2.4 Creating a Narrative that will Sell

I’ve collected an enormous amount of data pertaining to historic tourist destinations, and the most popular all have particular things in common.  Among them are that these places base their narratives upon actual events, experiences of real life characters, the adventures they endured, and they present their history in a personal way.  

Overcoming hardships, courageous acts, perseverance, underdog success stories and other traits that make people heros are what attract historical tourists – not logistical details, such as the amount of oysters shipped. 

Our area has a long list of adventurous episodes and historic characters who lived lives of epic proportions, and if portrayed correctly, will be of interest to the mainstream.  This is the ‘goldmine’ that the experts I talked with were referring to.  Below are summaries of some of the topics that I strongly feel a historical tourism industry can be built upon.

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➢ The Native Americans:  There is a substantial amount of historical information on how the indigenous people lived that would be of interest to tourists.  How they made their clothes is fascinating, they hunted squirrels with bow & arrows, and something that’s very important is their use of canoes made from hollowed out logs.  

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➢ Settled By Adventurers:  Capt. John Smith, in the summer of 1608, had multiple perilous adventures in the Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds and almost died twice.  In 1620 the Eastern Shore was still an unknown frontier, and a man named John Westlock dared to venture out and traded furs with the Native Americans in this area.   

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➢ Indentured Servants:  The majority of the first settlers came as indentured servants, and a significant portion of them were convicts who took a plea deal to come to America instead of going to prison in England.  This is a cause for the ‘rebellious’ nature of the colonists, and many of the locals living in the area today are direct descendants of these people.

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➢ Chesapeake’s First Pirate & the Battle of the Pocomoke:  Fought in April of 1635, the Battle of the Pocomoke was the first naval battle of America, and it was fought between Maryland vessels and the first person charged with piracy in America.  This was an intense, close-quarter, hand-to-hand battle with swords, guns, and other weapons being used which resulted in multiple deaths.

A 19th Century Illustration of the 
‘Battle of the Pocomoke Sound’ that was fought in 1635.

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➢ Pirate of Watt’s Island:  During the 1680’s Capt. Roger Makeele terrorized the maritime traffic from his headquarters on Watt’s Island; located at the mouth of both the Pocomoke Sound and Tangier Sound.  A tall, flamboyant character, he brandished pistols, knives and a long saber, and assaulted his victims at even the slightest sign of defiance.  On one occasion, that happened in mid-winter, he made his victims strip nude and left them on a deserted island near Watt’s Island.   

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NOTE: There are many more – and equally fascinating – tales of local pirates.  The Eastern Shore, and especially the islands and waters of the Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds provided the perfect environment for piracy.  It has substantially shaped our culture, piracy is a part of who we are.

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➢ Stephen Horsey – Pioneer of the Concept of Liberty & The First settler of what would become Somerset County:  He came to the Eastern Shore of VA as an indentured servant in 1643, and after completing his term of indenture, he rose through the ranks of society.  Horsey became a favorite of the ‘common-folk’ for the public speeches he gave on ‘taxation without representation.’  From the evidence I have compiled, I feel it’s accurate to call Horsey one of the first, fighters of liberty in America.

After years of conflicts with VA’s powerful elite, Stephen Horsey, had enough.  He petitioned Lord Cecil Calvert to patent land, and in April of 1661, Horsey started a new life in what is now Marion, MD becoming the area’s first settler.  Two of the people that came with him as indentured servants were John Roach and Benjamin Somers, and a few years later these two patented land of their own.  Roach named his land, ‘Makepeace,’ and Somers named his ‘Emmesox.’  Two centuries later, Emmesox became Crisfield.

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➢ Religious Freedom:  In 1659 VA passed a law banning the practice of the Quaker denomination, and a number of them were arrested, jailed and/or held in stockades as punishment.  The majority of Somerset’s earliest settlers were Quakers and came because they were fleeing religious persecution in VA.  

A Drawing of a Colonial Stockade; numerous people from Accomac, VA were sent to Jamestown for trial and sentenced to be bound in a stockade.  Upon their release they moved to ‘Annemessex,’ the settlement that would become Somerset County.

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➢ Somerset’s First African-American Family:  In 1619 an African named ‘Antonio’ arrived in Jamestown and became an indentured servant.  After his service he changed his name to Anthony Johnson, took a wife and was awarded a land patent on the Eastern Shore of VA.  He had a fair-sized plantation, purchased several indentured servants from England and of African descent as well, and was living a good life.  However, like the Quakers, he began to be persecuted and by 1665 he had enough.  He moved to Somerset with his family, all of whom lived free throughout their lives.

The ‘mark’ of Anthony Johnson

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Note: The above narratives illustrates how Somerset was founded upon the principles of people wanting to be free – an attribute that has shaped every aspect of our heritage and culture – and still does so today. 

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➢ Invasion of Somerset:  In 1663, Horsey’s main nemesis, the powerful Col. Scarborough of VA, led 40 armed calvary men and invaded the Annemessex Settlement (Marion, MD).  He demanded that the settlers there still pay homage to VA because he wrongfully claimed that the VA northern boundary was 20 miles north of Annemessex, on the Wicomico River.  Multiple people were arrested, and released shortly-after, but by Scarborough challenging the location of the boundary, it started a conflict between MD and VA that lasted for over two centuries, and played a significant role in facilitating piracy and the Oyster Wars.  

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➢ Revolutionary War:  Even though this war doesn’t receive much attention on the Eastern Shore, there were numerous fascinating, and adventurous episodes that happened in Somerset and its adjacent waters.  At the outset of the war, Somerset wanted no-parts of any conflict and when forced to support the ‘Patriot Movement,’ they revolted resulting in 1,500 militiamen of the Continental Army being sent to Somerset to squash the uprising.  This is an extremely fascinating time-period, one that deserves much more attention than it receives now.  

One person of interest, who did support American independence, was born and raised in the Marion area, his name was Bvt. Brig. General John Gunby.  His father remained loyal to England, and unsuccessfully begged John to do so as well.  He is one of Somerset’s unknown heros and fought with Gen. George Washington in many of his most legendary battles.  

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➢ Picaroons – Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay:  During the war there were some who recognized that piracy offered a substantial potential for profit and raided farms and seized vessels in the Bay – especially in Somerset and throughout the Tangier and Pocomoke Sound.  These pirates were called ‘picaroons.’  Among the most famous were Capt. Joseph Wheland, Capt. Marmaduke Mister, and his nephew, Capt. Stephen Mister.  

One family that fell victim to these raids, on two occasions, was that of Capt. Sacker Nelson who lived on Fox Island during the war.  Capt. Sacker was well-known for his knowledge of the water and the English/Picaroons abducted him to navigate their fleet throughout the Bay.  Sacker refused and they threw him down into the cargo-hold of the ship which broke his thigh and maimed him for life.

Another horrific act the picaroons carried out happened to a local, who was a captain in the Continental Army.  One night, while on leave at his home, he was sleeping and awoken by English sailors and picaroons standing over his bed.  They bound, and threw their hostage in a boat, then paddled to a nearby island; there they threw a rope over a tree limb, hoisted him up and whipped him until they thought he was dead.  However, he survived and soon returned to the fight.

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➢ Battle of Kedges Straits:   By the 1780’s, people of the Eastern Shore had endured years of raids from the Brits and picaroons.  One of the vessels of choice for the Brits to conduct these raids were barges that were up to 50’ in length, carried over 50 men, and outfitted with both small and large cannon.  Somerset raised the money to build a barge of their own, outfitted it with cannons, and named it the ‘Protector.’  

In Nov. of 1782, the British and Americans faced off in Kedges Straits, on the north side of Smith Island, with each side having multiple battle-barges.  This was a brutal, deadly fight with cannons being fired at close range; explosions and intense hand-to-hand combat with men using sabers, pistols, clubs and every weapon obtainable.  

A ‘Battle-Barge’ from the Revolutionary War. 

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➢ The Battle of Jenkins Creek:  During the War of 1812, the British established their headquarters in the Bay on Tangier Island.  With thousands of men on the island, the need for food and provisions resulted in the British conducting raids in Somerset.  

One night a Tangierman overheard some British sailors planning an early morning raid on Jenkins Creek, which is just off the Little Annemessex River.  He was able to warn the locals and they answered the call racing to Jenkins Creek to set up fortifications.  When the British approached a volley of gunfire came from the shoreline, the Brits immediately retreated, and the villagers of Annemessex were not hassled again.               

It’s likely that the ‘Battle of Jenkins Creek’ closely resembles this illustration.

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➢ Down East Yankees:  Two years before the outset of the War of 1812, another type of invader came to the Chesapeake, the locals called these people ‘Down East Yankees.’  With the northern oyster population exhausted, the oyster brokers sent their schooners to the Chesapeake which had the largest oyster population in the world.  As the number of Down East Yankee schooners increased, so did the local opposition and in 1820, MD banned the dredging of oysters, and harvesting of any fashion could only be conducted by MD residents.  While this did slow-down the rate of harvest, the Down East Yankees never left, and neither did the use of the dredge.  Incidentally, this was the beginning of the ‘oyster pirates,’ and the ‘oyster wars’ as well.   

A photo of crewmen pulling a dredge onto the deck of a schooner.

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Note:  The few sections prior further exemplifies how deeply piracy is inherent to our culture.  The villains, along with the heros, are marketable narratives.  Additionally, during this time, the long held spirit of independence continued to grow. 

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➢ They Were Born For It:  One early 19th century account states that he saw a group of log canoes racing across the Annemessex River sailing through extremely rough seas, certain that these vessels would capsize.  He was astonished to see the pilots hanging off the side of these vessels to counterbalance the force of the wind that was pushing on the sails.  The witness was even more amazed when he saw that the captains of these boats were only boys.  Moreover, he was in disbelief that upon reaching shore, the barefooted youth jumped out of their boats and calmly went on their way. What the visitor didn’t know, was this was nothing out of the ordinary to these boys.  

When the ‘Oyster Bonanza’ erupted in the 1860’s, these boys – who had become men – found their calling at the helms of schooners oystering, often in extremely severe weather conditions where it was common for vessels to sink to the bottom of the Bay taking the entire crew with it.  

Even though many locals lost their lives, captains from Somerset were among the best and revered for their superior skills.  Skippers from Crisfield made a practice of wearing 3-piece suits when oystering, and boasted that their suits were just as clean when they came in as when they left.     

There were many notable captains born into this generation, senior among them were Capt. Clement Sterling, born 1808, and Capt. Michael Somers, born 1812 – along with many others.  Somers operated a navigation school on Old Island (Janes), where he taught boys of Somerset the skills of sailing, and this was the same Capt. Somers who patented ‘Honesty’ with Hance Lawson as previously mentioned.

A ‘Pocomoke’ style log canoe.

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Birth of the Bay’s Iconic Sailing Vessels:  Everyone reading this knows, or should know, what a skipjack is.  Though many may not be aware that skipjacks didn’t come into use until the oysters started to become depleted.  There were two primary predecessors to the skipjack, one is called a ‘pungy,’ the other is called a ‘bugeye.’  

The pungy’s legacy is preserved by the ‘Lady Maryland,’ which sails the Bay as a ‘Living-Classroom,’ and the bugeye ‘Edna Lockwood’ is a major attraction at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD.

The pungy-boat ‘Lady Maryland’ in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Because of these efforts, school students and tourists alike can experience these boats first hand and learn their history as well.  However, what isn’t being taught are the true origins of these vessels.  

The first pungy boat was built around 1840 close to where Crisfield’s airport is today, and the very first bugeye was built in Crisfield circa 1866.  Moreover, more pungys and bugeyes (and possibly skipjacks too), were built in Crisfield and lower Somerset County than all other areas of the Bay.

The bugeye ‘Edna Lockwood.’

In the 1730’s Somerset County was producing more sailing vessels than any other county in Maryland.  In 1880, Somerset was building more boats than all other MD counties combined, and over 1,400 vessels registered Crisfield as their homeport.

There is great interest in these vessels and they’re considered integral to the culture of the Bay, and it’s time that Crisfield starts profiting from what’s rightfully ours.       

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➢ The Art of the Hustle:  In essence, early Crisfielders personify the practice known as the ‘hustle’ (making deals that produce enormous profit).  They were not only skilled in it, they made it an art.  

It’s this same mindset that led to Capt. Somers and Hance Lawson to purchase the water-rights before anyone else did.  The crabbing and terrapin industries are other examples of this art.  James Goodsell and C.C. Gardner were two of the largest oyster brokers in New York City, and even with this power, the Designers never let them obtain a position of advantage when they came to Crisfield and profited tremendously off of them. People love stories with characters who came from nothing and became very successful. 

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➢ A City that Rose from the Sea:  Crisfield was a boomtown and grew at an extraordinary pace.  People would travel by steamboat from Baltimore to Crisfield just to see how fast the town was growing.  One tourist wrote that “Crisfield was rising out of the water as if by magic.”

The Red Circle in each of these 3 maps are all on the same exact location.

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Note: The personal stories of the local captains and hustlers will not only draw interest from tourists, but it will assist in gaining support from the locals who are their descendants. 

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➢ The Lawless Boomtown:  Some have said that Crisfield was the ‘Dodge City of the East.’  I’ve studied the history of both boomtowns, and the true story is, Crisfield made Dodge City look like a social utopia.  Multiple accounts state that, in Crisfield, fights would begin in a saloon, move into the street and quickly escalate into a situation where groups of up to 50 men would be fighting all over downtown Crisfield, and, it was usual for this to be happening in multiple places around town – all at the same time. 

There was a local who was the ‘town magistrate,’ who also owned a saloon – which incidentally – is also where he held court.  Observers stated that the magistrate would hit the gavel on the bar and say, “Gentlemen, court is in session, but as for the bar, it’s business as usual.”  This attitude worked for a while, but by the 1870’s it had reached a point where something had to be done.  One government official, upon receiving orders to come to the area, was warned by his superior who said, “be careful, life is cheap down there.”   

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➢ The Oyster Wars & the Oyster Pirates:  This is an integral, and quite popular aspect of the Bay’s history, and was more prevalent in Crisfield than anywhere else.  Oyster pirates date back to MD’s dredging ban in 1820, which resulted in the Oyster Wars that began in the 1850’s between pirates and law enforcement.  The naval police were always a main-combatant, though when the ‘Oyster-Bonanza’ began after the railroad came in 1866, piracy exploded and many local watermen joined the fight against the pirates as well.      

Like other topics, this is of great interest to many, and raises the curiosity of the large majority.

The caption of the above drawing reads, “PIRATES ATTACKING POLICE SCHOONER.”

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➢ SHANGHAIED TO WORK THE OYSTER BOATS:  As the Oyster-Bonanza grew, more oyster-boats were built to reap the harvest, but there was still a problem – finding enough men to work the vessels.  Employment agencies were established in Baltimore where captains would place orders for a certain amount of men, but the demand for crewmen always exceeded the supply.  

Some agencies, along with the most villainous captains, turned to kidnapping and forced their victims to work the ‘windlass,’ a manually operated winch that hoisted the dredge from the bottom to the boat.  If they refused, the victims were tortured, and even murdered.  These episodes contain some of the most horrific acts carried out by the oyster-pirates, fortunately, only a very few locals were found guilty in partaking in these actions.  

A drawing of men cranking in a windlass. Most kidnapped victims were forced to work the hand-operated winch.

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➢ OYSTER PIRATES CONTROL BY MOB-RULE:  As the MD Oyster Police force grew in size and strength, the pirates went underground.  However, the law enforcement efforts in Crisfield remained a precarious situation.  On one occasion, in the early 1900’s, two locals were found guilty of piracy, and a force of 1000 oystermen stormed the courtroom and took the judge hostage until he reversed his ruling.  About an hour later the judge did so, and the mob celebrated in the streets of Crisfield.

Photos of actual headlines of Baltimore Sun articles from December 1905.

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➢ Outlaw Gunners:  Crisfield had an extremely large market for ducks and geese in the early 20th century – the largest in America.  To bring as many birds as possible to market, hunters outfitted their small skiffs with as much firepower as the boats could hold, using everything from lining up a half-dozen shotguns on the bow to mounting small cannon.  

It wasn’t long before these practices were banned, but in spite of this, some continued hunting the wildfowl which resulted in many conflicts between the outlaws and the lawmen, and numerous tales as well.

Photo of a gunning skiff.

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➢ Moonshiners & Rumrunners:  Crisfield’s history, and the practice of distilling and selling bootleg liquor, are inseparable.  In 1875, three years after Crisfield was chartered as a town, actions were taken to cease the lawlessness by ordering a complete prohibition on alcohol.  It didn’t work, and actually created a new industry, and accounts state that the “fires under the stills made the marshes glow at night.”  There are numerous entertaining tales, many of them very humorous, resulting from this act.  Even though Crisfield’s prohibition didn’t last long, moonshining remained.  

When the Federal Prohibition on alcohol was enacted in the 1920’s, the mafia began running liquor into the area.  This period is especially intriguing with speedboats, machine gun fights and unsolved murders.

A picture of a modified military boat that the mafia used for rumrunning.

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➢ African-American Heros:  The history/stories of African-Americans in the area is a complex issue, and should be given attention in all facets of Crisfield’s narratives.  They faced racist based hardships, but even in spite of this, many lived, worked and fought side-by-side with white people and acquired enormous respect.  From businessmen, doctors, to oyster-boat captains, countless locals of African descent achieved extraordinary success which should certainly receive attention considering that part of the overall objective is instilling hope in younger generations.  

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➢ A Changing Tide:  Crisfield’s involvement, and influence, on the Bay’s heritage and culture cannot be excelled.  Things are changing – at a rapid pace – and it’s important to preserve and share this integral part of americana with future generations.  Today, the way of the watermen is fleeting more and more everyday, and the watermen themselves, are a direct link to who we are.   

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Summary: Even though most of the above descriptions highlight the less-desirable element, this should be equally balanced with the actions of honorable individuals, which I have an extensive amount of information on, most of which is not included in this report. 

The primary reason I felt the need for there to be a focus on piracy and outlaws is that these appeal to the largest audience, therefore providing the potential to generate the greatest amount of traffic.  Additionally, the ‘pirate narrative’ is a theme that amusement parks and other similar attractions can be built upon. 

As the next subsection will explain, the CA&DC will have interactive exhibits and activities that specifically focus on making this narrative relevant to educational historic tourism.

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