Exploration and Settlement: The 1600s

Introduction: “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation,” wrote Captain John Smith of the Eastern Shore, as he explored the Bay and its inlets "fit for harbor and habitation." In 1608, Smith explored the Sassafras River, landing at a Tockwogh village near present-day Rock Hall. Twenty-six years later, Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, sent the ships Ark and Dove to establish the colony of Maryland at St. Mary’s City, envisioning a society based on religious freedom. Kent County was officially founded in 1642, and the earliest land patents were granted on Eastern Neck, Grays Inn Creek and Langford Creek, to men such as Thomas Ringgold, Thomas South, Thomas Hynson, and Joseph Wickes. The first court was held in the home of Joseph Wickes on Eastern Neck, and the first courthouse erected in the town of New Yarmouth in 1679.

Establishment of Maryland and Kent County: People first arrived on the Eastern Shore about 12,000 years ago, shortly after melting glaciers from the last Ice Age flooded the ancient Susquehanna River valley to form the Chesapeake Bay. Using the Chesapeake’s vast watershed as a liquid highway, they hunted a variety of mammals and waterfowl; caught sturgeon, bass, shad and herring; harvested oysters, clams and mussels; gathered nuts, berries, and tuckahoe (arrow arum); and developed an extensive network of trade thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. 

When Captain John Smith explored the Sassafras in 1608, he visited a palisaded Tockwogh village along its banks, possibly at Turner's Creek. The Tockwoghs, and the Ozinies, who lived near present day Rock Hall, were among the Algonquin-speaking peoples of the Peninsula. In addition to living off the abundant natural resources, they had begun to practice agriculture sometime around 800 BC, cultivating the three sisters of Native American farming, corn, beans and squash, along with the crop that would change their destiny: tobacco. 

The first English settlement in Maryland was established in 1631 by William Claibourne on Kent Island, a site perfectly suited for trade with the Native Americans. Cecilius Calvert, the Second Lord Baltimore, studied Smith's writings before he sent the Ark and the Dove in 1634 to establish a colony on land granted to him by the King at what is now St. Mary's City. Kent Island was within the Calvert proprietorship, and became "Kent County" in 1642. The Calverts and Claibourne soon became embroiled in a decades long clash over its ownership, fueled both by political upheavals in England during the reign of the Catholic-leaning Charles I, and by Virginia's support of Claibourne. Lord Baltimore's claim held. 

The Land Grant System: The Maryland proprietary system offered generous land grants to settlers in exchange for a fee. Usually adults were granted 100 acres. Those who transported more than five men were granted 1000 acres and the right to name their estate. Some of those names still exist today in Kent County. The Proprietary tenets of religious freedom also enticed some Quakers to move here to escape the more rigid rules of Virginia.

Settlers who survived were "seasoned" by the malarial swamps, heat and humidity. The Kent Island population slowly expanded, and in the 1650's, Thomas Ringgold, Thomas South, Thomas Hynson and Joseph Wickes were the first to move across the Kent Narrows and up the Chester River. Patents were granted on Eastern Neck, Grays Inn Creek, and Langford Creek. Henry Morgan, a former indentured servant who had been named county sheriff, received land north to Morgans Creek (now Morgnec). The formation of present day Kent County had begun.

Early Settlers: In 1675, The town of New Yarmouth was laid by Samuel Tovey and James Ringgold at the mouth of Gray's Inn Creek. A courthouse was erected, along with mills, a church (St. Peter's, now gone), taverns and, in response to pressure from the Maryland Assembly, a port. They wanted to establish central shipping points where they could control trade and levy duties.

Chesapeake settlements revolved around plantation life, rather than towns. Farms became hives of activity, cultivating tobacco and food crops; making barrels, ropes and cloth; loading and unloading cargo shipped directly abroad from their own wharves. Water was the main source of transportation, although roads began to replace paths between plantations in the 1670's, and ferries and bridges were built at the river crossings.

Indentured servants, bound to service to work off a debt or in exchange for transportation to America, made up the bulk of labor through the 1600's for the tobacco based economy. Many came to realize their dream of landownership and some, like Henry Morgan, a place in society. By the late 1600's Africans, captured and enslaved, were being imported in increasing numbers; later, a free black population would slowly begin to emerge.

As the 17th century drew to a close, shifting political boundaries and tobacco markets eventually led to the abandonment of New Yarmouth. But the tough, enterprising little Kent County had begun a diversification of crops and trade that would place it as a center of economy and culture in the Colonial world.

Copyright Historical Society of Kent County
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