A bird's eye view of Tangier Island. Tangier Island is located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, just south of the Maryland line.

Tangier Island Anthropology: A Unique American Culture

When you are making a trip to the Southern United States, you tend to have certain expectations. The humidity, the wide sprawling fields, beautiful plantation museums, Southern hospitality, lacy Spanish moss hanging from low hanging branches, and, most distinctly, the long and rich tones of a southern drawl are all things that come to mind. What you don’t tend to expect necessarily are groups remotely situated fishermen with nearly British sounding accents. So where in the world can you find such a place? Well, in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, between the coasts of Maryland and Virginia lays the tiny village of Tangier, on Tangier Island, a place whose accent and culture stands out from the rest of their southern counterparts. So what else makes this hidden marvel so intriguing?

Map of county in Virginia with Tangier Island marked in red
Map of Accomack County in Virginia, which incorporates Tangier Island. The island’s location is marked in red. (photo by Rcsprinter123)

Tangier Island: A History

Pre-Revolution

Like many small islands on the eastern coast of the United States of America, the earliest inhabitants of Tangier Island were indigenous people. In the case of Tangier, its inhabitants were a little studied group called the Pocomoke. The Pocomoke were a small tribal nation who lived in and around the Chesapeake Bay area, inhabiting islands such as Chincoteague, Assateague, and, of course, Tangier. The Pocomoke spoke an Eastern Algonquian dialect. While there are still some remaining Pocomoke descendants, this number is small as the population was sadly and dramatically decimated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the Pocomoke who inhabited Tangier and other nearby islands fell victim to diseases brought over by European colonists, and consistent massacre and displacement by settlers of Virginia and Maryland. From what anthropologists can tell from archaeological evidence on the island, it is likely that before the area was colonized, indigenous people lived there for over a thousand years.

Europeans first arrived at the small island in the early seventeenth century, though Virginia had been colonized shortly before. The first white person to visit the island was the now famous John Smith (yes, the very same John Smith of Pocahontas fame), though it was not officially colonized by Europeans until almost six decades later, when a man named Ambrose White purchased a patent, or contemporarily a land grant, for the island. However, the patent switched hands several times over the course of the following few years, first to two gentlemen named Charles and John West, and then again to Charles Scarborough, and then again to an Anthony West. The patent was passed down through generations in a single family, before the island was ever officially settled, which was not until a man recorded under the name of “Crockett” permanently set up residence in the late seventeen-hundreds, during the American Revolution.

Lithograph of explorer John Smith
Lithograph of John Smith, the English explorer who first stepped foot on Tangier Island. (Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

War time activities

Not much is known about any sort of activities on the island during the American Revolutionary War, but this is likely due to poor record keeping at the time in such a rural area, coupled with the fact that the indigenous population had been largely wiped out at that point, and settlers of European descent had yet to make the island their home. However, the island was relatively important in the in the War of 1812.

Tangier Island was an integral strategic location and base camp for the British Army during the war, and they even constructed a fort, Fort Albion, on the land mass. At the peak of the island’s British occupation, there were as many as 1,200 troops based there, mostly members of the Corps of Colonial Marines. Also joining them were a number of escaped slaves who had fled their American owners and sought freedom with the British on the island.

Due to its prime location, Tangier Island also played a key role in three important battles of the War of 1812: the Battle of Bladensburg, the Burning of Washington, and then finally the Battle of Baltimore. The Battle of Baltimore, which involved the failed naval attack of British troops on Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, was important in the cessation of the war, and also the increase of an American sense of nationalism.

Modern era

After the War of 1812, the recorded history of Tangier Island and its population died down significantly. Anglo-American settlers established the town of Tangier, which only reached a population of a little over one thousand at the turn of the century in 1900. In the sixties, the United States Army took over Tangier, and forced the residents to move to the mainland of Virginia in order to use the island for weapons testing. However, this process was soon over, and the residents of Tangier were allowed to move back to their home.

Ecological Issues

Erosion

If there is one issue that is currently affecting Tangier, it is erosion. The island, which has been the victim of storms like Hurricane Sandy, frequently floods, and while these storms have been devastating, they pale in comparison to the damage caused by the erosion of the Tangier shoreline. Over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, the islands mass has decreased by an estimated 67% percent. With the current climate crisis, rising water levels (in conjunction with erosion) are expected to overtake the majority of what is left of the island over the next fifty years or so, with the residents only having around half that time left to safely occupy the region. In order to combat erosion and the rising sea levels, the residents of Tangier have proposed a sea wall, though they have not been able to raise enough funds to build one, nor has the United States government stepped in with aid or assistance.

Eroded edge of Tangier island near ocean
Erosion on the edge of Tangier Island. (photo from phys.org)

Industry

One of the last “waterman” communities in the US, Tangier’s main industries are fishing and crabbing. Residents of Tangier have capitalized on their access to large crab populations, especially during molting seasons, which has allowed them to be one of the country’s largest producers of soft-shell crabs, which are considered by some to be a delicacy. Other than crabbing, the fishermen of Tangier also harvest and sell a significant amount of oysters and other shellfish.

While fishing and crabbing are by far the most profitable industries on the island, one cannot forget the island’s three other biggest career draws: tourism, military service, and religious vocations. The island’s warm water location and the curiosity outsiders have over its unique culture draw a fair bit of tourism every year. There are multiple shops, restaurants, small hotels, to accommodate tourists, who usually get to the island via chartered boats or ferries. Guests to the island can enjoy a multitude of tourist attractions, and often purchase handicrafts from islanders as well. One of the biggest establishments and attractions on the island is the Tangier Island History Museum, which also provides guided walking and kayak tours of the island and its surrounding waterways. Tangier islanders also tend to have a strong sense of nationalism and close ties to Christianity, causing a good portion of residents to choose career paths with the military and the church.

Soft shell crabs, a major industry on tangier island
Soft shell crabs (phot by Citarella Foods)

Anthropology and Culture

The Tangier accent

One of, if not the most distinctive feature of the citizens of Tangier Island is their distinct accent and dialect. In fact, the accent is so distinct that it has been the subject of multiple academic studies and investigative films, which have been the reason many people have discovered the island’s existence in the first place. The accent sounds to be a mix of British and Southern American tones, which have lead it to be investigated by a number of linguists over the years. While some theorize it to have been a slowly adapted accent from the original British settlers, others still contend that the accent developed on its own, largely due to the relative isolation of the population. This accent is truly unique to the region, and continues to spark fascination for linguists and laypeople alike.

Two citizens of tangier island
Two citizens of the island (photo: WTOP/Michelle Basch)

Transportation

The people of Tangier Island have also adapted their modes of transportation to suit their peaceful and isolated existence. While there is a small airport on the island, the main form of access for islanders and tourists to get on and off the island is by boat. The main boats to get to and from Tangier Island run out of ports mainly in Maryland, and run from morning to night almost year round. To get around on the island, residents mainly rely on golf carts, bikes, and motorized scooters. Though some islanders do own cars, they are not really practical on the island, and are not often driven around. Many residents also have their own private boats as well.

Tangier Disease

The people of Tangier Island also achieved international attention in the medical community in recent years through the discovery of a rare genetic disorder first identified by doctors in some of its residents. The disease, fittingly nicknamed “Tangier Disease”, causes a huge reduction in high density lipoprotein (a “good” form of cholesterol) in the blood of the affected person. While the condition has occurred in people not native to Tangier Island, it is thought that it is prevalent on the island due to the fact that many of the descendants of the original island settlers still live there and it is so isolated, resulting in the genetic pool being relatively small.

Religion

Being a small region in the Southern United States, it is no wonder that the people of Tangier Island have strong cultural connections to religion. The main religion followed on the island is Methodism, and it has been that way for around two hundred years. As Methodists historically opposed the institution and practice of slavery, Tangier Island refused to join their mainland counterparts in seceding from the United States during the Civil War. However, as the islander’s religious values are relatively strict, there are bans on selling and purchasing alcohol, as well as strict rules on profanity in public as well.

The potential death of the Tangier way

Because of the shrinking physical landmass of the island as well as the aging population of the island, some anthropologists have theorized that the ways of the residents Tangier Island may be on the decline. This long-term collapse in culture could result in the end of the culture (and accent) as we know it. However, this burden is a great one, and falls solely upon the shoulders of the four hundred and forty remaining residences

Things to do on Tangier Island

Tangier Island History Museum

This museum, as previously mentioned, was recently established and has a dual function as a museum chronicling the history of the island and its people and as a welcome center for visitors. The collection of the museum contains many artifacts from the island’s history, as well as ones borrowed from residents. The museum is absolutely free, and also provides tours of the island for anyone interested.

The Restaurants

As one of the soft-shell crab and oyster capitals of the country, it would make sense to stop for a bite at one of the island’s seafood restaurants. There are several to choose from, and all have rave reviews.

Take a tour of the island

What better way to get to know the island than to take a guided tour of it. Tourists can rent any number of vehicles, from golf carts to kayaks to bikes, or can take a walking tour. With only half a mile of land to cover, the tours are accessible for the majority of visitors.

aerial view of Tangier island
Aerial view of Tangier Island, showcasing the paths visitors can travel by water or land to tour the island. (photo: Elaine Luria)

A final word on Tangier Island

While Tangier Island has had a long and complicated history, one thing is true: despite its small size, Tangier Island and its residents have formed a culture so singular and intriguing that it has captured the minds of outsiders for generations. While the culture and accent of Tangier Island are at risk of disappearing within the next half-century or so, it is important to recognize and remember their unique impact on American history and the study of linguistics.

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