The Chowan River has played an important role in North Carolina's history and economy. It is part of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System (the second largest estuarine system in the United States) and is one of the smaller basins in North Carolina, with only 1,378 square miles. All of the waters in the Chowan River Basin are free flowing or tidal freshwaters. Most of the surface water in this basin is derived from groundwater. Like the Roanoke River, the Chowan is a major contributor of fresh water to the Albemarle Sound.
As it skirts Holiday Island, the Chowan River widens to more than two miles when it finally spills into the Albemarle Sound near Edenton. The 50-mile long river has its beginnings far to the north in Virginia where Virginia's Blackwater and Nottoway Rivers eventually merge to form the Chowan at the state line. In North Carolina, Northampton, Hertford, Gates, Bertie, and Chowan Counties surround the river.
A Great Resource — Past and Present
Important natural resources in the basin include wetlands, anadromous fish spawning areas and Merchant's Millpond State Park. Large, awe-inspiring swamps of tupelo—gum and cypress trees fringe much of the shore and may extend far inland. These swamps, rich in wildlife, regulate and purify water flowing from land. Wetlands habitats in the basin provide flood control and safeguard wildlife habitat and water quality.
For centuries, the Chowan River provided food and a source for travel for the native Algonquin tribes and the earliest settlers. By 1831, the first steamships in America plied the river, dispatching passengers and freight for almost a hundred years. Today, the river continues to be a source of food, economy and recreation.