On a recent visit to Yorktown, Virginia, I visited the Watermen’s Museum, a
detailing the important role the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay played from
pre-colonial to current times.
|The Watermen's Museum ~ Yorktown|
The Kiskiack Indians, part of the Algonquian speaking tribes, were the first watermen that lived along the York River, one of the many tributaries that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.
“Waterman” is term that dates back to the eleventh century, and is only used widely on the Thames River in England and on the Chesapeake Bay. When the English settled in the mid-Atlantic region, they began calling those who made their living on the water, watermen. The term refers to shipbuilders, those working in the fishing industry, oystermen, crabbers, marine merchants, ferrymen, boat and ship pilots. In more recent times Navy sailors, Coast Guard, marine scientists and many others would be added to that list.
|The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries|
It would be difficult to estimate how many watermen worked the Chesapeake Bay as it is the largest estuary (where fresh water from rivers meets the salt water of the ocean) in the contiguous US. The Bay is 200 miles long from its northern headwaters in the Susquehanna River to its outlet in the Atlantic Ocean. At its narrowest point it is slightly less than 3 miles wide and at its widest point it is 30 miles wide. The vast area includes rivers and wetlands and its watershed includes mountains, forests, and fields in six states (New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia).
Many of the small waterfront communities where watermen live have changed very little over the decades, particularly on some of the islands in the Bay, such as Tangier Island, Tilghman Island, and Smith Island. Their speech even today sounds like the speech of the early colonists who first settled the Chesapeake Bay region.
|Cape Henry Lighthouse|
Working on the Bay could prove dangerous for watermen during hours of darkness. Due to the dangers of navigating at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the colonial governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood petitioned the British Board of Trade for a lighthouse for Cape Henry in 1718, but it was rejected. In 1789 an act of the US Congress provided for the construction of the Cape Henry Lighthouse. Fourteen more lighthouses would be built over the next century to provide for safe navigation around Bay.
I’ll post about American Revolution in the Chesapeake Bay in September.