Written history of the area dates back to the earliest colonial times, when refuge uplands were farmed and wetlands and waters were hunted and fished. In the early 1600's, Captain John Smith described the area that is the refuge as: "...a faire Bay compassed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land... Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation."
The strategic location at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay encouraged military uses of the area in the years before the refuge was established. At the beginning of World War II, much of the land which is now refuge was acquired by the federal government and named Fort John Custis, after a prominent eighteenth century resident of Northampton County. During the war, large bunkers housed 16-inch guns designed to protect naval bases and shipyards in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. In 1950, the U.S. Air Force acquired Fort John Custis, renaming it the Cape Charles Air Force Station. Radar towers and additional buildings were built by the Air Force, which occupied the area until 1981.
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The southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is an important migratory bird stopover location along the Atlantic coast. This narrowing peninsula created by the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean causes a funneling effect on the birds as they fly south. Our current bird list of 406 species, found in and around the refuge, is a great resource for planning your bird watching visit.