Exploring 400 years of American history on a Chesapeake Bay cruise

“This is a noble sea … calm and welcoming, majestic in size.”

These are the imagined words of Captain John Smith, who led two expeditions on the Chesapeake in the American Southeast in search of gold and silver back in the early 1600s.

Neither did, but he did discover the massive body of water that inspired James Michener’s 1978 novel Chesapeake, 1,132 pages of historical fiction that takes you on a roller-coaster ride through 400 years of American history.

Known as a bay or estuary in the US, the Chesapeake flows south from Havre de Grace, Maryland, just north of Baltimore, emptying 200 miles later into the Atlantic at Norfolk, Virginia.

It’s as wide as you can get at sea and has seen many important events in American history, but it’s relatively unknown in the UK.

Not for me, though. After reading the book over and over, the real-life estuary became like a pen pal I wanted to meet – a much-loved book in hand, like a water-based Portillo.

It was just a trip from Washington DC to Norfolk and back with American Cruise Lines – with the added bonus of throwing the whole history hog into the American Revolution theme.

The American Constitution

The 10-night American Revolution cruise departs from Washington DC, calling at Annapolis, St Michaels, Cambridge, Norfolk and Yorktown – American Cruise Lines

The book opens in 1583 with Pentaquod, a Susquehanna Native American, escaping his tribe to find a new life on the Chesapeake. It then goes on to the voyages of Captain Smith, before following the fortunes of the three families – the Catholic planter and slave Steeds, the boat-building Paxmores and the marsh-loving Turlocks – who made their home on the banks of the Choptank, the river Foth. into the Chesapeake.

Captain Smith, George Washington, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay were there, as were several others who appear in the book – but Michener says most of the characters are fictional, as are many places. Perhaps so, but my suspicion is that they were based on real people and events.

Michener’s character, Eden Cater, was clearly inspired by Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who risked her life on the underground railroad, finding other slaves from the north. I also learned that men actually employed themselves as slaves, and that watermen died in oyster wars between the states – both issues that come up in the book.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman at the Maryland Tourist OfficePortrait of Harriet Tubman at the Maryland Tourist Office

Portrait of Harriet Tubman at the Maryland Office of Tourism – @nicolecaraciaphotography

Likewise, Catholics who fled to the New World to escape religious persecution in England found themselves unwelcome in Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the US. In the book, Catholic Edmund leaves Jamestown and moves to a more tolerant island in Maryland, which was actually owned by Lord Baltimore.

My guide, John, explained how he became the owner of a distant land he had never set foot on as we walked around Athnapolis. Lord Baltimore wanted land in the New World briefly, he said simply, and King Charles I gave it to him.

In the old colonial town – small, with a very nice harbor – it was George Washington, who was expected to rule the new United States after winning the war, resigned from his military commission in 1783, establishing the power of civil authority on the army. “This is where our democracy was born,” said Seán.

Every day was a wonderful event in history – even in Cambridge, a town across the Choptank from the fictional Patamoke, where I took a bike ride into the Blackwater Sanctuary in search of the marshes where Michener’s cunning Turlocks lived with their wives and children until enough, hiding from authority and shooting geese. I found the marshes, and I saw wildlife, but I also met Susan, a descendant of the Nanticoke tribe who came into contact with Europeans during Captain Smith’s expedition.

Jane with Blackwater Refuge cycling guide SusanJane with Blackwater Refuge cycling guide Susan

Jane by Blackwater Refuge Bike Guide Susan – Jane Archer

This was pure gold for my quest, as was St Michaels, a town with clapboard houses that was certainly the inspiration for Patamoke, the fictional settlement at the heart of Michener’s book.

Like Patamoke, it was surrounded by forest 300 years ago, the site of a large shipbuilding industry – and a key target for the British during the War of Independence and the War of 1812. Local legend has it that, one night in 1813, residents were told that to turn off some lights and string lanterns along the trees so that the attacking British gunships would aim too high. Apocryphal I’m sure, but it must have captured Michener’s imagination: in the book, Paxmore saves his shipyard by tricking the British into burning a “dummy”.

Boarding houses in St MichaelsBoarding houses in St Michaels

Clapboard houses in St Michaels – Jane Archer

And the links kept coming. In the book, Julia, a descendant of the slave Cudjo, works in a crab picking factory in Patamoke – so I was delighted when our guide Kathy told us that we were stuck at a crab picking factory, one of the first Afro . -American enterprises in the area.

The site is now a maritime museum where I came across an exhibition devoted to skippers, a shallow draft sailboat for “drudging arsters” – waterman speak for “dredging oysters”, used in Michele’s writing. It’s hard, cold work, but the molluscs and blue crabs are still extremely important to the economy of the Chesapeake’s eastern shore.

Next to the museum, I came across a replica of the sloop – essentially an oversized rowboat – in which Captain Smith and 12 men explored the Chesapeake in June 1608. It was an eye-opening sight, especially against the backdrop of the bay’s shale , white-tipped waves.

The same was true of replicas of the three boats in which the first English settlers set sail across the Atlantic in 1606. Displayed in Jamestown – an open-air museum near Yorktown – the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery looked completely inadequate to do any sailing. ocean, not to mention the Atlantic in winter. But somehow, they made it across.

Replica of the Susan Constant sailing ship brought by English settlers to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607Replica of the Susan Constant sailing ship brought by English settlers to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607

Replica of the sailing ship Susan Constant that brought English settlers to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 – Coast to Coast

It was all downhill from there, though. Carrying 104 settlers between them, they arrived in May 1607, finding marches and mosquitoes. A year later, only 38 remained alive. Early English settlers arrived – increasing numbers to 500 – but when the settlement was besieged by Native Americans in 1609, a severe famine set in, and by the time it was over, only 60 settlers remained.

Of course, in the end, their fortunes changed – and just 173 years later, the descendants of these settlers were gaining their independence from a country that had not lost a war for 700 years. Just like the book, my journey of discovery was a whirlwind ride through one of the most turbulent but fascinating periods in American history – and now, when I scan the words of this longtime friend, my mind fills with images. theirs. real world inspiration.


Jane Archer was a guest of American Cruise Lines and Fred Holidays.

American Cruise Lines has a 10-night American Revolution cruise, round trip from Washington DC, calling at Annapolis, St. Michaels, Cambridge, Norfolk and Yorktown.

ACL’s preferred partner in the UK is Fred Holidays (0800 021 3172), with prices from £6,299pp (aboard the traditional American Constitution, which seats 170 passengers) and £7,299pp (aboard American Glory, a 100-passenger catamaran -passenger), including flights, transfers, one night pre-cruise in Washington, all meals, beverages, tips and select tours.

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