In the beginning, all of America was Virginia—even Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, was officially in northern Virginia, for all of English North America had been so named, after Elizabeth I the Virgin Queen. Maryland, which was subtracted from Virginia and set up as its own colony in the 18th century, was named not for a reigning monarch but for a mere consort, Charles I’s wife Queen Henrietta Maria. In the 3½ centuries since, it has lost border disputes with all its neighbors—Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia—to end up in its ungainly current shape, a quarter of the size of Virginia.
The map, however, shows only one aspect of history. Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore, is almost three times as populous as any in Virginia, and Maryland has three-quarters the inhabitants of its grand southern neighbor. Though there is much less of it, Maryland has a terrain just as varied as Virginia’s, from the mountains in the west through the central plateau to the jagged coast around the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia is also bounded by the bay, but the Chesapeake is by far the predominant feature in Maryland’s geography, cleaving the Eastern from the Western shores. Divided by water, the inhabitants of the two shores have preserved quite different accents and customs. On the Western Shore itself, the Patuxent River separates Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, which maintain subtly distinct identities and manners. On the Eastern Shore, the winding shoreline prolongs distance; in many cases it takes several times as long to drive to the next town as to sail to it across an inlet. If one were to straighten the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, it would stretch from Maryland to Hawaii with a few hundred miles to spare.
Most Marylanders lead terrestrial lives—they ride to work on subways and superhighways—but in spirit they are a waterborne people, bearing the legacy of a prominent maritime past. “Virginia is for lovers” was a hit promotional slogan in the 1970s; a Maryland T-shirt manufacturer matched it with a takeoff, “Maryland is for crabs.” The second motto has the advantage, besides mild wit, of concrete truth, for crabs, along with oysters and other seafood from the Chesapeake Bay, remain a major Maryland industry.
Baltimore, on the Patapsco River, was an 18th- and 19th-century shipbuilding center, famous for the speedy Baltimore Clippers that were heavily employed in privateering, drawing the especial ire of the British in the early 1800s. When, in the War of 1812, British ships bombarded Ft. McHenry in the harbor, Baltimoreans stood firm, and their flag-waving defiance inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Now Baltimore is the fifth-busiest port on the East Coast, and since renovations and enhancements in the late ’70s and early ’80s, its Inner Harbor has been an attractive waterside recreation area, with shops, restaurants, and museums that draw millions of locals and out-of-towners alike each year.
Annapolis, on the banks of the Severn River, is one of the most important sailing cities in the world and home of the U.S. Naval Academy. All along both shores of the bay, towns such as St. Michaels, Tilghman’s Island, and Solomons thrive on the weekend pleasures of yachtsmen.
Maryland’s mythic hero—its cowboy, if you will—is the waterman, who prowls the Chesapeake in his skipjack, “drudging arshters” (dredging oysters) from the decks of America’s last fleet of working sailboats. In the 1880s there were more than 1,500 of these native flat-bottomed sloops harvesting oysters with rakes and nets that were dragged over the oyster beds under sail power. Today, there are fewer than three dozen still plying the Chesapeake waters.
On one hand, in the great separateness of his life—spending days and nights on the water with his colleagues and returning home to an isolated bay-side or island village—the waterman is an anomaly in a state where half the population is concentrated in the Baltimore metropolitan area. But in another respect, the waterman provides a rich symbol of contemporary Maryland society: not in the manner in which he sets off to work but in the variety of the catch he hauls back to the dock. Maryland has always been a land of diversity.
It is said that Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony. In one sense this is true, in that Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, who organized the first expedition of colonists in 1633, was a member of the Church of Rome; half the members of that expedition were also Catholic. But Puritans and Anglicans were made welcome, too, a courtesy that was not reciprocated in most of the other English colonies. Maryland was, in fact, the first colony to enact legislation guaranteeing freedom of religion.
Diversity has been cause for turmoil. During the Civil War the state was dangerously ambivalent. Sitting below the Mason-Dixon line, with an economy based equally on agriculture and industry, Maryland found its popular sentiment divided between the agrarian South and the industrial North. The consensus was, in the tradition of tolerance, for compromise: to preserve the Union somehow without coercing the South. There was rioting (and the first bloodshed of that war) when Union troops appeared in Baltimore, and President Lincoln saw fit to incarcerate some city officials, including the mayor of the city and Francis Scott Key’s grandson—an action that was strategically effective but probably unconstitutional. The state faced itself on the field of battle when the First Maryland Regiment of the Union army fought the First Maryland Regiment of the Confederate army at Front Royal, Virginia.
Between Virginia and Maryland, nature carved out the Chesapeake Bay, and politics carved out the District of Columbia. Maryland teeters between the cultures of North and South; it has been called the northernmost southern state and the southernmost northern state, with the efficiency of the North and the graciousness of the South. Virginia, by contrast, is quintessentially southern. It is tempting to draw further distinctions: Virginians are gracious, Marylanders fractious; Virginians are tragic, Marylanders sassy; Virginians are stalwart, Marylanders mercurial. There is plenty of evidence to disprove all such generalizations. Nevertheless, such comparisons help us to understand both states. Virginia and Maryland are best visited in tandem.