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For an electronic version of our History brochure, click here. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Stop by the Lodge to see our new exhibits. Take a walk through history as you explore the various displays. NEW October 2007!!


During the time of the last great ice sheet ten thousand years ago, Eastern Neck Island was not an island at all. Native Americans may have paused here while hunting to look out over a wide forested valley to the west. There, the Susquehanna River was carving through fine-grained deposits placed by meltwaters and wind during earlier glacial cycles on its way to the sea. The Atlantic Ocean's shore at that time was 200 miles east of its present location. As the last glacier melted, sea levels slowly rose. Sea waters swallowed up the Atlantic coastal plain and drowned the river valley. By 4,000 years ago the ancient hunters would not have recognized the area where their descendants, the Woodland Period Indians, now fished and gathered shellfish from the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay. After the Woodland people began to settle down and cultivate crops at inland sites around 1300 A.D., they still used the island as a seasonal foraging area. They left behind huge mounds of discarded oyster shells, called middens, as well as pottery pieces, stone tools, and arrowheads as evidence of their presence. When Captain John Smith explored this area in 1608, he made contact with the Ozinie Indians, who were related to the Algonquin-speaking Nanticokes. This tribe was noted for their exceptional beadwork made from shells. In less than 100 years after this first contact, the Indians living in the area had all been killed by introduced diseases, warfare with Europeans, or warfare between tribes as various displaced groups sought new territories

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In 1631, William Claiborne began the first permanent settlement on the Eastern Shore, a fur trading post on Kent Island. Colonel Joseph Wickes, another early settler on Kent Island, could look east from his plantation on Love Point to the lands that came to be called Eastern Neck, where he decided to acquire land as well. From 1658 to 1680, Wickes and his partner, Thomas Hynson, were granted tracts until they owned all of Eastern Neck Island. Joseph Wickes built a home, "Wickliffe," one of the finest mansions of the time. He made his living by raising tobacco and other crops, and exporting them on ships built at the family's shipyard. For a time, the island may have been the county seat, for Wickes was Chief Justice of Kent County. "Hail Point" was named because it was a place where all ships coming and going on the Chester River could be seen and hailed to enforce shipping regulations. In 1675 the settlement of "New Yarmouth" was established just north of Eastern Neck Island at Gum Point. This town became the county seat until 1696, when the county government moved to the fast-growing port of Chestertown.

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Joseph Wickes' most famous descendant was his great grandson, Captain Lambert Wickes, the first Navy officer named by Congress in 1776 to carry the American flag in European waters. During the Revolutionary War he terrorized British shipping, capturing at least twenty-eight "prizes." He also carried Benjamin Franklin to France aboard his flagship, the Reprisal, when Franklin was trying to gain French support for the American Revolution. Lambert Wickes was lost at sea when his ship foundered and sank in a severe storm off Newfoundland on a return trip from France in 1777. A memorial to Captain Wickes is found on Eastern Neck Island, near the Wickliffe site.

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Hynson's heirs eventually sold all their Eastern Neck Island lands to Wickes' heirs, and the island was owned by the Wickes family until 1902. The period from 1800 to 1900 witnessed the division of the original parcels of land among the Wickes family and diversification of farming activities. Small family farms and sharecroppers engaged in logging, dairying, raising sheep and horses, and growing peaches, pears, asparagus, and various other crops for subsistence and cash. A small fishing village, which included an oyster-shucking plant, was located at Bogles wharf. The Chester River Steamboat Company operated a wharf nearby that was regularly served by steamships from Baltimore and other ports.

As society became increasingly mobile in the 1920s, wealthy individuals from surrounding cities were attracted by the area's notable concentrations of waterfowl and bought portions of the island for hunting retreats. One of the hunting lodges, built in 1930, still stands; it is now used as the refuge visitor contact station, Friends bookstore and refuge offices.

In the 1950s a developer bought a large tract and subdivided it into 293 small lots for a housing development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responding to concerns over the development expressed by the local community, acquired the entire island between 1962 and 1967 to preserve its valuable wildlife habitat. The building at the Bayview Butterfly Trail is the only house ever built in the "Cape Chester" subdivision. Formerly used as the refuge office, it now houses interns and visiting volunteers.

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Artifact hunting has long been a popular activity for visitors to Eastern Neck. However, this practice is no longer allowed because when an artifact is removed from its original location, not only does the object itself disappear, but the story it could have told an archaeologist is also lost forever. Since all of the sites and artifacts on the refuge are now protected by Federal and State law, if you discover any artifacts on the refuge, please leave the object in place and report its location to the refuge staff.

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Last Updated: October 6, 2007
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