Changes since Smith's time
If John Smith were to retrace his 1608 Chesapeake Bay voyages today, he would need more than his original maps to find his way. Humans have dramatically changed the region’s land, water and animal populations since then.
One of the most visible changes is the amount and diversity of animals that live in and around the Bay. In Smith's days, oysters "lay as thick as stones," and the Bay and its rivers contained more sturgeon "than could be devoured by dog or man.”
“Of fish we were best acquainted with sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays ... brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], trouts, soles, perch of three sorts," Smith wrote in his journal. The crew also found a vast variety of shellfish.
During Smith’s time, the land surrounding the Bay was home to a vast array of wildlife: bears, wolves, cougars, falcons, partridges, waterfowl, and a variety of animals named in the old English language that cannot be identified today.
Although native tribes cleared some small plots of land for farming and firewood, much of the Bay watershed remained undisturbed. Smith wrote about bald cypress trees that were 18 feet around the base and up to 80 feet tall without a branch. Some trees were so large that a canoe made from a single tree could hold 40 men.
Unlike the murky summer waters in today's Chesapeake, the water during Smith's time was substantially clearer. Trees formed a thick, continuous canopy around the Bay’s shoreline, holding soil in place and absorbing rainfall from storms. Algae grew but did not overwhelm the Bay’s ecosystem as it does now.
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