Delmarva Heritage Site: The Pocomoke River

by Dana Kester-McCabe

The Pocomoke River runs through the heartland of Delmarva and all three of its states. Its headwaters begin in the Great Cypress Swamp of southern Delaware and it travels about forty-five miles south through Maryland and Virginia; through forests, farmland, wide open marshes, and finally empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Its wildlife and its history are equally rich.

At the time of European exploration the native tribes of Delmarva had been here at least three hundred years. They were part of the Algonquin nations and the Powhattan Confederacy. Pocomoke is an Algonquin word meaning “black water”. The vegetation along the river’s banks and swamps, particularly cypress trees, produce a lot of tannin causing the freshwater sections of the river to look very dark.

In 1524 Giovanni Verrazano explored the river followed by Captain John Smith in 1608. By 1635 the territory became a bone of contention between the English proprietors of Virginia and Maryland. The ship the Cockatrice from Virginia, while trading with tribes along the Pocomoke, was attacked by ships under the orders of Maryland’s Lord Calvert. Maryland prevailed in the deadly engagement where two sailors died, and established dominance over the Chesapeake region north of the Pocomoke Sound.

Colonization followed in earnest. Conflict with invading settlers pushed many of the area’s native tribes to look for a safe haven. In 1686 the Askiminikonson Indian reservation was established on the Pocomoke River west of Snow Hill. But living conditions deteriorated with little access to hunting, and sufficient farm land. So by the 1740’s most of them moved north to join the Nanticoke Indians in present day Oak Orchard, Delaware.

The English established four settlements along the river: Rehobeth and Shelltown in Somerset County; and in Worcester there was Newtown (now known as Pocomoke City) along with Snow Hill. During the American Revolution, the war of 1812, and the Civil War, the lower Pocomoke River was not the scene of a lot of action. But there were a few military encampments and even a few small skirmishes mostly in the nearby Chesapeake.

The dense woods and swamps were the perfect place for draft dodging during the war years or for other illicit behavior like smuggling liquor and other contraband. Sadly, slavery was common on plantations in the region. Otherwise life along the Pocomoke prospered with farming, lumber, and shipbuilding. From 1852 to 1922 steamboats made weekly trips with cargo from Snow Hill and Pocomoke City down river and then up the bay to Baltimore.

But frequent silting of the river has often made the Pocomoke difficult to navigate. Dredging for commercial vessels began as early as 1879 and continues to the present particularly in the Pocomoke Sound. In the 1930’s northern sections were straightened, deepened, and connected to a ditch system to help with farm runoff and to cut down on mosquito habitat. But many of these are no longer maintained. Seasonal flooding has brought down trees. Invading cypress knees and other plant roots are turning the dredged sections back to swamp land. Viewed from satellite, it is clear the ancient Pocomoke seems to be reasserting the natural of order.

All of the Pocomoke River is a wonderful place to explore. The Pocomoke City Bridge built in 1920; and the Snow Hill Bridge built in 1932, are both charming, especially when viewed from the town parks along the river banks nearby. A number of other smaller bridges at Porter’s, Purnell, and Massey crossings along with state and local parks are good places to put in a canoe or kayak, or throw in a line.

Freshwater fish, which were once stocked annually, can be found in the less brackish waters of the north. Saltwater fishing is abundant in the southern-most tidal waters. The entire watershed is home to many species of migrating and resident birds, turtles, and other wildlife. If you explore the river you will find long stretches where you will see little evidence of other humans where the imagination returns to a time when only the native tribes lived off the river’s bounty.

To find out more about the rich history and wildlife of the Pocomoke River visit the Delmarva Discovery Center in Pocomoke City and the Pocomoke River Forest State Park at Shad and Milburn Landings.