Nanta-What? NantiCOKE? Oh, yeah, I think that’s the name of that river we cross on the high bridge halfway between Cambridge and Salisbury. Never took much notice of it. Why should we?
Rivers mark time in millennia. At that scale, the Nanticoke has held to its current course for roughly three of them. In that time, how many bald eagles and ospreys has it seen? How many Atlantic sturgeon have made spawning runs up its mainstem and its largest tributary, Marshyhope Creek? How many tons of wild rice have its marshes grown? How many migratory ducks, Canada geese, and tundra swans have those marshes attracted for the winters? How many river otters and muskrats have thrived in them? How many indigenous people lived along its thickly-wooded banks before Captain John Smith and his crew came exploring in June of 1608? (Some of them still do.) And how many schooners have local shipyards launched into these waters since then? Contemplate those and other river stories, like the annual springtime striped bass runs and golden fall blooms of tickseed sunflower as you explore this beautiful waterway. Read about them first, even scout the river virtually using Chesapeake Conservancy’s Terrain360 Nanticoke tour, then watch closely and listen when you visit in your boat of choice.
A view of the Nanticoke River looking southwest shows wetlands just north of Nanticoke Wildlife Management Area in Wicomico County, Md., on June 18, 2010. The area is part of the 16,000-acre Nanticoke Unit of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program
Despite quite a lot of commerce over the past two hundred years, much of the Nanticoke still looks the way it always has, and thanks to many partners, it will stay that way. They include the United States Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program (REPI), the states of Maryland and Delaware, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Mt. Cuba Center, Lower Shore Land Trust, Sussex County Land Trust, Nanticoke River Watershed Conservancy, and Chesapeake Conservancy. Together, this partnership has helped conserve 3,486 acres in 24 projects across the river corridor linking Vienna, Maryland, to Seaford, Delaware. These 21 projects join previously conserved properties, creating a remarkable total of 19,300 acres in the Nanticoke River watershed. Especially important among those acres are multiple large tracts of old-growth timber, including loblolly pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, and other native hardwoods.
For the peoples of this region, the river and the Bay have always served as infrastructure, just as they have for sturgeon, striped bass, shad, herring, and more. When Capt. Smith visited, the Nanticoke chief told him of a great people who lived on a wide water to the north. They knew of these people through travel: trading down the river and up the Chesapeake. Smith, looking for the fabled Northwest Passage to the Orient, immediately headed north and found the Susquehannock people on their big river, but no passage to India. After Smith’s visit, the English largely left the Nanticoke River for a century, but the Nanticoke people continued to ply their canoes upstream and down.
By the late 1700s, the English began filtering up the river’s deep channel again, drawn by the rich soils along it for farming and the timber resources of its forests, especially the oaks and pines, and the light, strong, rot-resistant Atlantic white cedars that lined its banks. Historically, tobacco became the first money crop, but grain followed quickly, along with smelting bog iron in the swamps. Dams on the Nanticoke’s powerful creeks drove mills for grinding the grain and sawing lumber. Some of the lumber built small schooners, as shipyards sprang up on a handful of river landings with deep water. The river allowed those schooners to carry grain, iron, and sawn lumber to cities like Norfolk and Baltimore, and to bring back manufactured goods. Abundant fisheries supplied local markets. Gradually, commerce expanded in the nineteenth century to include building larger ships for coastal trade and quarrying sand for construction. Steamboats replaced small schooners for regional trade, while tugs pushed the sand barges. The early twentieth century brought large-scale chicken farming and, in 1939, DuPont’s first nylon plant, which depended on petrochemicals brought in by tug and barge.
Somehow, the riverscape of marshes, wooded swamps, deep forests, and fertile farmland remained, as did the fish, birds, and furbearers. Along it, several classic river towns helped to build the Nanticoke’s culture: Vienna and Sharptown on the river’s mid-section in Maryland, Woodland Ferry and Seaford over the line in Delaware. The views around them remain scenic to this day. They sit where they do because of the river’s character. Thanks to the dedicated partnerships described above, that character will endure and only get better, to the continuing benefit not only of us humans but also of the eagles, sturgeon, Atlantic white cedars, wild rice, and other river life as the Nanticoke flows into its fourth millennium.
Paddling a kayak or canoe is a great way to explore shorter sections of the Nanticoke in detail. NPS photo.
So what is the best way to soak up the Nanticoke’s character? First and foremost, explore the Nanticoke River Water Trail. The section from Vienna to Seaford welcomes a wide range of boats, from canoes and kayaks to outboard skiffs and even larger trawler yachts. To guide visiting boaters, the Chesapeake Conservancy and the National Park Service together supported publication of A Boater's Guide to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which includes a chapter on the Nanticoke. It includes discussion of the best waters for exploration by each class of vessel and a short sketch of Capt. Smith’s time on the river. Suggested itineraries include paddling Wetipquin Creek (on the lower, higher-salinity part of the river) and exploration around Vienna and Sharptown by either paddle craft or skiff. To that list, we’d now add Broad Creek from Phillips Landing to the old shipbuilding town of Bethel, Delaware, the main river around the new park at Woodland Ferry, and the river upstream of Seaford from the city’s new Riverwalk and Oyster House Park.
The bibliography in the Boater's Guide (page 3) offers suggestions for reading about Capt. Smith’s explorations of the Chesapeake. For a richly-worded and photographed, modern look at this waterway jewel, browse The Nanticoke: Portrait of a Chesapeake River by Tom Horton and Dave Harp. Read and enjoy these books, use them to build background understanding of the Nanticoke, but most of all, go see for yourself.