The Chesapeake Bay

May 6, 2024

William Wirt captured an enduring scene when he wrote in 1822 from Cedar Park on the Rhode River of a “broad bay animated with vessels in full sail.” The confluence of the Chesapeake Bay to the east and the area’s numerous creeks and rivers defined the area’s natural and man-made landscape and shaped the lives of those who settled along its shores. Here, the stories of those who relied on the water for survival, whether through sustenance, commerce, or communication, continue to be revealed. Today, those whose livelihoods come chiefly from the water share the rivers and Bay with those who boat for pleasure.

In The Beginning…

Melting glaciers once filled the ancient Susquehanna River Valley leaving all that you see under water. Over the next 3,000 years, the area continued to evolve until the Chesapeake Bay region assumed roughly the shape it has today. But its shorelines continue to shift as sea level changes and storms continually reshape the landscape. The Annapolis Maritime Museum, Chesapeake Children’s Museum, Galesville Heritage Museum, and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) all offer detailed and educational information on the formation of the Bay.

The region’s original, native inhabitants would arrive in late summer and fall to hunt in the dense forests and to fish for sturgeon, shad, and croaker. They also harvested large quantities of oysters and clams judging by the heaps of cast-off shells that have been uncovered all across the Bay’s shorelines. When Captain John Smith first explored the Bay in 1607 and 1608, he found striped bass over six feet long and oysters too large to eat in a single mouthful, but found no permanent Native American inhabitants in Anne Arundel County in 1608 except upriver on the Patuxent. The Java History Trail at SERC and Historic London Town and Gardens are great resources for more information on the Bay’s earliest inhabitants.

Over The Centuries

The area’s rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean were the principal transportation and communication links for much of the 17th through 19th centuries. First, barks and brigantines brought English colonists, indentured servants, and slaves to the area’s shores and carried tobacco back to England. By the mid-19th century, steamboats brought needed commodities and visitors to the area’s port towns. Eventually ferries, such as William Brown’s at London Town, were succeeded by bridges, like the South River Bridge, and automobiles replaced steamboats.

Since the earliest settlements, the area’s economy has always depended on the waterways—for the exportation of tobacco from Maryland’s plantations to Scottish and English ports and for the importation of merchandise that supplied both the necessities and luxuries of life. Historic London Town and Gardens illustrates the once booming tobacco ports of the 18th century. By the mid-19th century, oysters, clams, and crabs became important exports, aided by new technology that kept seafood fresh for longer periods. Competition became so fierce that in 1868 the state established the Oyster Police to patrol the waters. Watermen culture, history, and heritage are still very much alive in the Bay. Visitors can explore the lives and work of the area’s early watermen by visiting the Captain Salem Avery Museum and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

A Tradition Of Sailing

Annapolis is often called the “Sailing Capital of the U.S.,” and many recreational sailors consider the Chesapeake Bay to be at the top of the country’s sailing locations. With moderate tides and innumerable inlets, the title makes sense.  However, there are also the deep-rooted traditions of sailing and shipbuilding to support the designation. Arthur Pierce Middleton wrote in Tobacco Coast, “Almost all schooner yachts until about 1870 were built on the lines of the [Chesapeake Bay’s] pilot boats.” He observed that the most conspicuous triumph of the type was the “victory of the yacht America in 1851” in the first of the America’s Cup Races. Grand yachts were made through much of the last century at Eastport’s boatyards, such as Chance’s, later Trumpy’s. On a smaller scale, visit the Vanity at the Captain Salem Avery House. Designed by Dick Hartge, it was the model for the popular Chesapeake 20, which has raced on the Bay for more than 75 years. Visit Hartge’s Nautical Museum to learn more.

Mariners, seeking safe harbor, food, and drink at taverns throughout the area, still celebrate their victories at Middleton Tavern, which was described in 1754 as an “Inn for Sea-Faring Men.”

Today’s Waters

Sailors—military, commercial, and recreational—have long marked their courses by the Bay’s light houses. Start your exploration of the history of Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, the only 19th-century screwpile lighthouse remaining in the Bay, either at the Annapolis Maritime Museum or by booking a tour to the lighthouse itself. For 150 years it has witnessed the evolution of both the Bay and its boats. At many spots along our waterways you can still discover the “broad bay animated with vessels in full sail,” while history’s tides ebb and flow along the water’s edge.

Experience The Area

With the support of our local partners and associations, Chesapeake Crossroads is dedicated to preserving the attractions, locations, cultures, and stories of the Chesapeake Bay and its inhabitants, both past and present. If you are interested in experiencing the area’s rich history for yourself, you can plan a visit to one of our partner sites, attend a local seminar or lecture series, or join us for one of many monthly events in the region.

If you’re looking for a peek into the history of the Chesapeake Bay, there’s no shortage in Anne Arundel County and the Chesapeake Crossroads Heritage Area. Discover all the attractions surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.