“The Washington Navy Yard, With Shad Seines in the Foreground.” Harpers Weekly, 1861. Collections of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Spring has historically meant the beginning of one of the Chesapeake’s most significant harvests- shad. This “founding fishery” marked the beginning of large-scale commercial fishing in the Bay, in the mid-1700′s. Unlike oysters or crabs, which required canning and refrigeration (not invented for another 75 years), shad could be preserved just by being salted and dried. As many tobacco plantations switched to wheat, the time saved by the less-laborious crop meant that many waterfront estates began to use their slave labor to harvest shad as another way to make money.
Shad remained a vital industry in the Chesapeake well into the 20th century. This image, from Harper’s Weekly in 1861, shows the traditional spring shad seine harvest on the shoreline of the Potomac. In the background is the Washington Navy Yard, depicted as tidy and efficient (a quintessentially Victorian love of industry), and beyond that, the skeleton of the Capitol Building, still under construction.