People and Culture

Humans have occupied the Chesapeake Bay region for at least 12,000 years. No one knows when the first humans arrived here, but archeologists have found evidence of Paleoindian presence from 11,500 years ago.

During this time, the climate slowly warmed, and the landscape’s glacial ice sheets and conifer forests turned into hardwood forests and coastal wetlands. Paleoindians modified their hunting methods accordingly, replacing Clovis points with spear-throwing devices that could be launched over expansive terrain. Between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago, melting ice sheets and glaciers flooded the Susquehanna, Potomac, James and York rivers, pouring water into the Atlantic Ocean, causing sea levels to rise and giving form to the modern outline of the Bay.

Two-thousand years ago, the Bay was dominated by oysters, clams and fish, which became an increasingly important food source for the watershed’s inhabitants. Later, American Indians cleared forests to grow crops that included corn, squash, beans and tobacco.

European explorers arrived in the watershed in the 1500s, and European colonies began to take hold after Jamestown was founded in 1607. Colonists also cleared land for agriculture and used the hook-and-line method to catch fish in the Bay’s shallow waters. By 1750, colonists had stripped 20 to 30 percent of the region’s forests for their settlements. Commercial fisheries began, and the land began to show signs of environmental degradation. With this increase in human population came landscape changes that, in turn, changed the culture of the people in the watershed.


American Indians

Native inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay watershed developed a rich cultural history that was linked to the continuously changing landscape and waters of the region.

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From the 1972 signing of the Clean Water Act to the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, government regulation has been an important piece of Bay restoration and conservation.

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John Smith and Colonial Times

During the time of Captain John Smith’s expeditions to the Chesapeake Bay, England was establishing early colonies that brought both war and disease to the region’s American Indians.

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The Chesapeake region’s rapid population growth has raised concern over whether the watershed can continue to sustain the plants, animals and people that live here.

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