The Delmarva Peninsula, or Eastern Shore—which separates Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean—was formed over hundreds of thousands of years as sea level rose and fell during glacial and interglacial periods.
During each low period of sea level, East Coast rivers carved channels eastward into the distant sea. During high periods, the ocean inundated these channels—known as drowned river valleys—forming a series of proto-Chesapeake Bays.
The seismic signature of these ancient river channels and their now buried “capes” can be read deep in the Shore’s sediments. The current geography of Delmarva is dynamic: Its face and upper reaches erode a great river of sand southward, which constant surf then rolls backward over itself in a series of migrating and ephemeral sea-islands that offer some buffer against the forces of the sea.
The delicate nature of what seems a permanent fixture on the landscape in the lifetime of one person or another is reflected in the immense expenditures to protect the beachfronts of cities like Ocean City, MD and Rehobeth, DE.
This area was always a flat land. In the centuries before European contact, much of it was wet forest, with timber-rich swamps of cypress and Atlantic white cedar. Much of the soil—some atop the ancient sand ridges—had accumulated nutrients and organics for thousands of years and was good for agriculture
The Algonquins migrated south along the peninsula from tribal lands in the north. Agriculture was established here around A.D. 800. The principal crop was maize, with beans and melons planted among the stalks, the latter two crops improving the soil’s nitrogen.
The Eastern Shore Algonquians were non-combative and somewhat insulated by the width of Chesapeake Bay from the many conflicts and territorial battles plaguing the Western Shore Powhatan Confederation. None of these tribes participated in the 1622 Powhatan uprising and massacre of English settlers. As a consequence, the English traded a great deal with the Eastern Shore tribes for their corn.
(Anthropologist Helen Rountree has mBut many of the stories of the native peoples have been lost over time, leaving a void that—in its own way—is as significant as the loss of the region’s eroding soils.)
Europeans quickly began to move onto the peninsula. Some were pushed out to this remote region by Jamestown politics, others were “given” land patents by the king—without regard to the native people who might rightly be considered the true owners. The tribes were eventually—and mostly in peace—herded onto shrinking reservations. Many of their descendants still live among other Americans in the region.
With encroaching development, the same may be true for the stories of the generations of farmers that followed.
I was reminded of this in February, when I traveled through southern Dorchester (MD) County with Steele Phillips, a Vienna, MD farmer. We toured the thousands of acres that he has farmed over the decades. While hundreds of acres are still his, he’s traded many fields with an old friend, William Murphy. It was Murphy who helped me understand the mowing equipment used when salt hay was cut on Dorchester’s marshes early in the last century (See “Past is Prologue,” February 2006.)
While en route to Murphy’s home, Steele provided the lay of the land. As we rattled over a plank bridge crossing a Nanticoke tributary—the Transquaking River—at Bestpitch, he noted that he believed that, structurally, it wasn’t long for this world. Not a nail in the entire bridge deck was tight in the wood and the planks clattered like the keys of an old piano. “A potato truck hit it there,” he said, indicating one scar.
Phillips pointed out where he routinely casts for perch in waters made turbid by detritus from the marshes, and where a desperate rockfish had once tried to wind his line around the bridge piers and cut it on the barnacles.
Upstream, marshes give way to Eastern Shore farmland. Where the Transquaking River enters the Chicamacomico River, he said with some resignation, “Upstream from there, (Drawbridge, MD) is where the pfiesteria outbreak occurred.”
Murphy lives up the Chicamacomico. He invited us into his small, neat farmhouse, a gabled late Victorian with a later side addition and open porch. A kerosene stove burned hot with a big soup pot percolating on top: its steam helping to raise the dry winter’s humidity. “I should have put in heat years ago,” said Murphy, 86, retired from active farming, “but now it would cost me thousands. I liked the feel of the space heater myself. You can get close to it if you’re chilly, back away if too warm…after all, the main thing’s to keep the pipes from freezing.”
Born about 1920, Murphy’s memories go back to a hardscrabble time for agriculture in this area. “We never had any real money around here. Sometimes (there was) a little money from muskratting. Yes, muskratting and farming. That’s if you had a good muskratting marsh, with three-square,” (Scirpus spp.), a succulent, triangular-stemmed rush.
After World War I, when he was a boy, pelts were selling at $4. “I caught 75 or 80 a day. My best year was 2,200,” he said. “During the Depression say, 1932-33, pelts were a dollar or two.”
Steele added, “I sold one pelt for $8 and took my wife out for a steak dinner! They published that in the newspaper, but didn’t tell the whole story...I had a (discount) coupon from the restaurant, too.”
In the mid-1900s, the nutria, (Myocastor coyus) was introduced in a failed effort to bolster the fur trade, “but the fur was no good on the back; it was only soft on the belly,” Murphy said.
Now there are efforts by state and federal biologists to cull the population of this large invasive rodent from South America. Both Murphy and Phillips think it’s having an effect. “I let these nutria boys come down to my landing,” Murphy said. “They’re pretty good fellows.”
The black mudflat areas are all over, in places which one would expect—and until recently saw—broad expanses of sedge. The very fabric of the marsh has disappeared, with the peaty rhizome structure completely gone and only black, muddy substrate remaining.
Murphy said that marshes with round grasses (Spartina patens), or black needlerush, (Juncus romarianus) were not favorable for muskrats. The Spartina marshes, though, were mowed for their salt hay. “I don’t know much about this but they used a regular sickle bar. Mr. George Richardson did it when he was young and…Mr. Charles Wauschmuth…had a barge and took it to Baltimore.”
The Spartina patens salt hay was used for packing breakable goods for shipment, “like excelsior,” Murphy recalled. “They did it to get a little money,…maybe a dollar or two after all that work.” In many parts of the Atlantic Seaboard, cattle that were grazed on these marshes did not require salt licks for their minerals, taking what was necessary from the halophytic plants themselves. Eight thousand acres of it were harvested on the lower Delaware estuary in the early 20th century.
But it was farming that was self-
sustaining, with most of the food grown on one’s own land. The work and products were shared in the immediate community. “There were 16 farms on the land around here,” Murphy said, “but I’m the only one left. People got together to help at hog-killing time. We’d put a boy on the meat grinder and he’d turn that thing till he about fell over! You don’t think of a young boy getting tired that way but this was hard work, hours on end...We had no (electric) motors here until 1942. We were lucky they’d finished putting in the wires before the [Second World] War began. The poles was put up with mules, the end stuck in the ground and the mules pulled them upright, every one of them.”
Discussing home electrification, he said: “Many other places weren’t lined until after 1946. The wires were run through the floor joists. Believe me, drilling them old sills of oak and gum was some hard work.”
People patched together a living from the land and water. Shad were fished heavily by many people in spring before the 1920s and ’30s, when good, large fish might bring a dollar apiece. Murphy didn’t follow the water, except for his muskrat trapping.
When cars came in: “Model Ts were all we had, until the Model As came along. I didn’t go up there often but I did ride the (cable) ferry a few times. We drove up around Sharptown.” Visits to the other side of the Bay were infrequent. “I was in Solomon’s once, but that was 30 year ago.”
He took us down to the Chicamacomico, where a landing on his property dipped into the tidal waters. The stream tasted totally fresh this day, but in dry years some saltiness must have made it this far upstream, because old barnacle growth showed on rocks along the shore.
Rocks are rare in these soils, especially where wide salt marshes line the river. To help stem erosion, an ancient single-cylinder marine engine with a huge iron flywheel had been thrown in the shallows, trapping sand and forming a small point. “Oh!” said Murphy with a laugh, “That was my grandfather’s old motor!
“Water’s a foot higher here now than when I was a boy. I think we’re sinking, or maybe the water’s rising. All these marshes are going. Look over there. All black mud and no grasses. That’s happening all over.” He mentioned a place he and Phillips knew, where Murphy had gone to “catch a few muskrats just to eat. I hadn’t been over there in 10 years and I was surprised. The marsh is all gone, and that phragmites is all along the edge, and way back into the forest too.”
Murphy said he was 40 years old before he saw any phragmites, the hybrid common reed that’s such a problem overgrowing natural marsh today. He agrees with an acquaintance who believes that it came in with (or at least at the time of) Hurricane Hazel. “Ruins everything” he said. (It also stops the growth of new trees.)
Rising water levels also took their toll. “The pines have died back a thousand feet from where I remember…Fields that I knew were cropped every year are now too wet to farm. I used a riding cultivator pulled by oxen 40 years ago.”
Phillips had pointed out a couple of these fields during our trip, and one could not get a tractor on them today, even though it had been a dry spring. One had the tidal salt water of a creek—once a drainage ditch—coming in and merging with the formerly dry land.
“Winters were harder then” Murphy recalled. “ We had snow over the fence rails, you know, fences where the rails were laid on each other. Over my head on the path out back.”
Murphy and Phillips, and others like them, are the institutional memory and the conscience of this land and its waters.
The new development coming in, capturing farmland parcels and sprawling out from once sleepy villages will lose these memories when these guys and their contemporaries are gone. There will be no one to hold citizen, farmer and developer to account for subsequent losses to this ecosystem.
The Bay community can still profit from Phillips because he is recognized as an articulate spokesperson and has long served on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Citizen Advisory Committee. The day after we met with Murphy, Phillips was guest of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, where he serves on its President’s Advisory Council.
The day after our trip, he met a team of young educators on Tilghman Island to discuss Chesapeake Bay as it was and what lies in its future. This is as good a connection as we can hope for.
None of the people in this past generation of Chesapeake spokespeople, though, had any contact with the rich system that was present when Native Americans populated these shores and woodlands. They may at least have heard some stories from early in the 19th century in their earliest youth.
Perhaps there are letters, diaries or farm journals that would help us better understand the transitional generations between the beginning state of the estuary and today’s serious degradation. Perhaps not.
Those early memories have probably been lost, and with them, the knowledge of what resources were once here and how to live with them on a sustainable basis.
These older Bay region residents are all we have. I am compelled to record their history and the impressions that they teach.