The history of slavery and the Chesapeake Bay.
Barely 12 years after the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the first slave ship arrived. Jamestown, Virginia is located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and was the first English settlement in what was to become the United States. The ship was a Dutch trading vessel carrying 20 African men.
At first, Jamestown teetered on brink of starvation. The settlement was not well situated for fresh water, hunting or agriculture. It probably would have died out but for a strain of tobacco that was well suited to the area and became a successful export. Labor was needed. Slavery flourished as tobacco flourished.
The slave trade expanded exponentially in the following years. In the 1700s the region’s slave population grew from 13,000 to a quarter million Africans. Slaves were one third of the region’s population.
By the 1800s, the Chesapeake Bay region became the center for the national controversy regarding slavery. Virginia, a southern state, on one side, Maryland, a northern state, on the other and Washington, DC in the middle. This peculiar combination of geography and politics made the Chesapeake Bay region the center of turbulence and unrest throughout the first half of the 19th century leading up to the Civil War.
For the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, free former slaves and sympathetic whites created and operated the Underground Railroad. Under the cover of darkness, slaves traveled through a network of safe-houses to northern free states. The Chesapeake Bay and its rivers were often used as routes to the North and freedom. Escaping slaves would be smuggled aboard vessels beached along shorelines which then sailed up the Bay. Many boat captains risked their livelihoods by hiding slaves aboard their ships.
Harriet Tubman was born into the tobacco trade on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore. She escaped slavery in 1849 and returned to the South 19 times, helping to free more than 300 slaves using the Underground Railroad.
Another Underground Railroad client was Frederick Douglass. He was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and after two attempts, finally escaped to freedom stowing away on a steamboat traveling up the Delaware River to Pennsylvania.
All this turmoil fermented the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans, the Civil War, 1861 to 1865, where 625,000 men and boys were killed. While historians will carefully explain that the cause of the War was not just about slavery, but economical and states’ rights issues as well, it was slavery that made peoples’ blood boil… on both sides. This business pitted brother against brother, son against father, state against state. The wounds from this bloody war may have healed, but the scars are still evident today.
For more articles about the Chesapeake Bay by this author see: Civil War, Shipwrecks, Chemical Soup, 35 Million Years in The Making, and the bay wildlife: Loon, Bottlenose Dolphin, Bufflehead, Sea Nettle, Barnacle, Blue Crab and more...
© 2010 Consumer Guide by David Sullivan