History of Kent Island
written by Jennifer Gayman Ruffner
KENT ISLAND IS THE LARGEST ISLAND in the Chesapeake Bay and was the location of the first European settlement in what is now Maryland. From its earliest inhabitants to its present-day status as the gateway to the Eastern Shore, Kent Island has played a vital role in the history of Maryland.
The Matapeake Indians
Kent Island has been inhabited for nearly 12,000 years. The more recent native populations belonged to the Matapeake tribe and were members of the Algonquin nation. The Matapeakes called Kent Island "Monoponson." They lived relatively peaceful lives, hunting, gathering, fishing, and planting. They experienced attacks from the warlike Susquehannocks, who periodically traveled from the north to raid the areas surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. The early native settlements were probably located on the southeastern side of the island, but as European settlers arrived, the tribe shifted north. The Europeans brought disease, conflict, and infringed on the lands used by the Indians for hunting, gathering, and cultivation. The tribe eventually disappeared from the island as more and more Europeans arrived.
The Claiborne Settlement
The first permanent European settlement in what is now Maryland was established on Kent Island in 1631 by William Claiborne. Claiborne was the official surveyor of the Jamestown colony and was appointed Secretary of State for Virginia. He received permission in 1627 from the governor of Virginia to explore the Chesapeake and investigate trade opportunities with the Indians. Claiborne selected Kent Island (named after his home in Kent, England) as his base for trade with the Susquehannocks, from whom he purchased the island for "truck" worth twelve pounds sterling, or about the annual wages of two farm workers. "Truck" was the term used for items brought specifically for trade with the Indians, including axes, knives, combs, bells, beads and woolen cloth. The Europeans traded truck for furs, particularly beaver, and corn.
By 1631, Claiborne and a group of men had settled on the island, built a fort on the southern tip, and established a trading post. The fort was known as Fort Kent. A fire destroyed the fort in the winter of 1631-32, but the settlement quickly recovered. By 1634 a palisade, or wooden wall, enclosed a community that included a trading station, grist mill, and courthouse. Claiborne built a private residence and fort at Craney Creek which was called Fort Crayford. The settlers grew tobacco, built small boats, and manufactured wooden barrels. They utilized nearby Poplar Island for grazing hogs and growing crops. By 1638 the population of the settlement included 120 Englishmen, plus women and children.
In 1632, the Calvert family was granted a charter by King Charles I to establish a colony in Maryland. The Calverts claimed that Kent Island, which was a lucrative trading post, was included in that land grant. Claiborne disputed that claim, declaring Kent Island was part of Virginia. The two groups clashed in a series of naval battles in 1635. When Claiborne returned to England on business, Calvert forces seized the island in 1638. After an unsuccessful legal battle, Claiborne and his family returned to Virginia, and Kent Island was eventually settled as part of Maryland.
Settlement and Expansion
The earliest settlements on the island consisted mainly of land grants that were originally conferred by Claiborne, and later re-issued by Lord Baltimore. The island was first known as Kent Hundred of St. Mary's County, and in 1642 was established as Kent County. In 1695, Kent Island was made part of Talbot County, and finally in 1706 became part of the newly formed Queen Anne's County.
The first and only town in the colonial period on Kent Island was at Broad Creek, which was in existence by the mid-1600s. Broad Creek boasted a ferry landing for the first ferry to cross the Chesapeake Bay, a courthouse, a jail, a tavern, and a church. The church was the Anglican Christ Church, one of the earliest congregations in the state of Maryland. The town of Broad Creek was in existence until the mid-1800s.
Natural population growth and new transportation routes increased the population of Kent Island in the nineteenth century. As new ferry routes, such as the Annapolis-Rock Hall ferry, the Annapolis-Matapeake ferry, and the Baltimore-Love Point ferry were established, the population shifted from the Broad Creek area. New settlements at Stevensville, Dominion and Chester reflected the shift to steamboat and railroad transportation for both people and goods, as well as the expanding seafood industry.
In 1952 the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, officially named the William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge, was built, linking Kent Island to the Western Shore. The bridge immediately opened the island to new development and a rapid influx of new settlement. A band of gas stations, restaurants, and other businesses developed along Route 50/301 as it crossed the island. A second span of the bridge was built in 1973 to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic traveling from the Western Shore to the ocean-side resorts.
Kent Island's economy expanded in its earliest days from its initial role as a trading post to the extensive cultivation of tobacco and corn. Tobacco farming, however, ended by the early nineteenth century. The island's farming went into decline because of the depletion of the soil from the nutrient-intensive tobacco and lack of crop rotation. As the soil recovered, farming returned. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, farmers grew crops ranging from corn and wheat to berries and melons. Also, many of the island's inhabitants were watermen, who worked the Chesapeake Bay as part of the expanding seafood industry.
Today Kent Island is often regarded as a bedroom community to Annapolis, with the Bay Bridge providing quick access to the Western Shore. It is also a haven for recreational boaters and vacationers, with an abundance of marinas, seafood restaurants, and nature trails.
The Kent Narrows
The Kent Narrows is the strait that separates Kent Island from the mainland of Queen Anne's County and the Eastern Shore. Known as the "Wading Place" in colonial times, this waterway was once quite shallow, with marshland on either side. A ferry once carried passengers across. In 1826 an earthen causeway, or raised road across marshland or water, was built, and it closed the Narrows to all boat traffic. In 1876 the causeway was removed and a new, deeper channel was dredged. Also, a series of bridges have connected the Island to the mainland, including several railroad bridges, and drawbridges. Today two bridges, the lower drawbridge and the higher Route 50/301 bridge, cross the Narrows.
The Narrows was once the heart of the seafood industry, with 12 packinghouses in operation along its waters. In its heyday in the latter half of the twentieth century, hundreds of boats arrived daily to deliver their catch to the seafood houses. Today only two packinghouses remain, but the Narrows still boasts numerous seafood restaurants. The waterway is regularly dredged to prevent it from silting closed.
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