Earl Swift’s book Chesapeake Requiem is the Common Ground Virginia History Book Group pick for June 2023. Chesapeake Requiem explores the close-knit community of Tangier Island. While some of the recent challenges facing Tangier are familiar to many small and/or rural towns across the country, as an island, Tangier is quite literally set apart.
Much has been written about Tangier Island in recent years, but interest in the island dates back centuries. As early as 1879, Harper’s Monthly described the islands of the Eastern Shore as exotic places to explore, commenting on “picturesque dreariness” of the landscape and in 1914 on the “queer goin’s-on” of the Tangier community specifically.1 Of course, what is written about an individual or a group can vary drastically from how they view themselves. In 1920, reporters descended on the island after the shooting of 17-year-old Roland Parks and residents pushed back when the photographers “refused to take all parts of islanders, but insisted on ‘shooting’ only the fisherfolk and their cottages…[refusing] a request to film a well-dressed woman…and the larger buildings of the town.”2
It is important to examine all these different perspectives, including what a community has written about itself. We all deserve the right to tell our own story. As a journalist, Earl Swift facilitates this in his book by quoting Tangiermen directly. Early in the book, Swift quotes Dr. Nina Pruitt, the principal of Tangier Combined School, as she talks during a graduation ceremony and indirectly addresses how some might perceive the island.
Nina Pruitt returns to the lectern. “As you leave us tonight,” she tells the graduates, what sounds like a bon voyage, “I ask one last thing of you. Take pride in your Tangier heritage. Be proud to be called a Tangierman.”
“As a teenager you think of the place as too confining, like living under a microscope,” she says. “But soon you will come to realize what a special place home really is.”3
Another way to preserve these views is of course through primary sources – the records created by the community members themselves. In 2022, Dr. Pruitt, on behalf the Tangier History Museum, loaned fifteen of the Tangier Combined School yearbooks to be scanned for the Virginia Digital Yearbook Collection.
The fifteen volumes of The Harbor Light cover thirty-one years and like many yearbooks, offer glimpses into more than just the teenage fashion of the day. They offer insight into local businesses, community activities, and family relationships. The Harbor Light in particular shows the closeness of the community, not just by the familiar surnames, but by the yearbook dedications and traditions reflected through the years: the addition to the school in 1968, the boat shuttle services to Crisfield, Maryland, the softball tournament (Students vs. “The Town”), and the discussions of students’ part-time jobs.
The 1994 yearbook pays tribute to “the uniqueness of [the] school and community,” noting that although the school year has ended and people have graduated, “[because] a lot of us are related and we will see each other [over the] summer, and we never really say good-bye, the thirteen year long party rocks on!”
Not all of us are able to stay so close to our childhood friends. If the yearbook’s prediction of an ongoing connection held true, perhaps that’s due to “what a special place home really is” for the people of Tangier.
Library of Virginia Digital Collections
Accomack News (Virginia Chronicle Digital Newspaper Archive)
Peninsula Enterprise (Virginia Chronicle Digital Newspaper Archive)
Tangier Photographs (Virginia Chamber of Commerce Photograph Collection)
Tangier School Yearbooks (Virginia Yearbooks Digital Collection)
Tangier / Crabbing Photographs (1939 World’s Fair Photograph Collection)
Tangier Island: Websites
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail (National Park Service)
Chesapeake Bay (National Park Service)
Chesapeake Bay History (Chesapeake Bay Program)
Eastern Shore of VA Heritage Center
Tangier Island National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)
Tangier Island: Books
Chowning, Larry S., and Elmer Crockett. Barcat Skipper: Tales of a Tangier Island Waterman. Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1983.
Feltault, Kelly. “It’s How You Pick the Crab” : An Oral Portrait of Eastern Shore Crab Picking. St. Michaels, MD: Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, 2001.
Jander, Anne Hughes. Crab’s Hole: A Family Story of Tangier Island. Chestertown, Md: Literary House Press, Washington College, 1994.
Shores, David L. Tangier Island: Place, People, and Talk. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.
Mariner, Kirk. God’s Island : the History of Tangier. New Church, VA: Miona Publications, 1999.
Rountree, Helen C., and Thomas E. Davidson. Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Tangier and Virginia Climate Change Resources
Earmark to fund using dredged material to restore Tangier (Eastern Shore Post)
Help Your Coast | Virginia Department of Environmental Quality)
National approach is more urgent than stopgap funding for Tangier Island (Virginia Mercury)
NOAA Sea Level Rise Portal (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit (Climate.gov)
Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation)
What the tiny Tangier Island teaches us about sea level rise (Grist)
1“A Peninsular Canaan.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine LVIII, no. CCCXLVIII, May 1879.
Church, J W. “Tangier Island.” Harper’s Magazine, May 1914.
2“Roused Over Movies.” Fauquier Democrat. May 15, 1920, VOL. XV—NUMBER 21 edition.
3Swift, Earl. Chesapeake Requiem a year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. New York, NY: Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow, 2020.