Chesapeake Bay’s bounty of fish and shellfish amazed and delighted early travelers. Oysters were first among the bay’s wonders, described as “very large and delicate in taste” and thriving in “whole banks and beds.”
Out of the shell, oysters quickly go bad. Until the 1800s, most Chesapeake oysters were harvested for local consumption. By the mid-1800s, shucked oysters could be packed in ice or canned for shipment to distant markets. As American cities grew, demand for oysters surged, and Chesapeake oysters found ready markets in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, and points west.
From its headwaters in New York State to its mouth near Norfolk, Virginia, the Chesapeake watershed covers some 64,000 square miles. Fresh water from many tidal rivers, including the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James, mixes with the salty Atlantic around Norfolk to produce the largest and most productive estuary in the country.