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
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
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