In 1780, the French emissary François Marbois circulated a set of twenty-three questions about the American continent. One set of answers to those questions became Jefferson’s only published book, the Notes on the State of Virginia. Most answers were lengthy, but that to question three was a single sentence: asked about seaports, Jefferson replied that Virginia had none “but our rivers and creeks.” Self-contained plantations lined the four great rivers of Virginia, and ocean-going vessels could ride right up to their landings and load tobacco.
These four waterways emptied into the superhighway of the Chesapeake Bay, which runs north sheltered from the Atlantic by two hundred miles of lowland known as Maryland’s “Eastern Shore.” Chesapeake Bay is the principal natural wonder on America’s eastern coast. It is so “nook-shotten” as to be cased in 4,000 miles of inner shoreline—though the eastern side’s shoreline is often more smudge than line, a wandering off into puddles, part of the Bay that forgets itself among the hard, remembering human types of the lower Eastern Shore.
The push of the tide up the Bay and into the rivers, the flush of rivers (fresh water and mud alike) back into the Bay, sets up a clash of temperatures and salinity, so that the Bay becomes a weave of ecosystems. These shift constantly according to season, state of the rivers, storms on the sea; and the shifts are further complicated by pollution, game control, and bacterial responses. An astonishing variety of water life—fish, crabs, clams, oysters, terrapin, eels, and Eastern Shore “watermen”—move about through this play of forces. It is the watermen’s job to know where crabs or clams will show up next, and the scientists’ job to explain why this happens. Even the human life along the shore is full of subsystems, each with its own language and crafts. The Bay has spawned different generations of Bay boat, suited to its peculiarities—the log sailing canoes, used from Indian times and still darting out from Poquoson, Virginia; various “skifts” and bugeyes; the scrambling “clam scrapers” (watermen say they’ll sail on a heavy dew); fast clippers that ran blockades in Revolutionary and slave-running days; the trim skipjacks that still dredge for oysters under sail.
When ports did become important on the Bay, they arose on the western shore (Norfolk, Annapolis, Baltimore) or up rivers that fed in from the west—Richmond on the James, Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock, Alexandria on the Potomac, and Harrisburg on the Bay’s ancestral river, the Susquehanna. The Eastern Shore was shoved aside by history, and remains more isolated than Maine in winter, eastern Tennessee, or West Virginia coal towns—other places with a dour and crusty independence.
A visit near Chestertown in Queen Annes Country offers much the same prospects now as it did when Thomas Lee Shippen went there in 1790 with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison:
At Rock Hall twelve miles from Chester town we waited all that day for want of a vessel to take us over, and I never…
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