HISTORIC SMITH ISLAND

                From an age of pirates... ...to the twenty-first century

                Smith Island is home to lore and legend. 

 

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First Settlement

Pirates A Culture Preserved Dialect Ecological Concerns

Smith Island was discovered by Captain John Smith (1580-1631) who reached Jamestowne in 1606.  In June 1608 he set out on the Phoenix on the first exploration of the Chesapeake.  Landing on an island at the mouth of the bay, Smith chartered the island as "the Russell Isles."  The island was first settled between 1659 and 1686 by English and Welsh settlers, to whom today's inhabitants can trace their genealogy going back twelve generations.1.  Smith Island is named not after John Smith, but Henry Smith, an early land owner. 

Captain Smith recorded the first pirates in the Bay as early as 1610.  'For the next two centuries, a dazzling array of pirates, picaroons, and sea rovers raided and plundered ships, towns, and plantations in the Bay area. The most famous Chessy bucaneer was Blackbeard. Many of these seaborne hoodlums controlled islands in the Bay. The governments of Virginia and Maryland constantly launched anti-pirate cruises which led the the capture of dozens of pirates. Chesapeake piracy ended peacefully in 1807.'2 There are three towns of Smith Island, of which Ewell is the largest.  'Once an island of farmers, today's inhabitants make a living crabbing and oystering..  It is a hard occupation, sometimes involving 12-hour days. No local government or police maintain order on the island, but each community has its own Methodist church where local decisions are made, thus providing political as well as religious cohesion.'3  The population has declined in the past decade, with a struggling crab industry.

Smith Island residents speak a distinctive dialect, employing turns of phrase that only other islanders would understand.  For example, instead of at night you might hear a night.  Some features of the dialect can be traced to Elizabethan era English, such as using the prefix a- with verbs ending in -ing, giving you: 'to go afishing.'  Yet other distinctive features involving vowels have arisen in the last 50 years.  Examples: brown may sound more  like brain and side may sound like sad.4 'Some 450 hardy souls stubbornly cling to a way of life on Marylandís Smith Island.' Seawater in the Chesapeake has risen about a foot in the last century, drowning once inhabited islands. St. Clements Island has lost about 90% of the 400 acres of forestland ... first beheld in 1634.'The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun a $2 m project 'to erect bulkheads to protect homes in Tylerton,' one of three Smith Island towns.  Says Ewell resident Jennings Evans, 69, "People here arenít going to leave."5

 

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