr. Kent Mountford - Bay Journal

"A faire Bay, compassed but at the mouth with fruitfull and delightsome land." - Capt. John Smith in his 1607 description of the Chesapeake Bay

The Discovery

In latitude 36 degrees north, the ships "Susan Constant," "Godspeed" and the pinnace, "Discovery," were several weeks at sea from the Caribbean. Fresh food was long gone; drinking water was stale in its casks. Bound for the Chesapeake, in the raw cold of an Atlantic spring, they had sailed three days beyond their reckoning and found no land.

Captain Ratcliffe on the "Discovery" voted to return to England. But that night, a storm set upon them and, as Thomas Studley wrote:

"God the guider of all good actions ... did drive them by his providence to their desired port, beyond all their expectations; for never any of them had seen that coast."

This was Virginia, the land they were to colonize for England.

The ships were brought to anchor "at the mouth of a very goodly bay, 18 or 20 miles broad. The cape on the south is called Cape Henry, in honour of our of our most noble Prince. The land, white hilly sands ... and all along the shores great plenty of pines and firs."

Dimly visible to the north was what they named Cape Charles. From there, the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore stretched about 200 miles. Beyond that, the vast watershed spread inland to mountains not yet seen. In all, it drained 64,000 square miles, and had been almost completely covered with a largely unbroken forest since the end of the ice age 10,000 years before.

This remarkable forest was stingy with its nutrients, allowing little nitrogen or phosphorus (the two chemicals most responsible for spurring the modern Bay's massive algae blooms) and sediment to escape. Count Zinzindorf, a traveling companion of explorer and botanist William Bartram in 1742 along the North Branch Susquehanna's thickly forested shores, described "beautifully transparent" water, so clear that swimming chin deep, they "might have seen a pin at the bottom."

In the words of these early explorers and settlers there is a Chesapeake not always recognized today - a Bay filled with grasses, oysters and canvasbacks, a watershed with elk and bison.

The Land

After weeks at sea, the Englishmen were drawn ashore by the scent of land and the promise of new spring vegetation. They rowed into what is today called Lynnhaven Inlet and explored Long Creek and Broad Bay. John Smith later recorded: "cypress near three fadome about at the foot (18 feet circumference), very straight and 50, 60, or 80 foot without a branch..." As late as the 18th century, visitors would find tulip poplars 20 feet around and 90 feet high.

John Smith also spoke of oak trees on the uplands that yielded timber: "two foote and a half square ... for 20 yards long." These were trees that had never seen a steel ax; a forest which had grown and matured into tall colonnades with straight trunks and a high canopy which shaded the primeval forest floor in a perpetual deep twilight. These trees grew so slowly that, in some years, they would add only 2 millimeters to their diameter. Such trees, hundreds of years old, could never be replaced yet the temptation to harvest them would be universal.

West, beyond the coastal plain of the piedmont, above the rocky fall lines of the Bay's rivers, lay a much more tangled forest than along the Bay. Colonist Anthony Bagnall said his Wighcocomoco Indian friend Mosco knew nothing of the land beyond the mountains "because the woods were not burnt" (to clear the understory) and this trackless forest was traveled with difficulty. To colonists, who were used to England's orderly fields and coppiced woodlands, the forest and its dampness were unhealthy and dark. It must have been daunting to a settler armed only with an ax.

While the great forest system seemed inexhaustible to Native American and European alike, game could be locally overharvested with primitive weapons. There was more game in the interior and parties would venture there, often at the risk of encountering hostile, inland tribes.

John Smith reported that intensive game drives could yield: "6, 8, 10 or 15 (whitetail deer) at a hunting".

At the same time, Smith accused the Native Americans of overhunting game on the partly landlocked river necks of Maryland and Virginia. His contemporary John Pory wrote that deer, turtles "and other Beasts and fowls will exceedingly increase" if the Indians were pushed out of the country for they hunted regardless of season and did not spare "Male nor Female, old nor young, egges nor birds, fat nor lean..."

Cyprian Thorogood, who came over with Lord Baltimore's colonists on the "Ark" and "Dove," voyaged to the head of the Bay in mid-April 1634, 26 years after Smith's exploration. His boat passed Poole's Island, where he determined the fresh water in the Bay began. He navigated up what is today the Elk River and observed "many deere, yelkes (elk) and turkies, but caught none."

Eastern woodland bison still roamed the hinterlands, inspiring the names for Virginia's Cow and Calf Pasture rivers. The animals were not inexhaustible, though. The last woodland bison was reportedly tracked in heavy snow and shot Jan. 1, 1800, after having foraged, unwelcome, around a farmer's barn. Wild elk, quickly shot out of Maryland, lingered longer along the Susquehanna, where in the 1730s, some elk had been tamed and came and went with farmers' cattle.

Insects were as much a feature of the colonial Chesapeake as today. Naturalist and explorer John White accurately drew a swallowtail butterfly in 1585. Colonists wondered at the emergence of the summer cicadas and their great noise in the forest. Insects were pests too, both the natives such as the salt marsh green head fly, and those species that arrived with the Europeans, such as the black stable fly, a plague of today's summer and autumn Chesapeake.

It's astounding to most of us, but the honeybee, so much a part of our cooking, agriculture and lore, was introduced by Europeans. The Native Americans called it the "white man's fly."

Up the Susquehanna, a Moravian missionary wrote:

"Muschgetters (mosquitoes) tormented us all night." John Smith was inaccurate in saying: "nor (are) their flies ... (in) any way pernicious, where in the south parts of America they are always pernicious, and often deadly," unaware that the Chesapeake marshlands permitted the spread of malarial fevers.

The Natives

But was this wonderful land really pristine, free from human disturbance? Native Americans had arrived 6,000 to 9,000 years earlier, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and had developed a lifestyle that blended hunting, fishing and agriculture for more than 1,000 years before the Virginia colony was "planted."

How many Native Americans were here before the Europeans? Smith estimated that about 5,000 natives lived within 60 miles of Jamestown. Others suggest there were 30,000 people around the Bay's perimeter, and in the entire basin, perhaps only 100,000. Today, about 15 million people fill the Bay's watershed.

Though this land seemed untouched to the colonists, the Native Americans routinely set fires to drive game out of the woodlands and thus shaped forest ecology by thinning undergrowth, which ensured the growth of larger trees. That, coupled with the gathering of firewood from the forest floor, resulted in the woods being so open that a horse could be ridden anywhere, or even a coach driven without impediment, on the necks of land between the tidewater rivers of what would become Maryland and Virginia.

Native Americans seasonally congregated in villages on coastal plains bordering the Bay and rivers where they planted ecologically sensible crops of beans (which fix the fertilizer nitrogen from air), corn (a nitrogen user that also provides a natural trellis for the beans), squashes (which create a living mulch and groundcover against dehydration) and native tobacco. These fertile, floodplain soils would soon become prime agricultural land for the colonists' plantations.

The native tobacco, though, was not the plant that would become Virginia's "gold," but a harsh-smoking strain that was even too strong for northern Native American tribes like the Iroquois, to whom it was later offered - unsuccessfully - as trade goods. John Rolfe, who married Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas, later introduced a Central/South American strain called "Orinoco," with which the English colonists pursued their fortunes.

In the centuries before Europeans arrived, as soils became less productive, the Native Americans would burn or girdle the trees in an adjacent area, which killed them and allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor.

In spring, they would plant their crops in the rich and moist topsoils. These topsoils had accumulated on the forest floor - at an estimated rate of only an inch every 600 years - to a depth that one colonist reported as 12 inches in 1634.

It was for these substantial parcels of land, cleared of trees and eventually freed of roots and snags, that the Europeans would compete - or less commonly, bargain - with the Native Americans.

This alluvial land was productive. Smith found Powhatan's warehouses bulging with corn that some think was a tribute paid to him as the head of the tribal confederation.

In one of Smith's heavy-handed trading ventures with the Powhatans, 25 pounds of copper and 50 pounds of iron and beads were traded for 479 bushels of Indian corn that was delivered by barge to the Jamestown commissary. Had they been savvier traders that autumn, the colonists might have acquired 350 tons - almost 13,000 bushels - enough to feed 240 colonists for a year.

Bounty from the Bay

Just as the soils of its watershed were rich, so was the Bay itself. Smith and others made long lists and descriptions of fish familiar and foreign to English eyes. Smith talked about the Chesapeake's "fifth river... Pawtuxunt ... Here are infinite skulls (schools) of diverse kinds of fish more than elsewhere."

Still, some modern readers scoff at his observation: "and in diverse places that abundance of fish, lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with."

But for the English colonists, feeding themselves was a serious business and they actively fished the tremendous migrations of shad, herring and sturgeon that pulsed into the Bay each spring. Long before European intervention, Native Americans funneled these migratory fishes into baskets positioned at the juncture of a "vee" formed by stone weirs hand-built across the river channel. Some of these can still be seen in our nontidal rivers hundreds of years later.

Migratory fish went upstream past what would become the New York border and westward into the Appalachians. William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown and father of novelist James Fennimore Cooper, was an 18th century settler on Lake Otsego, the source of the Susquehanna. He reported on the harsh winter of 1789, during which the fledgling settlement of Cooperstown nearly starved:

"A singular event seemed sent by a good Providence to our relief; it was reported to me that unusual shoals of fish were seen moving in the clear water of the Susquehanna. I went and was surprised to find that they were herrings. We made something like a small net by the interweaving of twigs, and by this rude contrivance, we were able to take them in thousands."

In the 1800s, men who had fished in the previous century still remembered catching more than 1,000 shad per night in the Susquehanna near Wilkes Barre, Pa. But those days ended in the first decades of the century. In 1822, authorities reported: "The spring herring ... formerly visited this lake (Otsego) in immense multitudes for the purpose of spawning; now their ascent is arrested by the erection of dams."

The Indians captured huge, relatively slow-swimming sturgeon by lassoing their tails or wrestling them until the fish tired and could be landed. The colonists used nets of strong cord and Smith reported catching them in abundance during their upstream migration. Their flesh - not caviar - saved many colonists from starvation. Smith commented:

"We had more sturgeon, than could be devoured by dog or man, of which the industrious by drying and pounding, mingled with caviar, sorrel and other wholesome herbs would make bread and good meat; ... we lived very well in regard of such a diet."

Underwater beds of Bay grasses were extensive at the time of European contact, and seeds deep in the sediments indicate they had been a feature of the Chesapeake for thousands of years and probably covered hundreds of thousands of acres along the Bay's shallow margins, down to a maximum depth of 2-3 meters (10 feet). The earliest aerial photographs we have are from 1938 and show immense beds in the Patuxent River, in some places stretching 1,000 feet offshore, where virtually no grasses now grow. Only about 60,000 acres of grasses remain in the Bay today.

In colonial times, these vast underwater meadows offered a wonderful shelter for billions of juvenile fish and crabs. The grasses were foraged by millions of waterfowl, diamondback terrapins and visiting loggerhead sea turtles (which appear to have been the main dish at feasts in Jamestown). As in the last few summers, an occasional wandering manatee - one was recorded in the Rappahannock by Thomas Glover in 1676 - also grazed these grass beds.

Surprisingly few early writers mentioned, or recognized, the value of Bay grasses to the ecosystem, though Smith and three of his companions, wrote that they "spied many fishes lurking in the reeds" - presumably Bay grass beds - while exploring the mouth of the Rappahannock.

These fish were cownose rays, 30 inches across the wingtips, which bottom-feed in June across the Bay's shallows. Each has a serrated spine, slimed with toxic mucus at the base of its tail. John Smith, spearing one massive, flailing ray with his short-sword, was pierced an inch-and-a-half deep in his wrist by this "stinger. The torment was instantly so extreme, that in four hours time had so swollen his hand, arm and shoulder, we (expected) ... his funeral." His body, helped by a "precious oil" administered to the wound by his shipmate Dr. Russell, overcame the anaphylactic shock, and Smith ate some of the ray for supper. This adventure lead to the naming of Stingray Point and (reputedly) Antipoison Creek.

With clear water, grass beds thrived and provided reliable winter food from year to year. Later writers, especially those concerned about waterfowl, recognized the value of the extensive wild celery beds on the Susquehanna Flats for the immense populations of canvasback and redhead ducks.

Tales of waterfowl on the Chesapeake are legion. Native American hunters could barely make a serious harvest of these populations with their bows and arrows. One colonist recorded that the birds "arrive in millionous multitudes." Feeding abundantly on submerged grasses every winter, there was mutual benefit when the birds, upon digestion, returned nutrients to a Bay that was relatively underfertilized when compared with today's eutrophic conditions.

John Smith and two others, hunting from a small boat some distance from Jamestown, brought down 148 waterfowl. Colonist Robert Evelyn, exploring near the head of the Bay in the mid-1600s, saw a flight of ducks and estimated it at a mile across and 7 miles long. The taking to flight by such flocks was amazing. He recorded the "rushing and vibration" as sounding like a storm coming through trees, or like a whirlwind in the case of the geese they startled while canoeing into a small creek.

The clear water that colonists encountered in the Chesapeake Bay was not only husbanded by the basin's massive forests, but it was also maintained by the Bay's extraordinary "reefs" or "rocks" of oysters. In the James and Rappahannock, for example, these oyster reefs or rocks actually broke the surface at low tide, and sailing vessels sometimes grounded unexpectedly upon them.

As late as the Civil War, a crewman aboard the ironclad "USS Monitor," moored in the James, wrote home that they rowed out to the oyster banks daily to gather shellfish for their dinner.

Billions of oysters prospered naturally on grounds covering thousands of acres around the mouths of the Bay's tributaries and at spits or points in the rivers. Here, the ebb and flow of tidal currents swirled a perpetual, living soup of plankton around them. They had only to open their shells to eat, and in the process, they filtered out immense quantities of particulates, clarifying the water. Dr. Roger Newell, of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Lab, estimated that the Chesapeake's virgin oyster stock had the capacity to filter the entire Bay in several days, a feat that would take today's remnants more than a year to accomplish.

One could wade along many tidal tributary shorelines, as the Native Americans did, and gather abundant, large, rounded "cove" oysters growing on the subtidal sands. But expanding populations, such as those of St. Mary's City - Maryland's Colonial capital - quickly depleted these oyster populations. When Maryland's capitol - and lots of people - moved from St. Mary's to Annapolis in 1694, overharvesting stopped and the cove oysters began to appear again.

The advance warning in this simple observation went unheeded by future generations, and for the next three centuries, the Bay's great oyster resource was mercilessly harvested. The ancient oyster reef structure was dredged away, the meats consumed and the shell carried off for lime burning, road building and, at Solomons Island and Crisfield, filling in the shallows to create new land.

Shell mounds, or middens, characterize the archaeological remains of Native American habitations and demonstrate how dominant oysters were as food. On the lower Potomac's Yeocomico River, archaeologists have documented continuous human habitation reaching back 2,000 years. Middens along the Potomac at Douglas Point indicate that in ancient times, the water was salty enough for oyster growth miles farther upriver than today. Dr. Bob Biggs, a former Bay researcher, believes this was because the vast, ancient forests captured and held more rainfall, and transpired (evaporated into the atmosphere).

Ancient shell deposits, which lie 20 feet or more deep within Chesapeake sediments south of Poole's Island show that perhaps 4,000 years ago, conditions supported prodigious oyster growth much farther up the mainstem Bay than today. These fossil shells are now dredged commercially and thousands of tons are carried down into "the salts" to provide clean surfaces for the larvae of struggling, modern oysters to "strike," or settle, upon and grow.

Impetuous Torrents

Tropical storms have been a feature of the Chesapeake climate since prehistory. And when such storms penetrated into the interior and Appalachians, they caused floods.

In August 1667, there was a great "Hurry-Cane" that destroyed an estimated 10,000 homes in Virginia. Hail, large as turkey eggs, followed by torrential rains ruined two-thirds to four-fifths of the crops. This storm, unprecedented for the 17th century settlers, lasted for 24 hours with the wind beginning in the northeast, backing north and eventually southeast: the typical anticyclonic circulation of tropical storms.

Core samples taken from the floor of the Bay offer a faint picture of storms thousands of years into the past. These cores reveal that ancient and early colonial storms produced only small amounts of sediment compared with storms after deforestation and accelerated development.

The Bay's tributary rivers experience annual freshets, caused by snowmelt and spring rains. John Smith, exploring the James River in 1607, judged by marks on the trees that the river freshets flooded about 8 feet above the base flow level.

But, 78 years after colonization in 1685, the effects of colonization began to be felt and William Byrd I wrote that "a mighty fresh" had come down the James April 26 and 27, causing the river to rise 3 feet higher than ever before, destroying his fences, ruining his tobacco and flooding the first floor of "Belvidere," his house in what is today the heart of Richmond.

Over the next century, English settlers were busy cutting, girdling and burning away the forests for agriculture and timber. Hugh Jones, at the end of the 17th century, said he could not see his neighbors' house for the trees, but speculated that would soon change.

The loss of forest meant increased runoff to the streams and the reduction of evapotranspiration, that immense flow of water up through the billions of trees to the atmosphere. The propensity for flooding and the size of the spring freshets was greatly increased, and as more forest was cut and agriculture expanded onto the piedmont, both runoff and erosion of the land increased further. Dr. Biggs believes that both floods and droughts have increased in severity by 25 percent or more.

The genesis of today's problems in the Bay was in the mid-1700s. Dr. Grace Brush at Johns Hopkins, by studying the Bay's sediments, estimates that by 1760, about 30 percent of the basin's forests had been cut and the layers of sediment deposited on the Bay floor after storms thickened.

Indeed, after a strong freshet, settler Alexander Rose wrote, in 1768: "... the impetuous rains sweep away the whole vegetative Earth from the broken (plowed) grounds (of tidewater) unless they are tended in grain."

Rose's thinking thus anticipated by 230 years the agricultural cover crops that are a hallmark of nutrient management plans on modern Chesapeake farms.

Past as prologue

The words left us by colonists dead for hundreds of years allow us to imagine the extraordinary resources then offered by the Chesapeake. And this is just a sampler from the vast trove of information available.

As obscuring layers are peeled away by historian, archaeologist and natural scientist, more and more of the Chesapeake's past is being revealed.

Since these early colonists, the Bay has been abused for almost four centuries. We have eliminated all but a trace of the peoples who lived here for 9,000 years before us. This vast basin's forests have been removed - often several times over - its rivers have been blocked, its air and waters polluted, its lands incised with centuries of agriculture, allowing so much fertile soil to muddy the Bay. We have inundated the watershed with our locust swarm of population and development.

Yet, there are still substantial remnants of the Bay's great heritage: the autumn flight of geese, a great circle of swimming menhaden, the slash of feeding bluefish, the roil of feeding rockfish. There are the rare, single trees, and even rarer stands of trees that have escaped logging and storms. There is the savor of a Chesapeake oyster, glistening on its half-shell.

Revel in any of these you encounter, and neither despair of making progress against our losses nor become complacent about what remains. All of the Bay's resources are threatened, and they can each vanish if we do not reverse the damages done ... if we do not redouble our efforts to move the Chesapeake toward that dateline of long ago.

Dr. Kent Mountford is a senior scientist with the USEPA Chesapeake Bay Program. His "Capsule History of Chesapeake Bay," from geological origin to modern times, is available on the Chesapeake Bay Program Homepage at: http://www.epa.gov/r3chesapeake


Descendants of cypress recorded by Capt. John Smith can be seen at First Landing State Park near Virginia Beach. Although many cypress grow along the James and Pocomoke rivers, there are only a few, gnarled specimens of very old trees. Only Maryland's "Champion" cypress at Battle Creek, 17 1/2 feet around and 132 feet high remains of the 17th century's great trees. Trees in a virgin forest are not often distinguished by their diameter, but by their height as they strive upward competing for light.

Goodly Pines

There are a few places left where it is still possible to get a sense of what the colonists might have experienced.

Visit a 300-year-old stand of hemlock, 200 miles from the Bay, at Western Maryland's Swallow Falls. Experience the mood of what an ancient forest must have been like: deeply shaded and cool, with morning mist rising from rich moulds and a lush understory. In the summer, temperatures in the forest are 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than nearby open country. Some believe that Native Americans never experienced forest temperatures in the 90s.

Of all the streams that Smith and his explorers passed along Maryland's Calvert Cliff shoreline, only uninhabited Parker's Creek, with its otters and eagles, remains somewhat as it might have been in that summer of 1608. This land has been preserved by the American Chestnut Land Trust. Visit Parker's Creek in Port Republic, Md. and join the Trust to protect more wild lands.

Harvesting Corn

Corn is a "New World" crop, unknown in Europe before Columbus' discovery. John Smith's haul of Indian corn was gleaned from many, tiny hand-tilled fields, maybe 3/4 acre per man. By 1609, colonists had planted 30 or 40 acres of their own. By 1614, they had 500 acres and by 1631, with perhaps a 100-bushel-per-acre yield on the best lands, they exported surplus corn. Modern, mechanized farming on Chesapeake soils with hybrid varieties and fertilizer yields 80 to 125 bushels of corn per acre and an average around 110. The U.S. corn crop for 1996 was estimated at a "disappointing" 8.7 billion bushels.


The cownose ray's serrated spine is slimed with a toxic mucus at the end of the tail, as John Smith painfully discovered. Weighing 20-30 lbs. apiece, these rays are powerful and difficult to land when hooked, but produce substantial and tasty meat from their muscular "wings." They school in thousands up the Bay each spring, when females give live-birth to dinner-plate-size juveniles. The adult females are believed to be pregnant again by the time they leave the Bay in late summer to overwinter off South America. Rays feed on bottom-dwelling clams and worms. Because rays disrupt the bottom while feeding, they're considered destructive to grass beds.

Dr. Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and estuarine ecologist.

History Lessons for the Future
Article from Bay Journal - March 1997

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