Cruising Through History on the Chesapeake Bay

March 19th, 2009 by Don Shomette

Don Shomette is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the history of the Chesapeake Bay region. Here, he talks about his experience leading our popular Cruising the Chesapeake Bay tour. Click here to read Don’s full bio and learn more about traveling with him.

The American Glory moored in St. Mary's near two historic watercraft

The American Glory moored in St. Michaels. Photo: Don Shomette

Throughout my life, the Chesapeake has been a source of inspiration and delight that has never waned. Recently, I served as Study Leader on the Cruising the Chesapeake tour. After visiting Baltimore’s historic sites, we embarked the delightful small ship American Glory to explore the largest estuarine system in North America—the Chesapeake Bay. 200 miles in length, with 44 rivers feeding into its historic trunk, the bay was our home for the next week.

Our journey continued with stops at several key Virgina sites: Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America; Yorktown, where American Independence was assured; and Williamsburg, the restored capital of colonial Virginia. Later that evening, we discussed how tobacco and colonial seaport development led to the growth of these cities.

An actor poses as Thomas Jefferson in historic Williamsburg

An actor poses as Thomas Jefferson in historic Williamsburg. Photo: Don Shomette

As we departed the Patapsco River for historic Yorktown, Virginia, I pointed out a remarkable site that can be easily overlooked. Fort Carroll, built on an artificial island before the Civil War by an unknown U.S. Army Engineer named Robert E. Lee, is now uninhabited and serves as a bird rookery.

Further north, the Eastern Shore town of Crisfield was literally built on oyster shells, where more than 1,000 oyster “druggers” once tied up. A century ago, this was a rough and tumble place where oysters were gold, men were shanghaied, and the gunfights and hanging judges rivaled even the Old West.

We then made a visit to remote Tangier Island to explore how people have made their living on the bay. In keeping with traditional customs, Tangier is totally dependent upon the bounty of the Chesapeake. The locals speak a colorful dialect some say is a survival of Elizabethan English. The American Glory then made her way back to the Eastern Shore, where we embarked the skipjack Nathan to try our hand at dredging for oysters aboard this nearly extinct bay craft. After touring of the old seaport of Cambridge, we explored Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to look for eagles, osprey, and herons.

A working reconstruction of a 17th century Dutch sailing ship in Yorktown

A working reconstruction of a 17th century Dutch sailing ship in Yorktown. Photo: Don Shomette

At St. Michaels, once a worldwide shipbuilding center, we enjoyed the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and visited one of the last surviving “screw pile” lighthouses in the world.

For a grand finale to our voyage, we enjoyed a War of 1812 re-enactment, recalling the war that resulted in the first attack on American soil by foreign invaders. St. Michaels was among the many Tidewater ports in Maryland assaulted, and it bears the sobriquet “Town that Fooled the British” for having reportedly diverted enemy bombardment with lanterns planted in the treetops.

An egret in the Chesapeake Estuary

An egret in the Chesapeake Estuary

I’ve studied the Chesapeake Bay for half a century, and during this time I have found no place more beautiful or steeped in history. Our voyage was indeed a wonderful journey through time and I look forward to the next Chesapeake adventure.

Click here to learn more about our Chesapeake Bay cruise.

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4 Responses to “Cruising Through History on the Chesapeake Bay”

  1. Michael V. Says:

    A great story and a great cruise! We have enjoyed our role as part of the experience, sharing the history, culture and stories of the Bay with those aboard American Cruise Lines.

    I do have to point out that the photo at the top is in fact St. Michaels at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, not St. Mary’s. Our tug “Delaware” and crab dredger “Old Point” are in the foreground and the Miles River is in the background.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Smithsonian Journeys Says:

    @ Michael: thanks so much for catching that for us! Don provided so many great photos for this story (more than we could show) that we must have gotten our captions confused. Should be fixed now. Glad to hear you are liking the blog.

  3. d. folstein Says:

    We are interested in a multiple day Chesapeake Bay cruise. We are available from August 5 to August 16. Do you have Chesapeake Bay cruises that meet this criteria?

  4. Leah Ibraheem Says:

    @ d. folstein:
    Our Chesapeake Bay Cruises are offered in May and October, when the weather and scenery are at their best.

    Please see links:
    http://www.smithsonianjourneys.org/tours/cruisingchesapeakebay2010/

    and

    http://www.smithsonianjourneys.org/tours/americaatlanticaseaboard2011/?display=description#itinerary

    Thanks,
    Leah Ibraheem
    Blog Editor

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