Watermen Sinking: Tangier Island

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States. The states of Virginia and Maryland straddle the 200 mile long confluence of Mid Atlantic state tributaries and the Atlantic Ocean. The Chesapeake watershed, encompassing 64,000 square miles, is home to over 18 million people. One group of people in particular, however, have historically been one of the most isolated in the United States; the inhabitants of Tangier Island.

Tangier Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, is three miles long and one mile wide, just 12 miles off the coast of Virginia and a mere 90 miles from Washington D.C. Despite the fact that the island is just a stones’ throw from the mainland, the residents have maintained cultural and linguistic tendencies reminiscent of their ancestors. The island was discovered by Captain John Smith in 1608 and settled permanently in 1686. The residents are decedents of working class settlers from Cornwall in southwestern England.  There are just six surnames among 470 people still living on Tangier Island- Crockett, Pruitt, Parks, Charnock, Dise, and Thomas.

Tangier Islanders are watermen. The Island, on average, is just three feet above sea level; they almost literally live with one foot in the bay. They depend on harvests, mostly oyster, fish, and blue crab, as their means of income. For generations, they have lived on docks and in boats, working the brackish water in the same way.

One of the most peculiar things about Tangier Islanders is their accent. Due to the remoteness of the island for hundreds of years, they speak a dialect of English reminiscent of the “Elizabethan” or “Restoration era”, “equal parts Southern twang and English brogue” which dates back to the early half of the 17th century. Not only is the dialect pulled from the early 1600’s, but it also encompasses “backwards talk”, a seemingly very sarcastic way of conversing.  For instance, they will say “ ‘Well, you’re too soon’ ”- meaning you’re late”.

Unfortunately, the people of Tangier Island are facing two very real, intertwined crisis which may spell the demise for one of the last isolated populations maintaining an independent culture and language. The first crisis is the loss of land. They have been told by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science that the island will be underwater in 50- 100 years. The island is eroding at the same time water levels in the bay are rising. According to state records, the size of the island has decreased significantly from over 2,000 acres in the mid-1800s to just 768 acres in the late 1990’s, of that, only 83 acres were in habitable.  The island continues to shrink at a rate of nine acres per year. A massive seawall is set to be completed by 2017, but it is unclear whether that will be enough to stop what seems to be inevitable.

The second crisis is that young people have no desire to stay on the island and become a waterman. “ ‘A lot of kids nowadays, it just doesn’t appeal to them. They see mainstream culture, and they say ‘Hey, I think I’d like to move off, get a car, get a house, go to the mall,’”  At its peak in the 19th century, there were over 1,500 residents on Tangier Island and now, under 500. The younger generations are also hindered by a moratorium on new crabbing licenses and restrictions on the length of fishing seasons.  Not only do they not see a future for a sinking island, but the protection of blue crabs by the Virginia Blue Crab Sanctuary in the bay makes it much harder for them to follow in the well- worn footsteps of their watermen ancestors.

Tangier island seems to be a living piece of history, almost as old as the nation itself. The reliance on the bounty from the bay as their home and livelihood and their dialect have been actively preserved and passed from generation to generation, but it seems as though time has finally caught up with them. The protection of blue crabs and the significant loss of livable island acreage seems to have largely deterred the next generation from becoming watermen, possibly ending a three hundred year tradition.

This article was written by Erin Benton, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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