0Tangier Island Virginia

In the summer of 1608 John Smith started out on an exploration trip of the Chesapeake Bay. He traveled from Cape Charles and went up the bay to the Potomac River and went up as far as present day Washington D. C. and back down to Jamestown. It was actually two trips for at one point he was very badly hurt by a stingray and had to return to Jamestown to be treated. It was during these two voyages, while looking for fresh water that he came across a group of islands in the middle of the bay. He named them the “Russell Isles,” for a Doctor Russell who was then on board ship with him.
This group is today what is known as Smith’s, Tangier and Watts Islands. Tangier Island is about 6 miles below the Maryland-Virginia State line and at one point all the islands below the state line were known as the “Tangier Islands” in Virginia’s records. These, among others, included Shanks, Old Walnut Island, Piney Island, Queen’s Ridge, Horse Hummock, South Point, and Hog Neck. The latter three being attached to the lower part of Smith’s Island in Maryland. The “s” was probably lost sometime after 1880 when erosion took its toll on these islands and the inhabitants moved to Crisfield MD, Onancock VA or Tangier Island itself.

Map of Tangier Virginia

At that time what we now know as Tangier Island consisted of six ridges or long narrow areas of land rising slightly above the marsh of which three are inhabited today. Main Ridge is today the center of town. The old church was in the same location as the present one on the northern end of this ridge and the land south of it was called “The Field.” At one time it was planted with corn. Canton is the ridge just to the east of Main Ridge and is connected by a bridge. It was on this ridge the first settlement was made and for a while was more populated that Main Ridge. It is generally believed that the homes of the early fishermen were here while the other ridges were used for farming. West Ridge is about a mile long. In recent times a sea wall was erected and it has a small airport or airpark on it.
Oyster Creek Ridge or what remains of this has long been abandoned. Joshua Thomas’ son, John ran the first store on the island here. Canaan or “The Up’ards” is about a mile and a half above the others and although at one time it was connected to Main Ridge by a roadway it became unreachable by land around 1923 and has not been inhabited since 1928. East Point Ridge was a very small ridge to the northeast of Canton. It was abandoned in approximately 1905, shortly after the houses on it burned.
In 1670 Ambrose White received a patent for 400 acres called an Island in the Chesapeake Bay. the next year White assigned his patent to Charles and John West. In 1673 William Walton was granted 400 acres on the western island which was formerly patented by White. There is a similar entry in the patent book three years later but Scarburgh and West were the recipients instead of Walton and in 1678 a formal patent was issued to both of them. Charles Scarburgh left his interest to his wife Elizabeth in 1702 and John West’s interest went to his eldest son a year later. In 1713 two patents were granted to Elizabeth Scarburgh and Anthony West for Tangier Islands. One was for 900 acres which included the original 400 acres and 500 acres more found within its bounds. The other grant was for 170 acres of new land south of Tangier called “Sandy Beach Island” which was probably the hook shaped part that is now attached to the main of the island. This was the first time Tangier Islands was named in the records. Although Elizabeth Scarburgh left her interest to her daughters, some how the title went to her oldest son, Bennett. It then passed to Henry Scarburgh and then to a Charles Scarburgh. In 1762 Charles Scarburgh confirmed an undeeded sale of his half to Colonel Thomas Hall. The next year Hall sold this to William Andrews as 475 acres.
Tradition states that Tangier was first settled by a John Crockett and his eight sons in 1686, who had come to the island to tend cattle, but nothing has been found to verify this. The first Crockett of record on Tangier was Joseph, the son of Sampson and the grandson of John Tyler of Smith’s Island MD. It was this Joseph who bought 475 acres of the Andrews land in 1778. It does not seem likely that Joseph tended cattle at all for he was left a inheritance by his grandfather John Tyler, was bound to his uncle Thomas Tyler to be a weaver and learn his numbers, lived on Smith’s Island MD with his uncle until about 1744, was made constable of “Tangier Islands” in 1763 and was given all of “South Point” by John Fish in his will of 4 April 1765. It was not likely that a man of some means would be tending cattle. By 1799 the West part of the patent had descended down to a John West who in this year left his interest to his son Anthony, who was to complete an unrecorded deed for 100 acres to Joseph’s son John and the remainder was to be sold. Joshua Thomas, who was raised on Smith’s Island, living with his cousin David Tyler there and had married Rachel Evans, the daughter of Richard, bought 75 acres of it.
The 1800 census of Accomack County showed that there were 79 people on the “Tangier Islands,” most of which were Crocketts or descendants of Crocketts. Farming was their chief occupation. By 1880 the population was 589 and by 1900 there were 1064 inhabitants. The population increased slowly between 1800 and 1850, and then rapidly until 1900.
In 1805 an event happened that had a great impact on the life on Tangier, the Chesapeake Bay and Joshua Thomas in general. The number of Methodist followers had been growing since the close of the Revolutionary War and Joshua Thomas was hired to carry some people to a Methodist camp meeting on Pungoteague Creek. While there, he heard Lorenzo Dow, a very powerful preacher speak and he along with others were converted. On arriving home he arranged for a meeting to be called. And, so, the Methodist Church was established on Tangier. The small Methodist society, led by Thomas until he moved to Deal’s Island MD met in homes until 1835 when the first church was built. A list of members in 1825 includes: Henry Crockett and Sally Crockett, Priscilla Crockett, a widow, Zachariah and Polly Crockett, Daniel and Esther Dise, Rhoda Parks, Babel and Nancy Paul, George and Leah Pruitt, John and Elizabeth Thomas, and John and Anna Thomas. The church grew and prospered and in 1856 the first Sunday school was established by Henry Crockett and Kathryn Sturgis; children and adults attended.
The War of 1812 did not have much effect on Tangier Island until 1813 when the British extended their excursions up the Chesapeake Bay. By March of that year the British had traveled up the Bay for about 180 miles. shortly after, they arrived on Tangier Island. They had set up a number of water wells on the beach and built several houses. They threw up breastworks and mounted a cannon on the south end of the island adjacent to Joshua Thomas’ camp meeting grove and also had plans to erect a hospital when summer came. At one point, about 1200 British soldiers must have been on the island. In Summer of 1813, the British disembarked for their attack on Baltimore from Tangier Island. The commanding officer asked Joshua Thomas to speak before they left and his sermon warned of defeat.
There have been four epidemics on Tangier. First, in 1866, came Asian cholera. Along with this epidemic came a religious revival with repenting and praying when the people started to die. Bodies were quickly buried, many of them in their front yard and without stones, for there was as many as five adults dying at a time. Both the Death Records of Accomack County and the dates on the graves with stones show that the island was hardest hit in the month of October. In the early 1870’s there was both tuberculosis and a measles epidemic and in the 1880’s there was smallpox.
Besides sickness, the weather can be and was harsh at times. There have been many tropical storms and hurricanes to hit the island. One such storm in 1821 “The September Gust” swept over the island leaving great destruction. The winters can also be especially hard. Almost once a year the Bay freezes making travel to the mainland impossible for a few days and at least once a century the freeze is so great that people walked on the ice to get supplies. Today supplies are flown in.
With the advent of the seafood market in the 1840’s the Chesapeake Bay became alive with sailing ships that carried oysters and later crabs to major cities such as Baltimore and New York. The people gradually stopped harvesting the land and harvested the waters. With the coming of the railroad to Crisfield MD, their water crop could be shipped farther and oystering and crabbing became their main livelihood. Tangier Island today is a mixture of old and new. The people still follow the water, and along with Smith’s Island MD and other bayside communities, supply a great amount of the nation’s seafood. The majority of the people still follow the Methodist Religion that Joshua Thomas brought to the Island in 1805. And, today, like in 1800 the population is mainly Crocketts and descendants of Crocketts.

Document by; Gail M. Walczyk, Peter's Row, 27 Thomas St., Coram, NY 11727


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