Chesapeake Bay – Historical Spotlight: May 2017

For the May 2017 edition of the Historical Spotlight; I have chosen a body of water – the Chesapeake Bay. We spent the entire month of May and half of June essentially surrounded by the bay. Though it has lots of history connect to it – which I will highlight a few of those events below – the Chesapeake has been more than we expected. I mean we knew it was big; you can look at a map and see that fact – but really this thing is huge! Not since I was a kid have I been to the East Coast and when we did come to D.C. as a child – I did not see the bay. My primary experience with bays having grown up in California are the San Francisco Bay and the San Diego Bay – both great in their own ways, but the Chesapeake is massive and has very interesting characteristics.

As soon as I decided to use the bay as the May spotlight I began reading about it and during my rudimentary research I learned the Chesapeake Bay is what is called an estuary – a partially enclosed body of water with one or more rivers flowing into it and with a free connection to the open sea (<–definition taken mostly from Wikipedia!). And boy does this Chesapeake have lots and lots of rivers and streams flowing into it – more than 150! The bay has an over 64,000 square mile drainage basin. Wow! The bay itself is nearly 4,500 square miles – that is about the size of the state of Connecticut. It is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined! The bay is about 200 miles long from its northern headwaters in the Susquehanna River all the way south to the Atlantic Ocean. Its narrowest width is 2.8 miles and its widest width measures 30 miles! And a staggering figure is the total shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, including freshwater tributaries, is 11,684 miles. Even more staggering, compare that to the entire coast of California which measures 3,427. Amazing!

Back to estuaries – estuaries have an interesting mix of fresh water and salt water – the Chesapeake from its fresh water from the many rivers and its salinity from the Atlantic Ocean. And one of our favorite features of the bay is the tidal influences it has – even along the rivers that flow in. We were camping on the Elk River in Maryland – at the far upper reaches of the bay – near the beginning of the bay you might say – and it is awesome to witness that the river has tides! Who knew? Well, we did not. I don’t know why we didn’t know rivers can have tides – but they do! The other neat feature of estuaries, like the Chesapeake, is that the fresh water rivers bring sediment downstream and create some neat beaches along the banks of the river. And with beaches comes waves – albeit not big – but waves nonetheless! So it felt much like we have been camping on a beach; yet in reality in a forest along the river!

The last twos things I will say of estuaries that I found interesting is that one they are very productive habitats – lots of animals – on land nearby, in the fresh water and in salt water. They are very diverse habitats and the Chesapeake is no exception. And two they are popular to live near and again the Chesapeake is no exception. Nearby are very large population centers – including Baltimore and Washington D.C., as well as many other cities along its coasts. 18 million live within the watershed of the Chesapeake. 10 million people along or near it’s coastline – that is about the number of people in all of Sweden!

But enough of that – moving onto the history of Chesapeake Bay – a few highlights I found most interesting:

1524 – thought to be first explored by Europeans – an Italian explorer named Giovanni da Verrazzano.

1607-09 – explored by Captain John Smith of England, which in his journal he wrote of the bay, “Heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”

1781 – American Revolution Battle of the Chesapeake took place where the French defeated the Royal Navy, which enabled George Washington and his French allied armies under Rochambeau to march down from New York to Yorktown to lay siege upon Cornwallis.

1813 – during the War of 1812 British naval forces used the bay to wreak havoc, plundering towns along the bay. This eventually led to the British soldiers on land the ability to move overland to burn Washington D.C. in 1814. It was during the bombardment of Fort McHenry that Francis Scott Key was inspired by what he witnessed and penned the Star Spangled Banner.

Those are the highlights I found most interesting on the Chesapeake Bay. For anyone that has experienced the Chesapeake – comment below your favorite part of the bay and why – we would love to hear from you!

Thanks so much for reading –



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