Glimpses of John Smith’s Chesapeake, and ours

On this 400th anniversary of the settling of Jamestown and Capt. John Smith’s daring exploration, which literally put the Chesapeake on the map, a modern adventurer can still glimpse what the English explorer saw, still feel some of the high and lows of his voyage.

Bald eagles still soar above the Cliffs of Fone along Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Tall cypress still brood over almost undeveloped shores of the Pocomoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Rock-girt, forest-clad Garrett Island still dominates the mouth of the Susquehanna River flowing out of Pennsylvania.

Only two springs ago, kayakers following Smith’s route found themselves pressed and buffeted on all sides by acres of spawning striped bass, recalling the captain’s legendary account of fish so thick his crew tried (and failed) to dip them with a frying pan. And last summer, a squall forced a band of paddlers to spend a wet and buggy night on uninhabited Bloodsworth Island. A similar storm forced Smith ashore in the same mid-bay spot. He dubbed it “Limbo,” the staging place for the souls of the Hell-bound.

Yet the Chesapeake ecosystem of today is profoundly altered from the estuary John Smith described.

Start with its watershed, 64,000 square miles of land veined by rivers stretching north to Cooperstown, N.Y., and south nearly to North Carolina. In Smith’s day it was forested. The forests absorbed rains and peak flows to the bay were 25 to 30 percent less than today, when downpours flush from thousands of square miles of paved surfaces. Similarly, “base,” or drought, flows down bay rivers then were 10 to 15 percent higher because so much more rainfall soaked into the ground, replenished the water table, and slowly seeped to streams. The upshot was a cleaner, clearer, stable bay.

The original inhabitants described by Smith did manipulate nature, using fire across large acreages to clear the understory for hunting and planting. But there were at most 30,000 Native Americans around the bay, perhaps 100,000 watershed-wide.

Today there are 17 million of us — including, remarkably, thousands of descendants of those natives who have preserved their tribal identities.

Most of the bay John Smith sailed was a virtual seafood sanctuary. The fishing gear of the natives only exploited the near-shore shallows and upstream portions of the rivers. Not until the late 1800s would dredging by steam and sail begin to break up the mammoth reefs of oysters that filtered and cleansed the Chesapeake of sediment and algae. And it would be the mid-20th century before the crab pot effectively invaded the main bay, dramatically ratcheting up the harvest pressure on crustaceans.

Shad and herring in John Smith’s day thronged the bay’s tributaries each spring to spawn, running all the way to upstate New York on the Susquehanna and to the foothills of the Blue Ridge on the James. Beginning in the 1800s, dams began to amputate thousands of miles of these great fish highways.

Smith may have seen less marsh along the bay’s edges and islands than we see today. Sea level was nearly a meter lower 400 years ago. Clearing for agriculture and clear-cutting of forests led to massive sedimentation that filled open waters and formed marshes.

The most radical shifts have occurred, however, in just the last half-century — not just the biggest changes since Smith’s time, but probably the largest in the 3,000-year history of the estuary. Since around 1950, both population and the human “footprint,” our per capita impact on the environment, have exploded.

Our population, which took 350 years to reach eight million, doubled in the next 50 years. Within the watershed, we have developed more land in the last 60 years than in all previous time. Similarly, demand for energy, generation of waste, and acres of paving have all increased even faster than population.

Fertilizer use on the millions of acres of farms in the watershed doubled — and then tripled — during the 1960s and 1970s. Industrial-strength poultry and dairy farming in recent decades has created more manure than nearby farmlands can absorb. The levels of nitrogen and phosphorus running off the land have increased many-fold, growing more algae, making the water soupy, depleting oxygen and blocking light to hundreds of thousands of acres of aquatic vegetation where crabs and fish used to take refuge.

Smith’s age of bay exploration led to ages of increasing consumption of the bay’s resources and ultimately to ages of degradation. One hopes that 50 years from now, on the 450th anniversary of John Smith and Jamestown, we will look back and see that recent decades marked the start of a golden age of bay restoration.

Certainly we have made a start: planting oysters and submerged vegetation; curtailing the overharvest of crabs, shad and striped bass; and removing dams and constructing wetlands.

But in voyaging to reclaim the bay of even 50 years ago, let alone what John Smith knew, we have just unfurled the sails, barely wet the oars.


Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Now he’s a freelance writer and he will speak at the annual meeting of the Severn River Association next month. This column was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

(Revised May 2007)