Ordnance played a serious role in the lives of the Jamestown colonists.
European ordnance at that time included several classes of smooth-bore iron guns: (in decreasing size) cannons, culverins, sakers and falconets.
The colonists brought culverins and sakers from the Godspeed or Susan Constant ashore and set up them up at the corners of Jamestown’s triangular fort.
When the natives began to resist the colonists’ intrusion, including Powhatan’s demand for weapons the English did not want to give up, John Smith offered the natives two demi-culverins—if they could carry them to Werowocomico, Powhatan’s seat of government. These weapons, smaller versions of the culverin, still weighed a ton, were several feet long and with a 4.5" bore, fired round shot weighing 10 pounds. There was no way Powhatan’s representative, Rawhunt, and his men could move one.
This took place during the brutal winter of 1607-08, which coincided with the “little ice age winter” Europe was having that year. A recent Atlantic Coast storm had left the trees on the island heavy with rime ice. To firmly establish English might, the soldiers let the natives watch these two guns “discharge…being loaded with stones, among the boughs of a great tree loaded with icicles, the ice and branches came so tumbling down that the poor savages ran away half dead with fear.”
The natives were mollified with presents for Powhatan, his daughter Pocahontas and others.
When the weather warmed up, Smith left to explore the Chesapeake. As he and his adventurers worked their way up the lower Eastern Shore from Cape Henry in early June 1608, they could see islands in the Chesapeake to their northwest. They named them the Russells Isles in honor of their shipmate and physician, Dr. Walter Russell.
A violent thunderstorm prevented them from reaching the islands—believed to be today’s Tangier and Watts islands—that day, but over the next three days they made two trips out there, primarily hoping to find fresh water. They were battered yet again by thunderstorms, and designated the straits and nearby area on their maps as Limbo.
They lay overnight at Limbo—at a spot believed to be near today’s Bloodsworth Island—while they repaired a torn sail and/or replace a mast lost overboard in the blow—the written record is ambiguous on this point. The island would have had extensive copses of trees, and they could easily have replaced a mast if it were required. Regional author Tom Horton has found well-preserved walnut stumps amid the eroding marshes on Bloodsworth.
The channel north of Bloodsworth, today’s Hooper Straits, is a relatively constricted place for tidal flow, creating great current speeds that are impossible for a heavy boat to row against. The tide also runs counter to logic here, ebbing into Tangier Sound—not out—flowing right in the face of mariners trying to enter the Bay. Once the flood tide begins in the mainstem of the Bay, the situation reverses and the tide sweeps out into the open Chesapeake.
Smith’s discovery barge left the shelter behind the Hooper Island chain at a site they named Momford’s Point, after Thomas Momford, one of six “gentlemen” on the voyage. Today it’s Nancy Point, a name of uncertain origin.
Clearing the point opens a view of the Western Shore, 10.5 nautical miles away, where they continued on their discovery voyage. Smith never returned to Bloodsworth.
Chesapeake oceanographer Bill Cronin’s forthcoming book, “Vanishing Islands of the Chesapeake,” summarizes the island’s long history.
In 1672, George Thompson of St. Mary’s City acquired the title to the island, but never lived there. This was not uncommon for Eastern Shore Islands, where land was speculatively acquired in a region not building out as quickly as the river bottom lands on the Western Shore. Islands, at that time, were the only safe place to raise sheep away from the danger of wolves on the mainland.
The island passed through the hands of three others before being sold in 1759 to Charles Goldsborough who, as a wealthy landowner, represented surrounding Dorchester County in Maryland’s Assembly. His grandson Howes Goldsborough eventually sold the island to Robert Bloodsworth in 1799, whose family lived there and gave the island its name.
By the start of the 19th century, approaching 200 years after Smith’s first visit, only about 30 of Bloodsworth Island’s approximately 5,000 acres were secure enough from tidal inundation to be arable.
By 1876, John Bloodsworth largely followed the water for a living. He paid taxes on just 10 acres of arable land, and by 1896 his modest house, valued at $40, sat on just a single farmable acre. All of the surrounding marsh was valued at a paltry $11, the cultural perception of wetlands at the time being yet unenlightened.
The disappearance of land also meant that the island’s flora and fauna was changing. While there were still a few hardy mammals such as raccoons and muskrats, birds began to dominate as the upland vegetation declined. The Bay’s offshore islands are renowned rookery habitat for many avian species.
While Bloodsworth was unaffected, the tides of later wars swept around these isolated islands. The British trained irregular troops at Tangier and it was from there that they staged their unsuccessful attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814. During the Civil War, Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout could sometimes see Bloodsworth through the haze across the Chesapeake Bay.
The U.S. military had often chosen the Chesapeake as a venue to test artillery and other ordnance. While rummaging through the box at the stern of a clam dredge boat I once bought, we found two old artillery projectiles that the boat’s previous owners had dredged up. One, scraped clean, bore a brass manufacturer’s date of 1898—the Spanish American War.
Unaware of a military explosives ordnance division outside the District of Columbia at the time, I committed it to the deep trench off Taylor Island.
In 1917, on the brink of World War I, practice aerial bombing missions took place at Plum Island near Poquoson, VA, not far from Jamestown.
While aerial warfare was a dalliance during the 1914-18 conflict, the real use of aircraft as weapons delivery systems began when Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, deputy chief of the Army Air Service, became convinced that bombs could end the unrivaled dominance of warships as combat engines. In July 1921, he sent Martin twin-engine planes out of Langley Field at Hampton, VA, to sink the moored German prize of war, Ostfriesland, off the Chesapeake Capes. Before stunned naval observers, the ship went to the bottom in 25 minutes.
Glenn L. Martin, after whom the planes (and modern Maryland airfield) were named, was there and said: “No fleet afloat is safe if it loses control of the air…An enemy by gaining control of the air can now carry his own peace terms into the heart of any country.”
Mitchell went next to the waters off Tangier Island, where two late 19th century warships, Indiana and the dreadnought San Marcos (formerly USS Battleship Texas) had been sunk as gunnery targets around 1911. The battleship Alabama was brought up in September 1921 and Mitchell’s bombers devastated her superstructure in a midnight attack and then finished her off the morning with a 2,000 pound bomb that caused the ship to roll over and sink. In 1927, Alabama was pumped out, towed to Baltimore and broken for scrap.
Despite his seminal role in modern warfare, Mitchell was court-marshaled for his outspokenness, and retired to his farm in Middleburg, VA, where he died in 1936. He would be posthumously promoted and decorated.
Parts of the target shipwrecks are still visible off Cod Harbor at Tangier Island, and I used to see Navy jets plunge in to fire rockets into the rubble of their hulls while I was sailing nearby.
In these early 20th century, the remaining residents on Bloodsworth Island sold their land to outside hunting and fishing interests and moved to the adjacent mainland, a pattern followed on many of the Bay’s small islands. Between the 1920s and 1940, the island was partitioned, the southern part to a club, the Bloodsworth Island Game Company, and the northern part to the Phillips Packing Company, which had interests in the nearby Tangier Sound oyster grounds.
The remaining copses of trees—away from the reach of disturbances and mainland predatory mammals—continued to be favored as waterfowl rookeries.
World War II was at first distant to Bloodsworth, though the flow of hastily built ships from yards surrounding the steel sources at Sparrows Point on the Patapsco could be seen on their way to seas.
Despite the ordnance ranges near Poquoson and Dahlgren, VA, and Indian Head, and at Aberdeen, MD, the military was still looking for more places to test explosive devices. Records show that in 1945, the Island Game Company sold its portion of Bloodsworth to the federal government. By 1948, the complex was wholly the property of the U.S. Navy.
This created a trial for residents on nearby Deal and Hooper islands and in Eastern Shore communities like Crocheron. As Bloodsworth repeatedly came under fire from ships and aircraft, houses shook, pictures came off the walls, ceilings fell, windows rattled or broke. Some claimed that their house foundations settled from the incessant vibration as concussions rolled unimpeded across the miles of water. Patriotic Eastern Shore residents by and large kept their mouths shut.
When she was a youngster on Deal Island, which directly faced the action several miles to the west, Ashley Parkinson told the Delmarva Daily Times that she used to sit on the beach and watch the bombs fall. “You could tell which were the bombs and which were the duds.”
Meanwhile, the bird rookeries persisted in a remaining copse of trees.
Today’s popular environmental sensitivities were not a consideration in those postwar years. When I first sailed these waters in the early 1970s, I counted at least a 100 nests, with the birds all up and circling frantically as fires from the bombing swept across the grassy terrain. This eventually girdled and killed the trees and the number of nests appeared to decline as they fell.
Radio antennae were erected on Bloodsworth, and old tanks were deployed as targets for aircraft strafing with .50-caliber machine guns. Naval ships, largely destroyer class, would come into the Bay and conduct firing exercises.
One morning, in the early 1970s, my wife, Nancy, was at the helm as we followed John Smith’s course out of Hooper Straits. I’d gone below for something. There was a stiff breeze and a sudden concussion shook the boat. I vaulted topsides, sure that we’d blown out a sail, and looked forward to find a Naval vessel almost dead on our bow with smoke drifting to port from her guns as she shelled poor Bloodsworth. She’d fired virtually over our heads with no warning.
This was before marine VHF radios were widespread and we were deaf to any radioed warning. It was a memorable experience.
The Navy ceased military operations in 1996 and erected a number of artificial nesting platforms on telephone pole-type structures. The rookery thus continued to draw birds.
As erosion claims the perimeter of all of these islands, Bloodsworth today is estimated—using accurate surveying data—at a little more than 5,300 acres.
Shoreline recession has left at least one World War II-era, barnacle-encrusted tank on the shallow floor of the Bay. A local waterman struck it about 10 years ago while setting crab pots and the typically high rectangular stack of pots awaiting deployment came tumbling down. His keel was gouged, but his boat didn’t take in any water.
On the island’s west side, at close approach, a mariner can see a small metal shed, which had once been an aircraft target, riddled with .50-caliber machine gun bullet holes.
In the marsh nearby is an old Navy fighter aircraft, its wiring and accessories hanging everywhere. Whether it had crashed or been placed there, I do not know.
In the 1970s, the Navy annually lost one or two working planes, including some test aircraft from the Patuxent Naval Air Station. We used to shake our heads, knowing that each loss was equivalent, at least, to the funding for the first five years of the Chesapeake Bay Program—$27 million.
At the end of this winter, though, an obscure Navy notice indicated their intent to resume bombing, strafing and now troop landings on parts of Bloodsworth.
The hue and cry in the press and from potentially affected Bay communities was substantial. Older residents on the shore often voiced grudging acceptance. As patriots, they’d been there before, but they were also not happy about the prospective closure of many prime shallow, often grass bed-rich, areas to commercial crabbing during such exercises.
Just weeks ago, the Navy backed down, saying that no, it was not actually going to conduct any exercises, and they have no plans of any kind to renew operations there.
It sure didn’t sound that way, at the time. Maybe we could say, that just like in the summer of 1608, when John Smith sailed by, Bloodsworth Island and her birds are still “in limbo.”