Relics, writings paint a picture of Maryland in flux

History: At the turn of the last millennium, inhabitants experienced profound change amid climatic instability.

November 21, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance

It is a seductive thing to walk in Maryland's woods, or to canoe its rivers and marshes. You imagine the place as it must have been in the centuries before Europeans came to clear and plow, bulldoze and pave.

You can conjure up a native people who were attuned to the rhythms of the water and the seasons -- communities that thrived on natural abundance, in ways that were both changeless and invisible on the landscape.

It is a pleasing reverie. But archaeologists, geologists and others who have teased facts from the soil and sediment say the turn of the last millennium was a time of profound change. People coped with new technologies and altered lifestyles as agriculture spread through the region. Old trade patterns faded. And it all played out against a backdrop of scarce rains, frequent forest fires and rising sea levels.

In Europe, written histories survive from A.D. 1000 to tell us of the Viking voyages, Norman conquests and wars against Islam in Spain. All we know of Maryland's people at that time comes to us from the stone tools, broken ceramics and food remains that littered their camps. Archaeologists read the shapes of their homes and hamlets in faint stains left in the earth. Human burials offer information on diet, health and social conflict.

Scholars also draw from the accounts of the first Englishmen in the Chesapeake region, assuming that little changed between 1000 and 1607.

What kind of a place was it?

"Pretty similar to what it is today, perhaps a little bit warmer," says University of Maryland geologist Antonio Segovia. The Vikings were settling Greenland, though the cold would return to drive them out.

Sea levels were rising as the planet continued to rebound from the last Ice Age. But they were 10 feet lower than they are today. "The bay would have been narrower by 500 or 1,000 feet perhaps. And there would have been more islands," he says.

In the unbroken forest, leaf litter and thick soils absorbed the rainfall, filtered and slowed the runoff. The Chesapeake's rivers and creeks -- not yet clogged by sediment washing off colonists' fields -- ran deep and clear. Sunlight streamed to the bottom. Abundant bay grasses nourished and sheltered all manner of life.

When Capt. John Smith explored the bay in 1608, he observed that "in diverse places the abundance of fish lying so thick with their heads above the water as for want of our nets ... we attempted to catch them with a frying pan, but we found it is a bad instrument to catch fish with. ... " They skewered them instead with their swords.

Huge sturgeon, 200 to 300 pounds each, cruised the bay. Vast schools of shad, herring, alewives and rockfish surged upstream in their season to spawn.

In the spring and fall, the bay was alive with waterfowl, says Henry M. Miller, chief archaeologist at Historic St. Mary's City. "It was nothing like what we see today. They blackened the sky when they flew -- canvasback duck, red duck, geese, swans in huge flocks. The rivers were covered with them."

Songbirds filled the deep forests. Trees bent under the weight of vast flocks of passenger pigeons. Oysters thrived everywhere they could, and their reefs rose above the water at low tide. They filtered all of the Chesapeake's waters in three or four days.

Untapped water tables were higher, and freshwater springs bubbled from the ground throughout Central Maryland. Native Americans settled nearby, and hunted there. "The springs were ... a natural place for game to come and drink," Segovia says.

But this was not a static Eden. Johns Hopkins University geographer Grace S. Brush says Maryland's coastal plain in A.D. 1000 was entering a dry period that would last a century or more.

Pollen in sediment cores pulled from the Nanticoke, Patuxent and Magothy rivers reveals moisture-loving walnut, sweet gum and black gum trees were being replaced by pines, oaks and hollies, which thrive with less rain. Charcoal in the cores tell of more frequent forest fires -- too many to be blamed on a human population so small it might have fit into Baltimore's 69,400-seat PSINet Stadium.

The forest dominated the land, and its fragrance wafted far out to sea. William Strachey, approaching the Chesapeake in 1610, wrote that "about midnight, we had a marvelous sweet smell from the shore, as from the coast of Spain short of the Straits, strong and pleasant, which did not a little glad us."

The coastal plain was dominated by pines, with an understory of hollies. The uplands were covered by oak, hickory, chestnut, maples, with hemlocks at higher altitudes. The tree cover was broken only where thwarted by thin soils, fires or river flooding.

This was an old-growth forest we would not recognize. "The woods we see today are dominated by underbrush because they have been cut over so many times," says Robert D. Wall, professor of anthropology and archaeology at Towson University.

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