Tangier Island is in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, with access by ferry from Crisfield, Maryland and (in the summer) Reedville and Onancock
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
18,000 years ago, Tangier Island was a high ridge on the edge of the ancestral Susquehanna River. When the Chesapeake Bay formed over the last 10,000 years, that ridge was isolated from the Delmarva Peninsula and the mainland of Virginia as saltwater flooded the valleys on either side.
the deep channel that separates Tangier Island from the Eastern Shore was a free-flowing river until the Chesapeake Bay formed in the last 10,000 years
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Chesapeake Bay (M130)
Tangier Sound east of Tangier Island is deep water today, reflecting its origin as a river channel
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Today, small portions of the ridge still remains above water level as barrier islands, but highest elevation on Tangier is six feet - which is lower than elevations at Accomack County's other populated barrier islands at Saxis and Chincoteague. In the 1780's, colonists could walk from along the string of Chesapeake Bay islands from Cedar Straights to the southern tip of the Fox Islands. Today, the existence of each ridge is seriously threatened by rising sea levels.1
originally, Tangier was mapped as a series of islands, reflecting how ridgetops extended above water level
Source: Library of Congress, A new and accurate chart of the Bay of Chesapeake, with all the shoals, channels, islands, entrances, soundings, and sailing-marks, as far as the navigable part of the rivers Patowmack, Patapsco and north-east (1776)
the 1755 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia shows more islands in the Chesapeake Bay than are present today, after 400 years of rising sea levels and island erosion
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina (by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1755)
The water table is just below the surface (graves are typically raised above ground level), and groundwater near the surface is saline. Until the 1940's, most houses relied upon rainwater trapped in cisterns for drinking water. In 1983 the private wells, including one dug in 1925 for a fish-packing plant, were consolidated in a community water system.
Fresh water recharge from the spine of the Eastern Shore does not reach the sediments underneath Tangier Island. The community water system relies upon wells drilled 800-1,000 feet deep, extracting groundwater from the Potomac Aquifer. Unlike the Eastern Shore, which relies upon the Columbia and Yorktown-Eastover aquifers closer to the surface, the island's water source is not threatened by septic systems or nearby surface contamination. The Potomac Aquifer groundwater has flowed from perhaps as far away as I-95, underneath the Coastal Plain and then under the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, to end up deep below Tangier.2
rainfall on the Eastern Shore recharges the groundwater at the top of the Yorktown-Eastover and the Columbia aquifers, but Tangier draws its groundwater from deep wells (800-1,000 feet deep) that tap the Potomac Formation
Source: Eastern Shore of Virginia Groundwater Committee, Our Eastern Shore Groundwater - Part I: Where is the groundwater and how much is there?
Native Americans had hunted on the ancient ridges before the Chesapeake Bay isolated them, but the islands were uninhabited when the Spanish saw them in the 1500's and John Smith visited in 1608. Smith and his English explorers failed to find fresh water on the islands, and colonists did not settle on Tangier Island for another century.
Smith assigned the name Russels Isles to the series of exposed ridgetops, including what became known separately as Smith's, Tangier and Watts islands. The name assigned by John Smith in 1608 honored Dr. Walter Russell, the Doctor of Physic traveling in the barge who later treated Smith successfully after he was wounded by a stingray.
Origin of the name "Tangier Islands" is not known. It was first associated with the string of islands in 1682; nine years earlier, "the Western Island" had been used instead of Tangier. A 1713 land grant refers to "Sandy Beach Island." Into the 1800's, references to Tangier could be describing multiple islands rather than the single island known today as Tangier Island.3
Tangier Island was originally named Russels Isles by John Smith, after the physician traveling on his 1608 journey
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith
After the 1644 uprising led by Opechancanough, the English seized him and other members of the remnants of his paramount confederacy. Opechancanough was murdered by an English guard, but other prisoners were carried to Tangier Island and abandoned there.
That was apparently the first time people were expected to do more than just visit briefly, since the land had been isolated by sea level rise. Perhaps the Native American prisoners found trees large enough to make canoes and escape to the Eastern Shore, but it is unlikely that any of the prisoners survived long on Tangier Island. The island was used as a natural concentration camp, one where prisoners defined by their ethnic identity were expected to die through starvation.4
The date of the first colonial settlement on the island is unclear. Local tradition says the Crockett family arrived in the 1680's, and Crockett remains a very common surname on Tangier. Most likely, the island was used for maintaining cattle and pigs in the second half of the 1600's, and then settled permanently by English colonists sometime in the 1700's.
Other Chesapeake Bay islands were settled first. Smith's Island to the north was closer to the deep water channel in the bay. Watts and Fox islands provided adequate drinking water from wells, because they were closer to the peninsula and within the zone in which fresh groundwater was recharged by rainfall. (When British soldiers occupying Tangier Island in 1813 made shallow wells by putting open-ended barrels in the ground, the fresh water was quickly exhausted and the wells became brackish.) As one author notes:5
Chesapeake Bay islands have been known by different names - in 1836, what today is known as Smith Island was labeled Upper Tangier
Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, New Map Of Virginia (Henry Tanner, 1836)
Occupation of the Chesapeake Bay islands did not spur Maryland and Virginia to clarify their colonial boundary, and the value of the submerged oyster beds was not high in the 1600's. Maryland and Virginia surveyed their boundary line on the peninsula of the Eastern Shore in 1688, but did not address where the line crossed the Chesapeake Bay and its various islands.
For grazing, Tangier offered both salt marsh grasses and a guarantee that the cattle/pigs could not wander away - without any expenses to build fences. The northern part of West Ridge is known still as Sheep Hill, while the southern part is called Hog Ridge.6
the Uppards area north of the harbor is now unoccupied, and human settlement on Tangier Island is concentrated on three ridges
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Tangier Island 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013)
The two most productive ways to make a living on Tangier Island have been to raise livestock and to harvest the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay, by fishing and harvesting oysters. Crabbing expanded once that food source became popular in the 1800's. Watermen also earned cash by piloting other ships sailing in the Chesapeake Bay that were unfamiliar with the locations of the shoals and channels.
Islanders did not grow tobacco in the thin soil. Slavery was not profitable on small farming/ranching operations or for oystering, so keeping a slave on Tangier Island made little economic sense.
Much of the island's trade involved shipping seafood to cities in the northern states. During the Civil War the island was sympathetic to the Union, rather than to the Confederacy.
Tangier Island residents have always depended upon seafood to make a living
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Tangier Island crab shack
During the American Revolution, Tangier was an easy target for British Navy warships. The British patrolled Tangier Sound between the island and the Eastern Shore, and roamed freely throughout the Chesapeake Bay. The continuous Loyalist/Patriot guerrilla warfare on land required islanders to accommodate whoever arrived at Tangier with weapons, seeking supplies or recruits.
The watermen were more inclined to be Loyalists, in part because most of the gentry on the mainland were Patriots. Loyalist islanders with boats ("picaroons") raided like pirates throughout the Chesapeake Bay, seizing supplies to sell to the British forces and plundering for personal benefit. In 1780, a frustrated Governor Thomas Jefferson ordered that all surplus food be removed from Tangier Island. Maryland's governor issued his own order that all residents be forced to evacuate the island.
The Patriots lacked the military capacity to implement those orders, but in 1782 they finally were able to assemble a fleet of armed barges to confront the picaroons. The last naval battle of the American Revolution occurred north on Tangier, and the picaroons won the Battle of the Barges easily. Plans for a second American armada stopped when news reached the Chesapeake Bay that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Europe, ending the military phase of the American Revolution.7
Tangier was "no man's land" again in the War of 1812. During the Chesapeake Campaign in that conflict, the British Navy used the island as a base.
The fleet sailed north from Tangier to burn Washington/loot Alexandria, and later to attack Baltimore. In 1814, the British built Fort Albion on a portion of the island that has since disappeared. The British placed up to 1,000 escaped American slaves on Tangier. The British trained some to serve in the Colonial Marines regiment, which was the English equivalent to Lord Dunmore's colonial government's Ethiopian Regiment.
Raiding the Eastern Shore for supplies continued until news of the peace treaty reached North America in 1815. After the war ended, the British fort was abandoned and all the former slaves evacuated by the British Navy. A hurricane in 1821 washed away much of the evidence of the fort, and archeologists assume the site is now underwater.8
Fort Albion was recorded by John Wood when he mapped Accomack County in 1820
Source: Library of Virginia, Accomack County (John Wood, 1820)
One thing has remained consistent on Tangier Island: the significant role of the Methodist Church in community life. That denomination became dominant on the Eastern Shore after the American Revolution, when the Anglican Church was associated too closely with the British government. Joshua Thomas, the "Parson of the Islands," is credited with holding fiery camp meetings on the island after he converted in 1808.
the Methodist faith has been dominant on Tangier Island for over 200 years
Source: The Parson of the Islands (p.45)
In 1814, at the request of British Admiral George Cockburn, Joshua Thomas preached to the British forces before they attacked Baltimore. In his confrontational "Thou Shalt Not Kill" sermon, Thomas predicted correctly that the attack would fail. Within a week, Francis Scott Key memorialized that British failure at Baltimore in the Star Spangled Banner.
Rev. Joshua Thomas preached to the British soldiers in 1814 on Tangier Island, defiantly predicting their attack on Baltimore would fail
Source: The Parson of the Islands (p.45)
There are two churches today on Tangier. Swain Memorial United Methodist Church was divided in 1946 by a schism. The minister and a portion of the congregation started a separate New Testament Church, which remains today as a non-denominational organization.
In 1998, the residents rejected a proposal by a Hollywood studio to film "Message in a Bottle" there. They passed up significant economic benefits because the alcohol, sex and profanity in the movie were inconsistent with island values. The island is dry. Despite the economic focus on tourism, no alcohol sales are authorized there.9
After the railroad reached Crisfield, Maryland in 1866, the demand for seafood increased because watermen could ship fresh seafood quickly to New York. After World War I, a shirt factory briefly operated on the island, taking advantage of the large number of women who had few other opportunities for work. At one time, there were 2,000 residents living on at least six separate ridges. Today, only three ridges remain populated, and there are 500 or fewer residents.10
bridges cross marshes and saltwater channels (guts) to connect the three populated ridges
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), The National Map
Fishing, crabbing, and oystering still provide seasonal employment, especially raising soft shell crabs in shanties built on the harbor's waterfront. Other jobs are based on catering to tourists who come to see a unique location and to experience the unusual dialect spoken by islanders.
Claims that the local speech patterns are a relict of Elizabethan English may help attract some tourists, though Tangier Island was probably not settled until a century after Elizabeth I died. The idioms and stretched-out vowel sounds developed and were retained because the culture was isolated; children followed their parents into traditional water-based jobs. As modern transportation and telecommunications breaks down the isolation, the distinctive island speech is expected to disappear.11
Modern transportation helps the islanders survive. Starting in 1979 until he died in 2010, Dr. David B. Nichols would fly his airplane or helicopter to the island from White Stone in Lancaster County to provide volunteer medical care. His service earned him recognition as the Country Doctor of the Year award in 2006, and the local name of "Dr. Copter."
To ensure the care would continue, he helped an island resident get trained as a physician assistant and partnered with the Riverside Health System in Newport News to set up the Tangier Island Health Foundation. After the death of Dr. Nichols, Riverside Health System continued the pattern of flying a doctor to the island once a week, and budgeted $90,000 a year for the flights.12
between 1979-2010, "Dr. Copter" flew weekly from White Stone in Lancaster County to provide medical services to residents on Tangier Island
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Helicopters also bring medicine and emergency supplies to the island when ice in the Chesapeake Bay stops boat traffic. The Virginia National Guard provided a delivery service in 2015 and again in 2018, when the normal ferry service was unable to dock at Tangier Island. Volunteer pilots also arranged in 2018 to bring MeowMix and other food for the local cats, which may exceed the number of people on the island.13
In 1917, the US Government dredged the boat basin in what is now Main Channel, and dug the channel on the east side in 1921. That channel is maintained by the Corps of Engineers at 8' depth. The 7' deep channel on the west side (known as North Channel) was carved through the former location of Oyster Creek in 1967, with the dredged materials used to create the land for the island's airport.14
navigation channels and the main harbor were carved through Tangier Island between 1917-1921
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), National Map
Even before the oyster population dropped precipitously due to diseases (Dermo and MX) and overharvesting, erosion reduced the suitable living sites and made it harder for families to stay on the island.
hen tongers faced competition from dredgers after the Civil War, competition for oysters increased and the Oyster Wars began
Source: Library of Congress, Oyster tongers fishing from side of boat, Chesapeake Bay, Md., U.S.A.
The communities on the "Uppards" (upwards) portion of Tangier north of the harbor (Canaan Ridge, Oyster Creek, Persimmon Ridge and Reubentown) were abandoned in the 1930's due to flooding. Some houses were relocated to the south, but graveyards were left in place.
By 2013, erosion was exposing burials. Across the island, recent graves are raised above ground level due to the high water table.15
only tiny portions of Tangier Island are classified as Zone X, elevated above the 100 year flood plain
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Flood Zone Map (area number 51001C0380F)
The land is sinking, while sea level is rising. Tangier Island is outside the crater formed by a bolide 35 million years ago, but the land throughout the bay region is getting lower. One theory is that the ice sheets that covered the North American continent, down to Pennsylvania, compressed the land beneath the ice - but the pressure further inland squeezed up the Coastal Plain of Virginia.
a 35-million year old bolide crater triggers unusual land subsidence to the south and does not affect the island - but Tangier is still affected by the regional land subsidence resulting from the melting of the ice sheets
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), The Effects of the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater on the Geological Framework and Correlation of Hydrogeologic Units of the Lower York-James Peninsula, Virginia (Plate 6A)
The ice sheet has melted and the continental crust on the eastern edge of North America is rebounding - and that rebound is pushing down the coastline of Virginia, causing land levels around the Chesapeake Bay to sink. At the same time, sea levels are rising worldwide. For Tangier Island, the combination of sinking land and rising water levels indicates the island's remaining existence will be short.
Less than 10% of the island is habitable now. In a Category 1 hurricane, 75% or more the island could be inundated by the storm surge, as occurred in 1899, 1933, and 1984. The Base Flood Elevation is below 5', and 86% of all houses are located in the 100-year flood plain.
Roughly 7-9 acres erodes away annually, and the entire island could be underwater in 50-100 years. Fort Albion is already 10' underwater. As described by one resident:16
in the last century, water has covered the southern hook of land where Fort Albion was built and Methodist camp meeting were held between 1809-1857
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the state of Virginia, constructed in conformity to law from the late surveys authorized by the legislature and other original and authentic documents by Herman Bö˙e
The Corps of Engineers built a seawall on the west side of Tangier in 1990, protecting the airstrip built in 1969 and the wastewater treatment plant. In 2012, after Superstorm Sandy, Congress funded a $4.2 million project to build a jetty on the northern end of that seawall to reduce erosion at the eastern edge of the Tangier North Channel.
The jetty project was one of many that had been proposed, including one by the local representative to the US Congress to sink barges and create a low-cost breakwater.17
the Corps of Engineers constructed a navigation channel between Uppards and Tangier Island in 1967
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), 7.5-minute topographic map for Tangier Island, VA (2016)
the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges the shipping channel between Tangier and Uppards islands
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Bathymetric Data Viewer
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Chesapeake Bay Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds (Chart 12228)
Despite the jetty, sinking land/rising seas may ultimately force evacuation of the island, just as Holland Island was abandoned in the 1920's before it disappeared. That triggered a columnist for the Virginian-Pilot to propose in 2014 to abandon the jetty and use the $4.2 million to give everyone on the island $8,400 to pay for moving costs.18
storm surges from Category 1 and Category 2 hurricanes will inundate Tangier
Source: Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Virginia Hurricane Storm Surge Tool
In 2015, a scientific report concluded that since 1850, about 2/3 of Goose, Uppards, Port Isobel and Tangier Island have become uninhabitable.
Relative sea level rise eroded away the land or submerged it, converting uplands into marshlands or open water. Since 1600, over 500 islands in the Chesapeake Bay have been lost.
In addition to absolute sea level rise raising water levels, Tangier Island is sinking. Up to half of local land subsidence was caused by compaction of the aquifer after groundwater was pumped up 900 feet to the surface for use by residents on the island. The remainder of the subsidence was due to glacial rebound from the retreat of Laurentide Ice Sheet over the last 18,000 years, and by the lingering effects of a nearby bolide (meteor/comet) impact 35 million years ago.
The report concluded:19
since 1850, 2/3 of the land of the land at Goose, Uppards, Port Isobel and Tangier Island has been submerged or converted into marsh
Source: Scientific Reports, Climate Change and the Evolution and Fate of the Tangier Islands of Chesapeake Bay, USA (2015)
In 2017, CNN broadcast a program on the impact of rising sea levels on Tangier Island. President Trump then called the mayor of the island, reassuring him that the island would survive for hundreds of year more.
That claim generated more attention, since President Trump had announced two weeks earlier that the United States would withdraw from the international Paris Accord on climate change. It also triggered speculation that the US Army Corps of Engineers would propose a seawall, behind which dredged material would be deposited to raise the elevation of the island.
one option for preventing land loss at Tangier Island is to make it a dredge spoil disposal site, like Poplar Island in Maryland
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
One resident noted that the debate over climate change was not a significant factor in the 2016 presidential election, in which Trump won 87% of the vote on Tangier:20
The local, state, and Federal governments may decide that the costs to armor the shoreline and raise the elevation of Tangier Island exceed the benefits, and implement a plan to retreat from the site. If so, residents of Tangier Island will not be the first climate refugees to be evacuated from their homes due to sea level rise.
98% of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana disappeared underwater after 1950. In 2016, the Federal government committed nearly $50 million to resettle the remnants of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw band from their homes there. Moving the group 40 miles inland was designed to protect them from flooding, but inevitably cut them off from the bayou and disrupted their cultural traditions.21
Similarly, any proposal to evacuate Tangier Island will have to deal with substantial social impacts and concerns about loss of identity.
risks to Tangier Island became national news in 2017 when President Trump called
Source: CNN, CNN report prompts Trump to call mayor of disappearing island
the series of islands originally mapped as the Tangier Islands are surrounded by shallow shoals, which impeded navigation but supported oysters
Source: Library of Congress, To the American Philosophical Society, this map of the peninsula between Delaware & Chesopeak bays, with the said bays and shores adjacent drawn from the most accurate surveys is humbly inscribed by John Churchman (1786)
the Corps of Engineers dredges the channel on the east side of Tangier Island to maintain a depth of 8 feet, while the turning basin and west channel are maintained at 7 feet
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Chesapeake BayPocomoke and Tangier Sounds, NOAA Chart 12228
Tangier Island in 1943
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Tangier Island VA (1943)
Tangier Island in 1968
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Tangier Island VA (1968)