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By Eric Angevine
Nestled between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays is a peninsula known as Delmarva because it contains all or part of the states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. It is technically a landmass, but everything about Delmarva is defined by its proximity to water. Road signs inform drivers when they pass from the Delaware watershed into the Chesapeake watershed. State Road 1 crosses Delaware from north to south, all the while counting down the mileage to the nearest beach. The most prominent landmarks are rivers, inlets and bridges.
It stands to reason, then, that much of the history of Delaware and Maryland is maritime history. When European settlers first arrived in this area, they found Native Americans in wooden canoes, fishing and transporting goods. Many of the earliest American sailing ships were built on these shores, and massive cargo ships still make their stately way out to sea by passing through the bays. Even if you’re driving rather than sailing, there’s still plenty to experience in this world bounded by water.
They Came by Sea
The first recorded instances of Europeans in the area came in the early 17th century. Although Delaware’s coastline was seen first by the Spanish and Portuguese, an Englishman gave the enduring name to the waterways and the state. Samuel Argall was actually charged with the task of discovering a shorter sea route to Jamestown, but in 1609, he found himself blown off course into a wide watercourse northeast of the Virginia colony. He named the sheltering bay in honor of the Royal Governor of the colony, Baron De La Warr.
The Governor took ill two years later and sailed back to England having never seen the land that bore his name.
English Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. He made contact with the native Tockwogh tribe and explored many of the waterways that feed into the wide bay. In 1612, he described what is now Maryland in glowing terms: “Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleas-ant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation…”
Adventurous souls from the British Isles took Smith at his word, taking up residence in permanent settlements along the Chesapeake and Delaware bays by the late 1630s. Annapolis was settled shortly thereafter and became a primary port for the export of tobacco to Europe. Remnants of the plantation economy still linger, including the John Dickinson Plantation, now open to visitors near Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Lands were claimed for England, Germany, Sweden and Holland during this tumultuous early period, and a replica of the Swedish sailing ship Kalmar Nyckel still plies the waters of the Delaware River, reminding current inhabitants of their seagoing past.
In addition to transporting the fruits of the earth, the peninsula’s waters were filled with seafood. Natives and settlers alike used small craft to dredge for oysters and fish for striped bass, shad and many other types of edible fish.
Maritime and Military Action
As European settlement began to grow, local carpenters turned their hands to shipbuilding. Sloops and schooners were turned out in droves from the famous shipyards of Maryland and Delaware. For oyster-dredging, the original vessel was the wonderfully named bugeye, which was eventually succeeded by the humble skipjack, still in use today. The small, single-mast shallow-draft boat is perfect for the job, especially since restrictions on motorized craft were imposed to protect the bay from over-harvesting. A beautifully preserved skipjack is currently on display at the Chesapeake Exploration Center, on Maryland’s Kent Island, and a nearby statue pays tribute to generations of hard-working local watermen.
The fledgling American Navy was not powerful enough to have engaged in fleet actions during the War of Independence, but the French squadron of Comte d’Estaing sailed to the mouth of the Delaware in July 1778 to lend crucial sea power to the cause of freedom. As Philadelphia’s primary point of entry, protection of the Delaware Bay was paramount.
It was more than 30 years later, when America defended herself against renewed English aggression in the War of 1812, that the waters of the Chesapeake saw more military action. A British admiral blockaded the bay and raided with impunity up and down its length. British troops landed by sea, invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House.
An English flotilla then moved to strike the busy port of Baltimore and began bombarding Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to the inner harbor. Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer visiting a British prisoner ship to plead for the release of a friend, was detained until the fusillade was over. Witnessing the bombardment, he penned a poem in honor of his nation’s enduring battle-standard. Put to music, that poem became “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Fort McHenry is now a well-preserved state park where history buffs can put themselves in the place of those early-19th-century defenders. In the city’s inner harbor, the U.S.S. Constellation, the last wind-powered warship commissioned by the U.S. Navy, lies at permanent anchor and is open to the public. The Fell’s Point Preservation Society offers a “Secrets of the Seaport” walking tour in addition to several other events that aim to please the history-minded traveler.
The shipbuilding trade continued to flourish in Delaware towns like Lewes, Milford and Bethel. Drawing timber from the nearby pine forests, shipwrights in Bethel were able to turn out unique sailing schooners known as “rams” at a rate of one every 90 days. Each launch was an event, and townspeople turned out to watch the wooden vessels slide into the water with a satisfying splash.
In Maryland, a small army outpost on the Severn River inlet became the United States Naval Academy. Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft chose the remote location to preserve midshipmen from the “temptations and distractions” they had faced at the previous Naval School in Philadelphia. What was once a quiet place is now the centerpiece of the thriving and beautiful city of Annapolis, which is linked to the peninsula by a high-flying marvel of modern engineering, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Industrialization brought ironclads and steamships to Delmarva, but foul weather still claimed its share of victims. Historic lighthouses dot the Delaware coast from Rehoboth Beach southward, and contemporary rescue operations are still carried out from a network of Coast Guard stations at strategic locations along the shoreline. Researchers from the University of Delaware have used modern submersibles to study known shipwrecks, and a collection of privately recovered memorabilia is on permanent display at the Discover Sea Shipwreck Museum on Fenwick Island, one of the southernmost outposts of the First State.
Industrialization has also done unintended damage to the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, which now suffer from declining fish and oyster populations due to pollution and over-harvesting. In response to a call for greater understanding of complex ecosystems, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has formed a network of leading research universities called the Sea Grant College Program. The program headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, disburses funds to the universities of Maryland and Delaware, along with dozens of other waterside schools. Students and professors now ply the waters of the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, using science to search for the proper balance between economic and environmental uses of the watershed area.
Recreational boating has become very popular as well. Annapolis is known as “America’s Sailing Capital,” hosting numerous wind-powered races and providing slips for hundreds of privately owned vessels. Visitors can board a small cruise ship and tour the area under sail, or learn the basics of the craft at the Annapolis Sailing School. Experienced sailors can set their own courses by renting a sailboat and exploring the coastal waters at a leisurely pace.
Lure of the Land
A modern traveler will find a plethora of well-preserved historical sites to visit throughout the peninsula—far too many to name in this space. For seaside recreation, one cannot go wrong with a visit to Delaware’s beaches, or a stroll around the picturesque streets of Annapolis. Sample the bounty of the sea with a seafood dinner on Baltimore’s inner harbor between historical tours, and you’ll go home satisfied.
But for those seeking the hidden gems, a visit to one of the local information centers is the best place to start. Delaware’s Visitor Center sits smack-dab in the center of the state capital of Dover, and helpful staff can help point the way to specific locations of interest. At the easternmost end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Chesapeake Exploration Center provides a historical overview of the area along with information about all that the peninsula has to offer.
The Delmarva Peninsula is certainly not as remote as it once was, but it is still the road less traveled as a vacation destination. For visitors who love the water and enjoy a close-up look at our nation’s history, this area cannot be topped.
Please consult your 2008 Woodall’s North American Campground Directory, or visit
, for a complete listing of area campgrounds.