African American waterman on a boat in rough water. They are wearing rubber waders and working with various rigging and nets.
(M.E. Warren)

The Chesapeake Bay region is a significant setting in African-American history. The region was a gateway for the first Black people brought from Africa to the colonies. Throughout the mid-1800s, the Bay and its rivers were important pathways along the Underground Railroad. After the war, newly emancipated Black people found their way to the Chesapeake's shores, where they helped build the region's economy and shape its culture.

Slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region

Slavery in the Chesapeake region began in 1619, when a Dutch trading vessel carrying 20 African men entered Jamestown, Virginia. The slave trade expanded in the following years. Between 1700 and 1770, the region's slave population grew from 13,000 to 250,000. By the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775, Black people made up nearly one-third of the region's population.

In the 1800s, the Chesapeake region became a focal point of the national controversy surrounding slavery because it was in the unique position of spanning free, border and slave states:

  • “Free states,” which did not support slavery, made up the northern portion of the region.
  • “Slave states” encompassed the southern portion of the region.
  • “Border states” allowed slavery but were allied with the free states, further complicated the region's politics.

This complicated the region’s politics and caused great turmoil throughout the 19th century.

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad, which operated prior to the Civil War between 1830 and 1860, was a coordinated network of safe houses. Aided by free Black citizens and sympathetic white citizens, enslaved people traveled under the cover of darkness along the Underground Railroad to reach freedom.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact routes that escaped enslaved people followed, records show the Chesapeake and its rivers were often used as passageways to the North. This segment of the Underground Railroad, dubbed “Chesapeake Station,” was an integral part of the anti-slavery movement.

Chesapeake waterways were used in a variety of ways:

  • Escaping enslaved people would quietly slip aboard docked vessels, which would shuttle them up the Bay into the Susquehanna River.
  • Captains in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia hid runaways aboard their ships, risking high fines and jail time.
  • Enslaved people working on boats also aided runaways by secretly smuggling them aboard.
  • Enslaved people heading from Virginia toward freedom crossed shallow sections of the Potomac River on horseback or wagon to reach safe houses on the Maryland side.

Famous abolitionists

Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were both born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 and returned to the South 19 times, freeing more than 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad.

Douglass used the Chesapeake in his first attempt to escape slavery. Douglass and five other men planned to canoe up the Bay and into Pennsylvania. However, the men were turned in by another enslaved person. Douglass ultimately found freedom on a steamboat traveling from Delaware to Pennsylvania.

The Civil War

The Chesapeake region, like much of the country, was increasingly divided over slavery. Pennsylvania, a free state, was loyal to the Union. The border states of Maryland and Delaware were pro-slavery, but also remained loyal to the Union. Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861 to join the Confederacy.

When the Civil War’s first shots were fired in 1861, the Chesapeake region became a divided battlefield. Enslaved people seized the opportunity to escape. They often did not have to travel far to find freedom and assistance with avoiding capture.

In Newport News, Virginia, Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler invoked property law to protect escaped enslaved people that fled to his camp. He reasoned that if the Confederacy was going to refer to enslaved people as property, he could seize them as property contraband of war.

Butler's interpretation of the law created new hope and a new workforce. Runaway enslaved people flooded into Union camps, where they were put to work. Although they were not fighting on front lines, Black citizens were instrumental in wartime operations such as building forts, maintaining railroads and mining coal.

As time passed and Union casualties grew, Black citizens were granted the right to serve in the Union Army. Many fought in battles throughout the Bay watershed.

In Maryland, six Black regiments totaling more than 8,700 men formed. These regiments played major roles in the Union's battle plans. The 36th U.S. Colored Infantry guarded the Confederate prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. Later in the war, the infantry disabled Confederate torpedoes in the lower Chesapeake.

More than 180,000 Black men served in the Union Army and 18,000 in the Union Navy. Twenty-one were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honor in the U.S.

African-American watermen

By the 1860s, the Chesapeake Bay became the primary source of oysters in the U.S. This created an industry in need of strong labor. The availability of jobs and relatively low start-up costs for new watermen lured many newly freed Black citizens to the region. In addition to harvesting the Bay's bounty, many also found jobs building boats and processing the day's catches.

New African-American communities sprung up along the Bay's shores. These communities became economic and cultural centers for Black citizens in the region.

During the early 1900s, it was not uncommon to hear men singing while hauling in seines full of fish. These rhythmic songs, known as chanteys, are rooted in African tradition. Chanteys helped the men coordinate their movements and control the pace of the grueling work. Many watermen believed that singing chanteys helped them haul in nets faster and more efficiently than those who did not sing.