Even before Captain John Smith’s accounts of a “pristine” Chesapeake, Native Americans were
leaving their mark by fishing and harvesting oysters.
©TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
he “good ole days” inspire us to improve the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. We want to bring them
back to that magical state from our youth when we caught soft crabs in thick underwater grass beds and
clear water. Although these memories give us a frame of reference, they are what scientists call “shifting baselines” ( www.shiftingbaselines.org). The “pristine” Bay we saw in our youth was dramatically changed from what our
grandparents saw, as was theirs from earlier generations.
In our State of the Bay report, we grade the Bay against how it was in Captain John Smith’s day. Accounts of early
colonists like Jamestown’s Captain Christopher Newport describe a rich Chesapeake with “multitudes of fish, banks
of oysters, and many great crabs.”
Delving a little deeper suggests human impacts had occurred well before Europeans arrived. Massive oyster shell
piles called “middens” may be the most obvious sign that American Indians influenced this coast. Using archeological and other findings, scientists conclude that changes occurred as early as the late aboriginal period. So, even the
Captains’ baselines may have been conservative about the Bay’s potential.