The arrival of English colonists 400 years ago unleashed changes that transformed the Chesapeake landscape. For centuries the native people had lived lightly on the land. But the English brought different farming practices, machinery, and alien species of plants, animals, and insects that drastically altered the natural balance of the Bay.
The American Indians prospered on fertile riverfront lands rich in fish and game. They practiced shifting cultivation, relocating their villages when crops depleted the soils. They carefully managed the land, burning undergrowth to keep the forests open and mixing crops to keep the land fertile. When crop yields fell, they abandoned the plot and let the soil recover.
The Indians moved with the seasons. They set up temporary hunting and fishing camps to harvest seasonal bounty. They gathered wild edibles from the marshes and forest; they ate oysters from thick beds along the rivers and creeks. Adept at catching their prey, they trapped fish in nets or in long weirs; they drove deer or other wild game into ambushes by setting fire to forest underbrush.
Coming from crowded industrialized European cities where land was scarce, the colonists seemed to think America's bounty was theirs for the taking. In a book published shortly before his death in 1631, Captain John Smith wrote advertisements for English settlement: “And here in Florida, Virginia, New-England, and Cannada, is more land than all the people in Christendome can manure [cultivate], and yet more to spare than all the natives of those Countries can use and cultivate. The natives are only too happy to share;… for a copper kettle and a few toyes, as beads and hatchets, they will sell you a whole Country.”
The settlers came, claiming permanent possession of land. Their livestock were destructive grazers. Cattle and pigs roamed freely, trampling fields and destroying wild edibles. Non-native insects pollinated plants and carried disease. The colonists exhausted the soil with huge tracts of tobacco and other cash crops.
Perhaps worst of all, they cleared the land of virgin forests for farming and logging. Trees once formed an almost continuous canopy around the Bay and its tributaries, holding soils in place and protecting shorelines from storm damage. Cleared of trees, the exposed land was prone to erosion, which severely impacted tributaries and the Bay.
The colonists were awed by the Chesapeake’s abundance. Smith reported fish "lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for the want of nets we attempted to catch them with our frying pans.” Oysters “lay as thick as stones.” Sturgeon were plentiful— “more than could be devoured by dog or man.” Colonists recorded sturgeon over 12 feet long and weighing over 800 pounds.
The abundance reported by Smith and others is long gone. Sturgeon are rarely seen in the Bay; oysters are in serious decline. Other species, too, have suffered from more efficient methods of harvesting, over-harvesting, pollution, disease, and other pressures.
Yet today harvesting fish remains part of the lifeblood of the Chesapeake Bay. Important fisheries of blue crab, oyster, shad, and more are still vital to industry and trade in the Chesapeake region. Improved methods of preserving and canning coupled with improvements in transportation opened worldwide markets to Chesapeake delicacies. The Bay produces about 500 million pounds of seafood per year. The iconic blue crab brings in more than $50 million a year—the highest commercial value among Chesapeake fisheries.
Captain John Smith did not find the Northwest Passage that the Virginia Company sought, but the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries proved to be lucrative trade routes. The American Indians had already established a trading network that extended along footpaths and watercourses for hundreds of miles, even as far away as the Great Lakes.
Indians and colonists alike used the Bay’s waters for trade and for shipping forest and farm products. The colonists established a booming business in ship masts from the tall, straight trees they harvested. They supplied world markets with tobacco and other agricultural products. As they learned ways to preserve seafood, commercial fishing developed.
But by the 1750s—little more than a century after Captain Smith’s explorations—the effects of erosion were already apparent. Sediments from the deforested lands made many Bay shipping ports too shallow for navigation.
While some shipping ports died, others thrived. Baltimore’s natural harbor became a transportation and shipbuilding hub. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad carried goods to and from the western reaches of the country, and the Chesapeake Bay provided access to worldwide markets. The Chesapeake still serves as a major international shipping corridor, with some 100 million tons of cargo moving in and out of Bay ports annually.
Learn More about the Harvest and Trade