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The Waterman's Legacy

Virginia boasts 3,315 miles of tidal shoreline, which includes a 112-mile coastline as well as offshore islands, sounds, bays, rivers and creeks near the coast. The commonwealth’s history, economy and daily life are closely associated with these lowlands, where one fifth of the state’s population lives.

For example, it was the watermen – those who knew the area best — who ensured victory at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War. Watermen helped navigate ships from the French fleet through the tricky waters of the Chesapeake and the York to aid the American forces at the climatic Yorktown battle.

Even the term “waterman” is unique. Early colonists used the term because it described the fishermen who worked the Thames in their native England. Today, it is heard only along the Chesapeake and on that London waterway.

Each summer The Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown holds a Waterman’s Heritage Celebration that highlights the heyday of commercial fishing along Virginia’s shoreline when skipjacks – boats with sails unique to the Bay — crowded the waters in the late 19th-century. At least 15 watermen’s associations stretch along the Virginia coast, from the Accomack Hand Harvesters Association in Chincoteague to the Hampton Roads Watermen’s Association headquartered in Norfolk.

Tiny Tangier Island is one of the remaining island outposts where watermen (and women) still rely on crabbing and oystering to make a living. Originally an Indian fishing ground, Tangier was first visited by John Smith in 1608 during his tour of the Chesapeake Bay. Two centuries later, the British launched an attack from the island on Baltimore during the War of 1812. A Methodist congregation was established in 1835 and because of the church’s influence, the residents of Tangier disagreed with the rest of Virginia over slavery during the Civil War.

Today, there are fewer than 600 inhabitants on the island. In addition to fishing, tourism is the only other major industry. There are few cars on the island; the roads are only wide enough for two golf carts to pass each other and most residents and tourists use the carts, boats, mopeds and bikes to get around.

But the Old Dominion’s coastal islands are not just the stomping ground for watermen. Two other popular Virginia islands are Assateague and Chincoteague, which together form a 37-mile long barrier land mass straddling the Virginia/Maryland border and are known for wild horses and a lighthouse.

Three agencies protect parts of the islands, including Virginia’s Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland’s Assateague State Park and the national Assateague Island National Seashore.

As to the “ponies,” made famous in the Misty of Chincoteague series, the states split the ownership of the horses. (“Ponies” is a misnomer). In Virginia, the Chincoteague Fire Department owns the horses. In Maryland, the animals are owned and managed by the National Park Service. A fence at the border between the states keeps the two groups apart. (As an aside, the Park Service no longer considers the horses “feral” because they are descended from domesticated horses, and their behavior reflects that behavior.) The island has no resident population and is used for camping, hiking, kayaking and other outdoor activities.

Stretching south of Assateague and Chincoteague are 13 other barrier islands, including both Wallops and Fisherman’s Island. Wallops, just south of Chincoteague, is six square miles. It was originally granted to John Wallop by the Crown in 1692 and divided through various generations. In 1876 and 1877, it was seized for unpaid taxes. At one point the island was owned by the Wallops Island Club, whose members spent summers fishing and swimming there. In 1947, the U.S. Navy began using part of the island to test ordinance, and today it is used primarily for the National Aeronautics and Space Agency’s Wallops Flight Facility. The population of the entire peninsular area that includes the island is a little more than 400.

Fisherman Island is at the southern tip of Virginia’s chain of barrier islands at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. In geological time, it is young — formed only about 200 to 250 years ago. Highway 13 and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel cut across the island, which is a part of the national Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge and a habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and waterbirds.

Whether it is the old English dialect spoken on Tangier or the “wild” horses of Chincoteague, Virginia’s coastal islands have a long and quirky heritage. Only on Tangier would Kevin Costner and Paul Newman not receive a royal welcome. When a production company asked to film 1999’s “Message in a Bottle” on the island, the city fathers objected to parts of the script. The producers had to go elsewhere.

NEXT: And What Happened Here? Historical Markers of Virginia

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