Notes - Garrett Island


Garrett Island, which covers 198 acres, was originally inhabited and settled by the Susquehannocks – the   “tall, majestic” Native Americans to the north.

Two bridges cross Garrett Island: the CSX railroad bridge and the U.S. Route 40 “Hatem” bridge.

A rocky bottom surrounds much of Garrett Island, and caused Captain John Smith to lose his anchor there. The same rocks provide superb bottom “structure” for fisherman – which probably contributed to Bass Pro Shops’ decision to donate $150,000 to the purchase of the island by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service!

The Crown granted the island to Edward Palmer, a Virginian, early in the 1600s.  In those days the island bore his name and was referred to as Palmer Island.  This was the first English settlement within the boundary of present Cecil County.

Palmer wanted to establish the first university in the New World on Palmer Island – sort of a branch campus of Oxford.  But the ivory tower back in England had no interest. Palmer never even visited his island.

Apparently, the Susquehannocks didn’t think much about Palmer (since they never really saw the guy) and gave another Virginian, William Claiborne, the right to occupy the island and establish a trading post – primarily for fur trading. Of course, the Crown considered the island part of Virginia. So who actually gave Claiborne permission to set up shop on the island depends, to some degree, on point of view -- was it the Crown or the Susquehannocks?

The presence of Claiborne's trading post  on the island was evidently  a thorn in Maryland Governor, Leonard Calvert's side. So he sent patrols to protect Maryland commercial interests from Claiborne's activities around the island. Claiborne, indignant that the Marylanders were keeping tabs on his movements, and bitter about the earlier capture of one of his trading vessels down in Pocomoke sound,  attacked a Maryland trading vessel at the lower end of Garrett Island. That attack by Claiborne in 1637 is now known as the first act of piracy on the Chesapeake. Claiborne eventually made peace with Maryland and gave up the island.

Five years after Claiborne's relinquishment of Palmer Island  in 1638, Maryland troops returned to put down a Susquehannock “uprising” and built Fort Conquest on the island.  Nothing of the fort remains today. 

Eventually, the Susquehannocks retreated to the north, the fur trade dwindled, and almost everyone lost interest in Palmer Island  -- after all the fuss!

Nothing of much importance has happened on Palmer Island since.  A guy named Isaac Watson established a farm on it after the Revolutionary War and subsequent owners of the island continued to farm it until the late 1800s. A fish packing plant operated on the island between 1820 and 1910.

The B&O railroad began to build a bridge across the Susquehanna River and over the island in 1885 -- that’s how the island got its present name.  In honor of the [the great?] B&O president, John W. Garrett.

Not much has happened on Garrett Island since.  Over the years there have been a number of schemes to develop the island in various ways: condos, amusement parks, etc.

A lot of public pressure evolved to insure that Garrett Island would never actually be developed.  This protection came just a few years ago when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the island and designated it a wildlife refuge.  It is now part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Note: These “CHC Cruise Facts” were extracted from William B. Cronin’s book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 2005 (ISBN: 0-8018-7435-I)