When Captain John Smith and his crew ventured up the Patuxent River aboard their Discovery Barge in early August of 1608, they found Late Woodland Indian communities settled in villages all the way up to Mattapanient. Thanks to the accuracy of the extraordinary map that he published in 1612, we know that village site endures today as the Merkle Natural Resources Management Area. Capt. Smith named this location along what is now the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail after its werowance (paramount chief), Pawtuxint (alternatively Pawtuxent or Patuxent), whose town lay downriver at the head of today’s Battle Creek.
Today, remarkably, this part of the Patuxent offers some views that are close to what Smith and his crew saw four-hundred-plus years ago. Those vistas are even more surprising because they lie no more than twenty-five miles as the goose flies east from the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Credit a remarkable fifty-year partnership between the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Patuxent River Park, the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, Anne Arundel County’s Recreation & Parks Department, and MD DNR’s Merkle NRMA. Not only have they conserved the lands along the river, but they have also designed specific public access programs that open the area’s enduring ecological resources in ways that take advantage of, but do not diminish, those riches. Examples in all three areas include hiking and horseback riding trails, wildlife viewing and nature study and boating access. In addition, all three have welcomed visiting archaeological teams to uncover the rich human ways of life that developed along the river. Those people include the American Indians who came long before Capt. Smith and both the Euro-Americans and enslaved Africans who came after and their descendants.
Merkle Natural Resources Management Area boardwalk, NPS photo
Transient hunters began stalking game here 10,000 years ago, according to the archaeologists. About 1,500 years ago, Woodland Indians began to settle in villages to hunt the woods for deer, turkeys and small game, and to clear fields to raise corn, squash and beans. The Patuxent River drew them here, to fish its tidal fresh waters for migratory herring, shad and striped bass; forage its marshes for edible plants like wild rice, tuckahoe and arrowhead; trap migratory waterfowl and furbearers and travel by canoe.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe presented the annual Greeting of the Geese at Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary on Nov. 23, 2020. This event celebrates the return of Canada geese to Maryland as part of their winter migration, and the role the sanctuary plays in it. Stephen Badger | Office of Communications, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
The riverbed in this section of the Patuxent lies below sea level, so the waters are tidal, but flow from the upper watershed keeps it fresh. As the river widens out and incoming tides slow the flow, it forms wide, looping meander curves.
Mattapanient – now the Merkle preserve – was a good town site for them, on a rise looking out over a large rectangular marsh on the inside of a meander. The site afforded views both up- and downriver, with canoe landings at the corners where the marsh met the fast land. The upriver landing, today named White Oak, lies inside Mattaponi Creek, a tidal tributary with its own marshes and resident fish stocks, plus strong runs of white and yellow perch. Across Mattaponi Creek lies the Patuxent River Park, with its Selby’s Landing pier and launch ramp a quarter-mile upriver.
If Mattapanient was a quintessential site for Late Woodland Indians, then exploring Mattaponi Creek from Selby’s landing is a classic for modern paddlecraft. No wonder the park rents canoes and kayaks and offers guided trips up the creek. Chesapeake Bay Foundation field educators with mobile canoe fleets have run thousands of day trips up Mattaponi Creek for school students and adults over the past forty-five years (full disclosure: I ran over four-hundred of them). Amazingly, the creek still looks and functions much as it did when we started, a tribute to the stewardship of the park and the Merkle preserve, especially in conserving its long, wooded watershed.
Merkle NMRA floating pier on the Patuxent, Maryland DNR photo
The Patuxent River Park’s Jug Bay Natural Area extends two miles upriver on the Patuxent’s west bank, with the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary covering the east side. In between lies Jug Bay itself, a shallow pan of water a mile-and-a-half by a half-mile, surrounded by marshes. Though it is a prominent feature today, it dates back only to the 1933 hurricane, a powerful but unnamed storm that drove a nine-foot storm surge up the river. Heavy rainfall combined with the surge’s outflow caused massive runoff that obliterated an island lying between two channels, turning that part of the river into broad open water. Today, there is a short, buoyed channel through the shallowest section, though the channel bends above and below are much deeper. For example, Jackson’s Landing, the headquarters of the Patuxent River Park, lies at the beginning of a long, deep meander curve that varies from 20’ deep to more than 30’ beside the Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park.
The seventeenth century English colonists, using Capt. Smith’s map and looking for land to plant tobacco, found the Patuxent navigable for some fifteen miles above here, though how they sailed the ships of those days up its winding channel is still amazing to contemplate. Tobacco culture dominated local farms until the last decade of the twentieth century, at first with shipping to England from villages like Mount Calvert and Bristol Landing (aka Pig Point), just upriver beside the Wetland Sanctuary.
Transatlantic trade fell off after the American Revolution because intensive farming without attention to soil conservation caused the river’s channel to silt in above Mount Calvert. During the War of 1812, the British Navy famously chased the U.S. Navy Commodore Joshua Barney and his Chesapeake Bay Flotilla all the way upriver past Pig Point to Back Channel, just above today’s Route 4 bridge, where Barney scuttled his fleet. If you’re headed for the Patuxent River Water Trail, consider paddling this narrow “battle stream” today and try to imagine the extraordinary action in this narrow waterway.
After that war, rural life returned to more normal routines, with trade along the river and beyond, aided by the coming of steamboats and more modern sailing ships. Soil erosion continued, though, with more farming and then suburban development upriver in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. Highways and motor vehicles began taking trade away from the river, and damage from the 1933 hurricane’s storm surge administered the coup de grace to the steamboat wharves. During the first half of the twentieth century, private clubs sprang up on both sides of the river for hunting sora rails, small, migratory, chicken-like birds that stopped over in large numbers to rest and re-fuel when the Patuxent’s abundant wild rice ripened each year in September. Local rivermen hired out as pushers to pole visiting hunters on high tides aboard narrow, shallow-draft gunning skiffs. The work was hard, but the pushers were highly skilled, with intimate knowledge of the birds and the marshes.
By the early 1960s, though, the number of rails stopping off had declined, most of the clubs had closed and the best pushers had retired. Meanwhile, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission had taken an interest in developing a park system along the river for the burgeoning population of Prince George’s County. That process began in 1961 and the rest is history, with the Jug Bay Natural Area opening in the mid-1970s.
If you’re planning to visit this large jewel of a natural area hiding in plain sight just east of our nation’s Capital, do some homework using the links in this story and plan your visit(s). You can even scout the waters beforehand using the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Terrain360 Patuxent River virtual tour. Go, and go again. One of the joys of a tidal fresh river is that there is something interesting going on in every season, from the profusion of seed-bearing plants in the marshes in summer to the richness of early fall, when tickseed sunflower, locally known as butterweed, carpets the marshes with gold. In the late fall, migratory waterfowl pile into Jug Bay for the winter. Paddle, watch birds, fish, hike, and most of all, be thankful for the local people and the park systems that had the foresight to preserve and enhance these special places for us.
Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses almost 2,000 acrees adjacent to the Patuxent River. The habitat is managed primarily for geese, but many other wildlife can be seen here.
Jug Bay Natural Area offers many activities including walking through wetlands, guided boat tours, hiking and horseback riding over eight miles of trails, boating, fishing, camping, hunting, and visiting a museum.
The Patuxent River Water Trail offers visitors the opportunity to paddle the river, camp along its banks and visit its numerous parks, historic sites, sanctuaries and wildlife areas.
The Patuxent Research Refuge is the nation's only National Wildlife Refuge established to support wildlife research. Tour portions of 12,000 acres along the upper Patuxent River, and a visitor center on regional and national wildlife.
A county park that includes an interpretive trail and a museum exhibit tell the story of Mount Calvert's past, including highlight American Indian cultures, colonial Charles Town, African-American history, the War of 1812, and more.