Tangier Island, Virginia – a forgotten community founded by Cornish fishermen

Tangier Island

Tangier Island is a wild, marshy landmass in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia on the east coast of America. The tiny population of around 500 people survives mainly on fishing, harvesting crabs and oysters and, in recent years, tourism.

It is a remote, isolated community, cut off from the mainland for centuries. The islanders have developed their own culture and way of living, yet bizarrely this unlikely place is also deeply connected to Cornwall.

Credit: Wikimedia – Eli Christman

The inhabitants of Tangier Island are said to talk with a strange American-Cornish accent and the St Piran’s cross even graces their island’s flag. So, how did this unusual connection come about?

It is all because the first permanent colonial settlement on the island was founded by Cornish farmers and fishermen back in the 17th century.

An Isolated Idyll

Separated from the mainland by a deep channel 12 miles wide Tangier Island is only accessible by seaplane or boat. Covering only 1.5 square miles it is truly tiny place that unfortunately it is shrinking by the day.

The people here hold fast to a very quiet and traditional way of living and up until fairly recently daily life was governed by strict Methodist beliefs. There are almost no cars, most people get about by bicycle, motorbike or boat; there is no alcohol, no mobile phone reception, no police and, the locals say, no reason to lock your doors.

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View of Tangier Island

The Cornish Settlers of Tangier Island

For thousands of years, up until the early 17th century, Tangier had been used as retreat by the local Pokomoke Indians whose arrowheads can still be found in their hundreds across the island. Although the English explorer John Smith first visited here in 1608 but it took a further 78 years before there was a permanent settlement on Tangier Island.

“Tangier is an island of fishermen. The people earn their living from the water – oystering, crabbing and fishing. They are descendants of John Crockett and others from Cornwall who settled on Tangier Island in 1686.”

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 6 November 1961

In 1686 five (or seven or fourteen depending on what you read) Cornish families moved to Tangier Island and made it their home.

They were said to be farmers and fishermen, possibly from the Padstow area, well suited to the rigours of making a life for themselves and their families in the New World.

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Stilted homes on Tangier Island

It is thought that John Crockett and his wife, with their four sons and four daughters, were amongst the first settlers, along with other families who names we aren’t quite so sure of. Together they built houses, they intermarried and had more children, they made a life for themselves far away from the Cornish shores they had left behind. Though, as you might expect, it was not always easy as this cutting from 1936 proves.

The Cornishman, 27 February 1936

Today it is believed that by and large all of the islanders are descended from those few original families. The community nearly all have the same few surnames Crockett, Pruitt, Thomas, Marshall, Charnock, Dise, Shores and Parks.

In 1940 Lieutenant William J. Trevorrow, a Cornish Bard from California, visited the island and wrote to The Cornishman newspaper about his visit:

“I visited Tangier Island, sixty miles up the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, where in 1686 Cornish fishermen settled . . . They number 1,400 people . . .a sober-minded, superior people who are considered by other Viriginians to have retained old customs, more so than other colonial settlers.”

This holding on to tradition is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of life on Tangier Island.

Americans with a Cornish Accent?

Even today other Americans visiting the island say that it is like stepping back in time and perhaps one of the most distinctive things they notice is the strange accent of the islanders.

Some say that it is the remnants of “Elizabethan English” but most agree that the geographical isolation and strict adherence to tradition has created a truly unique speech pattern that is believed to have been passed down from the original Cornish settlers.

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Tangier Island’s flag

One islander, David Shores, has written a book about the history of his home and he confirms that their dialect is believed to have descended from those original families from Cornwall. Due to their lack of any contact with the outside world it has remained largely intact, though of course they have added to and adapted the language as any closed community would.

“Tangier was founded in the late 1600s by settlers who were actually Cornish so we see some influence there. And because of the remoteness the residents who lived there were really in linguistic isolation from the mainland.”

Christine Mallison, Assistant Professor, Language, Literacy & Culture, University of Maryland, baltimore
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You can listen yourself below and see what you think. Does it sound like Cornish dialect to you?

It might be wishful thinking on my behalf, but I think I can recognise a familiar tone or accent there, and even some of the faces seem familiar to me too . . .

Going, Going, Gone – The disappearing Island

Sadly a combination of erosion and rising sea levels means that Tangier Island is literally sinking.

The New York Times recently reported that the island’s landmass has already shrunk by two-thirds since 1850 and with its highest point just 4ft above sea level some scientists fear that the islanders will need to find somewhere else to live by as early as 2037.

A sea wall has been proposed to protect the island from the ever-encroaching sea but the huge cost of such a project means that the islanders are struggling to get any support from the state authorities or government.

Much of the population has already started to leave, at its peak the island was home to around 2000 people these days that has dwindled to around 400 – 500 as year on year more people leave in search of work and an easier life.

It is a story that we in Cornwall can recognise all too well.

The tragedy is that this precious, unique community, that has survived for more than 300 years since those first Cornish settlers arrived, may not be there much longer.

Final Thoughts

I never knew a thing about this community before I began my research and I have to say I was astonished and delighted by the connection. It is wonderful to find us Cornish reaching out and stretching ourselves across the globe, proving once more that we have never been truly confined to this granite peninsula although it is, of course, where our heart lies.

I tried to make contact with the tiny museum on Tangier Island, I had so many questions, but as yet have had no response to my letter (there is no email available) which I sent back in August. But if I do hear anything I will be sure to update you here!

I must acknowledge that the inspiration for this post comes from a lovely reader who emailed me a few months ago after meeting someone from Tangier Island and wrote to tell me about it!

Further Reading

The Murder of Billy Kinsman – Cornishman shot dead in Tombstone

Death in Arizona – how a Cornish miner came to die in the desert

Charles Carkeet James – Cornish Quaker & Innovator in India

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9 thoughts on “Tangier Island, Virginia – a forgotten community founded by Cornish fishermen

  1. Thanks for this article! We used to sail in the Chesapeake a lot every summer and I’ve always been fascinated by the “archaic Elizabethan” accent of Tangier Island. It just seems right to learn that the settlers were from Cornwall.

  2. That was such a treat to find. I looked up Tangier as we are planning to go to Morocco at Christmas and came across Tangier Island. Two minutes later you popped up with this research. Wow! Love your posts. Thank you? Jan x

  3. I was born in Cornwall & several years ago I visited Tangier Island as a mariner, & was astounded when one of the inhabitants, after hearing me say a few words said ‘ You’re one of us aren’t you?

  4. Hi there, although not Cornish, I have spent quite a lot of time in this beautiful county & can definitely hear a Cornish ‘lilt’ in the voices of the folk on this little island. Thank you for sharing. Caz

  5. Thank you for all your hard work. Unforyunately at present, my outgoings exceed my income, but will describe when things improve; trust you will understand.

  6. I live on the mainland in Maryland, and there is a daily boat taking visitors to Tangier Island every morning. If you visit the Washington DC or Baltimore area, drive over the Bay Bridge from Annapolis, and head south to Crisfield, Maryland. That’s where you’ll find the boat. There is a beautiful church on the island, gift shops, a restaurant, an ice cream shop, and some lodging for tourists. Tourists can rent a golf cart and drive around the island, visit the white sand beaches, dine on local delicacies, and learn about the wonderful culture and history of the people who live there. A few miles to the north, there is Smith Island in the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay. Smith shares the same culture and history with Tangier. If you like to visit other countries, but you don’t want to go to the typical tourist traps, this is a great option.

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