Aerial view of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. 17.6 miles long, it spans the waters where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean-going freighters, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, fishing trawlers and small pleasure craft alike, ply these historic waters. In 1607 three English ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, sailed past here…
“…after a tedious Voyage of passing the old Way again, between the Carribbee Islands and the Main, he, with Two of his Vessels, luckily fell in with Virginia itself, that Part of the Continent now so call’d, anchoring in the Mouth of the Bay of Chesapeak.”
– Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705
In the distance is the north-end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel where it connects with the “Eastern Shore”; view is from Cape Charles, looking southeast towards the open Atlantic.
Plumes of smoke rising from fires in villages and clearings in the forests were a constant feature of the New World. For many travelers and mariners it was the first sign that their long oceanic journey was almost over. Dutchman David Peterson DeVries visited Virginia in 1633 and observed; “When the wind blows out of the northwest, and the smoke too is driven to sea, it happens that the land is smelt before it is seen.”
Willis Wharf, Northhampton County. Located several miles inland from the Atlantic on the banks of the Machipongo River, this small waterman’s village has depended mainly on harvesting clams for generations.
1881 map of the Eastern Shore
The northern part of the peninsula, along the line of the railroad which is the connecting link between it and the great cities north and south of it, has a progressive manufacturing community…For sixty-five miles of the lower length of the peninsula there is no railroad, and that in a country rich in natural products, easy of cultivation, and delightful in climate; there are but few steam saw or grist mills in a region abounding in valuable timber, and where corn meal is the staff of life; there are no steamboat lines on the Atlantic side, and but few on the Chesapeake, where almost the only means of being reached from the outside world is by water travel. Thus the southern peninsula, the garden spot of the country, to whose shore Nature seems to have invited man by every bounty she could lavish upon it, appears to be cut loose from the rest of the world, sleepily floating in the indolent sea of the past, incapable of crossing the gulf which separates it from outside modern life, and undesirous of joining in the race toward the wonderful future. -Harpers New Monthly Magazine, 1879
Accomack County, an Algonquian word for “on the other side”, or “land across the water” is aptly named. Tucked into the far northeastern corner of the Eastern Shore, a low lying, mostly agricultural peninsula separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay. Some other place names of Indian origen; Onancock – foggy, Chessnix – home of blue birds, Wachapreague – village by the sea.
Road leading past the former Cobb Island Coast Guard Station, Oyster. This historic complex of Colonial Revival structures, built in 1936, were originally situated on the south end of Cobb Island facing the open Atlantic roughly 10 miles east of this site, but were moved by barge to this mainland location in the 1990’s after Cobb Island was acquired by The Nature Conservancy as part of the Virginia Coast Reserve.
“it would improve the island to sell some timber and wood off it as it would render the interior dryer, diminish the quantity of ticks (of which I got full) and moschettoes (mosquitos) which must harass the cattle very much“. – Lt. Robert E. Lee, letter to his father-in-law, 1832, after a horseback survey of property his wifes’ family owned near Oyster.
End of the road, Oyster
“I departed out of the River in my shallop, the first of May, for to discover the East side of our Bay, which I found to have many small Rivers in it, and very good harbours for Boats and Barges, but not for ships of any great burthen; and also great store of Inhabitants, who seemed very desirous of our love, and so much the rather, because they had received good reports from the Indians of Pembrock River, of our curteous usage of them, whom I found trading with me for corne, whereof they had great store. We also discovered a multitude of Islands bearing good meadow ground, and as I think, Salt might easily be made there, if there were any ponds digged, for that I found Salt Kerned where the water had overflowne in certain places. Here is also a great store of fish, both shel-fish and other. So having discovered along the shore fortie leagues Northward, I returned, etc.” – Sir Samuel Argoll, 1613
Rt 600 near Eastville
Quiet twilight time, downtown Exmore. The old movie house in the background, where locals would come to see all their favorites stars, closed many moons ago.
The history of the genocidal policies of European powers in the New World is well known. Not so well-known is the history of early governmental authorities attempts, ineffective perhaps but their sincerity of purpose cannot be denied, to defend and protect the native inhabitants. In 1640 Philip Taylor, a citizen of Kent Island, attempted to homestead a tract of land along Mattawaman Creek, an area that been set aside for the local Accommack tribe. Court records reveal;
“It is thought fit & ordered by this Court That Philip Taylor nor any other person or persons belonging to him, the said Taylor, shall disturb or molest the Indians, formerly seated at Mattawan Creek, neither for any cause or reason, to clear or work upon the ground, whereon they are now seated, by reason Nath’l Littleton, Argal Yeardley, Capt. Wm. Stone, Mr. Wm. Stone, & Capt. Wm. Koper have taken special charge of the place, Therefore if the said Indians be displaced of the 2,000 acres of Land, which Mr. Taylor doth lay claim to, they can in no wise permit ; and furthermore that the plantation of Phillip Taylor, can not be impaired thereby, he being seated on one side of the Creek & they on the other side, & not hitherto hath either built on that side the Indians are appointed to dwell on.“ Cottonfields, Rt 600,Capeville
“In the moon of Roasting-Ears (August) palefaces from the land of the Accomacks wanted war. The black wampum- belt, the red hatchet painted on it, was sent from chief to chief along the sea-side and over beyond to Pocomoke. The King of the bad whites was angry, and came with horse and guns. After awhile the cloud went down. The Quackels (Quakers) came into our land. ‘The bad white chief and his friends had driven them there. They loved peace. But at one time he put on his war paint and swam the Pocomoke and followed them to Pocomoke (Maryland). He hated Quackels. Once we thought of killing all the whites when in a quarrel and divided. But the Quackels were kind to Indians. Then the great father across the bay (Virginia Royal Governor) said the bad white chief must stay beyond the marked trees.” -Pocomoke Chief, 1640
Mt Prospect Ave bridge over Onancock Creek, Onancock
Captain John Teach, better known by his affectionate nickname, “Blackbeard”, repaired his vessel, “Queen Anne’s Revenge” in coves at Onnancock in the 1700’s.
In the 1600’s waterways were vitally important for transport but they weren’t the main mode of travel, as soon as settlers arrived they took up the axe and began cutting roads inland. Most ordinary folks did their travelin’ on foot, a few on horseback or carriage; few knew how to swim, and most could not afford nor even knew how to build a canoe, johnboat, skiff or any watercraft.
Blackbeard c. 1736 engraving used to illustrate Johnson’s “General History”
“After his Men were a little recovered, he (Lieutenant Maynard) returned to the Men-of-War in James’s River in Virginia, with Blackbeard’s head hanging at his bowsprit, and 15 prisoners, 13 of whom were hanged, one of them being taken but the night before out of a trading Sloop: The other, not being in the fight, was taken at Bath Town, being just before disabled by Blackbeard in one of his drunken humours. The night before he was killed, being ask’d if he should chance to be killed, whether his wife knew where his money was; he answered, That no-body but himself and the Devil, knew where it was, and the longest Liver should take all.” – “Pirates”, C. Lovatt Fraser, 1922
Rt 695, Robin Hood Bay, Saxis
Looking towards the Atlantic, Beach Access Rd, Assateague National Seashore, Chincoteague
End of the road, Assateague National Seashore, Chincoteague
In the early decades of settlement (early to mid 1600’s), the Eastern Shore was so isolated and remote from mainland Virginia that the Kings of England for many years addressed their decrees to the colonists of Virginia, “To our faithful subjects in ye Colonie of Virginia and ye Kingdome of Accawmacke.”
Folly Farm Rd, Accomack
“The six and twentieth day of April, about four o’clock in the morning, we descried the land of Virginia; the same day we entered into the Bay of Chesupioc (Cheasapeake) we could find nothing worth the speaking of but fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh waters running through the woods as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof. ” -George Percy, April 26,1607
Hammock Rd, built atop a low-lying causeway meanders thru Mesongo Creek, Saxis.
Harborton Rd, dead end at pier overlooking Pungoteague Creek, a few miles inland from the Chesapeake Bay.
Its generally believed that John Savage-a member of the Jamestown Colony he would end up living with the Indians for a few years and became fluent in several native dialects -was the first permanent white settler on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The Accomack chief, Debedeavon, the “Laughing King“, was clearly endeared to him and as testament of this, adopted young John Savage when he was a teenager and gave him, in 1619, a large tract of land lying between Cheriton Creek and King’s Creek, known today as Savage’s Neck.
Historical marker in front of Northampton County courthouse, Eastville
“Laughing King of Accomacke
Emperor of the Easterne Shoare
King of the Great Nussawattocks”
A gallant warrior and a loyal
friend to the early settlers
of the Eastern Shore.
His timely warning to the colonists
of an intended uprising in 1621,
saved them from annihilation
in the massacre of 1622.”
Mears Station Rd., Mears Station
NASA Visitor Center, Wallops Island, beside Chincoteague Rd.
How ironic. After so many posts on my blog of locations far and wide from the Andes to the deserts of the American Southwest to the forested hills and valleys of the Alleghenies to the low-lying tidewater of Virginia, that I should finally come across a piece of land in one of these pictures that once possibly belonged to my own family. In the early 1900’s my maternal great-grandfather purchased several thousand acres of mosquito-infested, scrub pine-dotted marshland on Wallops Island. He was a Philadelphia businessman and as the age of the railroad and automobile travel arrived, he, along with thousands of other well-to-do urbanites from the big northeastern cities began traveling to the seashore in summer for R & R. And a few sensed a good investment opportunity. A few held onto their land for generations, thus allowing their descendants, to this day in some cases, to enjoy the benefits of those bargain-basement days of years past. Unfortunately my family wasnt one of those Midas stories. The story goes that the rest of the family viewed his investment as a huge boondoggle and urged him for years to to sell it off and cut his losses. Then the Great Depression hit and selling it during those lean years wasn’t even an option, there were no prospective buyers. Finally just before the outbreak of WWII he didn’t have to look any further. The U.S. Navy stepped in and exercising “eminent domain”, purchased all of his holdings which ended up being incorporated into the Wallops Island facility. The family didn’t get much. And whatever they got certainly din’t trickle down to my generation. This big ripoff of a deal languished in our family for decades, finally reaching me in the late 70’s when my Uncle Cubby (his Dad was the one that started all this) shared with me his binders of legal papers that revealed his efforts starting in the late 50’s to sue the U.S. Government for additional compensation. Alas, I knew he didn’t have a dog’s chance in hell of suing the King…yet alone winning such a case. Cubby was unsuccessful, but seeing his type written correspondence with Navy and War Department attorneys was always interesting to me. David and Goliath reincarnated on the Eastern Shore, only this time David got squashed. Market St, near the waterfront,Onancock
In 1667, a sailor from the Bermudas landed at Accomack, ill of smallpox. He was isolated by the chirurgeons* and placed in a log house in the woods ; but in a time of delirium he escaped from the cabin, and, wandering to the Indian town, inoculated that tribe or village, and from there the disease spread all over the Eastern Shore, leading to an awful mortality among the natives. It is said that the Indians ever afterwards believed that the sailor had been sent among them by the whites to kill them. –Ye Kingdome of Accawmacke, Or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century, Jennnings Cropper Wise, 1911
*noun. Archaic. A surgeon. Origin of chirurgeon. Middle English cirurgien from Old French from Latin chīrurgia surgery ; see surgery
Railroad station, Parksley. In the background along Rt 316 is one of the typical victorian-era homes built for railroad executives.
Wachapreague waterfront, looking east towards the Atlantic
USGS map showing canyons eroded into the Continental Slope (paleoriver channels) when sea levels were lower, roughly 10,000-15,000 years ago.
It is hard today to grasp that millennia ago the Eastern Shore was a long ways inland from the coast. To see the Atlantic at that time required several days hiking thru primeval forest and marshland before finally reaching the beach, a 300-400′ drop in elevation covering a distance of roughly 100 miles. The Chesapeake Bay did not exist, in its place was the Susquehanna River Valley. The canyons shown in the above map drop precipitously off the edge of the Continental Shelf, a vivid indication that the rivers we know today that flow past cities like Richmond, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia, once extended much further before reaching the vastness of the Atlantic.
Canyons on the edge of the Continental Shelf show former river channels of Pliocene/Pleistocene age. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Deep-Water Mid-Atlantic Canyons Exploration 2011
On the docks at Wachapreague, in the background is a seemingly open channel to the ocean, but not so fast, there’s still miles of channels and bays and barrier islands to navigate through before reaching the Atlantic.
Sunset over South Branch Onancock Creek, Onancock