Tangier Island: Enjoy it While You Can

Waterman's shanty's looking northeast out of the main channel on Tangier Island
Waterman’s shanty’s looking northeast out of the main channel in Tangier Island, Virginia.

The Watermen of Endangered Tangier Island in Virginia

By Elizabeth Kelch

Tourist Boat Captain tying up at Parks Marina, with Milton Parks on Tangier Island.
Tourist Boat Captain tying up at Parks Marina, with Milton Parks.

Tangier Island, listed on the US National Registry of Historic Places, is a unique corner of past, present, and what little future it has left. The Virginia island may disappear someday if sea levels rise to what is expected to be too high.

The Watermen who have long called this place home share a unique culture and an English language dialect heard nowhere else.

This island community boasts the same family names who’ve been part of this kinship for a few hundred years. But its land, like the other islands of the Chesapeake Bay, inch by inch, are being lost to sea-level rise.

Tangier Island may be gone sooner than we think.

With the opportunity to do some cruising on the Chesapeake Bay, we knew Tangier Island would need to be on our itinerary. This is a place to see, while you still can. Tangier Island’s uniqueness has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Chesapeake Bay Watermen’s Culture

The first Europeans came here in the mid-1700s to farm, drawn by the fertile soil. Then, the island was just under twice the size it is now.

As the island lost landmass, Watermen’s work became more lucrative and, over time, it became more integral to the island’s economy. The island’s culture grew up around Watermen and their work.

The Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay are a cultural phenomenon. They work in oystering, crabbing, clamming, as well as fishing. They live their lives on the water and go out in seas that would make the stoutest of recreational fisherman queasy. They’re as comfortable on their boats as they are on land, maybe more so.

The Waterway in the Middle

This Island’s central thoroughfare through town is not a road or even a wide sidewalk, it’s the waterway. After cruising into the island through the channel lined with Watermen’s shanties, we sat, facing this town’s “main thoroughfare”, watching the town’s life move up and down.

The folks moved along the waterway doing their work, stopping to chat with their neighbors, taking kids to friend’s houses, school, or activities, and experiencing their day-to-day lives on the water, the same way most folks experienced their lives on roads and sidewalks.

The dads and granddads teaching their trade and their way of life to their sons and daughters on the workboats. This is the village it takes to raise a child; the place we all daydream about where people still sit on their front porches, where people know all their neighbors and have lived here for generations.

Heading out to sea.
Leaving the harbor on Tangier Island.

The Island’s People

When we left and we had a couple of hours of a boat ride, I sat to write a bit and really wanted to try to depict the feel of the place. I started writing about the setting and the views, but just couldn’t tease it out, then found myself writing about the people I had met and discovered the place was better captured in its people. The place is beautiful, but it lives in its people.

Some of the family names on the island include Crocket, Pruitt, Thomas, Eskridge, Dise, Evans, Shores, and Parks.

And these same names have been a part of this island’s history. The first Crockett of record on Tangier was Joseph, who became constable of “Tangier Islands” in 1763 and bought 475 acres of the land in 1778.

The 1800 census indicated there were 79 people on the “Tangier Islands,” most of which were Crocketts or descendants of Crocketts. Joshua Thomas married Rachel Evans and bought land on the island and his son, John went on to run the first store on the island.

Daniel and Esther Dise, Rhoda Parks, George and Leah Pruitt, and John and Anna Thomas were some of the founding members of the small Methodist society the formed in the early 1800s.

All these names figure prominently in the history of the island and are still part of the commerce and culture of the community there.

Milton Parks

If you arrive by personal boat, your first impression of Tangier Island will be Milton Parks. The Parks Marina is the only game in town and Milton takes a very hands-on approach to operating his marina. He’s well into his 80’s and happy to tell you all the stories of all his years.

He grew up on the island and lived his whole life there except for a stint in the navy. He built and started the marina business only when he got “too old” to be a Waterman. He’s on his own these days so, it’s a one-man operation and expects to pass it along to the next generation. He’s the chief cook and bottle washer.

Boats using the only public marina on the island may have to arrive without knowing which slip you’re pulling into but, you can be sure, when you arrive, Milton will be there to help with lines and start in on his stories.

men at wharf
Coming ashore on Tangier Island.

All these different boats and boat people got me thinking there’s an odd sense of unusual socio-economics on this island. The folks who live here chose modest living because they are happy with what they have; it’s just how one lives on an island. Income and wealth seem to have no relevance here.

We, on our boat, live at middle income. The bigger boats are worth much more than we can conceive of ever having.

Do the townspeople look at average boats and think they are much more than they could ever conceive of having. Do they look at the big boat and think, as I do, “why would you want anything so big?” Island life is a study in “everything is relative” and “the joys of living minimally”.

The Distinctive Dialect

Many of the residents, especially the older ones, who live on Tangier speak a distinctive dialect of American English. This distinctive dialect sounds a bit like a British variety of English. Lots of people believe the evolution and endurance of the dialect attribute to the inhabitant’s inaccessibility to the mainland.

People have even suggested it has roots in the origin of the early European settlers being from Cornwall and Devon in the UK, but there are no scholarly sources to back up the notion the dialect is somehow a “leftover” from original British settlers in the area. BBC Travel made a short film about it called The Tiny US Island with a British accent. 

Historical linguist David Shores notes “the dialect is a creation of its own time and place off the eastern shore of Virginia.”

How you can visit Tangier Island

Tangier Island treasures its past while planning for its future with its offering of plenty of options for the practical needs of tourists with its B&Bs, restaurants, and transportation options.

When you get off the ferry, you’ll find yourself on the main road of town where you’ll find the island’s general store, few restaurants, golf car rental for tourists off the ferry, and on up around the corner is the new medical clinic.

There’s also a museum and a nice new school on the island.

fishing shack on Tangier Island, Virginia.
Fishermen’s shack on the island.

There are two ferry boats to get to the island. One from the east and one from the west. The Chesapeake Breeze departs Reedville, Va on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay during Tangier Island Tourism Season as does the Steven Thomas which departs from the Eastern Shore of the Lower Chesapeake Bay at Crisfield, Md.

As an additional ferry service for the summers, The Joyce Marie II departs Tangier Island for Onancock Virginia on the Eastern Shore of Virginia twice daily.

Places To Eat And Sleep on Tangier

Most folks visit the island for day trips and the little commercial center of town seems to operate based on those ferry schedules. Shops don’t open until the ferry arrives and close down about the same time the ferry departs.

For those lucky enough to stay on the island more than a couple hours the Bed and Breakfasts are run by locals, folks who grew up here and want to stay here and need to find a way to earn a living. On this island, the options are tourism or Waterman.

The folks who cater to the tourists use their cultural connections and have opened restaurants and or B&B’s. While the island’s official website, Tangier Island, isn’t the most professionally put together or maintained, it has some good information about the practicalities of tourism.

Before the day’s crop of tourists arrives on the ferry, I found a quiet place in the sun to take in the island’s goings-on. Watching and listening to the water town around me, I heard a group of men discussing boat stuff.

 

Boat people instinctively stop and chat with other boat people. One man on his boat, another man standing on his boat, tied up next to it, and another man on the dock. They discuss make and model, engine size, and what they bring in with their daily haul. They talk about the weather and how the wind is blowing. They talk about the tides and the current and what the water looks like.

Don’t forget the Beach

After you’ve explored the commercial part of the island, you’ll want to trek out to the beach. Up the road from the island’s new medical clinic, you’ll turn right onto the road crossing out to their long, picturesque beach. It’s undeveloped and refreshingly undisturbed. It was too easy to spend ages walking on the beach and it goes on that far.

Before the Europeans arrived the Pocomoke Native Americans came here as a summer retreat and hunting grounds. With their lack of year-round habitation and more recent European habitation, there is little evidence of them except for the thousands of arrowheads, found on the beaches after any big storm.

This beach looks southeast across the Chesapeake and has some of the most breathtaking sunset views our little group had witnessed. We stood with our toes on the sand and watched the sky blaze with sunset colors. We’d be pulling out first thing in the morning and we all agreed we wanted to come here again.

What a great experience to be able to get a little bit of the feel for life on this island and get to meet some of the people here before it’s gone. A life well-lived is, after all, built on experiences.

Tangier Island’s Future

The island had a relatively stable population boom in the late 1800s and reached the height about 1930 with 1120 residents, but it’s been dwindling off ever since. Some say folks are leaving for economic reasons and just don’t want to stay in this backwater, but it’s just as likely they leave because the island is shrinking.

Climate scientist David Schulte and his colleagues, in their 2015 article in Scientific Reports announced “Since 1850, the island’s landmass has been reduced by 67%. Under the mid-range sea level rise scenario, much of the remaining landmass is expected to be lost in the next 50 years and the town will likely need to be abandoned.”

Shanties Full of History

The Waterman’s shanties hold the history of each family who’s been plying these waters for generations. I wonder when the last time anyone new moved to this island? Used to be nobody would move here and most folks were leaving because there were no jobs here but now…there’s people whose work is over the internet, who can live anywhere they choose.

I wonder if somebody who had such a luxury might choose to live here. I can even imagine myself choosing to live here for a time.

Some of the older residents feel the new ways, like the Internet and tourism, take away from the island’s uniqueness. These things may dilute its distinctiveness, but it also gives the island’s way of life a means to survive, at least as long as they have land to live on.

This old Watermen’s community is thriving on tourism and holding tight to its Waterman population and way of life.

Elizabeth Kelch
Elizabeth Kelch

 

Elizabeth Kelch is a treehugger, minimalist, and traveler. She and her partner live, either aboard their boat, In No Hurry, or on their small motorhome, The Writer’s Cabin. Cruising the US East Coast or taking the motorhome inland, they seek our new adventures and warm weather. Please follow her exploits and find more of her work at elizabethkelch.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email