Hulbert Footner’s classic Rivers of the Eastern Shore, an entertaining social history of the peninsula’s settlers and their descendants whose lives were shaped by the Eastern Shore waterways, has been republished in a 2nd Edition. First published in 1944 in the famed “Rivers of America” series,the new 2nd Edition is enriched with a Foreword by environmental author and filmmaker Tom Horton, and a biographical essay by Hulbert Footner’s granddaughter, Karen Footner.
The 2nd Edition uses the original plates of the 1944 edition, acquired in 2009 when Schiffer Publishing purchased the respected regional press, Cornell Maritime Press/Tidewater Publishers, once based in Centerville, MD. Rivers of the Eastern Shore is a historical portrait of the Eastern Shore, its people, and their culturally distinct ways of life, long before the changes brought by the railroad and Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Footner takes his readers up and down each of the rivers beginning with the 17th -century English settlers’ who drew upon their shared traditions to create new cultures, traditions, and communities on the isolated peninsula. From the Pocomoke River, the Shore’s southernmost river, Footner travels to the most northern Bohemia River and the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
‘Rivers’ blend of history, legend and colorful anecdotes reflects the author’s experience as a storyteller. Gerald Johnson described Footner’s storytelling gift in his 1944 New York Tribune review, “As an outsider, his objectivity enabled him to assemble gems of anecdote, folklore, and description, so familiar to the native, they were overlooked… a rare literary production in which style and subject are so perfectly adapted that it is impossible to mark their jointure or to say what part of the charm arises from the narrative and what comes from the skill of the author.” Johnson also wrote that Aaron Sopher’s drawings “catch the spirit of the book beautifully, with their mixture of delicacy and caricature.”
In the earliest years, the rivers were the roadways; shipbuilding, water transportation, and trade connected Eastern Shore residents with the outside world. Footner’s narrative of historical events includes people and events that may be new or familiar to current Shore residents: the Indian wars, the clash of Puritans and Catholics, the ascent of the tobacco
planters with their great estates, the battles of the Revolution, the evils of slavery and discord during the Civil War, the rise of the oyster industry, and appreciation for some of the finest
ships ever built that came from the Eastern Shore.
In his Forward, Tom Horton notes the names of the meandering Eastern Shore rivers “conjure the ghosts of Native Americans and legacies of English settlement.” Horton underscores Footner’s observation of the sinking lands along the Bay’s water edges which nearly 80 years later have grown into a significant concern with climate-induced sea level rise.
Rich soil for farming, plentiful fishing, and a mild climate provided some with an ease of life characterized by superior eating and drinking, leisure, sport, and sociability. Footner points out that the good life belonged to the Eastern Shore’s white residents. Before and after the Civil War, African Americans endured violence, restrictions, and discrimination on the Eastern Shore.
Many escaped or migrated away from the Shore as soon as they were able. Rivers of the Eastern Shore brings the reader up to the 1940s with topics that are still timely. The surge of people attracted to the area’s distinctive beauty brought new residents sometimes unaware of the Shore’s history, traditions, and fragile ecosystems while at the same time agricultural trends continue to shift, and water quality declined. Footner’s narrative history is a spirited tribute to the people and rivers that made the Eastern Shore geographically and culturally distinctive.
Footner died in November 1944, just six months after Rivers of the Eastern Shore was published, enjoying only a glimmer of the pleasure it brought to many. Hearing of his friend’s death, H. L. Mencken wrote to Footner’s widow, Gladys “…you were married for nearly thirty years to one of the most charming men who was ever on earth. I needn’t tell you that I will miss him tremendously.”
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