Each February, we celebrate Black History Month, but we often don’t take the time to reflect on the important people and events in black history that occurred right in our backyards. In the Chesapeake Bay region, the African-Americans who lived and worked here helped define our history.
Keep reading to learn more about six key events, people and occupations that influenced the history of the Chesapeake and the entire nation.
Slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region began in 1619, when a Dutch ship carrying 20 African men arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. These men were indentured servants, rather than slaves. Many eventually earned their freedom and went on to own land, trade, raise crops and livestock, defend their rights, and eventually hire their own servants.
(Image courtesy CORBIS/History.com)
Slaves were part of many great milestones in the Chesapeake region, such as rowing the Bay’s first ferry between the future sites of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1636. By 1780, it is estimated that slaves made up approximately 40 percent of the population in the Chesapeake region.
In the 1800s, the Chesapeake region was on the brink of controversy over slavery. The northern Bay watershed states were considered “free states” that did not support slavery, while the southern states were “slave states.” This division foreshadowed the battles to be fought in the region during the Civil War.
As the Civil War progressed, the Union Army was suffering from increasing numbers of casualties and needed reinforcements. Blacks were granted the right to serve in the Union Army and fought in battles throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Maryland, 8,700 men served in six black regiments that played major roles in Union battle plans. The 36th U.S. Colored Infantry guarded the Confederate prison at Point Lookout and disabled Confederate torpedoes in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
More than 180,000 black men served in the Union Army and 18,000 black men in the Union Navy. Twenty-one of these men were awarded the highest military honor in the United States, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she lived until she escaped in 1849. After escaping from slavery, she returned to the South 19 times to help other slaves along the Underground Railroad.
As part of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses was formed and slaves were transported with the help of ship captains in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, as well as other slaves working on boats. For many slaves, the Potomac River, the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay were vital links in the route to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Like Tubman, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In his first two attempts to escape slavery, Douglass and five other men planned to canoe up the Chesapeake Bay into Pennsylvania, but another slave turned them in. Eventually, Douglass was brought to freedom on a steamboat traveling from Delaware to Pennsylvania.
In colonial times, tobacco was the mainstay of the economies of Maryland and Virginia. Many of the workers at tobacco plantations were slaves or indentured servants from Africa. Plantations were often located along the Chesapeake’s rivers, where soil quality was better and tobacco could be transported via local waterways.
(Image courtesy The Great South/Documenting the American South)
Once the Chesapeake’s tobacco and agricultural industries began to decline at the end of the 18th century, blacks turned to the water to make a living, ultimately helping the region’s economy and cultural history flourish.
By the 1860s, the Chesapeake Bay was the United States’ primary source of oysters, which created plenty of opportunities for black watermen to make a living shucking oysters, processing seafood and even building boats for the industry. New African-American communities formed along the Bay’s shores, creating cultural and economic centers for blacks in the area. Their traditions became part of the local fishing industry, and many of them still exist today.
Angling is one of America's greatest pastimes, and on the Chesapeake Bay it is a borderline religion. Fishing the Bay's waters has existed since man first inhabited the shores of the Chesapeake. Centuries ago, Native Americans in the region used massive weirs to corral fish for easier harvesting. Captain John Smith, the first European to explore the Bay, described his fishing excursions when he wrote, “that abundance of fish, lying so thick with their heads above water, as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.”
Thankfully, technology has allowed us to move away from trying to snag a fish with Captain Smith's old standby skillet, and today the Bay's recreational fishing industry is booming. Last year, in Virginia alone, anglers took an estimated 3.6 million trips, supporting over 9,000 fishing-related jobs and contributing over $823 million to local economies.
While some of these anglers will catch only what they intend to keep and then head back to the dock to tell fish stories, others practice the art of “catch and release.” When done properly, catch and release fishing does no harm to the fisherman's quarry. However, if done improperly, mortality rates of fish can exceed eight percent.
Physical injury and stress are the two main factors influencing the survival of fish that are caught and then released. Hook wounds, mishandling during release and physiological exhaustion from the fight are primarily responsible for mortality rates.
Most mortality from hook wounds occurs when anglers use natural baits. Natural baits tend to be swallowed more frequently (deep hooking) than artificial lures, and the hooks used often puncture vital organs. The use of non-offset circle hooks can drastically reduce deep hooking. According to a Maryland Department of Natural Resources study, deep hooking rates for conventional hooks was 17.2 percent while rates using the non-offset circle hooks was 3.4 percent.
Anglers should handle fish that are to be released with care. Fish are covered in a mucosal film that protects them from parasites and bacteria. When too much of this film is removed, the fish can contract skin infections that can lead to death. Once caught and brought aboard, handling the fish with a wet glove or towel will minimize the amount of protective film that is lost. Fish should not be allowed to flop around or make contact with any surfaces inside the boat. If possible, keep all fish that are to be released in the water while removing the hook and avoid at all costs handling the gills and soft underbelly.
By its very nature, the lure of catch and release fishing is the thrill of fighting a fish to the surface. While this practice is exhilarating to the angler, it can be devastating to the fish. Fighting a fish to the point of its exhaustion contributes dramatically to mortality rates. High water temperatures and low salinity levels also contribute to higher mortality rates among fish that are caught and released. “Playing” the fish should be avoided at all costs and fish should be retrieved using steady, deliberate retrieval techniques. During periods of extreme environmental conditions, catch and release fishing should be minimized.
All responsible anglers should practice proper catch and release techniques. Not only do these techniques help protect fish stocks, but they also present a great opportunity to teach younger anglers stewardship of their natural resources. Employing the practices mentioned above is easy and allows both the fish and the fisherman to come away no more worse for wear.