Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway, and currently encompasses more than 32,000 acres. Blackwater NWR is home to an incredible amount of plant and animal diversity in its three major habitats – forest, marsh and shallow water. The refuge contains one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands, which makes it an ecologically important area within the state. These wetlands also provide storm protection to lower Dorchester County, including the town of Cambridge. Blackwater NWR is recognized as a "Wetland of International Importance" by the Ramsar Convention and was named a priority wetland in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. In addition, Blackwater NWR has been designated as an Internationally Important Bird Area.
Blackwater NWR is home to the largest natural population of formerly endangered Delmarva peninsula fox squirrels and is also home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast, north of Florida.
The refuge has been referred to as the "Everglades of the North," and has been called one of the "Last Great Places" by the Nature Conservancy.
The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
Native Americans were the first to take advantage of the bountiful resources of the Blackwater River basin. The largest tribal group on the Eastern Shore, the Nanticoke, sustained several communities along the river that bears their name in current-day Dorchester and Wicomico counties, and extending the river's length into present day Delaware. The Choptank Indians occupied the areas along the Choptank River and along the headwaters of the Little Blackwater and Transquaking Rivers. The lands of present-day Blackwater NWR were an important resource within their territory.
Captain John Smith made contact with the Nanticoke Indians during his voyage of exploration in 1608, and European settlers began arriving in the area soon after. As colonial settlements expanded throughout the 1600s and 1700s, Native Americans were severely displaced from their tribal lands and pushed onto reservations with little resources. Many left to join related tribes in the north and west, and those who remained gradually blended into colonial society. Today, descendants of the Nanticoke and Choptank Indians live in and around Dorchester County, maintaining tribal groups that meet and hold annual events to honor their heritage.
Beginning in the mid-1600s, European settlers began establishing plantations in Dorchester County, especially near waterways. Farming, trapping, and timbering were the most common practices, with much of the labor provided by enslaved people. Harriet Tubman, famed abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, was born near the refuge and likely worked on lands that are now part of the refuge. After escaping from slavery in 1849, she returned on several occasions and guided over 70 enslaved people to freedom, using the skills and knowledge she acquired from working in the marshes and waterways of Dorchester County.
From the mid-1800s into the 1900s, industry in the area revolved around the abundance of natural resources, with timbering and trapping among the biggest businesses. Muskrat was the primary species trapped, and by the 1930s muskrat fur was a valuable commodity in high demand, with Dorchester County trappers shipping muskrat fur to many parts of the world. Demand for the feathers and meat of birds also greatly increased the commercial hunting activity in the Chesapeake Bay region during this time. Using gun batteries that could be fired into flocks of waterfowl, this "market gunning" was one of the primary reasons for the dramatic decline of waterfowl populations in the early 1900s.
To provide a sanctuary for migratory waterfowl in the Chesapeake Bay area, Blackwater NWR was officially established on January 23, 1933, when the first 8,241 acres were acquired from Delmarvia Fur Farms. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a work program that stemmed from the Great Depression, was responsible for building some of the first structures, roads, and managed wetlands on the refuge. The management of constructed wetlands for the benefit of waterfowl is a practice on the refuge that continues to this day. As the refuge's acreage has increased over the years, the refuge's mission has also expanded to include forest management, the recovery of endangered species, the suppression of, and the creation of wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities.
Other Facilities in this Complex
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is managed as part of the Chesapeake Marshlands NWR Complex.