The three years (1607-09) that Captain John Smith spent in the Chesapeake region were just the beginning of English settlement here.
Grim times, marked by starvation and warfare, followed Smith’s departure. Many colonists died. Of the 220 colonists alive in December 1609—the start of the “Starving Time”—only 60 remained the next spring.
The fortunes of the colony changed around 1612 when tobacco cultivation began. The success of tobacco as a cash crop made the colony more stable. The Virginia Company continued to send settlers and supplies to the Chesapeake. By 1620, the Jamestown colony included women and families instead of just men, and it boasted a legislative assembly. It also had the first African laborers, imported in 1619 to work the new labor-intensive crops.
Disease, starvation, and wars with the native peoples killed many English, yet more and more arrived year after year. Europeans founded new colonies across the Chesapeake Bay region, attracted by Smith’s map and journal descriptions of this “fruitful and delightsome land.”
In 1634 English Catholics under Leonard Calvert (Lord Baltimore) established the Maryland colony and St. Mary’s City. In 1681, William Penn initiated the Pennsylvania colony. As the number of colonists increased, they moved to the interior for farmland, displacing the native populations. The Indians resisted, but eventually conflicts diminished as the native populations were decimated by military defeats, migration, and disease. By the mid 1700s European settlements dominated the Chesapeake region.
An increasing number of enslaved laborers were brought into the region to work the land, especially the large agricultural sites called plantations. By 1700, the slave population represented about half the region’s workforce and 40% of the total population. The many small family-sized farms did not use slave labor, but large opulent plantations along the rivers typified successful Chesapeake agriculture.
As settlers moved inward and to higher elevations, they cleared the majestic virgin forests for wood products and farmland. Rivers became sources of energy for mills and factories. Cities emerged along the fall lines—Petersburg on the Appomattox, Richmond on the James, Alexandria on the Potomac, Baltimore on the Patapsco.
Roads crisscrossed the countryside connecting farms and new interior towns. Seaports grew to reflect the increase in inter-colony and international trade. And more and more people came to seek their fortunes along the Chesapeake. Even before the start of the American War of Independence, the Chesapeake Bay watershed began showing the stress of these changes.
Learn More about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed