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Discovering the Chesapeake

The History of an Ecosystem

edited by Philip D. Curtin, Grace S. Brush, and George W. Fisher

Publication Year: 2001

With its rich evolutionary record of natural systems and long history of human activity, the Chesapeake Bay provides an excellent example of how a great estuary has responded to the powerful forces of human settlement and environmental change. Discovering the Chesapeake explores all of the long-term changes the Chesapeake has undergone and uncovers the inextricable connections among land, water, and humans in this unusually delicate ecosystem. Edited by a historian, a paleobiologist, and a geologist at the Johns Hopkins University and written for general readers, the book brings together experts in various disciplines to consider the truly complex and interesting environmental history of the Chesapeake and its watershed. Chapters explore a variety of topics, including the natural systems of the watershed and their origins; the effects of human interventions ranging from Indian slash-and-burn practices to changing farming techniques; the introduction of pathogens, both human and botanical; the consequences of the oyster's depletion; the response of bird and animal life to environmental factors introduced by humans; and the influence of the land and water on the people who settled along the Bay. Discovering the Chesapeake, originating in two conferences sponsored by the National Science Foundation, achieves a broad historical and scientific appreciation of the various processes that shaped the Chesapeake region. "Today's Chesapeake Bay is only some ten thousand years old. What a different world it was . . . when the region was the home of the ground sloth, giant beaver, dire wolf, mastodon, and other megafauna. In the next few thousand years, the ice may form again and the Bay will once more be the valley of the Susquehanna, unless, of course, human-induced changes in climate create some other currently unpredictable condition."—from the Introduction [p. xviii]

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi

The editors wish first of all to acknowledge the National Science Foundation for its generous support of the conferences that led to the organization of this volume. We are grateful to Anne K. Schwartz and Anne G. Curtin for their editorial assistance at several stages in the preparation of the manuscript. We would also like to express our gratitude...

List of Contributors

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xxiii

In the eighteenth century, an individual like Gilbert White of Selborne studied the world around him by personal observation. With today’s professional specialization, he would be thought of as a dilettante, the scientific equivalent of a little old lady in running shoes. Yet many informed people, with or without professional specialization, want to understand...

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ONE: The Chesapeake Ecosystem: Its Geologic Heritage

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pp. 1-14

Late on a cold December afternoon, an Eastern Shore oysterman steers his boat for home, barely a dozen bushels of oysters aboard. Discouraged, he looks over the slate gray waters of the Bay, choppy with short, steep waves, and wonders what has happened to the oysters, once so plentiful that their reefs were a hazard to navigation. In the Lancaster...

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TWO: Climate and Climate History in the Chesapeake Bay Region

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pp. 15-39

The mild, relatively equable climates of the Mid-Atlantic region have long attracted humans. The region has an environment rich in vegetation, terrestrial wildlife, and marine life. The current climatic conditions, however, have existed for only a short time. The climate has varied considerably over past centuries and drastically over geologic time. These...

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THREE: Forests before and after the Colonial Encounter

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pp. 40-59

The present landscape surrounding the Chesapeake Bay is a patchy mosaic of forests, cultivated and abandoned agricultural fields, wetlands, residential lawns, gardens, urban asphalt, and other kinds of land cover. The entire drainage area, except for tidal wetlands, serpentine barrens, and scattered Native American dwellings, was forested prior to European...

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FOUR: Human Influences on the Physical Characteristics of the Chesapeake Bay

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pp. 60-82

Chesapeake Bay and its network of tributaries provided early explorers and colonists with protected waters, bountiful seafood, and passageways into the interior. These same tributaries would later be used to convey the colonists’ products back downstream for shipment to the mother country.They also would carry the unintended by-products of human activities...

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FIVE: A Long-Term History of Terrestrial Birds and Mammals in the Chesapeake-Susquehanna Watershed

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pp. 83-108

Changes in vertebrate communities can be evaluated on a variety of time scales. To most ecologists, long-term studies are measured in decades, but I will use centuries and millennia as the benchmarks to describe some of the long-term changes that have occurred in the bird and mammal communities of the Chesapeake-Susquehanna watershed of...

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SIX: Living along the “Great Shellfish Bay”: The Relationship between Prehistoric Peoples and the Chesapeake

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pp. 109-126

The magnificent estuary we call the Chesapeake Bay is intimately connected with human history and prehistory. Before there was a Chesapeake Bay, people lived on the land that now forms its channels, shores, and marshes. As the Chesapeake developed, the people adapted to the many new possibilities it offered. These people are the American Indians...

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SEVEN: Human Biology of Populations in the Chesapeake Watershed

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pp. 127-148

Relations between humans and their parasites in North America can be seen as a drama in three acts. The first act began with the arrival of humans and their pathogens during the Ice Age, up to about 10,000 years ago. The second act began in the late fifteenth century with the coming of Africans and Europeans and a new group of pathogens. The third act...

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EIGHT: A Useful Arcadia: European Colonists as Biotic Factors in Chesapeake Forests

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pp. 149-166

In early spring 1524, a single ship flying a French flag weighed anchor in turbulent seas off the Carolina coast. Pointing his lone craft northeast, the vessel’s commander, Giovanni da Verrazzano, began quartering slowly up the Atlantic seaboard. A stiff breeze blew from the shore. With the wind came a soothing, almost narcotic, fragrance that captain...

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NINE: Reconstructing the Colonial Environment of the Upper Chesapeake Watershed

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pp. 167-190

European occupation of the Chesapeake region depended upon the transformation of what colonial settlers termed wilderness or wasteland into property. The condition of interior environments encountered by migrating European and Tidewater settlers during the early eighteenth century significantly influenced the locations and forms of colonial settlements...

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TEN: Human Influences on Aquatic Resources in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

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pp. 191-219

European colonists sailing on Chesapeake Bay in the early seventeenth century sometimes ran aground on reeflike oyster beds, many of which broke the Bay’s surface at low tide. If the impact tossed a colonist overboard during the summer, he or she may have been less likely than now to encounter the stinging sea nettle jellyfish, at least not in the numbers...

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ELEVEN: Land Use, Settlement Patterns, and the Impact of European Agriculture, 1620–1820

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pp. 220-248

In the tidewater Chesapeake, Old World settlers learned to use abundant natural resources in distinctive ways. Local ecologies strongly affected settlement patterns and agricultural systems and were in turn reshaped by the newcomers who claimed dominion of the land. This chapter deals with two main topics: the outlines and social context of European American and African American settlement...

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TWELVE: Chesapeake Gardens and Botanical Frontiers

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pp. 249-278

From 1600 to 1700, the Chesapeake was a border zone, a frontier between the Old and New Worlds. The effects of settlement reached beyond human society to touch on other dimensions of the natural world, revealing the interrelationship between humans and the broader ecosystem. Exploitation of the natural environment for profit initially concentrated...

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THIRTEEN: Genteel Erosion: The Ecological Consequences of Agrarian Reform in the Chesapeake, 1730–1840

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pp. 279-303

An understanding of the Chesapeake and its ecological experience in the colonial and early national eras must begin with its economy. Situated within the trading networks of the Atlantic world, the Chesapeake’s was a regional economy committed to producing staples, chiefly tobacco, for export, and it functioned within the context of the 45- to 60-year-long...

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FOURTEEN: Farming, Disease, and Change in the Chesapeake Ecosystem

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pp. 304-321

Iron-age farming in the Chesapeake ecosystem has just plowed into its fourth century. What the future holds can only be guessed, but agricultural change is inevitable—and perhaps dramatically so. Currently, there are about 60,000 farms in Maryland and Virginia, occupying some 11 million acres, or 35% of the total land area. Farmers in the two states...

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FIFTEEN: Bird Populations of the Chesapeake Bay Region: 350 Years of Change

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pp. 322-354

As seventeenth-century European colonists transformed the landscape of the Chesapeake Bay area, many bird species retreated westward. A few disappeared completely from the region. Other species remained widespread but in lesser numbers. In contrast, some birds profited from the man-made changes in their environment, and their numbers and geographic...

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COMMENTARY: Reading the Palimpsest

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pp. 355-373

Over and over again, the chapters in this book make the point clear: the Chesapeake is like a palimpsest, one of those ancient medieval manuscripts whose authors were so concerned to reuse the expensive material on which they wrote that they scraped away previous texts, leaving beneath the visible text faint layers of ink which can be read if only one...


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pp. 375-385

E-ISBN-13: 9780801875175
E-ISBN-10: 080187517X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801864681
Print-ISBN-10: 0801864682

Page Count: 416
Illustrations: 19 halftones, 29 line drawings
Publication Year: 2001

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Subject Headings

  • Natural history -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.).
  • Human ecology -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.).
  • Nature -- Effect of human beings on -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.).
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