Photography by Jay Fleming
For hundreds of years the people of Virginia’s Tangier Island have built their lives—and a one-of-a-kind community—around what they’ve been able to harvest from the water. Now the sea threatens to take it all back.
It’s no easy place, this squiggle of mud and marsh in the center of the Chesapeake Bay.
It is among the most isolated communities in the East, unconnected by road or bridge to anywhere else and a dozen miles from the nearest mainland town. The surrounding water is moody, as winds have plenty of room to build waves fast. A heaving deck is the fare one pays to reach the rest of America.
Storms bring lightning and waterspouts and the bay itself surging whitecapped over the roads. On calm days, clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies rise from the wetlands like mist.
Yet for more than 240 years, Virginia’s Tangier Island has been home to a settlement unlike any in the United States, and a hardy and stubborn people who would live nowhere else.
In the vast sea of styles that comprise American culture, Tangier is an island both literal and metaphorical. Here is an outpost that has been so isolated for so long that its 460 residents have their own style of speech, a brogue of old words, strange rhythms and Cornish lilt—an accent so odd that a conversation between natives is all but indecipherable to the untuned ear. It’s complicated by the islanders’ habit of saying exactly the opposite of what they mean.
The island is a near-theocracy of old school Christians who allow no trade in alcohol or lottery tickets, who for years barred Harry Potter novels from the school library, and who denied a Kevin Costner movie permission to film here over decidedly PG-13 scenes of sex and beer-drinking.
They manage without such mainland essentials as cell phones—signals die halfway through the 45-minute mail boat run from Crisfield, Maryland—and cars: The island’s few roads are little wider than sidewalks, and most of its people get around by golf cart or scooter.
They go without a doctor in residence, too. The nearest emergency room is 30 minutes away by helicopter—assuming the weather is fair enough to fly.
Not least among their distinctions, all island-born Tangiermen are kin to the others, and often in multiple ways. This is an island of cousins, a single extended family.
How such a place came to be, let alone persists today, is explained in another singular trait: Tangier sits in the middle of a great fishery—that of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, whose summertime migrations take it past the island by the hundreds of millions.
No matter how challenging island life might be, or how lonesome, or how strange by the standards of the country at large, Tangier has this: Its virtually amphibious watermen catch more of the small but combative creature than most anyone else, and the island lays rightful claim to being the softshell crab capital of the world.
But now loom the end times. Nine generations into its human habitation, contrary, conservative and deeply religious Tangier faces existential threats that could force its abandonment in the coming years.
Mornings start early here. Long before sunup, and often closer to midnight, lights flick on in homes strung along three low ridges of sandy loam that rise almost imperceptibly from the surrounding marsh. Coffee is made, breakfasts wolfed down and watermen venture through the dark to the docks.
When Joseph Crockett, the first Tangierman, landed here in 1778, he did so to farm. It wasn’t long before islanders saw that a far richer harvest lay offshore, and in the years since, Crockett’s descendants have earned reputations as crusty, independent and dauntless fishermen, willing to take on all manner of weather to haul their catch aboard.
And so they motor by skiff into a harbor lined with crab shanties—worksheds on stilts, poised a few feet over the drink, alongside which they park their larger, low-slung workboats, most of them named for their wives or children. And from there, often alone, they chug in the predawn dark to their pots.
Those chasing peelers, or crabs soon to molt into softshells, stick close to Tangier’s crumbling shore. Sometimes their traps come up with tree roots tangled in the wire mesh, a reminder that they’re fishing from bottom that was high and dry not long ago.
Modern Tangier is about a mile wide by three long, about 70 percent of it uninhabited wetlands. In 1850 it was three times bigger, and even within the memory of older crabbers it has shrunk so much that at least two of its once-peopled knobs of high ground have been swallowed by the bay.
One, Oyster Creek, was on Tangier’s west side, where the peaty shore is wide open to wind-driven waves all year round. “I remember when houses were there, at Oyster Creek,” said Leon McMann, who, at 87, is the island’s oldest active waterman. “You had to walk over a bridge to get there. There was a big bunch of trees there, and the houses beyond. After you got to where the houses were, you had to walk a long ways to get to the water.”
Except you can’t walk there today. Oyster Creek is under a fathom of water at low tide. A navigation beacon 150 yards from shore marks the spot.
Equally dramatic change is underway in the bay’s great expanse of open water, where the watermen who fish up hard crabs—the staple of backyard crab boils and restaurant feasts, and the source for crab cakes imitated around the world—set their pots in long rows.
The bay is rising, as are tidal waters around the world. But here the phenomenon is compounded by a byproduct of the last ice age: Tangier and the mainland surrounding the Chesapeake are subsiding at the same time, a one-two punch that makes relative sea level rise in the nation’s largest estuary among the highest on Earth.
On Tangier, where no land tops five feet above the tides, few places clear three and most of the marsh fails to clear one, the resulting prognosis is bleak. A 2015 study by three researchers associated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the island is “running out of time, and if no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA.”
Most summertime mornings, Tangier lays quiet, shadeless, broiling. More than 70 of its men are off crabbing. Still others are absent for weeks at a time aboard tugboats. Minutes elapse between women passing in the odd golf cart, off to the post office or lone grocery store. Feral cats outnumber visible humans 20 to one.
Near noon, tour boats arrive from Onancock, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and Reedville, on the western, along with Crisfield, at 12 miles away the closest port. Their passengers spill into the narrow lanes. When the boats are full, the island’s population almost doubles.
Golf carts stretched to accommodate several rows of seats wait to take the visitors on narrated trips around Tangier’s meager road network. They roll down the Main Ridge, past unadorned weatherboard houses clustered in neighborhoods called Meat Soup and Black Dye—names so old and obscure that no living Tangierman can explain them. They cross the marsh on narrow strips of asphalt and cruise the West Ridge, a mile-long strip of dry ground on which houses fit on only one side of the road.
The tour doesn’t take long. Afterward, day-trippers have just enough time for lunch at one of the town’s five restaurants (four of them are summer-only) and to buy souvenirs (ball caps and T-shirts emblazoned with crabs) before the boats head back to the mainland, at about the time Tangier’s fleet returns with its day’s catch.
Late afternoons and evenings, the islanders have the place to themselves. Baseball games muster on the diamond near the K-12 school, the last in Virginia. Kids cannonball off the fuel dock at the harbor’s edge. Prayer groups meet. Old-timers chew over crabs and boats. A white-sand beach invites mile-long strolls, and offers views of sunsets over the water.
When the flies aren’t biting, it can seem an idyll. “How many places are there like this?” asked Bruce Gordy, retired from 36 years of teaching his fellow islanders. “This is one of the few remaining watermen’s communities on the bay. Otherwise, [bay country] is just one town after another of parking lots and asphalt and wine-tasting places and boutiques. Do we need any more?
“If the right folks can see our immediate need, and get the right people working on it, then we could be saved. I guess you first have to decide: Is it worth saving?”
The consensus among Tangiermen, visitors and government officials is, of course, yes. It’s no easy task, however. Rescuing the town from nature’s inexorable wear would require heroic intervention and equally heroic spending—tens of millions of dollars for even stopgap measures, and hundreds of millions, perhaps, for a lasting solution.
For so few human inhabitants, the price is far too dear for the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that oversees such projects. But one prospect remains in play: Rebuilding the island to its 19th-century dimensions with dredge spoils from the Corps’ navigation projects in the lower Chesapeake.
It is such a long shot that the Corps calls it a concept, rather than a proposal or plan. It would take years, Congressional approval and mountains of money. And the only reason it’s even on the table is that Tangier the town, though too small to merit such an effort, stands in the midst of extremely valuable habitat for birds, mammals, insects and sea life.
Such habitat is in short supply. So if Tangier is saved, it may well be for the benefit of wildlife—and the island’s human inhabitants may get to keep their homes as a side benefit.
Islanders aren’t thrilled that they’re taking a back seat to birds, but they’re hopeful the concept will become a firm plan. And they cling to the faith that has seen them through storms and strife that in times past seemed sure to bring their end.
“I know that if it stays on the track it’s on now, we need a seawall—and quick,” said Duane Crockett, an elder at one of Tangier’s two churches. “But I also believe that God has a purpose for us. We are here until He says otherwise, and I believe that one hundred years from today there’s going to be a Tangier Island, and there’s going to be people living on it.”
In the meantime, breezes ruffle the marshes, making quiet music over the island’s watery middle. And all around its edges, the bay rolls in.
Earl Swift recently released a new book called Chesapeake Requiem, which further chronicles his year living with the watermen of Tangier Island. You can learn more about his book at earlswift.com.