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Eastern Shore

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The long eastern Chesapeake coastline stretching from Cecil County at the mouth of the Susquehanna River south to the Atlantic Ocean inlet at Worcester County is collectively known as the Eastern Shore. This region encompasses nine Maryland counties—Cecil, Kent, Caroline, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset, and Worcester—occupying the sizable Maryland portion of the Delmarva Peninsula that includes Delaware and a small piece of Virginia. Rich maritime resources of fish and shellfish supported native tribes in this region for thousands of years before the arrival of the first European settlers, with rivers and creeks still bearing their tribal names. Woodland-period peoples established a variety of seasonal encampments tied to gathering, harvesting, and processing various foodstuffs, as well as more permanent villages characterized by the development of an agricultural economy supplemented by hunting and fishing.

European immigrants to the Maryland colony were attracted to the same geographically advantageous locations as Native Americans. Starting in the early seventeenth century with the expeditions of Captain John Smith to expand his holdings in Virginia, European colonists established communities along this Maryland coastline, as well as across the Chesapeake Bay on the Western Shore. Given the prominence of the Chesapeake and its many river tributaries for early transportation, commerce revolved around seventeenth- and eighteenth-century port towns, such as Charlestown, Chestertown, Easton, Cambridge, Princess Anne, and Snow Hill. Regular freight and passenger sailing ships and then steamboat service remained a primary means of transport on the Eastern Shore into the twentieth century.

Culturally and geographically part of the Tidewater region, the Eastern Shore thrived economically in the colonial era, with fertile soil for growing tobacco and other crops and ready access to the Bay’s resources. Granaries and flour milling were also important endeavors after the early shift from the dominance of tobacco farming with enslaved labor to a more diversified rural economy. Less labor-intensive grain production also led to a relatively large free Black population by the early nineteenth century. Despite this shift and the presence of free Black communities, slavery-based agriculture continued to impact economic life on the Eastern Shore prior to the Civil War. Abolitionist Quakers and Methodists, allied with the free Black community and aided by the bold actions of former enslaved people such as Harriet Tubman, fueled the Underground Railroad across this region. While Maryland remained with the Union during the Civil War, many white residents, especially in the counties around the Bay, were pro-slavery and sympathized with the Confederacy. Governor Thomas Hicks, from Dorchester County, embodied this complexity when he prevented secession in 1861 despite his previous support for slavery.

Industrialization arrived later to the Eastern Shore than other parts of Maryland and often took the form of processing and packaging the seafood, fruits, and vegetables abundantly produced in the region. Most railroad development occurred in the post—Civil War decades and was linked to the expansion of canneries and other industry in cities such as Elkton, Easton, Cambridge, Salisbury, and Crisfield, undertaken by a largely African American workforce. Although Eastern Shore communities have suffered from twentieth-century deindustrialization like their counterparts in other areas of the state, their quintessential blue-collar worker is the waterman, who likewise has seen difficult economic conditions in recent decades. Environmental reform has been gradually improving the conditions in the Chesapeake, but ongoing pollution problems and the impact of climate change threaten a landscape and a way of life built on crabbing, fishing, and oystering.

Historically racially segregated and generally conservative in politics and culture, the Eastern Shore embraced its separation from the rest of the state. Communities such as Smith Island off the coast of Somerset County still maintain dialects and folkways that can be traced back to the earliest English colonists. The natural beauty and remoteness attracted visitors and pleasure boaters, with many of the distinguished early manor houses surviving into the twentieth century as country estates for wealthy residents of Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia. For visitors of more modest means, popular resort destinations such as Betterton, Whitehaven, and Ocean City were accessible through steamboat and railroad excursions and offered a variety of amusements. The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 connecting Eastern and Western shores transformed this region and its relationship to the rest of the state. Now easily accessible via automobile, the closer counties are viable as bedroom communities for commuters working on the other side of the Bay. Tourists flock to the Atlantic Coast, often bypassing the bayside resorts of an earlier era, aided by the extension of U.S. Route 50 all the way to Ocean City.

Writing Credits

Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Catherine C. Lavoie

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