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The Colonial Period, 1607-1780
The Middle Period, 1781-1877
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Chesapeake Bay -
Our History and Our Future
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The Colonial Period, 1607-1780

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Large planters continued to ship their tobacco crops to England. Moving tobacco across the ocean meant that shipbuilding became an important part in the development of the American colonies. The proximity of the Bay, and the rivers that fed into it, meant easy transportation of tobacco and other goods to and from England. In addition to tobacco, the colonies sent a wealth of other natural resources back to England. Lumber (essential for shipbuilding), salted fish, tar, indigo (a plant used to make blue dye), wheat, corn, and rice were all shipped back to England.

Illustration from a 1957 postcard celebrating the 350th Anniversary of the Sagadahock, the first seagoing ship built in America
Illustration from a 1957 postcard celebrating the 350th Anniversary of the Sagadahock, the first seagoing ship built in America
The plentiful supply of building materials (trees), long since depleted in England made Virginia a preferred location for the production of new ships and boats. Many of the earliest requests for skilled workers from England were for shipbuilders and carpenters. Using the Indian dugout canoe as a model, English boat builders refined the design and developed new and more useful boats for use in the waters of Virginia. Eventually dozens of shipbuilding facilities dotted the shores of the bay and sheltered areas of the rivers and a great tradition of Virginia shipbuilding was born. Early legal documents and wills indicate an extensive use of boats and ships in trade and business, and they represented an important part of the financial assets of many Virginia and Maryland planters.

Sitting at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland began as a colony in 1632 when King Charles I promised George Calvert a colony north of Virginia. Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, died before he could visit his new colony. His son Cecilius, second Lord Baltimore, named the colony "Terra Maria" or Maryland in honor of the king's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. Unable to make the trip himself, Lord Baltimore sent his younger brother Leonard to be the first governor of Maryland. Like its neighbor down the Bay, Maryland prospered from the tobacco trade and the exportation of other goods produced in the colonies.

Map of Bay of Chesapeake, 1776
Map of Bay of Chesapeake, 1776
About forty percent of Maryland's land is suitable for farming. The Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia is low, flat land bordered on one side by the Bay and on the other by the Atlantic Ocean. Abundant fish, crab, and shellfish catches added to the wealth of the Bay colonies, and Maryland became a leader in processing and distributing the Bay's seafood bounty.
A View of Baltimore Harbor from Federal Hill. Ship traffic includes sail and steam vessels.
A View of Baltimore Harbor from Federal Hill. Ship traffic includes sail and steam vessels.
Also an important center for shipbuilding and port activities, Maryland prospered during the colonial period.

One of the most important developments in shipbuilding in the Chesapeake Bay region was the tobacco boat. The first tobacco boat was "invented" by the Reverend Robert Rose, rector of St. Ann's Parish in Albemarle. Actually double dugout canoes, tobacco boats measured from fifty to sixty feet in length, and four to five feet in width. They were clamped together with cross beams and pins and had two pieces running lengthwise over them. These boats could carry from five to ten hogsheads of tobacco, and were first mentioned in Rose's diary entry for March 14, 1749. The James River version of the tobacco boat was a bateaux invented by Anthony J. Rucker in 1771, and was mentioned by Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia. The bateaux were made of boards forty to sixty feet long and had a flat hull design. Either end could be poled against the river bank and hogsheads rolled aboard. Each of these tobacco-hauling crafts required a crew of three men.

Tobacco boats developed for transporting hogsheads of tobacco from the plantation to shipping wharves
Tobacco boats developed for transporting hogsheads of tobacco from the plantation to shipping wharves
A decrease in colonial reliance on English ships and shipbuilding, and the increased potential for financial independence led to England's Charles II enacting The Navigation Acts in 1651. These laws were crafted to ensure that a high percentage of the profit from tobacco would stay in England. The acts mandated that colonial tobacco could only be exported to English ports. These efforts to control the colonial economy helped lead, in part, to the American Revolution in 1775.


 

 

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