Chesapeake Bay – The Eastern Shore

Northward from Old Point Comfort and Hampton Roads the great Chesapeake Bay stretches for two hundred miles. It bisects Virginia and Maryland, and receives the rivers of both States, extending within fourteen miles of Pennsylvania, where it has as its head the greatest river of all, the Susquehanna, which the Indians appropriately called their ” great island river.” Its shores enclose many islands, and are indented with innumerable bays and inlets, the alluvial soils being readily adapted to fruit and vegetable growing, and its multitudes of shallows being almost throughout a vast oyster bed. It has, all about, the haunts of wild fowl and the nestling-places of delicious fish. These shores were the home—first on the eastern side and afterwards on the western—of the Nanticokes, or “tidewater Indians,» who ultimately migrated to New York to join the Iroquois or Five Nations, making that Confederacy the ” Six Nations.” From Cape Charles, guarding the northern entrance to the Bay, extends northward the well-known peninsula of the “Eastern Shore,” a land of market gardens, strawberries and peaches, which feeds the Northern cities, and having its rail-road, a part of the Pennsylvania system, running for miles over the level surface in a flat country, which enabled the builders to lay a mathematically straight pair of rails for nearly ninety miles, said to be the longest railway tangent in existence.

Chesapeake Bay is now patrolled by the oyster fleets of both Virginia and Maryland, each State having an “oyster navy ” to protect its beds from predatory forays; and occasionally there arises an “oyster war” which expands to the dignity of a newspaper sensation, and sometimes results in blood-shed. The wasteful methods of oyster-dredging are said to be destroying the beds, and. they are much less valuable than formerly, although measures are being projected for their protection and restoration under Government auspices. We are told that a band of famished colonists who went in the early days to beg corn from the Indians first discovered the value of the oyster. The Indians were roasting what looked like stones in their fire, and invited the hungry colonists to partake. The opened shells dis-closed the succulent bivalve, and the white men found there was other good food besides corn. All the sites of extinct Indian villages along the Chesapeake were marked by piles of oyster shells, showing they had been eaten from time immemorial.

The English colonists at Jamestown were told by the Indians of the wonders of the “Mother of Waters,” as they called Chesapeake Bay, about the many great rivers pouring into it, the various tribes on its shores, and the large fur trade that could be opened with them ; so that the colonists gradually came to the opinion that the upper region of the great bay was the choicest part of their province. Smith explored it and made a map in 1609, and others followed him, setting up trading-stations upon the rivers as far as the Potomac and the Patuxent. Soon. this new country and its fur trade attracted the cupidity of William Claiborne, who had been appointed Treasurer of Virginia, and was sent out when King James I. made it a royal province, the king telling them they would find Claiborne ” a per-son of qualitie and trust.” He was also agent for a London Company the king had chartered to make discoveries and engage in the fur trade. Claiborne, in 1631, established a settlement on Kent Island, the largest in the bay, about opposite Annapolis, and one hundred and thirty miles north of the James, which thrived as a trading station and next year sent its burgesses to the Assembly at Jamestown.