Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

Historical Context: The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Population


Students gain a sense of the extraordinary biodiversity and productivity of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem by reading short excerpts from the writings of early explorers. After answering a few brief questions and self-grading a four-question quiz, they realize that things have changed drastically during the past 400 years. [Lesson time: 35-40 minutes]


1. To use and recognize the value of historical texts as a source of qualitative data. 2. To visualize and gain an understanding of the extraordinary productivity of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and its oyster population prior to the modern period. 3. To compare the current decline in the Bay's biodiversity and collapse of oyster populations to historical conditions.

Lesson Materials: 

Student Handout: Observations from Early Explorers to the Chesapeake Bay
Student Handout: Text Questions and Four-Question Quiz
Optional Resource: An excellent map showing the routes of Smith's Chesapeake Bay explorations appears in the June 2005 issue of National Geographic magazine–consider using as a supplementary resource.


1.  Explain to students that they will read a short excerpt from the writings of early explorers to the Chesapeake Bay region. Warn them that these may be a little difficult to read because the writing is 400 years old and language changes over time. Urge them not to worry about words they don't understand, but to just try and get a general feeling about what the Chesapeake Bay was like at that time.
2.  Distribute a class set of "Observations of Early Explorers to the Chesapeake Bay" and allow students about 10 minutes to read independently.
3.  Next, ask students to briefly summarize their understanding by responding to a few basic questions about the text. Hand out a copy of the "Text Questions and Four-Question Quiz" to each student. Allow about 10 additional minutes.
4.  Review with the class their answers to the text questions and allow them modify or improve their responses as necessary.
5.  Next, ask them to quickly compete the four-question quiz. [10 minutes].
6.  Finally, ask students to self-check their quiz. Query the class about their responses for each question, but DO NOT settle on a definitive answer. Try to move on with an "okay" and continue through to all four question. Most students will have responded to all questions as TRUE.
7.  Then calmly explain that the answer to all four questions is FALSE.
8.  After much protest and consternation, you explain that much of Bay's ecosystem has been logged and developed; there are no more bear, otter, or mink; dozens of fish species are extinct; and 99 percent of the oyster population has died out. Reinforce the notion that the Bay has changed drastically since Captain Smith first recorded his observations.

Alternative Engagement Activities: (a) video, "Chesapeake Borne" (54 minutes), (b) website, "Virtual Jamestown",, or (c) literature, The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, by John R. Wennersten.


1. The text for Captain John Smith's The General Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624) has been excerpted and adapted from:
2. Additional information about Francis Louis Michel's 1701 writings and other early accounts of the Chesapeake Bay can be found at: and
3. "John Smith's Expeditions (National Geographic Maps)." National Geographic, June 2005: 48-49.
4. "Chesapeake Borne" (1985; 54 min., VHS). The delicate balance of the nation's largest estuary is threatened by human encroachment. Produced by WQED/Pittsburgh and the National Geographic Society. Contact--National Geographic Society, TV Section, Education Services Dept., 17th & M St., Washington, DC 20036.
5. The website "Virtual Jamestown" is available at
6. Wennersten, John R. The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay. Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishing, 1981. (159pp: ISBN 0-87033-263-5)


Maryland State Standards: 


The student will describe trends revealed by data.


The student will demonstrate the ability to summarize data (measurements/observations).


The student will investigate how natural and man-made changes in environmental conditions will affect individual organisms and the dynamics of populations.