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Kent Island: Third Oldest US Settlement - 2002-02-19

Most American schoolchildren learn in their U.S. history classes that Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in the New World in 1607, and was followed in 1620 by Plymouth, established by the Pilgrims. But they'd be hard-pressed to name the third settlement.

About halfway up the Chesapeake Bay lies Kent Island, Maryland. Twenty-four kilometers long and fringed with marshland, Kent Island is where the third oldest English settlement was established in 1631 by William Claiborne.

"He called it the Isle of Kent because it looked like home in England - the flat marshy land, no hills, hardly anything. It looked like the province of Kent," said Bill Denny, 69, who is the 10th generation of his family born on Kent Island.

Mr. Denny says William Claiborne must have been delighted to find this place.

"He wanted to set up a trading post and get the furs from the Indians which were the Matapeake Indians here," he says. "He would trade his beads which he got from Italy for furs, and the Indians loved it. He'd take the furs back to England, get more beads and that's the way they'd barter."

Mr. Denny, a local historian, says it wasn't just pelts that made this island rich.

"On Kent Island way back there, they'd have plenty of oysters, plenty of crabs, seafood, plenty of fish so you had a bounty from the water, as well as beautiful land where you could grow corn and different crops," he says.

Despite that wealth of natural resources, Kent Island was always isolated and sparsely populated. For nearly 300 years the only way to reach it was by boat. In 1902 a railroad bridge connected the island to Maryland's Eastern Shore built across a narrow channel. Soon after, a regular ferry service began across the wide Chesapeake Bay. Audrey Hawkins, President of the Kent Island Heritage Society, says the ride to the port of Baltimore and Maryland's State Capitol, Annapolis, took about an hour.

"People would take their products - farmers and watermen - would take their oysters and crabs and everything, take 'em up to Love Point where the ferry came in," she says. "That's the way they shipped them over into Baltimore. Baltimore had a big fish market. People traveled on it, also."

That all changed 50 years ago when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built. The 6.5-kilometer-long span connects the east and west shores of the Bay giving islanders easy access to the mainland. Now it's a 20-minute drive to the State Capitol, then another half hour to Baltimore. Marylanders soon realized they could live in the idyllic beauty of Kent Island and commute to work in the cities. They could also now reach coastal beaches more easily. Kent Island's population soared, along with the number of businesses, cars and condominiums. Yet, Bill Denny says the wild beauty that drew William Claiborne here hasn't disappeared.

"People love to come over and go fishing. They can still shoot duck. There are a lot of ducks," he says. "They come down from Canada in the winter - and the geese and the swans. And they have that feeling that they had maybe 400 years ago. That free spirit feeling that Kent Island gives you."

Bill Denny and other local historians believe the original settlement is now underwater due to erosion. But memories of it are kept alive by the Kent Island Heritage Society which organizes events like the annual Kent Island Festival - a celebration and day-long re-creation of the island's colonial past.