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Bay History

The Chesapeake region has been around for a very long time. Many tend to begin its history with the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. But the story of the Bay began millions of years before that.

Bay History Timeline

35 Million Years Ago

35 Million Years Ago
  • A rare bolide (a comet- or asteroid-like object) hits what is now the lower tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, creating a 55-mile-wide crater. This crater influences the shape of the region’s rivers and determines the eventual location of the Chesapeake Bay. As sea levels fluctuate over the next several million years, the area that is now the Bay alternates between dry land and shallow coastal sea.
  • (Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller/NSF)

10 to 2 Million Years Ago

10 to 2 Million Years Ago
  • A series of ice ages locks ocean water in massive glaciers. The mid-Atlantic coastline extends 180 miles farther than its current location.
  • In warmer periods, a glacier melts into the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, carving a valley through Pennsylvania and pushing sediment into the Coastal Plain. In colder periods, conifer forests attract deer, bears and birds to the region.
  • (Image courtesy Wing-Chi Poon/Wikimedia Commons)

18,000 Years Ago

18,000 Years Ago
  • Glacial sheets from the most recent Ice Age begin to retreat. The region’s climate begins to warm.
  • (Image courtesy Twelvex/Flickr)

15,000 Years Ago

15,000 Years Ago
  • As the climate continues to warm, a landscape that was once dominated by conifers begins to change. Oak, maple, hickory and other hardwood species appear.
  • (Image courtesy Nicolas T/Flickr)

11,500 Years Ago

11,500 Years Ago
  • Paleo-Indian people arrive in the region. Over the next thousand years, the climate becomes increasingly humid and the landscape gives way to hardwood forests and coastal wetlands. Paleo-Indians modify their hunting technology accordingly, replacing Clovis points with spear-throwing devices that can be launched over expansive terrain. 
  • (Image courtesy Ficusdesk/Flickr)

10,000 to 7,000 Years Ago

10,000 to 7,000 Years Ago
  • Ice sheets and glaciers continue to melt, flooding the Susquehanna, Potomac, James and York rivers. Water pours into the Atlantic Ocean and sea levels rise. The Chesapeake Bay's outline begins to form. 
  • Mammoths, giant beavers and other Ice Age creatures are now extinct.
  • (Image courtesy Dru!/Flickr)

5,000 Years Ago

5,000 Years Ago
  • Temperatures continue to rise. A mixed deciduous forest dominates the landscape. Acorns and other nuts become a key food source. 
  • Diverse fish and shellfish populations are abundant in the region's rivers. The first oysters colonize the Bay.

2,000 Years Ago

2,000 Years Ago
  • The Chesapeake Bay’s outline now resembles its current form.
  • Native American populations continue to develop more sophisticated hunting methods, including the bow and arrow.
  • The Bay's waters are dominated by oysters, clams and fish, like bass and shad. Shellfish becomes an increasingly important food source. 
  • (Image courtesy AerialOutline/Flickr)

1,000 Years Ago

1,000 Years Ago
  • Native Americans clear forests to create farmland. A reliance on agricultural crops like corn, squash, beans and tobacco leads to the creation of more permanent town villages. 
  • (Image courtesy brandoncripps/Flickr)

1,000

1,000
  • The Chesapeake Bay region is home to a few thousand humans and many plants and animals, including 200 species of fish, 300 species of birds and 120 species of mammals

1500

1500
  • The Native American population reaches 24,000.

1524

1524

Italian Captain Giovanni da Verrazano is the first recorded European to enter the Chesapeake Bay. 

  • (Image courtesy F. Allegrini/Flickr)

1561

1561
  • While exploring tidewater Virginia, Spanish conquistadors capture a young Native American. They name him Don Luis and bring back to Spain, where he receives a formal education.
  • (Image courtesy barxtux/Flickr)

1570

1570
  • Don Luis returns to the Chesapeake region as a guide and interpreter with the St. Mary’s Mission, a small group of Spanish Jesuits seeking to establish a religious camp. Don Luis quickly abandons the group and returns to his people. Months later, he leads a massacre against the St. Mary’s Mission, killing all but a young servant boy.

1607

1607
  • An expedition funded by The Virginia Company of London arrives in the Chesapeake Bay. They establish the first permanent English settlement in North America in Jamestown, Virginia.
  • (Image courtesy Jay I. Kislak Foundation )

1608

1608
  • Captain John Smith sets off on the first of his two voyages around the Chesapeake Bay. In his journal, he records detailed descriptions of his surroundings. In the years to follow, he draws an elaborate and remarkably accurate map of the Bay and its rivers.
  • (Image courtesy National Park Service)

1650s

1650s
  • The tobacco industry is booming in the lower Chesapeake colonies.
  • Colonists clear land for agriculture and use hook-and-line to catch fish in the Bay's shallow waters.
  • War and disease take their toll on Native Americans, whose population shrinks to 2,400—just 10 percent of the size it was when Europeans first arrived in the region.
  • (Image courtesy Trevor Haldenby/Flickr)

1680s

1680s
  • Virginia lawmakers pass legislation to prevent wasteful fishing practices on the Rappahannock River.  
  • Colonists begin using hand tongs to harvest oysters.
  • (Image courtesy Steve and Sara/Flickr)

1700s

1700s
  • English settlements grow rapidly as agriculture expands. The first signs of environmental degradation occur.
  • A patchwork of rural farming and fishing communities develops on the western and eastern shores of the Chesapeake Bay. 
  • (Image courtesy Claude Moore Colonial Farm)

1750s

1750s
  • Colonists strip 20 to 30 percent of the region's forests for settlements. As a result, shipping ports begin to fill with eroded sediment, becoming too shallow for boats to navigate. 
  • Commercial fishing for species like shad and herring begins.
  • (Image courtesy SoilScience)

1770s

1770s
  • The colonial population exceeds 700,000.
  • Farmers begin to use plows extensively, starting a cycle of permanent tillage that prevents reforestation and leads to massive soil erosion.
  • (Image courtesy American Art Museum/Flickr)

1781

1781
  • After eight years of fighting, the Revolutionary War ends when British Lord Charles Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, Virginia.
  • The former British colonies are on the verge of forming a new, unified nation. The Chesapeake Bay region will come to serve as a key economic and political center.
  • (Image courtesy John Trumbull/Wikimedia Commons)

1785

1785
  • Virginia and Maryland sign the Mount Vernon Compact, also known as the Compact of 1785. Virginia agrees to give vessels bound for Maryland free passage at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. In return, Maryland gives citizens of both states the right to fish in the Potomac River.
  • (Image courtesy NCinDC/Flickr)

1800s

1800s
  • Oyster harvests increase dramatically.
  • New England fishermen travel to the Chesapeake Bay with a device that scoops hundreds of thousands of oysters from their beds. Virginia and Maryland eventually ban this equipment.
  • Maryland legislation states that only Maryland citizens can transport oysters in the state’s waters.

1820s

1820s
  • Railroads, canals and steamboats offer new transportation options, benefiting the coal, steel and oyster industries. 
  • (Image courtesy JRiver/Flickr)

1829

1829
  • The 14-mile Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is built, linking the Chesapeake Bay with Delaware Bay and opening undeveloped land to agriculture and the harvest of timber. 
  • (Image courtesy Anthony Bley/Wikimedia Commons)

1840s

1840s
  • Half of the region’s forests have been cleared for agriculture, timber and fuel.
  • The first imported fertilizers are used after ships bring bird guano from Caribbean rookeries and nitrate deposits from the Chilean coast.
  • (Image courtesy calwest/Flickr)

1850s

1850s
  • Railroads, canals and steamboats have allowed the oyster market to reach consumers outside of the Chesapeake region.
  • The number of oysters harvested from the Bay has doubled in the last 10 years, from 700,000 bushels in 1839 to more than 1.5 million in the 1850s.
  • (Image courtesy swamibu/Flickr)

1860s

1860s
  • Water supply systems are constructed to transport drinking water to Baltimore and the District of Columbia.
  • Sewer systems are built to send waste and runoff into the rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Brick, stone, iron and steel replace wood as the region’s source of heat, light and building material.
  • (Image courtesy Wayan Vota/Flickr)

1880s

1880s
  • Wooden skipjacks—or vessels that are adapted to sail on Chesapeake Bay waters—are built in response to increased demand for oysters.
  • Twenty million bushels of oysters are harvested from the Bay each year. 
  • (Image courtesy University of Delaware Library/Flickr)

1890s

1890s
  • Sixty to 80 percent of the forests along the Baltimore-Washington corridor have been cleared for agriculture and development.
  • Coal-burning industries spew smoke into the air and send pollutants into the region's rivers. 
  • The construction of highways links cities and suburbs. 
  • (Image courtesy Nick Humphries/Flickr)

1900s

1900s
  • The replacement of railroad ties removes an estimated 15 to 20 million acres of eastern forests.
  • A dramatic drop in oyster populations starts to affect Chesapeake Bay health, and state and federal laws move to control the industry.
  • Scientists begin question the impact of human behavior on the Bay.
  • (Image courtesy accent on ecelectic/Flickr)

1910s

1910s
  • A District of Columbia law restricts the height of city buildings, causing development to expand outward.  
  • Baltimore installs separate wastewater and stormwater systems to filter water before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act establishes hunting seasons and limits on international migratory waterfowl. 
  • (Image courtesy ghbrett/Flickr)

1920s

1920s
  • Swamps and marshes are drained to create room for waste dumps and new development.  
  • The Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station, also known as the Conowingo Dam, is built at the mouth of the Susquehanna River. Upon its completion, it is the second largest hydroelectric power plant in the United States.
  • (Image courtesy Cyber Insket/Flickr)

1930s

1930s
  • The Great Depression spurs public works projects that repair and expand the region's roads, bridges, parks and electrical services into rural areas, encouraging population growth. 
  • An interstate conference on the Chesapeake Bay recommends treating the Bay as a single resource unit rather than separate bodies of water. 
  • (Image courtesy Beaverton Historical Society/Flickr)

1940s

1940s
  • The “suburb” is born.
  • People begin to use synthetic fertilizers on their lawns and fields, polluting local waterways. Maryland and Virginia create water pollution control agencies.
  • The fishing industry increases its range and mobility, causing local fish populations to decline. 
  • Dermo, a disease that kills oysters, is discovered in the Chesapeake Bay.
  • (Image courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

1950s

1950s
  • The 4.2-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge is built, opening Maryland's Eastern Shore to development.
  • Across the region, developers drain and fill wetlands to build new houses, stores and office buildings.
  • MSX, a disease that kills oysters, is found in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
  • (Image courtesy Radio Rover/Flickr)

1960s

1960s
  • The 17.4-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opens, connecting Virginia Beach with Virginia's Eastern Shore.
  • Interstates 66, 70, 83, 95, 270, 495 and 695 are completed. The personal car has become the choice mode of transportation for Americans.
  • (Image courtesy Barabara Rich/Flickr)

1963

1963
  • The Clean Air Act is passed in an effort to lower air pollution. 
  • (Image courtesy Lossanjose/Flickr)

1967

1967
  • (Image courtesy David Clow/Flickr)

1970s

1970s

1972

1972
  • The Clean Water Act is passed, establishing water quality standards and limiting the amount and kind of pollutants that can enter rivers, streams and other waterways.
  • (Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr)

1973

1973
  • U.S. Senator Charles Mathias tours the Chesapeake Bay shoreline and sponsors legislation that prompts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a study on the Bay’s health. This marks the first time that the Bay’s degrading health is brought to the public’s attention.
  • The Endangered Species Act is passed, protecting endangered species and the ecosystems on which they depend. 
  • (Image courtesy Pulpolux/Flickr)

1980s

1980s
  • The Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative body that represents Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, is established to coordinate policy across state lines. 
  • The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay begins a first-of-its-kind program that teaches citizen volunteers how to monitor water quality.

1983

1983
  • The first Chesapeake Bay Agreement is signed by Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the District of Columbia; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The Chesapeake Bay Program is established and the Chesapeake Executive Council is named the chief policy-making authority in the watershed. 

1984

1984

1985

1985
  • Six years after Congress passes the Emergency Striped Bass Act, Maryland imposes a moratorium on striped bass fishing. Virginia soon follows suit, in hopes that a closed fishery will help the species recover from harvest and pollution pressures.
  • A Maryland ban on phosphate-containing laundry detergent reduces the amount of phosphorous flowing from wastewater treatment plants into the Chesapeake Bay.

1987

1987
  • The 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement sets the first ever numeric goals to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, aiming to lower the nitrogen and phosphorous entering the Bay by 40 percent by the year 2000. 

1988

1988
  • Virginia passes the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, guiding local governments to address the environmental impacts of development and pushing communities to better manage urban and suburban growth. 
  • Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler's Patuxent River Wade-In establishes the "sneaker index" as a measure of Bay health, boosting public interest in water quality. 

1989

1989
  • Maryland and Virginia lift the ban on striped bass fishing. The fish is declared a recovered species six years later.

1990s

1990s
  • (Image courtesy Airliners.net)

1992

1992
  • Amendments are made to the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement that aim to attack nutrients at their source: upstream tributaries that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The Clean Vessel Act establishes a grant program to fund the construction of pumpout stations at marinas across the watershed, presenting a viable alternative to the overboard disposal of sewage.
  • (Image courtesy spike55151/Flickr)

1993

1993
  • A law passed in Pennsylvania requires certain farmers to develop and implement nutrient management plans, limiting the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that can run off of farms and into local waterways. In 1994, Virginia follows suit. In 1998, Maryland enacts similar legislation.

1994

1994
  • The Bay Program’s Riparian Forest Buffer Panel develops ground-breaking goals for the conservation and restoration of streamside forests. Federal and state incentive programs encourage landowners to install forest buffers on their properties.

1995

1995
  • (Image courtesy adactio/Flickr)

1996

1996
  • Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant begins to use nutrient removal technology to lower the amount of nitrogen it sends into the Potomac River and improve water quality.
  • Federal, state and private partners agree to restore Poplar Island using sand and sediment dredged up from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.

1997

1997
  • The Virginia Water Quality Improvement Act establishes a state fund that will support the prevention, reduction and control of nutrient pollution.
  • Maryland passes a package of legislation to combat suburban sprawl and direct smart growth. The initiative is praised as an innovative way to preserve natural resources and pursue sustainable development.

1998

1998
  • The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission closes Atlantic sturgeon fishing along the East Coast. The 40-year ban is the longest fishing moratorium on record. 
  • The Maryland Water Quality Improvement Act calls for the addition of a phosphorous-reducing enzyme to poultry feed, lowering nutrient levels in poultry litter. 
  • (Image courtesy Joachim S. Muller/Flickr)

1999

1999

2000

2000
  • Maryland records its lowest blue crab harvest: 20.2 million pounds.
  • Chesapeake 2000 is signed, establishing more than 100 goals to reduce pollution and restore habitats, protect living resources and promote sound land use, and engage the public in restoration.
  • The National Park Service and its partners launch the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network to connect people with the Bay's places and stories. 
  • (Image courtesy Brian Talbot/Flickr)

2002

2002
  • More than 2,800 miles of forest buffers have been restored in the watershed, meeting the Bay Program’s goal for forest buffer restoration eight years ahead of schedule.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration establishes the Bay Watershed Education and Training program to fund the delivery of Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences and advance environmental education in the region.

2003

2003
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues water quality criteria for the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries. 
  • Representatives from the Bay's headwater states join the Chesapeake Executive Council. 
  • The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Blue Ribbon Panel is created to find new financing opportunities for restoration work, and the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network is established to bring grantmakers together. 

2005

2005
  • The Chesapeake Executive Council adopts an animal manure management strategy to reduce nutrient pollution from livestock operations.

2006

2006
  • (Image courtesy Jane Thomas/IAN Image Library)

2007

2007
  • The Chesapeake Executive Council signs the Forest Conservation Initiative, committing to conserve 695,000 acres of forests by 2020.
  • The Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) is launched to report real-time environmental data. 
  • BayStat is launched to track restoration progress.
  • The Bay blue crab harvest of 44.2 million pounds is one of the lowest recorded since 1945.

2008

2008
  • Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission issue emergency regulations on the harvest of blue crabs to help the species recover. The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab fishery is declared a federal disaster.
  • The 2008 Farm Bill dedicates more than $180 million over the course of four years to agricultural conservation.
  • The invasive zebra mussel is found in the Maryland portion of the Susquehanna River.

2009

2009
  • President Obama signs an executive order that calls on the federal government to renew the effort to protect and restore the watershed.
  • The Chesapeake Executive Council sets two-year milestones to accelerate restoration and increase accountability.
  • Annapolis becomes the first jurisdiction in the watershed to ban phosphorous in lawn fertilizer.

2010

2010
  • Maryland, Virginia and New York ban phosphates in dishwasher detergent to lower phosphorous pollution in local waterways.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency establishes the Total Maximum Daily Load to limit the amount of pollutants that can enter the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The Bay Program launches ChesapeakeStat to improve communication about restoration goals, progress and funding.
  • (Image courtesy Lydiat/Flickr)

2011

2011
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues a new Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Permit to the District of Columbia. It is the first of its kind to incorporate green infrastructure into its requirements, setting a national model for stormwater management.

2012

2012
  • Harris Creek becomes the first target of the oyster restoration goals set forth in the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order: to restore oyster populations in 20 Bay tributaries by 2025. In this Choptank River tributary, existing reefs will be studied, new bars will be built and spat-on-shell will be planted.
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