John Smith and his mariners accompanied one of the Jamestown supply ships, Phoenix, and its cargo of Virginia cedar down the James River before parting ways off Cape Henry and embarking on their 1608 exploration of the Chesapeake.
That spring, they left the James on a southwesterly wind that sped the ships along to the Eastern Shore and Cape Charles. This outer coast was not their objective, and it’s my mariner’s judgment that the ebbing tide and southwest wind that evening swept them farther out of the Bay’s mouth than they had anticipated.
These winds from the continent’s interior swept across a still cool Bay. There may have been some haze, the result of warmer air flowing over cold ocean water. In Virginia’s late spring heat, the flow of warm air probably continued across Cape Charles the next morning.
The tide prevented them from re-entering the Chesapeake, and the shallop lay overnight near offshore islands just outside the Bay’s mouth, which they called “Smith Isles after our Captain’s name.”
They saw woods standing above the horizon on the largest island. These mark the southern end of the chain of barrier isles that lay—and still lie—offshore the Delmarva peninsula.
Archaeologist Wayne Clark thinks they went into Magothy Bay, behind Smith’s Isles, but if the tide was ebbing, I suspect they did not go very far in.
Blunt’s Pilot, a manual for navigators published in 1822, reported that in a westerly blow or while awaiting a tide to enter Chesapeake Bay, vessels traditionally anchored near the shore of the isles in depths of 14 –20 feet, which continue a couple of miles from shore. In making landfall at one of the isles, Blunt’s tells mariners to look for “some straggling trees which appear like a grove, but which join onto the Island. …Smith’s Island is a good place to anchor…bring it to bear WSW and run for it…into three fathoms or less, if you choose…You will have blue mud and sand.”
Later, as president of the settlement, Smith sent men to Smith’s Isles to make salt. Salt was a scarce commodity for preserving fish and meat at Jamestown and the ocean water’s salinity is higher than what is found up the Bay or its rivers. The idea was good, but Virginia’s coastal climate—humid and showery in most summers—meant little evaporation and little salt at the end of the day.
In later centuries, these isles consolidated into a longer island, then fragmented again. Inlets between them have opened and closed, and the land Smith saw has been reworked several times.
An island somewhat north of Smith, Mockhorn, shows evidence of Native American occupation during the Woodland Period. Archaeologist Darrin Lowery noted that the food remains there reveal Native Americans’ widespread use of coastal marine resources, including conches, channeled whelk, knobbed whelk and left-handed, or “lightning” whelk. All were harvested not only for their meat but also for their heavy shells, which grew up to 5-by-8.125 inches.
Cutting these shells open reveals a colorful and lustrous internal nacre that could be carved.
Anthropologist Helen Rountree has pointed out that “very little was shiny in Powhatan society.” These shells were rare treasures and were highly sought by inland tribes. The raw material, as well as carved miniature faces, pendants or mystic shapes were valuable trade items bartered for animal skins not available on the coast or for exotic stone “blanks” from which projectile points could be knapped.
As Lowery and I walked on another island in the chain one spring, he picked up some mudstone—hardened estuarine sediment from an earlier geological age. Using a “hammer stone” selected from the beach to chip off flakes he had, within moments, made a workable blade—though not the quality of harder stone from inland deposits—that could have cleaned and filleted a fish right there.
Today’s Fisherman’s Island was absent in the 17th century. It was probably created from erosional materials sweeping off the outer faces of islands along the coast to the north. These barrier islands regress slowly westward as sea level rises, and storms roll sand from the fore dunes over onto struggling ranks of vegetation behind. New salt marshes growing out into the back bays are built upon sediments deposited by the tides.
The loss of sand from the fronts of barrier islands facing the Atlantic surf contributes to a slow southward progression of the entire Delmarva Peninsula. Geologists, plumbing the land mass of the shore with seismic profiles can trace this movement over scores of miles through tens of centuries before European arrival.
Fisherman’s Island appears on charts by the 18th century. (A small islet called Cape Charles appears in Blunt.) By the mid-19th century, Smith Island Inlet—the passage between Fisherman’s Island and the tip of the true Cape Charles had been named by mariners.
Consider that June morning in 1608, as the shallop lay at Smith’s Isles. Early on, the wind was likely light, the heat of day having not yet intensified, enabling the shallop to come out from behind the island at the very last of the ebb tide and into the favoring flood that runs into the Bay.
Smith and his crew rounded the tip of Cape Charles and, as mariners say, they “opened the Bay,” its full immensity revealed more and more at every stroke of the oars in the morning sunlight. In a low boat, the Western Shore is below the horizon here and the enormity of the Chesapeake is apparent.
This incoming tide surging into the Chesapeake over thousands of years has scoured deep channels like great claw marks in the Bay floor, with intermediate shoals between them that run up Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore. Latimer Shoal, which is sometimes only 4 feet deep, separates Beach Channel with depths of 82 feet from North Channel, which in turn, is bounded on the west by Inner Middle Ground, a shoal that comes within 2 feet of the surface. It is a complex bottom; not one for unfamiliar navigators with ships of any draft. Smith’s crew must have plied their sounding lead continuously. Tides run fast close inshore here, offering a real boost in speed for vessels entering the Bay.
Migratory fish entering and leaving the Bay instinctively respond to current patterns into the Bay around this point, coming in waves from late winter throughout spring. The shads and herrings, heading for their natal rivers, overlap with the first of the croaker. All of these eat the infaunal worms and crustaceans that populate the Bay floor. Whitings arrive at Cape Charles in May and June as well as weakfish and the sea trouts.
There was no evidence that Smith saw Native Americans while on the barrier islands, but once the shallop entered the Bay and moved up the Beach Channel, it swept along Kiptopeake Beach below Butler’s Bluffs, where the crew encountered “two grim and stout savages upon Cape Charles, with long poles like javelins, headed with bone” who appeared to be fishing the shallows at Old Plantation Creek.
These fishermen, using long javelins, had to be patient, standing motionless as herons in the cold spring tide, so as not to frighten the fish. They also needed excellent hand-eye coordination, judging the movement of their prey through the distortion of ripples and aiming about 20 degrees above where the fish appeared to swim to allow for refraction of the water column.
At this time of year, ocean water is as much as 8 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the Bay, especially when there is a strong southwest wind and bottom water upwells along the coast. These fishermen were no doubt hungry after winter’s privations when their corn was but newly planted.
During this lean season, contemporaries reported, “they live poor…their old store spent…Oysters, crabs and such fish as they take in their weirs is their best relief.” These weirs were fencelike precursors of modern pound nets and are seasonally very productive. But they are fixed structures, and fish must enter them to be trapped.
On June 6, 1610, when the colony was better established, the crew of the De la Warr, newly arrived from England, lay near Cape Henry and sent men ashore to fish with hook and line. The Lower Eastern Shore natives came down to get some of the fish that they could not easily catch themselves.
Stan Hale, studying croaker in the Southeast, found that specimens uncovered in Native American archaeological sites were mostly small and young fish until the Spanish brought in better nets to enable deeper fishing. The remains of all of Hale’s sites thereafter revealed much larger croaker, some determined by their otoliths (ear bones) to be 15 years old. This is near the species maximum size of about 16 pounds. Most croaker caught in the Bay today are small, weighing 1–1.5 pounds.
Were Chesapeake fish largely unavailable to native fishermen, and thus when first fished by Europeans apparently of great size and abundance? This could explain some of the supposed exaggeration by Europeans.
These Bayside fisheries remained productive well into the 20th century, and fish camps were an annual feature with old shacks used year after year.
Other groups of fishermen, called haul-seiners, would row out one end of a long net from the beach, with floats on the top margin and lead weights on the bottom. Making a great circle around schools of fish moving along the coast, they would draw the end of the net back to the beach with their boat. The net would then be hauled up on the sand with an old gasoline engine. Sometimes, so many fish would be caught that they were left milling about in a small circle of net floating by the water’s edge until means could be found to take them to market.
A Flood of Memories
I sailed my ketch Galadriel around Cape Henry in the 1970s and ’80s. Here are excerpts from my log entries:
“The outer coast is very exposed in storms but in westerlies the sea is quite placid. I noticed heading up along the barrier islands that the water was very different in appearance from anything in the Chesapeake. Satellite images show that with high energy tidal action, the coastal bays exhale a great deal of sediment—and likely nutrients—to the ocean.
“Sometimes, water from the Gulf Stream comes alongshore in great whirlpools spun off from the main flow. Warm clear water predominates then. It was quite hot and I prepared to go over the side to luxuriate in the mild sea.
“I nearly jumped in when up from the depths came a 3–4 foot shark, swimming in the slipstream of the rudder, its tail powering from one side to the other, the head oscillating in compensatory motion. I contented myself with a bucket of sea water doused over my head safely in the cockpit!”
Inside the Bay, like Smith, we explored:
“We rowed ashore through clear water with 6 feet of visibility and surfed in the dinghy on little remnants of ocean swell coming around the Virginia capes. There were huge ghost crabs on the white sands, and in the water, mole crabs—excellent fish food—had shed their carapaces and spawned. Females with their sponges of bright orange eggs rolled about. A double handful of sand contained 31 mole crabs of all ages. There must also be thousands of razor clams on these flats judging from the abundant shells.
“There were scores of big conch—the knobbed whelk used by Native Americans, many with deep orange nacre. They were all over on the ebb tide sands and in the shallows.
“Passing the carcass of a huge loggerhead turtle, we hiked 3.75 miles on this wonderful beach. In the back of the berm lay an abandoned commercial fishing camp, with sagging sheds and a fine old shade tree. The rack where they’d coppered their nets for a century (old bottle necks were pre-1880) was a mound of copper oxide, nearly mineable. Shells, bone, etc. lying about were kelly green and there was almost no vegetation: just a single mottled yucca survived. Tons of discarded fish net—mesh filled with sand—paved the swale and in a dead tree nearby, an immature bald eagle sat patiently bearing the taunts of two crows.
“We rowed back and made sail in a backing southwest to south wind, then made our way up the coast assisted by a rare and heavy flood tide.
“This shore is almost continuously fenced by pound nets, an almost impenetrable maze for migrating fish.
“After anchoring at the town of Cape Charles City, we tried to buy a single filet from a boat that had just returned with a harvest of fish: large blues (60 cm), seatrout (75 cm) and drum (1 meter long, weighing maybe 20 kg). There were so many carcasses that they nearly sank the 20-foot barge. But nobody would sell.”
Out in the Bay next morning, other mammals were looking for a meal:
“I heard three abrupt snorts and two sharp thwacks on the water, a warning for six porpoise to swim with caution and submerge.
“We first saw two, then seven porpoise offshore. We ran the boat out to them figuring they’d either sound or take my challenge. In a minute, 50 of them were rolling and leaping clear of the water, slapping tails and coming up within feet of the dinghy which was under tow. Three of these 7-foot creatures raced along under our bow. They’d roll on their sides and look up at us. I could hear high squeaks; their delight was as great as ours! The sun sparkled and for near half an hour we felt the particular pleasure of running towards the sea with these marvelous beings.”