The Bay
Boating for the Bay

  Courtesy of Ed Hinman, Director and Historical Advisor, Charter for Veterans  


Welcome to the Bay
As your skippers, Captains Bob and Lenny, usher you into their beloved maritime world of the Chesapeake Bay, I (the historian of this ‘motley crüe) would like to take you back to a time before gas-fueled muscle boats tore through the Bay’s rivers and estuaries; a time before bridges and tunnels connected the western shores of Annapolis, Norfolk, and Portsmouth to the sandy, crab-filled beaches and inlets of the eastern shore; a time before railways, airplanes, and electricity. Let me take you back to early seventeenth century Virginia, specifically, to the year 1607.

Colonial Bay
As Commodore Christopher Newport set his three ships assail from England in December of 1606, he noticed a conspicuous ‘alpha dog’ telling endless sea stories somewhere near his flag ship’s bow. The loudmouth – a man Newport deemed a charlatan -- was likely boasting about his multiple duels with Ottoman Turks and fights Crimean pirates. This swashbuckling buccaneer was none other than Captain John Smith, hired by the Virginia Company of London to turn profits in the New World through land speculation and fur trading with the native inhabitants -- or “savages” as Smith often referred to them.

Months after setting sail, Smith, now placed in command by the Virginia Company, landed along the James River, about 100 miles to our south, at Jamestown -- Britain’s first colony in North America and named after King James I. The date was May 14, 1607. As the first permanent English settlers hit the beach -- thirteen years before the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock -- they immediately noticed that the “savages,” as Smith described them, were actually sophisticated and intelligent in both war and trade. It was obvious the settlers had much to learn about survival in this new, alien world.

As the first miserable years of the settlement passed, only 60 of the original 214 settlers were still alive. Ignorant in farming techniques, the starving settlers often relied on charity from the more self-sufficient Powhatten tribe. After a few years, more English settlers arrived with additional supplies from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean. As English strength grew, they shifted priorities from mere survival to turning a profit. Soon, the English newcomers discovered that the Indians were just as eager for profit and power as any fiery English capitalist.

After their initial starvation scare, Captain John Smith and his fellow Englishmen hired the Powhatans to guide them along the 200 mile length of the Chesapeake Bay. Over time, European settlers discovered over 150 waterways that emptied into the bay from locations as far off as (what is now) New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. To ambitious settlers like Smith, the economic possibilities were endless – or in today’s terms, there was money to be made.

Colonial ambition, however, meant economic competition between rivaling tribes and the English. As a result, a series of wars broke out along the Chesapeake Bay, culminating with an English victory over the Powhatans in 1646. In the wake of victory, England’s economic domination of the Chesapeake and North America had begun.
As the Bay became more prosperous, English settlers began pouring into the region and populating the edges of the Chesapeake. Throughout the seventeenth century, cities such as Williamsburg and Annapolis began to emerge. By the early eighteenth century, Baltimore was added as another major port of the Chesapeake Bay. During these two centuries of growth, the Chesapeake Bay became a nucleus for North American trade and commerce. Opportunities for profit turned the Chesapeake Bay into a melting pot of Atlantic peoples from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America -- all interconnected through commerce.

By the eighteenth century, the Bay was an economic and social representation of the continents surrounding the Atlantic Ocean. This intertwined world linked American Indians, Anglicans, New England Puritans, Quakers, Catholics, the Dutch, indentured servants, and African slaves. As a result, the Chesapeake Bay -- a converging point of the greater Atlantic seafaring world -- became an information super highway of ideas, culture, and customs. Not only did goods, immigrants, and slaves arrive from three different continents, but the Chesapeake Bay also received differing opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. These varied ideologies -- imported as fast as the Ocean’s currents and winds could bring them -- soon filled every port city restaurant, tavern, church, and colonial assembly. Tales, speeches, and pamphlets, filled with radical, revolutionary ideas penetrated North America’s colonial populations. By 1776, these radical theories caused a Revolution and formed the philosophical basis for our Declaration of Independence.

Nineteenth Century Bay
As the newly independent United States entered the nineteenth century, the Chesapeake Bay continued its role as the social, economic, and political nerve center for America’s mid-Atlantic region. As the largest estuary in the United States, the Bay played a prominent role in the Transportation Revolution of the early eighteenth century, facilitating hundreds of steamboats that hauled merchant goods, slaves, and passengers. Just as French Admiral Comte De Grasse defeated Britain’s Royal Navy in 1781 at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay -- solidifying America’s victory in the Revolutionary War -- warships met again, but this time between Americans themselves in civil war. By 1861, the Bay’s geography -- bordered by Maryland (a union state) and Virginia (a confederate state) -- put the Chesapeake at the center of our four year Civil War that took over 600,000 American lives.

The Bay was home to the most famous sea battle of the American Civil War. Challenging the Union’s naval blockade of the Chesapeake Bay, the iron-clad C.S.S. Virginia attempted to oust rival iron-clad, the U.S.S. Monitor near the same location of the epic 1781 naval battle between the allied French and the enemy Royal Navy. As the Virginia and Monitor hammered each other with iron cannon balls from their 9 and 11 inch guns, at a range of less than ten meters, the ear-splitting pounding of iron against the ships’ steel bled the ears of nearly every sailor. The eventual result of this slugfest was a draw with both ships limping back to their respective ports. The Confederate Navy never gained control of the Chesapeake Bay. And when the South surrendered in 1865, the Civil War marked the last episode of war along the Chesapeake Bay.

Today’s Bay
As the nineteenth century became the twentieth and the twentieth became the twenty-first, the Bay has continued to remain an important part of the American Experience. In militarily matters, Norfolk, Virginia (located at the mouth of the Bay) to our south remains the largest Naval Station in the world. While to our north, many of America’s Naval Officers are trained at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Economically, the Chesapeake continues to boom. Newport News remains the world’s largest military shipyard -- and the world’s only location for the construction of nuclear aircraft carriers. While Baltimore and Norfolk continue to facilitate commercial maritime traffic: importing and exporting goods not just from the Atlantic World (as in the seventeenth century) but from ports worldwide. Politically, the Bay’s
relevance remains obvious. Mid-way up the Bay, just turn west at the mouth of the Potomac River, approximately 150 miles upriver you will find our nation’s capital, Washington, DC.

Finally, the social and cultural importance of the Bay cannot be overstated. The population of the Chesapeake region (including its rivers and streams) in 1650 sat just around 13,000. One hundred years later, in 1750, the population stood at 380,000. By 1800, the population had swelled to over a million. Today, the Bay, along with its outreaching rivers, facilitates urban sprawl supporting a population estimated at 17 million. Yet, the Bay today, as it did in the seventeenth century, continues to intertwine the culture, ideas, and experiences of differing peoples. Although bridges, speed boats, trains, and planes have replaced the tall ships of yesteryear, the Bay’s ability to unite us all continues.

Today, beyond the economic activities of massive oil tankers and cargo ships, the Bay unites Americans not only in economy or politics, but in leisure as well. Just as the Bay brought differing peoples together centuries ago, it brings you here today. You are now part of the Bay's proud lineage. As you tour this world-famous estuary, you, like Captain John Smith, are meeting new, interesting people. The Chesapeake Bay's greatness doesn't necessarily reside in its size, its economic vitality, or even its beauty. The Bay's true greatness resides in its alluring magnetism. People, such as yourselves, are attracted to the Bay for many of the aforementioned reasons -- its beauty, its history, its vitality. With Charter for Veterans, you can now share the unique experience of "riding" the Bay. So enjoy today -- just as millions of Americans have done before you, and hopefully, will after you.