“Some people happy, think a greedy hope of gain,
And heaps of gold you hope to find, doth make you take this pain.”
— John Nichols,
“The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, Vol. II,”
Much of the English adventurers’ investment in the founding of Jamestown Colony was made in the hope of finding gold.
John Smith, early in the adventure, appraised the colony’s mineral resources with a more realistic eye, practiced during his earlier travels in North Africa and Europe.
As for the amateur “refiners,” or 17th century geologists, Smith wrote in 1612:
“[They] took up the washings from the mountaines, and some moskered (crumbled) shining stones and spangles which the waters brought downe, flattering themselves in their own vain conceits to have been supposed what they were not, by means of that ore, if it proved to have been proved as their arts and judgements expected.”
Much to their disappointment, these early explorers found no gold.
(Later, in 1782, Thomas Jefferson reported that a single gold nugget was found along the Rappahannock weighing 17 dwt [17 penny-weights or almost a troy ounce]. While this did not a mine make, gold has been found at about 200 locations stretching from Fairfax, VA, to about 140 miles southwest. At a surprising number of these, gold was actually mined, with one operation producing 160 pounds in a week. But even at 19th century prices, none of the mines produced more than $150,000, and mining ceased about 1947. Nowadays, panning gold is touted as a recreational activity in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.)
But there were other mineral resources. Even in 1608, Smith believed that there would be “iron and steele, if there were but means and men of experience that knew the Mine from ‘spar’ (bauble ornaments hawked in England by street sellers).” He was correct beyond his wildest dreams, given North America’s massive iron and steel industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The iron for early American industry was found in 1830 in the Pocomoke cypress swamp woodlands. These are the same once-extensive woodlands traversed by Col. Henry Norwood and his Native American guide, Jack, after the former was abandoned on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 1650 (See “Past is Prologue,” January-February 2004.)
At the time, though, Norwood was more interested in his survival than his surroundings, and did not leave a detailed description of this deep, dark habitat in his writings.
Barring Smith’s record of cypress 18 feet in circumference (5.7-foot diameter) that were most likely growing in the James River drainage, the later colonial literature is silent on these murky Eastern Shore swamps, as planters concentrated on productive well-drained upland soils atop Parsonburg sands—relict dunes remaining from the late Pleistocene—that supported tobacco crops.
In millennia past, these swamps were even more extensive. Widespread cypress fossils have been found west of the Bay, as far as the District of Columbia.
Today, the Chesapeake is near the northern limit of bald cypress distribution, the result of long-term climate shifts.
In “Days Afield,” author Bill Sipple describes the cypress and Atlantic white cedar swamps of the early and unspoiled Eastern Shore. He cites an anonymous 1797 account of cypress trees 4–8 feet thick, with surrounding modified root knees rising 8–10 feet. Elsewhere in the book, William Canby found a 9-foot diameter cypress stump in 1881 in Delaware, a hint of the grandeur of this woodland.
Maryland’s current “champion” bald cypress, growing near Battle Creek in Calvert County, is 5.5 feet in diameter and was aged at more than 500 years in the early 1970s. Imagine the age of a 9-foot diameter tree. Imagine the towering canopy from a forest of them.
Thomas Nuttall, in June 1809, wrote this of the great cypress swamp in Delaware, north of today’s Route 50 corridor: “Within a mile of the entrance of the swamp I met with an old man who usually conducts strangers…and in about a mile…we began to enter one of the most frightful labyrinths you can imagine. …It was filled with tall tangling shrubs thickly matted together almost impervious to light…It was very wet, knee deep in sphagnum if you stept off the bridges of wooden causeways. There were some open places called savannahs, but were literally ponds at this time of the year, but are dry in summer...on the edges of these ponds grew the cupressus disticha (bald cypress, Taxodium distichum)…on Wednesday I went across the swamp about 7 miles…In this part of the swamp there are bears not infrequently met with as many as 7 having been caught not many months back.”
An anonymous writer in 1797 said that in the 18th century, bears were so plentiful in the Great Cypress Swamp that one had little trouble killing 30 in a day. Maybe that’s why Nuttall, a dozen years later, heard of only seven. The last black bear seen there was in 1906.
(Bears were not the only large mammals once inhabiting the area. Norwood encountered wolves on the barrier islands. Wolves and cougars were also reported on the Eastern Shore mainland.)
Later in the book, Delaware writer William S. Taber, in 1937, describes a “vast areas of cedar and cypress swamps where trees stood so thick that semidarkness prevailed beneath the canopy of their matted crowns and sphagnum moss grew lucuriantly over their roots.”
Sipple still believes that parts of the Pocomoke look like they did when Smith explored the river in 1608, possibly as far upstream as today’s Snow Hill, MD. Sipple, a woodsman, was once lost without a compass in this challenging habitat and took five hours to cross about a mile of woods.
South of the Chesapeake and throughout the Southeast the abundance of cypress greatly increases. White cedar, on the other hand, is increasingly abundant from Delaware north into the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Both of these habitats, when extensive enough for the biological community to develop, are botanically rich (about 280 species live in the cypress swamp) virtually creating a climate within their borders that is warmer in winter, cooler in summer and always moist.
Despite the “little ice age” conditions around the time of European colonization, Spanish moss—which is associated with warmer climes—was a household item for 17th century Delmarva natives who used its soft absorbent fibers as wipes or, as Norwood noted in 1650, as their napkins. Remarkably, Spanish moss today does not thrive north of Cape Henry, which is south of the Bay’s mouth, despite decades of warmer winters in the last century.
Plant communities and associated bacteria, coupled with sandy, well-drained soils that had their origins in ancient, post-glacial dunes, mediate acidic conditions in the streams, which are supported by humic acid materials that leach from the plants. As a result of this process, the Pocomoke is tinged a deep amber or tea-color, and is considered a blackwater river. Observers suggest that these streams are darker in the summer, when warm waters stimulate chemotrophic bacterial activity, and less colored in the winter, when low temperatures slow these reactions. In New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, streams emanating from white cedar bogs are characterized as “cedar water” streams.
People living in nearby urban areas sought these waters as a health tonic in the 19th century, and captains even preferred these dark waters to fill drinking water casks. Naturalist Mark Demitroff said that because plant and chemotrophic stream bacteria had already “biologically fermented” this water and precipitated contaminants, it kept well on long voyages.
This water has other, far-reaching consequences rooted in its unique chemistry. Because the Eastern Shore’s sandy soils have relatively few clay barrier layers, precipitation goes into the land rather than across it in eroding sheet flow.
The chemistry of the groundwater which feeds these unusual blackwater rivers causes iron to be leached from the sandy soils—as much as 20 ppm concentrating in the outflow. This water reacts upon exposure to the air and light as it emerges from springs in the watershed and forms flocculent particles of iron oxyhydroxide in the water. While these eventually settle out, they can block light for plant growth as much as turbidity from erosional sediment. It’s unlikely that these Eastern Shore rivers ever had the deep light penetration that would have permitted submerged aquatic vegetation.
These flocculent oxyhydroxides eventually deposit and consolidate in layers of a hard, iron-rich mineral called goethite, or limonite. I’ve seen specimens 2-foot thick or more. Layers of this dimension, are found in similar soils on the Western Shore, notably at Little Cove Point in Calvert County. These ores were extracted commercially at several sites on the Chesapeake, including a smelting operation near the Potomac that was operated by George Washington.
A number of goethite deposits were discovered around 1830 on the Pocomoke’s Nassawango Creek and were mined for about 20 years. The ore was dug out and barged to a furnace near Snow Hill. (The town of Furnace is nearby.) The goethite, fired with locally made charcoal and a flux of oyster shell to carry away impurities, produced a very hard, phosphate-rich pig iron.
The neat thing about these deposits was that while the furnace was able to extract as much as 700 tons of iron annually, miners could return to sites already worked and re-harvest the ore which was regenerated, often in only a few years.
The downside to this renewable resource was that the oxyhydroxides forming geothite have a strong affinity for phosphorous, and the resulting iron might have a 10 percent phosphorus content. This metal was unusually brittle when cold and was unsuitable for products subject to impact at low temperature. By 1850, better grades of ore elsewhere in the East replaced Nassawango bog iron and the furnace closed.
Other coastal plain bog ores fared significantly better, presumably because they did not have the high phosphorus problem. Historian Ralph Eshelman said that prime, resilient foundry irons for cannon came from Northampton Ironworks in Baltimore County; Columbia near Chain Bridge on the Potomac; Curtis Creek near Baltimore; Nottingham in Anne Arundel; Patuxent Furnace on that river; and Antietam in Frederick County. Maryland coastal plain iron was in fact specified by the U.S. Navy for all of its ironwork until the 1880s.
Cypress and Atlantic white cedar were strong and rot resistant, too good to avoid the lumber industry supplying the Chesapeake and Delaware shipbuilding and carpentry interests. From the 17th into the 20th centuries, these interests cut first the perimeter trees, then fought deeper and deeper into the old growth stands. Slowly, most of this once vast resource was lost.
There were also two great fire episodes that did immeasurable damage. About 1782, a fire swept through Delaware’s Great Cypress Swamp, which could reportedly be seen in Philadelphia 70 miles away. Much of the area was subsequently called Burnt Swamp.
In the early 1930s, a widespread drought dried the swamps and enabled another burn in the same area which destroyed large areas of the long-accumulated peat deposits, and continued to flare up for at least six to eight months. The glow of the largest fires could be seen from Wilmington, DE. Standing timber and even fallen cypress logs buried in the swamp floor were destroyed. These latter, near-fossil trees, were a valuable resource themselves, dug loose, limbed and hauled free by oxen as part of a widespread shingle-splitting industry. Some shingles split from balks of cypress have protected buildings for more than a century.
At a sustainable rate, this harvest could have gone on indefinitely, but the competition for market timber, the fires and the encroachment of agriculture removed much of the extensive swamps.
Changes in Chesapeake agriculture, such as plowing and the increasing demand for grain and row crops, began to cause soil erosion. U.S. Geological Survey scientists Owen Bricker, Wayne Newell and Nancy Simon have studied land uses around the Pocomoke and found meter-thick sediment burying cypress stumps cut during the colonial period. The sedimentation seems to be largely finished and now, these relatively deep coastal rivers don’t seem to be receiving large amounts of fine sediments, according to Newell.
As the forest was cut away, agriculture expanded aggressively. The limited amount of high ground on the wet-wooded Eastern Shore meant that to increase tillable acreage, swamps had to be drained. Sipple associates most of this work, as does Judy Denver of the USGS, with government-sponsored efforts in the 1930s in which significant amounts of taxpayer resources were devoted to destroying what would later be recognized as a valuable and irreplaceable wetland.
A drainage canal 20-feet wide with a network of ditches was completed in 1936 and joined the Pocomoke headwaters with Indian River in Delaware’s ocean-side drainage. Water flowed from the surrounding wetlands, resulting in a “dry swamp.” The process was repeated over large areas of southern Sussex County, DE, and elsewhere on the Pocomoke and Nanticoke.
One unintended consequence of this lowering of the groundwater table has been less contact time between water and natural materials in the soil, which has interrupted the formation of goethite, and inhibited its strong sorption and sequestering of phosphorous, one of the two major pollutants associated with human development in the Chesapeake basin. One might even make a connection with the outbreaks of the toxic, nutrient-associated Pfiesteria piscicida several years ago in the lower Pocomoke. Interestingly, the Nassawango subbasin of the Pocomoke, was spared much of this ditching and has significantly different chemistry. It is under the protection of and partly owned by the Nature Conservancy.
Changing agricultural practices had another impact. After World War II, as nitrogen-based munitions manufacturing wound down, large amounts of high-nitrogen fertilizers became available.
High concentrations of nitrogen can occur in groundwater when poultry manures and broiler wastes are stored on land where rainfall can percolate through the piles. Water table nitrate levels in these areas can exceed the EPA guideline of 10 ppm, which triggers concern about its safety for human consumption, especially infants, in areas where shallow wells supply the potable water.
On the lower Eastern Shore in the 1990s, notably along Cherrystone Inlet above Cape Charles, VA, laterally moving, high-nitrate concentrations from nearby agricultural land impacted hard clams being grown out for commercial harvest. George Simmons, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute at State University, showed that at high tide, these beds are bathed by less contaminated waters brought in from the lower Bay, but with the falling tide, pulses of nutrient-rich water seeped out from the adjacent groundwater reservoir and bathed these aquaculture sites twice each day. These feeding events stimulated macroalgal growth, which had a variety of negative impacts on the shellfish.
In any of these sandy soils, the over-application of, or poorly timed applications, of fertilizer or manures can result in their rapidly leaching downward and out of reach of a crop’s root zone. Once in this subsurface groundwater, nitrogen moves laterally at varying rates into the Bay’s tributaries, to their detriment.
Research by Denver at the USGS and a recent USGS publication show that while some pollutants move quickly from fields close to the water, other nitrogen loads can be traced in the soil for decades—some as early as the 1960s—before emerging in the Bay or its streams.
Thus—not only here, but throughout the watershed—even when land use practices are changed for the better, there can be a lag of four decades before their beneficial impact reaches the Bay.