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Image The Chesapeake Environment

English folkways were not the only determinant of Virginia’s culture. Another factor was the American environment. New England and Virginia were very different in their physical setting—more so than the distance between them would lead one to expect. Jamestown and Boston were separated by only five degrees of latitude (300 nautical miles). But they were much farther apart in their climate and geography.

The dominant feature of Virginia’s environment was the Chesapeake Bay, always known to natives as the Bay. In ecological terms the Bay is an estuary, where fresh and salt water meet in a marine environment of exceptional fertility. The light of the sun reaches down through warm and shallow waters, rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, to nourish large populations of bacteria and plankton. The sandy bottom of the Bay is choked with eelgrass, sea lettuce and wild celery which support a great chain of marine life, culminating in the striped bass and shellfish that are an epicure’s delight. For English colonists who settled on its shoreline, the teeming waters of the Bay held immense riches—and fatal dangers.

The surface of the Bay is a vast sheet of water, 200 miles long, 4 to 30 miles wide, and open throughout its length to oceangoing vessels. “No country can compare with it,” wrote Hugh Jones, for “number of navigable rivers, creeks and inlets.”1 The Bay is fed by hundreds of streams and forty-eight navigable rivers, some of immense size. The James River is larger than London’s Thames; the Potomac is longer than the Seine. The Bay and its tributaries hold many dangers for unwary navigators—treacherous shoals, shifting sandbanks, coastlines that rise and fall without warning, disastrous worms which can devour a ship’s wooden bottom. But with care, a colonial captain could sail where he pleased in this vast waterway and find good anchorages for the largest vessel. Virginia planter Robert Beverley wrote that ocean-going ships could anchor directly “before that gentleman’s door where they find the best reception, or where ’tis most suitable to their Business.” Maryland’s Dr. Charles Carroll observed that “planters can deliver their own commodities at their own back doors.”

This fact led one visitor in the seventeenth century to predict that the Chesapeake would become “like the Netherlands, the richest place in all America.”2

This watery maze of rivers and streams created vast tracts of rich alluvial soil. The best land was quickly appropriated by Governor Berkeley’s Royalist elite for their large plantations. “Gentlemen and planters love to build near the water,” wrote Hugh Jones, “though it be not so healthy as the uplands and barrens.”3 When William Hugh Grove sailed into the York River in 1732, he observed that it was “thick seated with gentry on its banks … the prospect of river render them very pleasant [and] equal to the Thames from London to Richmond, supposing the towns omitted.”4

The “omission of towns” was encouraged by the structure of the Bay and its rivers. Their 6,000 miles of shoreline created an opportunity for dispersed settlement that did not exist in other environments. The people of the Bay were able to scatter themselves through a vast amphibious territory. Robert Beverley wrote that all the colonists on the Bay had “fallen into the same unhappy form of settlements, altogether upon country seats without towns.”5

The shape of the terrain differs on the two sides of the Bay. On the eastern shore it tends to be as flat as a billiard table. The western shore is a more varied and rolling countryside that falls to the water’s edge in gentle undulations. Captain John Smith accurately described it as a succession of “pleasant plain hills and fertile valleys, one prettily crossing another, and watered so conveniently with their sweet brooks and crystal springs, as if art itself had devised them.” When cleared and cultivated, the western shore took on a quiet, pastoral beauty that reminded homesick colonists of southern and western England.6

Between the rivers were ridges or “necks” that tended to be thin and barren land. Here poor whites pitched their small houses and scratched out a miserable living from the earth. Upland soil sold for as little as five shillings an acre in the eighteenth


century. The price of rich bottom land was five pounds an acre—twenty times as much.7

The best river land was immensely fertile, and there was a great deal of it—vast tracts of virgin soil, which natives and visitors alike uniformly praised for its “extreme fruitfulness.” It was farmed by primitive methods of husbandry, producing large yields until the late eighteenth century.

When Virginia was young, the tidewater was a lush, green country. “The whole country is a perfect forest,” wrote Hugh Jones in 1724, “except where the woods are cleared for plantations, and old fields, and where have been formerly Indian towns.” By the mid-eighteenth century more of the tidewater was cleared than today. The countryside around Williamsburg was described by the German traveller Johann Schoepf in 1784 as “a pleasant open plain.” But he characterized the colony in general as an “eternal woods,” broken by dense swamps and grassy uplands which the planters called “savannahs” or “barrens.”8

The Chesapeake woodlands were magnificent stands of ancient trees, soaring “thirty, forty, fifty, some even sixty or seventy feet high without a branch or limb.” There were towering tulip trees with gaudy yellow-orange flowers, and aromatic sweet gums with delicate star-shaped leaves, and majestic white oaks as much as five hundred years old. The variety of trees was astounding—as many as fifty varieties of oak alone. The swamps were dense with cypress and cedar; and the uplands were covered with sassafras and chinkapin.9 Wild fruit trees flourished in profusion; among them, many wild plums and cherries (“the most delicious cherry in the world,” wrote Robert Beverley); and persimmons which could be made into “an agreeable kind of beer.” The open fields were choked with currants, raspberries, and delicate wild strawberries “so plentiful that few persons take care to transplant them, but can find enough to fill their baskets.”10

To its first English colonists, the Chesapeake country appeared another Eden, demi-paradise. Captain John Smith thought that “heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”11 It would have been so, were it not for one terrible defect. To colonists from northern Europe, the Chesapeake proved to be desperately unhealthy. The best lands on the water’s edge became death traps in the summer and fall.

The climate of the Chesapeake in the seventeenth century was nearly as warm as in the twentieth. Such was the pattern of circulation in the “little ice age” that temperatures were about the same as today throughout the southern colonies while New England was colder. “The natural temperature of the inhabited part of the country, is hot and moist,” observed Robert Beverley of Virginia. “The summer is as hot as Spain; the winter cold as in France or England,” wrote Captain John Smith. The scientific traveler Johann Schoepf observed in the eighteenth century that “the Fahrenheit thermometer often stands at 80-90-95 degrees.”12

This warm climate gave tidewater Virginia an asset in the length of its growing season, which was 210 days between heavy frosts—two months longer than in New England. But it also brought a liability in the relation between climate and disease. As the temperature rose, so did the death rate.

One part of the problem rose from the Bay itself. Fecal pollutants washed into swamps and stagnant pools. The estuary itself became an ideal breeding ground for typhoid fever and amoebic dysentery, trapping deadly organisms which ravaged the sickly population in the summer months. The “dying time” came mostly in the summer and early fall, when “fevers” took a heavy toll of young life. Every year this mortal season lasted much longer in Virginia than in New England.13

Another part of the problem was malaria. The tidewater was a perfect nursery for mosquitos. In the hot summers Robert Beverley wrote that “musketaes are a sort of vermin, of less danger [than others] but much more troublesome, because more frequent.”14Malaria parasites were introduced at an early date by immigrants from Europe and Africa—first the comparatively mild Plasmodium vivax from southern England; then the more dangerous Plasmodium falciparum by which Africa had its revenge for the slave trade.P. vivax was a great debilitator; P. falciparum was a killer. Particularly at risk were pregnant women, infants, small children, new immigrants and the chronically ill.15

Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, enteritis and other diseases took a terrific toll in that part of tidewater Virginia where the soil was richest, and where gentlemen liked to build their seats. A French visitor observed that the sallow faces of people in tidewater Gloucester County, “looked so sickly that I judged the neighborhood to be unhealthy.” On higher ground in Rappahannock and Stafford counties, he remarked that complexions were “clear and lively.”16

The heat and humidity of the tidewater, and its endemic summer diseases had other social consequences. Travelers and natives both remarked on the “idleness,” “indolence” and “sluggishness” of the Virginians, as well as their irritability and quick tempers. Geographer Carville Earle has pointed out the similarity between this behavior and the symptoms of endemic diseases in the tidewater.17

The environment of the Chesapeake combined with the culture of Sir William Berkeley’s Royalist elite to create the folkways of Virginia. The rich resources of the region supported a strong agricultural regime. But heavy mortality among European colonists disrupted nuclear households and discouraged immigration from Europe. Virginia’s unique folkways emerged from the interplay of English culture and an American environment.

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