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Over 20 miles long, the Sassafras River traces the shores of Maryland’s Cecil and Kent counties before reaching its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay between Howell Point and Grove Point. The tributary begins near the town of Sassafras, where the heavily wooded corridor features shallow water and the average width is only around 20 feet. After passing under the Route 301 Bridge, the river widens and the landscape transitions from woodland to farmland with a few residential communities interspersed along the way. The twin ports of Georgetown and Fredericktown dominate the scenery downriver of the Route 213 Bridge, with both communities serving as busy centers for recreational boating. Between Turner’s Creek and the mouth of the Sassafras, dramatic cliff s line both sides of the river. The forested cliff s provide ideal habitat for nesting bald eagles, and the birds can often be spotted soaring overhead. Despite its relatively small size, the Sassafras is a popular destination for powerboats, paddle craft, and workboats. As such, it can be especially busy on weekends from May through October. For paddlers seeking peace and quiet, the Sassafras offers numerous creeks whose shallow waters are accessible by only the smallest vessels.
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, American Indians lived along the waters of the Sassafras River for over 10,000 years. The river’s tidal fresh waters provided rich food sources for the indigenous peoples, including emergent wetland plants such as arrow arum (Tuckahoe), yellow pond lily, American lotus, and pickerel weed. Spring spawning runs of shad, herring, striped bass, and perch served as an important source of protein, while woodland game such as whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and black bear were hunted for their meat and furs. Indian settlements were typically located along the water’s edge at the heads of creeks or springs, with populations in each community ranging from a few families to a few hundred residents.
On August 1, 1608, Captain John Smith encountered a fleet of canoes filled with Tockwogh warriors at the mouth of the Sassafras River during his legendary exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. The Tockwogh escorted Smith and his men to their fortified village seven miles upriver, possibly near present-day Kentmore Park on Shrewsbury Neck. According to Smith’s journals, the Englishmen received a favorable recepti on: “Their men, women, and children with dances, songs, fruits, furs, and what they had, kindly welcomed us, spreading mats for us to sit on, stretching their best abilities to express their loves.” After exploring the Sassafras River and the upper Bay for several days, Smith and his men departed for Jamestown on August 8, never to return.
On May 6, 1813, British Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn led his naval forces up the Sassafras River to raid the twin ports of Georgetown and Fredericktown. After quickly defeating the local militia, troops torched local homes, food stores, and boats. As legend has it, a brick home at the top of the hill in Georgetown was saved by local heroine Kitty Knight, who pleaded with the British officers for mercy while repeatedly putting out the flames with her broom. Today that home is known as the Kitty Knight House, a popular inn and restaurant. In May 1813 and again in July 1814, homes and residents up and down the Sassafras and neighboring creeks were subjected to raids and the whims of British forces.
The beautiful American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) produces the largest flower of any plant in North America, with a peak blooming season of mid-July through mid-August. This plant was once a favored food source for American Indians, who ate the starch-rich roots and large seeds. Today, American lotus is found in only three locations on the Chesapeake Bay: the Elk/Bohemia River system, Mattawoman Creek on the Potomac River, and the Sassafras River.
Of the 5,000 puritan tiger beetles left on Earth, 4,500 reside in the state of Maryland. In the Chesapeake, these beetles can only be found along Calvert Cliff s and the high, sandy bluffs of the Sassafras River. Puritan tiger beetles lay their eggs in these naturally eroding cliffs, while adults spend their lives on the sandy beaches below.
The high, forested cliff s of the Sassafras River provide ideal habitat for the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Bald eagles can be seen throughout the river, with the heaviest concentrations found on the lower section between Turner’s Creek Park and Betterton. Look for these majestic raptors as they soar above the river in search of prey.
Knock’s Folly is a meticulously preserved 18th century, federal-style brick home with commanding views of Turner’s Creek and the Sassafras River. The home is open to the public on weekends from May through October and contains interpretive displays about American Indians, the 1608 expeditions of Captain John Smith, and agricultural practices in the surrounding countryside.
Management Area Sassafras Natural Resources Management Area contains nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands, woodlands, and agricultural fields. The site is managed by the State Forest and Maryland Park Service and provides public recreational opportunities including hiking, biking,equestrian trail riding, and hunting. The Management Area also contains nearly three miles of shoreline along the Sassafras River and Turner’s Creek, creating one of the most pristine view-sheds on the entire river.
In addition to being one of the premier launch sites on the lower Sassafras River for paddlers and recreational boaters, Turner’s Creek County Park contains 143 acres of land featuring hiking trails, bathroom facilities, and a picnic pavilion. The site was once a thriving local shipping port where local agricultural products were dispersed throughout the region. Today, a granary sti ll stands on the original site where an earlier commissary shipped supplies to George Washington’s Army during the American Revolution. Kent Museum is located just up the hill from the park, containing anti que agricultural implements from Kent County’s farming past.
Located on the Cecil County side of the Sassafras River on a gorgeous peninsula bordered by Back and McGill Creeks, Mount Harmon Plantation traces its rich history back to a 1651 land grant from Caecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, to Godfrey Harmon. The plantation became a thriving center for tobacco shipping and was recorded on early maps of the area as “World’s End.” Today, Mount Harmon Plantation is a premiere heritage destination and nature preserve and features a beautifully restored manor house, colonial kitchen, prize house, formal garden, and nature trails.
The lower Sassafras River contains a healthy population of working watermen who make their living fishing and crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries. Several watermen fish the river with pound nets, catching catfish, white perch, yellow perch, and striped bass. Other watermen arrive in late summer to follow the yearly migration of Atlantic blue crabs up the Chesapeake. Many of these watermen spend the fall operating out of Turner’s Creek, where they have quick access to their pots in the Bay proper.