History of Chesapeake Bay

In the beginning.. Some 35 millions years ago, during the late Eocene, planetEarth sustained one of those rare but recurring cometary impacts, like the one thatapparently extinguished dinosaurs in the Cretaceous era. In this case, the collision reshaped the earths crust 130 miles southeast of what is today. Many millions of years hence, an ancestral river which would become the Susquehanna,flowed downhill toward the sea through that 55 mile-wide ancient crater.

Several times in the past but notably during the Miocene the Bay region lay on the floor of a coastal ocean. Most of the scores of fossilsspecies eroding from middle-Bay cliff deposits are from this period.

Fossils from the chesapeake

Ice age

During the last Ôce age"glaciers plowed south as far as New Jersey and Long Island. Raw winds and heavy snowfalls flowed down from the icewallcreating a climate far more severe than today's. About 12,00 years ago early native American hunter-gatheres entered North America across the Bearing Sea landbridge which, like our coastal shelf, had been exposed by that low stand of sea level. Generation after generation they spread across our continent to the Atlantic coast gathering wild fruits and marsh tubers.They hunted great Pleistocene mammals like the elk, bison, mammoth and mastodon. Their spears were armed with flaked stone points and hurled with a throwing stick or štlatl" -with impact momentum comparable to a .357 magnum.

Melting ice during the slow retreat of the last continental glaciers eventually submerged the land bridge and began retunign water to the seas. As the glaciers retreated, hardwood forests of chestnut, oak and hickory advanced northword.Century by century, they replaced all but tiny remant boreal forest of hemlock, tamarack and other evergreens.

By 10,000 years ago, sea level was rising, sometimes a meter(almost 40 inches) per century. The ancestral Susquehanna flowed through a gorge, much more steep-walled than today's gentle river valley.It was slowly filled by rising sea level to form a growing bay that was to become the Chesapeake.

Erosion and the advancing sea consumed, and continues to consume, shoreline and Bay islands, sloly swallowing them and depositing their substance on the bay floor. As tributaries of the lower Susquehanna were inundated with water, sediments completely burriedstream beds, but their forms were preserved deep under the middle Bay's sand and muds.


Erosional sands from the Atlantic coastal barrier islands were swept alongshore by ocean currents and, over thousands of years, the Bay mouth moved many miles south from its original channel to the present capes charles and Henery. By about 5,000 years ago the Bay had a from much like it does today, but erosion continued apace, reshaping the shoreline. Some geologists estimate that the cliffs John Smith saw in 1607 and 1608 along the middle Western Shore have eroded back 300 feet. Many of the Islands he explored, like Sharp, Poplar, James and Barren have largely or completely eroded into the Bay.

Native Americans

It has been suggested that the name "Chesapeake"comes from a Native American word meaning "Great Shellfish Bay", which is certainly an accurate description. Journlists and authors, once describe the Bay as a "great protein factory" because of the tons of crabs, oysters and fin fish. Native Americans thrived on the Bay's bounty, using hand-hewn arrowheads for hunting and fishing from their dugout log canoes.

Climate and Vegetation

The native American population prospered on this new continent. They appear to have hastened species extinction by aggressively hunting some of the large mammals already stressed by changing climate and vegetation. These semi-nomadic peoples resourcefully exploited food sources found in the forests and streams during their "seasonal rounds".Nuts and tubers were gathered, turkeys, deer, smaller mammals and fish were harvested for food and clothing. Though winters were hard, this hunter-gatherer way of life persisted successfully for thousands of years.

The arrival of English colonists brought western farming techniques to the area and the systematic cultivation of tobacco.

Agriculture along the Atlantic seaboard began about 1000 B.C., but it took until 600 to 900 A.D. Beans, squash and corn were established as foundation crops across the Chesapeake's Piedmont and Costal plains. Along with the activity surrounding the storage of food supplies against winter's deprivation, and wartime hardship, people started to spend part of the years living together in villages.

"Settlement" and environmental change had begun as native Americans managed the forest understory with fire and harvested the Bay's resources of oysters and migratory fish such as shad and herring. At White Oak Point on the Coan River in Virginia, archaeologists have documented continual human habitation from 2000 B.C. on. By the end of the 16th Century, a man known as the Powahatan had consolidated a confederation of cheifdoms and became the main political force with which Virginia Colonists would have to contend.


The population in 1607 was perhaps 25,000 or 30,000 around the Bay and there may have been a total of some 10,000 or so spread over the basin's 64,000 square miles. The natural-based economic system "shaped" the enviornment seemed to do so without damaging it.

Some archaeologists believe that diseases carried by the Europeans on the earliest visits to the Chesapeake and carolinas spread and killed large segments of the native populations. The Indians of the Roanoke, following a plague that accompainied that European visit, said they had never experienced such a dying before.

Powhatan Confederacy

In the late 1400s- three major Native Americans(Indians) groups made their home in the area. They wer Cfherokee, the Susquehanna, and the Algonquians.A Algonquians lived in the Tidewater region. They knew the land well and could farm, hunt and fish with ease.A group of 30 Native American tribes of the Eastern Woodlands of the Algonquian branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock. The Powhatan lived in 200 palisaded settlement along coastal Virginia and Chesapeake Bay, hunting, fishing, and rasing corn. Chief Powhatan or Wahunsonacock, was head of the confederacy when Jamestown was settled in 1607. English seized his best land, but secured peace through John Rolfe's marriage(1614) to Powhatan's daughter POCAHONTAS. In 1622 Powhatan's successor, Opechancanough, attacked the English, killing 350; he was murdered after the leading a last uprising(1644). After 1722 the tribes mixed with the settlers, and the confederacy disappeared. Their descendants include the Chickahominay and other small tribes of the Virginia and Chesapeake area.


1595-1617, daughter of Chief Powhatan of the Powhatan Confederacy of Virginia. She is said to have saved the life of Capt. John Smith as Powahatan was about to execute him. Later, held hostage at Jamestown for the return of her father's English prisoners, she became a Christian and married (1614) a settler, John Rolfe.The union brought peace for eight years. Rolfe took her to England(1616), where she was received as a princess. She died during the trip home when she caught a disease called smallpox.The Algonquians and the British did not fight again until after Powhatan's death in 1618.

Native American Languages

Languages of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere and their descendants. The classification Native American languages do not belong to a single linguistic family, or stock, such as the Indo-European language familu. The Native American languages cannot be differentiated as a linguistic unit from other languages of the world, but are grouped into a number ofseparate linguistic stocks having significantly different phonetics, vocabulary, and grammers.Major Native American Languages


European contact did not start with John Smith and the Jamestown Colony. It begin, in fact, with Spanish and French explorers in the early and middle 1500's. The English were late comers to the chesapeake bay. The Spanish adventurers had substantial and repeated altercations with Chesapeake native Americans.Native Americans exterminated the Jesuits, except for one Spanish boy, who was eventually liberated, but not without the killing or capture of more native Americans.

Almost two decades later, in 1588, the Spanish mariner Vincente Gonzales explored all the way to the head of Chesapeake Bay, while across the Atlantic the English were fighting off his nation's great Armada.

Early navigators were extraordinarily secretuve about their explorations, but evidence suggests English voyages touching the perimeters of the Chesapeake commenced around 1585.

Capt. John Smith

At the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean in the British Isles, a few leaders were planning a journey. They wanted to send some English people to North America to set up a British Colony, because they believed that the new colony would be rich with gold.

Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1600s. He found a sea of abundance and wrote of once seeing enough striped bass by his house to fill a 100 ton ship.The Chesapeake seen by John Smith and other European settlers was quite different from the estuary today. He taught the colonists to plant crops to fish and to build a fort to protect themselves against possible dangers. He knew their survival would be difficult, so he enforced a strict law-those who did not work did not eat. Chief Powhatan suspected the strangers came to do more than trade. He feared the colonists wanted to take over the landwhere the Algonquians lived. In 1609 Captain Smith was burned badly in a gunpowder explosion, and returned to Britain.

English Colonies

On May 13, 1607, the Virginia Company explorers chose to settle on Jamestown Island, along the James River 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. They calledd this tributary "King james, His river".They landed there because the deep water channel let their ships ride close to shore; close enough, by one account to moor them to the trees. Almost immediately the colonists were under attack from the Algonquian natives. Nonetheless, in a little over a months time, the newcomers managed to "beare and plant palisadoes" enough to build a wooden fort. Three contemporary accounts and a sketch of the fort agree that its wooden palisaded walls formed a triangle around a storehouse, church, and a number of houses.

The Jamestown colonists were very adventures and opportunist. They sought gold or a sea route to Japan and were inattentive to the business establishing self sufficiently in agriculture.The absence of gold and precious minerals around the Bay meant that England did not reap the brutal harvest of riceswhich spain took from Mexico and South America. Colonial agriculture's gold would beTOBACO, and the English adopted native American farming techniques that did relatively little long-term damage to the land. The cycle continued as more and more new colonists arrived, and formed a relatively stable agrarian system for at least a 100 years. The first distruptions to this Colonial agrarian economy- and ultimately to the Bay - were triggered by political upheaval in Europe and failures in Continental tobacco markets. These events began in the late 17th and accelerated in the 18th century. The repercussions, compounded by English taxation of the colonies, made Americans realize they would have to provide for themselves. With grain came technological innovation which would revolutionize the practice of Chesapeake bay agriculture; and forever change the face of continent. The population of colonist -European and African - around the Chesapeake bay went from 150 in 1640 to 34,000 in 1700.