Title: Work and health of the Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen of Somerset County, Maryland
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00103067/00001
 Material Information
Title: Work and health of the Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen of Somerset County, Maryland "It's a hard life, honey!"
Physical Description: xiii, 264 leaves : ill., maps ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Habermacher, Andrew Lee, 1943-
Publication Date: 1986
Subjects / Keywords: Fisheries -- Maryland -- Somerset County   ( lcsh )
Fishers -- Maryland -- Somerset County   ( lcsh )
Social conditions -- Somerset County (Md.)   ( lcsh )
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Thesis: Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1986.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references (leaves 249-262).
Statement of Responsibility: by Andrew Lee Habermacher.
General Note: Typescript.
General Note: Vita.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00103067
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: alephbibnum - 000880438
notis - AEH8257
oclc - 14971383

Full Text







Copyright 1986


Andrew Lee Habermacher


To Kyle, my wife, and Gretchen and Geoffrey, my children


The research for this dissertation was funded by myself and

performed during summers, weekends, and holidays during the period 1979

to 1985 while I continued to teach full-time at Prince George's

Community College, Maryland.

I received cooperation from a number of individuals and

organizations during the course of the research and I wish to

acknowledge my gratitude to them. The staff of the Health Planning

Council of the Eastern Shore at Cambridge, Maryland, provided helpful

documents on the health care system and contacts with health care

personnel in Somerset County. The Licensing and Consumer Services

Department of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Annapolis,

provided invaluable computer printouts concerning commercial fishing

licensing and related information for Somerset County. The Maryland

Department of State Planning made available computer printouts of the

1980 census for the subdivisions within Somerset County which proved to

be much more useful than the printed aggregated county data. The

Somerset County watermen and their family members with whom I spoke and

among whom I circulated during the field work deserve many thanks and

my gratitude. I am most especially indebted to three families whose

members served as key informants and also to those watermen who

participated in the formal interviews.


I am indebted to the anthropology faculty of the University of

Florida for the high quality of their graduate program, and for the

training and guidance I received during my two years of course work

among them. I also wish to indicate the helpfulness of the Title VI,

N.D.F.L. Grant I received through the auspices of the Center for

African Studies of the University of Florida which helped financially

sustain me during those two years and to indicate my gratitude to its

then director, Dr. Haig der Houssikian, for his support.

To the members of my dissertation committee--Dr. B. M. duToit,

Dr. 0. von Mering, Dr. D. Niddrie, Dr. R. Lawless, and Dr. J. C.

Cato--, I owe many thanks for their careful scrutiny of the draft and

revisions of the dissertation which is measurably better for their

input. Dr. Brian M. duToit, my graduate advisor and dissertation

committee chairman, deserves special acknowledgment for his perennial

encouragement and constructive advice during my doctoral course work,

field research, and, particularly, during the writing and revising of

the dissertation itself. Without his continued support, I might not

have completed this project and to him I owe a great deal.

I also wish to thank my colleagues at Prince George's Communuty

College-Dr. Righton Robertson, Dr. Ernest Green and Dr. Harold

Guy--for their friendship and unflagging support, especially during the

period of my field research and write-up. Their cooperation and

encouragement eased the difficulties of carrying out research while

continuing to hold a full-time teaching position.

To my dear friend and teacher, the late Dr. Michael Kenny,under

whom I studied for an M.A. in anthropology at Catholic University in


Washington, D.C., I owe more than I can easily express. Were it not

for him I would not have ventured down the personal and professional

paths I walk today.

Without the love and patience of Kyle, my wife, Geoffrey and

Gretchen, my children, and Grace and Andy, my parents, this

dissertation would never have been completed.




. . . . . . . .

LIST OF TABLES . . . . . . . . . . . .

LIST OF FIGURES . . . . . . . . . . .

ABSTRACT . . . . . . . . . . . . .


I INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . .

II LITERATURE. . . . . . . . . . .

Social Science Research on Work and Occupations . .

The Occupation of Fishing and Related
Health Issues . . . . . . . .


The Development of the Research Project . .
Early Field Research Experiences . . . .
Ethnographic Field Techniques . . . . .
Lessons . . . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . . . .






The Colonial Period .. . ....
The Revolutionary War and the Late
Eighteenth Century . . . .
The Early Nineteenth Century . .
The Rise of the Seafood Industry..
Somerset in the Twentieth Century .
Notes . . . . . . . .


Population Size, Age and Sex Composition.
Ethnic Composition . . . . . .
Density, Rurality and Settlement . .
Income, Unemployment and Poverty . .
Housing . . . . . . . . .

. .

Marriage. . . . ..... 86
Social Distance and Insularity.. . ....... 90
Conclusion. . . . . ... . . . . 93


Becoming a Waterman . . . . . . . .. 96
Watermen's Income and Poverty Levels . . . ... 102
Work Opportunities. . . . . . . . ... 105
Work Strategies . . . . . . . . .. 110
Social Organization . . . . . . . .. 143
Watermen's Views and Opinions . . . . . . 153
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . 161

VII HEALTH AND HEALTH CARE. . . . . . . ... 162

Health.Care . . . . . .. . . . 162
Health Problems . . . . . . . .... 173
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . 204

VIII CONCLUSION. . . . . . . . . ... ... .205

Environment, Population, Social Organization
and Technology: Changes and Interactions . . .. .205
Somerset Watermen: Summary Conclusions. . . .. .217
Recommendations . . . . . . . . 233
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . 235




BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . ... ...... 249

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. . . . . . . . . ... 263




5-1 1979 Family Incomes for Smith Island,
Somerset County and Maryland State. . . . ... 84

5-2 Percent of Families and Individuals with Incomes
Below Poverty Level in 1979 for Smith Island,
Somerset County and Maryland State. . . . . 85

5-3 In-Marriage and Out-Marriage Figures for
Selected Somerset County, Maryland Areas. . . . 87

5-4 In-Marriage and Out-Marriage Percentages for
Selected Areas in Somerset County, Maryland . . 88

6-1 Mean Number Years of Education by Age
Cohorts of a Sample of Somerset County
Commercial Fishermen. . . . . . . . ... 100

6-2 Employed Persons 16 Years and Over
by Industry in 1980 for Smith Island. . . . ... 104

6-3 Smith Island Family Income for 1979 . . . ... 106

6-4 Maryland Fisheries Licenses Issued
for Somerset County in 1980 . . . . . .. 111

6-5 Legal Harvest Seasons for Various Aquatic Species
in the Maryland Portion of Chesapeake Bay and the
Atlantic Coastal Waters of Worcester County . . 116

6-6 Oyster Licenses Issued in Maryland, 1977-1980 . . 120

6-7 Oyster Shaft Tongers on Smith Island 1982 . . .. .121

6-8 License Combinations for Smith Island
Watermen 1980 . . . . . . . .... .130

6-9 Business Activities of Fishermen's
Wives in Crisfield and Smith Island . . . 141

6-10 Opinions of Somerset County Watermen Concerning
Work in the Commercial Fisheries. . . .. . 156

7-1 Home Remedies and Self-Medications
Employed in Somerset County . . . . .... 165

7-2 Diseases of the Circulatory System 1974 ..... . 175

7-3 Estimated Number of Hypertensives 1975. . . . 177

7-4 Infant Mortality Rates. . . . . . . . 178

7-5 1971-1975 Infant Mortality Composite Rates. .... .180

7-6 Admissions to Maryland State Inpatient
Facilities for Fiscal Year 1976 . . . . .. 181

7-7 Somerset County Medical Personnel Views
on Health Problems of the General County
Population (Including Watermen) . . . . . 184

7-8 Somerset County Medical Personnel Views
on Health Problems of Watermen. . . . . ... 186

7-9 Health Problems of Watermen During the
Year Immediately Prior to Their Interviews. .... .188

7-10 Health Problems Watermen Reported
Have Caused Them to Miss Work . . . . .... 189

7-11 Health Problems Causing Work Loss Which
Watermen Believe to be the Result of
Commercial Fishing Work . . . . .. . 190

7-12 Watermen's Views on Health Problems
Related to Commercial Fishing . . . . .... 191

7-13 Occupationally Related Illness/Injury of Watermen:
A Comparison of the Views of Watermen and Health
Care Personnel (H.C.P.) . . . . . ... 194

8-1 Changes in Four Variables and Their
Effects in Somerset County. . . . . . . 206

A-1 Thirty-Eight Most Common Family Names
of Somerset County Watermen . . . . . . 237

A-2 Most Common Family Names of Licensed
Somerset County Watermen by County Area ..... . 238



1-1 Map of Chesapeake Bay Showing the
Location of Somerset County, Maryland . . . .. 2

2-1 Map of the Maryland Counties of the
Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay . . . ... 19

3-1 Map of the Somerset County Research Areas . . .. 30

3-2 Map of Somerset County Rivers, Creeks and Sounds. . 33

3-3 Map of Smith Island . . . . . . . . 35

4-1 Drawing of Skipjack Anna McGarvey, a Sailing
Oyster Dredge, Riding at Anchor Near Annapolis. . 68

4-2 Drawing of April Star, a Wooden Round-stern
Work Boat, at Webster's Cove near Mount Vernon. . 72

4-3 Drawing of Mark Jim, a Wooden Box-stern
Work Boat Rigged with a Patent Tong, at
Tylerton on Smith Island. . . . . . . . 74

6-1 Drawing of a Boy Taking His Father to
Shore in an Outboard Motor-Powered
Wooden Skiff After "Fishing Up" at
their Smith Island Crab Shanty . . . . . 99

6-2 Drawing of Oyster Patent Tong Boats
at Tylerton Boat Harbor on Smith Island ....... 118

6-3 Drawing of Kristy Lynn and Miss Beth,
Crab Scrape Bateaux, at Tylerton, Smith Island. . 127

6-4 Drawing of a Crab Scrape Bateau and
Three Fishing Shanties at Ewell, Smith Island . . 128


Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy




MAY 1986

Chairman: Dr. Brian M. Dutoit
Major Department: Anthropology

The dissertation focuses on work, work-related ill health, health

care and social organization of small scale, self-employed commercial

fishermen of Somerset County, Maryland. The research was undertaken to

(1) see if commercial fishing work caused an identifiable pattern of

ill health, (2) document the history of exploitation of bay fisheries,

(3) discover the changes in fishing technology and strategy, (4)

examine the pattern of socialization and recruitment of fishermen, (5)

classify the fishermen's work histories and strategies, and (6)

ascertain the nature of the social system within which fishermen

operate to see how it relates to the organization and performance of

work. A broad cultural ecological model is employed as a conceptual

framework. A combination of archival--libraries, court records,

censuses--and field research--participant observation, life history

recording, content anaylsis, survey interviews, simple observation, key

informant interviewing, typology construction--methods was employed.

Twenty-five commercial fishermen and eleven health care personnel from

Somerset were formally interviewed. The conclusions are (1) natural

environmental changes triggered modifications in social organization,

demography and technology; (2) technological changes placed new

pressures on the natural environment; (3) technological changes brought

alterations in population and social organization; (4) certain health

problems of fishermen flow directly from their work; others are related

to heredity and lifestyle; (5) dramatic shifts occurred in the degree

of exploitation of different fisheries related to species' availability

and changing economic importance; (6) fishermen maintain networks of

friends, neighbors and kinsmen in which their occupation is well

established and from communities where there are few other work

alternatives; (7) six work strategy patterns were discovered among the

fishermen; and (8) family division of labor, local church and fire

fighting organizations, networks of kinsmen, friends and neighbors, and

occupational associations support the fishermen and their occupation.



This dissertation describes the work, the occupationally related

illnesses and injuries, the health care, and selected aspects of the

social life of the small scale, self-employed commercial fishermen

residing in Somerset County, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore of the

Chesapeake Bay (see Figure 1-1). The major reasons for undertaking the

research were (1) to see if the work of these fishermen results in some

particular pattern of illness and injury, (2) to document the

historical sequence of exploitation of the several bay fisheries, (3)

to establish the historical changes in the gears and strategies

employed by the fishermen, (4) to examine how men are recruited and

socialized into this kind of work, (5) to classify the work histories

and current strategies employed by the fishermen and their wives, and

(6) to ascertain the nature of the social system within which these

fishermen operate and to see how it relates to the organization and

performance of their work.

The general model being employed is a cultural ecological one.

The model assumes the interconnectedness of four major variables. They

are technology, social organization (including ideology and values as

well), environment and demography. I will argue that as changes, both

natural and man-made, occurred in the environment they triggered

pressures on the existing social organization, demographic pattern, and

technology. Also as new technology was locally developed or introduced

Figure 1-1

Map of Chesapeake Bay Showing the
Location of Somerset County, Maryland

from outside, new pressures were placed on the natural environmental

resources exploited for subsistence and commercial purposes. In

addition, technological changes (1) in the area of health resulted in

alterations in the demographic pattern (e.g., lower death rates, lower

birth rate, smaller families), and (2) in the area of boat propulsion

and fishing gears resulted in changes in social organization (e.g.,

demise of some occupations, development of new occupations, changes in

the work strategies and income patterns of fishermen) of these fishing


The project began in 1978 with library research. Preliminary

field work started in March 1979. Field research was undertaken between

1979 and 1984 and consisted of numerous visits, varying from a few days

to three weeks in length, to the site.

Chapter II contains a review of the pertinent anthropological and

sociological literature on work, occupations, occupational health, and

health care. I focus on the commercial fishing occupation and review

anthropological work on fishing and fishermen in general. The

literature on occupational health is briefly summarized and material

concerning the occupationally related health risks of commercial

fishing is described. In the last portion of chapter II the literature

on Chesapeake Bay commercial fishing and the literature on the social

life of the people many of whom are commercial fishermen who live on

the Bay's Eastern Shore are discussed.

Chapter III outlines the development of the research project and

describes events in the early and later stages of field work. There is

also a discussion of the ethnographic field techniques which were

employed. Data collection consisted of the use of the following

techniques: (1) archival research at government agencies, university

and public libraries, and the county courthouse; (2) participation in

fishing work and numerous other activities in the research area; (3)

simple observation; (4) content analysis of open ended questions and

conversations; (5) life and work history recording; (6) survey

interviews; (7) open-ended as well as closed ended, forced choice

interviewing; (8) key informant interviewing; and (9) typology

construction. This chapter also contains a discussion of some of the

difficulties I encountered and lessons to be learned in the process of

carrying out this type of research.

Chapter IV provides the historical perspective and Chapter V

delineates the present social situation without which the nature of the

occupational culture, occupational health risks, health care of these

commercial fishermen and their families cannot properly be understood.

Chapter VI examines various aspects of the commercial fishermen

and their occupation in Somerset County, Maryland. These include

recruitment, income levels, work opportunities, work strategies, social

organization, and their attitudes concerning their work.

Health and health care of the the county and of the fishermen in

particular are described in Chapter VII. In addition to census and

other documentary information, the data for this and the foregoing

chapter are primarily derived from interviews with watermen and health

care personnel in Somerset County.

Chapter VIII provides a summary and discussion of the research

findings, conclusions, and recommendations.


Scholarly interest in work and occupations ranges from nineteenth

century social scientists who were concerned to link them to the new

industrial technologies, forms of social organizations and modes of

production then rising in the west to more recent sociological and

anthropological contributions. These later efforts stressed the

relationship of work and occupation to family life, community

involvement, industrial relations, worker alienation, union and

association formation, and detailed ethnographies of specific

professions and work groups. With specific regard to the occupation of

fishing the efforts of anthropologists have been wide-ranging.

Anthropological writings have included the description of fishing

techniques, the importance of seafood in a group's subsistence

strategy, the sexual division in fishing efforts and the annual round,

the formation of fishing cooperatives, the effects of changes in

fishing technology, the beliefs and values of fishermen, and the social

and economic marginality inherent in the lives of some kinds of

fishermen. Most of the literature on Chesapeake Bay fishermen and

Eastern Shore social life is in the form of novels, memoires,

histories, anecdotal works and general studies. Few anthropological

studies of the region exist.

In the more specialized field of occupational illness, research

first began to appear in the late eighteenth century but it was not

until the very early twentieth century that a good systematic overview


of occupational health appeared and research in this area has continued

to expand. The health problems associated with the various fishing and

related marine occupations have been identified as resulting from

microorganisms causing infections, overexposure to heat or cold,

prolonged exposure to the sun, toxic substances, and accidents.

Social Research on Work and Occupations

The Sociology of Work and Occupations

Prior to the real development of a disciplinary effort to study

work and occupations by sociologists, Engels (1968--originally 1844)

drew attention to the work conditions in the factories, factory

occupational dangers, workers' housing conditions, and the effects of

child and female labor at an early stage of the process of the English

industrialization process. Eventually sociologists examined work and

occupation in the context of the industrializing, urbanizing, socially

stratified and politically complex societies of Europe and North

America. As early as the first decade of the twentieth century John

Fitch (1910) published a study of the living standards, worker morale,

community involvement and effects of the work environment on family

life among steel workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

During the 1920's the fashion, especially evident at the

University of Chicago, was the study of various deviant or low status

occupations such as prostitution and hoboeing. In addition there were

also studies of various more socially acceptable occupations as retail

sales, school teaching and waitressing. These early beginnings

eventually expanded to a focus on various professional occupations such

as ministers, doctors and college professors (Taylor 1968 and Tilgher


In the 1930's one sees the beginnings of generalizations and

concept formation in occupational sociology. The work of Salz is

notable. Writing on occupations in the Encyclopedia of Social Science,

Salz (1933:1513) provides the literature with an often quoted

definition of occupation, viz., "that specific activity with a market

value which an individual continually pursues for the purpose of

obtaining a steady flow of income; this activity also determines the

social position of the individual." In the same decade Carr-Saunders

and Wilson (1933) provide an insightful analysis and historical review

of professions in England.

The now famous social relations studies undertaken at the Hawthorn

Works of the Western Electric Company by Mayo and various others

(Roethlisberger and Dickson 1939) in the 1930's represent the best

early empirical efforts in another area of the sociology of work, i.e.,

industrial relations. Mayo and his colleagues from Harvard

investigated the factors affecting production. In the process they

discovered the existence and importance of informal groupings of

workers, especially as these groups affected factory production. These

early and well designed studies lead to a revolution in the theory of

industrial firm management as well as in how to conceptualize the

social relations within them (Benoit-Guilbot 1968). Clearly the "ideal

type" descriptions of formal bureaucracies as propounded by Weber

(1947) were somewhat one-sided. After the Hawthorn work it was clear

there existed an informal aspect of social relations in addition to the

planned formal structure of business and industry that was capable of

affecting their function and production. The reality of what came to

be called "worker control" was established and has remained an

important thematic strand in the sociological research on industry.

Since the 1950's there has been clear growth in the amount and

variety of research on work and related topics by sociologists. A

brief, partial sampling of this effort would include

professionalization (Hughes 1958; Becker, Geer, Hughes and Strauss

1961; Vollmer and Mills 1966; Friedson 1970; Friedson and Lorber 1972);

worker alienation (Drucker 1950; Blauner 1964; Chinoy 1965); social

class and occupation (Shostak and Gomberg 1964: LeMasters 1975; Levison

1975; Rubin 1976); industry-community relations (Schneider 1969);

occupational identification and community (Becker and Carper 1956;

Gerstl 1961) and worker knowledge, satisfaction and control of the work

process (Kusterer 1978; Houbolt 1981). The study of unions and unionism

surprisingly has not attracted the interested of sociologists to the

extent one might have expected.

There have been a few notable attempts to collect and organize the

various researches into the sociology of work into a subdiscipline. By

the early 1950's sufficient research in the sociology of work existed

that Caplow devoted an entire book to the subject. Caplow (1954:4)

defined the sociology of work as, "the study of those social roles

which arise from the classification of men by the work they do."

Furthermore, he suggested a number of questions which a sociology of

work should stress. Some of these are (1) the rise and decline of

occupations, (2) occupational ranking and prestige, (3) variations in

sociopolitical values and life expectations among different

occupations, (4) occupational recruitment and mobility, (5)

occupational characteristics and their effects on formation of

occupational associations, (6) the creation and maintenance of the

social roles within each occupation, (7) interoccupational variations

in working conditions, (8) occupational boundary maintenance, (9) the

relation of formal educational systems to occupations, and (10) the

effects of various occupational life styles on the family institution

(1954: 7). This and other books by Caplow served as the basic text in

the sociology of work during the 1950's and 1960's.

Following the book by Caplow (1954) one finds Taylor's (1968)

Occupational Sociology to be an excellent assessment. In twenty-four

well-written and impressively researched chapters, Taylor covers the

sociological literature on occupational mobility, occupational

environments (e.g., level of aspiration, preparation for and entry,

career pattern, social control within occupations, recruitment), and

the meaning of occupations for individuals (e.g., colleagueship,

ideology, occupation and family life, the major occupational domains of

agribusiness, etc.). Also worth mentioning are the articles entitled

"Workers,""The Sociology of Work" and "Occupations and Careers" in the

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences edited by Sills


More recently the review article by Roth, Ruzek and Daniels (1973)

on the state of the sociology of occupations has appeared. Continued

evidence of the viability of the subdiscipline is suggested by the

inauguration in 1974 of a journal entitled Sociology of Work and

Occupation. Most recently there is Simpson and Simpson's (1981) edited

collection Research in the Sociology of Work.

In concluding this review of the literature on work and

occupations I would like to point out that the vast majority of the

research in the subdiscipline can be fitted into one of the three

dominant theoretical orientations employed in sociology, i.e.,

structuralism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Structuralists (Durkheim would be an example) concern themselves with

the inequities of the division of labor while seeing occupations in

society as the natural outcome of the needs of the society.

Structuralists will stress the social functions to the maintenance of

the societal structure of the existing division of labor within


For conflict theorists (such as Marx), by contrast, the inequities

reflected in the division of labor in a society are due to the

essential tension existing between classes of people with divergent and

clashing interests. This approach would lead, for example, to an

examination of the worker's ability, or lack thereof, to independently

make decisions about work related tasks, i.e., matters of autonomy and

control in various occupational groups and settings.

Social analysts of the symbolic interactionist school are also

interested in work and job behavior details. However, they are less

interested in framing aspects of work from a macrotheoretical view

point than the conflict theorists and structuralists. Symbolic

interactionist analysis focuses more on the description of what it is

like to hold and perform a particular job than on the institutional

setting or historical development of the job. They will examine and

describe the actual work performed in a particular occupation as well

as the norms, values, symbols and socialization processes

characteristic of particular occupations and networks of related

occupations (e.g., Becker et al. 1961; Hughes 1958).

The Anthropology of Work and Occupations

Anthropological descriptions of various and far flung societies

continued through the first half of the twentieth century. By mid

century anthropologists had contributed (1) some good descriptions of

work and economic life in "primitive" societies, (2) comparative

generalizations about the operations of simple economies, and (3)

structural-functional interpretations relating to work, religion,

politics and family to one another in these nonindustrial societies

(Firth 1939 and 1946; Forde 1963--originally 1934--; Malinowski 1935

and 1984--originally 1922--; Herskovits 1965). Due to the relative lack

of job specialization and the tendency for work to be allocated

primarily on the basis of sex, age and kinship in simpler societies,

ethnographic reporting of occupation was usually imbedded in

descriptions of the socially appropriate work of men and women at

different ages or as an incidental aspect of life histories (e.g.,

Sapir 1922; Radin 1926; Underhill 1939; Landes 1938; Simmons 1942).

Prior to the 1970's there were only a few noteworthy accounts (see

Bunzel 1929 on Navajo potters and Tschopic 1941 on Pueblo potters)

clearly focusing on occupations. Ethnographic studies more often

centered on the technology employed by a group to exploit its

environment for subsistence purposes rather than on the work as

structured into occupations. By the 1940's and 1950's only a few

anthropologists had turned their attentions to studying occupations in

complex societies (e.g., Goldschmidt 1946; Chapple 1953; Harding 1955;

Keesing, Siegel and Hammond 1957).

With growth of interest in urban and complex societies and the

closing of many traditional societies to anthropological work due to

the move from colonial to independent nation status of many countries,

especially in Africa during the 1960's and early 1970's, ethnographers

turned to studying their own societies. One begins to find them

studying occupational groups in the industrial and urbanized


Several of these anthropological studies of occupational groups

are noteworthy. The longshoremen of Portland, Oregon were the subject

of research which became the basis of an ethnography (Pilcher 1972). A

description of the life and work of the tuna fishermen of San Diego,

California based on participant observation was contributed by Orbach

(1977). An ethnographic study of occupations in the railroad industry

(Gamst 1980) focuses primarily around the work of the locomotive

engineer (or "Hoghead"). Probably the most recent contribution of note

to the literature of the ethnography of occupations is a study of the

culture of construction workers (Applebaum 1981). It provides, aside

from the work of sociologist LeMasters (1975), the only serious social

analysis of the construction worker occupation and life cycle presently


These and other studies have lead to a number of discussions about

methods, conceptual categories and theoretical approaches among


ethnographers in the developing subdiscipline of the anthropology of

work and occupations. For example, Smith (1977) warns against a priori

etic characterizations which obscure significant emic differences among

practitioners in the same broad occupational category. She

demonstrates that in the case of seamen there are significant

differences between the work of deepwater sailors and Great Lakes men

resulting in different attitudes and values about their social identity

and their work place.

Contributions toward clarifying the conceptual framework upon

which the subdiscipline of the anthropology of work and occupations is

based have been made by several writers (Gamst 1980; Smith 1977; Wallman

1979; and Applebaum 1981). Some stress the use of the traditional

ethnographic approaches in the study of occupational groups, especially

the more well-bounded ones such as the military, logging, farming,

stevedoring, railroading, trucking, mining, law enforcement, fishing,

and some types of manufacturing (Gamst 1980; Applebaum 1981). Others

have emphasized the need to place the occupational category within its

macrocultural and historical setting (Smith 1977 and Wallman 1979).

Wallman's approach, for example, employs a focus which is rather wider

than occupations alone. She considers that the study of work is about

social transactions as much as material production and that its

importance frequently lies in the quality of the relationships

surrounding allocation, production or distribution of resources as much

as in simple material survival. In suggesting that work dictates the

identity as well as the economic life of the worker, Wallman returns to

ideas introduced in both the conflict theory and symbolic

interactionism approaches in sociology.

The growth of interest by anthropologists in the study of

occupation and work in complex societies is further signaled by the

organization of a new professional society in the late 1970's. The

Society for the Anthropology of Work began to publish a newsletter in

1980 which has provided a forum of discussion where brief articles,

bibliographies, book reviews and research progress reports are shared.

We turn now to a consideration of the literature on the occupation

of fishing and its related health problems.

The Occupation of Fishing and Related Health Issues

The Ethnology of Fishing and Fishermen

General review. Marine food resources have been exploited in

varying degrees by societies throughout the world since at least as

early as the European upper paleolithic and probably even earlier.

Ethnographers routinely describe the fishing techniques and the

importance of seafood resources in the subsistence activities of the

nonindustrial societies and rural less developed areas of industrial

societies. Barnett (1960) writes about lagoon and open sea fishing

among the Palauans pointing out that both fishing and the sea are

considered to be male domains. Among the Kaoka speakers of Guadalcanal

(Hogbin 1964) fishing is seasonal and ancillary to horticulture. The

North Alaskan Eskimo (Chance 1966) traditionally had a regular seasonal

round which involved- spring time whaling and walrus hunting, summer

seal and wild fowl hunting and fishing, winter land mammal trapping,

sealing at icepack breathing holes, and fishing. Fishing was performed

the year round and was significant in providing a stable and reliable

diet when other sources of food would fail. The great significance of

fishing for the Nootka, Kwakuitl and other peoples of British Columbia

is well described (Forde 1963) and widely known in the anthropological

literature. By contrast Samoan villagers (Holmes 1964) are subsistence

agriculturalists who devote only a small fraction of their time to

exploit the sea. Firth's (1946) work on the peasant fishermen of

Malaya is an extensive and detailed ethnography focused on the economy

of a preindustrial fishing system. Others (Messenger 1969; Diamond

1969; Fox 1978) have also looked at peasant or rural segments of

industrial societies where, by tradition, fishing was an important


There is an impressive literature concerning the types of

fisheries and the technology by which they have been exploited. Reef

fishing on the Pacific (Malinowski 1935; Holmes 1964), ice fishing

among the Eskimo (Chance 1966) and the Ainu (Ohnuki-Tierney 1974),

swamp and lunar tide fishing in Brazil (Cordell 1974 and 1978), small

boat drift net and long line hook fishing in Ireland (Messenger 1969),

large boat commercial fishing in Ireland (Young 1975), Massachusetts

(Bartlett 1979) and California (Orbach 1977), Atlantic distant water

factory trawling (Warner 1983), and East Anglian (English) outshore and

inshore trawling and drifting (Lummis 1985) are but a few of the more

useful efforts.

Literature also exists regarding fishing in larger geographical

regions such as the Caribbean (Price 1966), the maritime cultures of

the North Atlantic (Andersen 1979), and the maritime adaptation of the

Pacific (Costell and Quimby 1975).

Recent research has focused on a variety of aspects of commercial

fishing including the formation of fishing cooperatives (Poggie 1979

and 1980, Orbach 1980, Comitas 1962), beliefs and values of fishermen

(Zulaika 1981, Orbach 1977, Poggie 1980, Poggie and Gersuny 1975),

effects of changes in fishing technology (Warner 1983, Orbach 1977,

Andersen 1979, Cordell 1973, Spoehr 1980, Kottak 1983), social

relations on boats (Aubert and Arner 1958-59), economic rationality and

the social system of a fishing village (Zarur 1975), the marginality of

distant water fishermen to their families and home communities (Orbach

1977, Warner 1983, Danowski 1980), and the economic marginality of some

artisanal forms of fishing (Wadel 1969, Cordell 1973). Even more recent

have been studies on the social impact of a new U.S. naval base on a

Georgia fishing community (Overbey 1982), the family and childrearing

as forces for economic change in Scots fishing villages (Thompson

1984), the role of fishermen's wives on Harkers Island, North Carolina

(Dixon et al. 1984) and in East Anglia (Lummis 1985), variations in

family and community structure in two Chesapeake Bay fishing villages

(Ellis 1984), and the continuation of illegal commercial fishing in the

Raritan Bay, New Jersey, region (McCay 1984).

The fishermen of the Chesapeake. The commercial fishing industry

of the Chesapeake Bay began to develop as early as the 1830's but did

not become well established until after the Civil War. The earliest

comprehensive data on the Chesapeake fisheries is found in Goode's

(1887:424-427) massive survey of the U.S. fisheries and fishermen for

the year 1880. In that year the finfishery produced just over twenty

million pounds worth nearly one-half million dollars, and the

shellfishery yielded more than seventy-five million pounds worth nearly

five million dollars. The bid money was in the oyster harvest which,

considered by itself, was worth $4,730,476 compared with $479,388 for

the combined harvest of crabs, clams and all finfish in 1880. The rapid

growth and decline of the oyster fishery in the latter 19th century,

the development of the soft and then the hard crab markets in the early

twentieth century, the general decline of the Chesapeake's finfisheries

since the late nineteenth century, and the growth and decline in the

soft shell clam industry since the late 1940's are well documented

(Conservation Commission of Maryland 1909, Chuchill 1920, Fairbanks and

Hamill 1932, Maryland Board of Natural Resources Report 1953, Lang

1961, Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences 1965, Stauble and Wood

1975, Bundy and Williams 1978, Maryland Department of Natural Resources


There also exist descriptions of the fishing gears employed in

various Chesapeake fisheries over the years: for gears used in all

fisheries see Goode (1887), Fairbanks and Hamill (1932), Lang (1961),

Warner (1976), Bundy and Williams (1978); for gears of the crab fishery

see Cronin (1949), Cargo (1950) and Cargo and Cronin (1950); and for

gears of the oyster fishery see Sieling (1950) and Warner (1976).

There are data on the magnitude of the population involved in

commercial fishing but they are confusing since the State of Maryland

licenses both boats as well as the exploitation of each fishery. Goode

(1887) reported a total of 26,008 persons (15,873 fishermen, 1,256

shoremen, and 8,879 factory hands) employed in the Chesapeake Bay

commercial fisheries in 1880. In 1980 the Maryland Department of

Natural Resources (D.N.R.) issued a total of 31,395 commercial fishing

licenses of various kinds. Since one person may simultaneously hold a

number of these various kinds of licenses, it is difficult to know how

many full-time commercial fishermen are working the bay in Maryland.

The number of oyster licenses may be taken as indicating a probable

minimum number of full-time watermen since most of the oyster work

boats are capable of also working the summer crab fishery. Boats

suited only for late spring and summer fishing because of small size

and low sides are not able to be used in the rougher winter waters.

Bundy and Williams claim,

the Bay fisheries provide full-time employment (i.e.,
all personal income derived from fishing activities) for
over 9,000 watermen. (Bundy and Williams 1978:39-40)

However, it is unclear whether they refer to only the Maryland portion

or both the Maryland and Virginia portions.

In Somerset County on Maryland's Eastern Shore where the research

for this study was carried out, the Maryland Department of Natural

Resources (D.N.R.) issued 805 oyster catcher and oyster dealer licenses

during 1980 suggesting a reliable minimum of that many full-time

watermen for the county.

The populations living on the lower Eastern Shore (in Somerset,

Dorchester, Wicomico, Talbot and Worchester counties) retain an

especially strong sense of identification with the farms, marshes,

rivers, small towns and dispersed settlements that characterize their

portion of the Chesapeake Bay littoral (see figure 2-1). Many families

trace their presence back to the colonial period (Wilson 1973 and 1977)

Figure 2-1

Map of the Maryland Counties of the
Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay

and the extension of kinship ties forms a strong matrix for their

lives. Variable degrees of insularity and suspicion of outsiders are

found in the attitudes of many native "Eastern Shoreners." A popular

automobile bumper sticker proclaims NO LIFE WEST OF THE BAY and sums up

the general opinion among many of the local inhabitants.

An intriguing assessment of the attitudes and character of

watermen is presented in the last chapter of Follow the Water (Lang

1961). Warner's Beautiful Swimmers (1976) is the most up to date and

best written general introduction to the Bay fishermen and their work

now available. Supplemented with deGast's The Oystermen of the

Chesapeake Bay (1970), a mainly photographic effort with a good brief

narrative, Warner's book provides the newcomer to the Chesapeake

fisheries an excellent orientation.

The only scholarly and comprehensive effort to compile folklore of

the area is Carey's A Faraway Time and Place: Lore of the Eastern Shore

(1971). Carey worked in the lower shore are during the late 1960's

collecting tales, jokes, legends and traditional cures. Many of the

jokes and stories recorded by Carey were still current during my field

work in Somerset County in the early 1980's.

Among several depictions of life in Eastern Shore fishing

communities, I found four worth mentioning (Byron 1977--originally

1957--, Tawes 1967, Peffer 1979, North Bethesda Junior High School

1977). Byron's The Lord's Oysters (1957), written in the 1940's and

1950's, is based on the author's childhood experiences growing up as

the son of a rivermann" on the Chester River on the upper Eastern

Shore. A charming and entertaining fictional account, it provides a

good feeling of the pace of Shore life and social values in the 1908-20

time period. Mistrust and dislike of outsiders, blatant racial

prejudice, protestant religious fundamentalism, the importance of

economic self-sufficiency, the annual cycle, and the lure of a life "on

the water" are among the more clearly developed themes. The importance

and significance of luck is elaborated in the local belief of the

existence of the "jonah," a person who brings bad luck.

God, Man, Salt Water and the Eastern Shore is also based on the

author Tawes' (1967) childhood. Concentrating on his upbringing in a

small village on Jenkins Creek in Somerset County during the period

190(-12, Tawes reminisces about. n.s childhood, and the poverty and

comparative simplicity of life as it was then. Jenkins Creek in the

first decade of the 20th century was harbor to nearly one hundred small

bay sailing craft. The use of the internal combustion engine in small

boats was yet to arrive. The importance of Protestant Christianity,

the material starkness and simplicity of house, clothing and food, and

the strong emphasis placed on economic independence and

self-sufficiency are themes which Tawes emphasizes throughout the

book. Tawes bemoans the new welfare and social security system that

developed in recent times. He believes they have undermined important

personal and social values of hard work, the pride that arises from

being economically self-sufficient, even though poor, and the ability

provided by strong religious faith to persevere under adversity.

Peffer's (1979) Watermen, set in a Talbot County fishing

community, is the result of more than a year of participant observation

in 1977 during which time he lived in the community and worked at

various commercial fishing jobs. Peffer's narrative description of

work, leisure activities, local dialect, character and attitudes of the

Tilghman Island watermen and their families he lived and worked among

is excellent. Peffer touches a number of topics ranging from concepts

of luck (the "Jonah") to fishing laws and regulations. Even though it

is without any formal theoretical approach or conceptual analysis,

Peffer's book is the most illuminating current account of the inner

workings of the thinking and social life of contemporary commercial

fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay.

In 1977 a group of thirteen junior high school students from

Bethesda, Maryland, visited Smith Island and, under the guidance of

their English teacher, tape recorded interviews with a variety of the

island's residents including the Methodist minister, the island nurse,

several watermen, some wives of watermen and a couple of island

teenagers (North Bethesda Junior High School 1977). Though not without

glaring errors (e.g., a picture of a basket of clams misidentified as

oysters on page 42 and a photograph of the church at Ewell mislabeled

as the church at Tylerton), the little booklet provides a good sense of

the pace of life, the swing of the seasons, and the changes in

activities these bring. The governance of the island, the activities

and life goals of island teens, the nurse's duties, attitudes towards

tourists and other outsiders, and the importance of telephones are

among the many topics covered.

Ellis' (1984) recent article on variation in family type in two

Chesapeake Bay fishing villages appears to be based on communities in

the Somerset County area. Since she employs pseudonyms, though, it is

not entirely clear. She describes atomisticc" nuclear families in one

community and kindred-based extended families more frequently in the

other community. She argues that these differences in family life are

mainly owing to variations in the manner of interface with the larger

society. She describes the community organized around kindreds as

having broker-mediated links while the other community, organized in

independent conjugal units, has more direct relations to the wider


Occupationally Related Health Risks of Fishermen

Occupational health research in general. Integral to the

realities of any type of work are characteristic recurrent physical

activities and work setting which will have impact on the health of the

worker. As early as 1775 Percival Pott (Page and O'Brien 1973:24-25)

described an occupational malady known as chimney sweep's disease in

which a painful, ragged looking sore with hard rising edges appears on

the scrotum. Pott was thus the first to describe an occupationally

related skin cancer caused by continued exposure to chimney soot.

The earliest available systematic overview of occupational health

in the present century was edited by Oliver (1902) who collected a wide

variety of information concerning the most recurrent health problems of

a large number of occupations. Leaving aside some of the problems

concerning Oliver's understanding of disease aetiology, his book

clearly pointed to the high association of certain pathologies with

particular occupations.

During the 1920's and 1930's Hamilton pursued research on

occupationally related illnesses in various trades and industries. Her

book Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943) provides some good examples

of how new technologies which result in changes in the physical aspects

of work activity and work place can adversely affect the health of

workers. Her investigation of a condition known as "dead fingers"

among granite and limestone cutters found the problem to be traceable

to the introduction of the air hammer. The work of stone cutting was

accelerated considerably but so was the trauma delivered to the hands

and fingers of the workers. A second effect of the introduction of the

air hammer was to create greater quantities of fine dust which entered

workers' lungs eventually increasing, dramatically, the frequency of

various lung diseases in these workers after some years of exposure

(Hamilton 1943:200-207).

Two books published in the early 1970's (Stellman and Daum 1973,

Page and O'Brien 1973) provide excellent informative and highly

readable summaries of the adverse impact of the work place on the

health of workers. Page and O'Brien provide good reviews of the

development of workmen's compensation laws and the part played by

industry and business in response to workers' job related illnesses.

For more technical and detailed medical presentation of occupational

hazards there are the two edited volumes of Hunter (1978) The Diseases

of Occupations and Rom (1983) Environmental and Occupational Medicine.

Health hazards of the fishing occupation. Early in the century

Oliver indicated that in the marine service the principle diseases

among seamen were

(1) those due to the special character of their
employment such as aneurism, emphysema, hernia, and heart
disease and in steamships, heat apoplexy (Stokers); (2)
those due to their habits, viz., general disease and
alcoholism; (3) diseases of climate, liver disease,
malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, cholera, plague, etc.;
and (4) diseases influenced mainly by the environment and
insanitary conditions, such as rheumatism, phthisis,
bronchitis and various forms of lung disease, under which
also must be included scurvy and beriberi. (Oliver 1902:

Examination of the more recent literature reveals a number of

health problems which are seen to be associated with the various

fishing occupations. Stellman and Daum (1973: 382) list the following

as fishermen's health hazards: coal tar and coal tar fractions, cold

and heat, infections, sunlight and ultraviolet light. They fail to

mention vibration and mercury, the latter from the ingestion of some

seafoods, especially oysters. They further indicate (1973:371) that

boatbuilders', a related occupation, health threats are asbestos, glass

fibers and plastics as well as coal tars and their fractions.

A common infection of the fingers and hands among fishing industry

workers, slaughter house workers and veterinarians is caused by a

microorganism, Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, present in the slime layer

of fish and infected swine (Rom 1983:362-371). It is commonly called by

various names such as fish poisoning, fish handler's disease, fish

hand, sealer's finger, blubber finger or pork finger. E. rhusiopathiae

is generally responsible for three forms of human infection: (1) mild

local skin infection occurring on the finger and well known to doctors

working near fish and meat markets, slaughter houses, and hotel

districts; (2) a generalized cutaneous eruption with constitutional

symptoms; and (3) a septicaemic form (Rom 1983:725-728).

Weil's disease is also associated with fish, but not exclusively

(Rom 1983:25). Weil's disease has its highest incidence in coal miners,

bargemen, sewer laborers, canal workers, rice field workers, sugar cane

cutters, fish cleaners, fish filleters, fish freshers and curers, fish

porters, fish mongers, and tripe scrapers. It is caused by water or

slime contaminated by rats infested with Leptospira

icterohaemorraghiae, a microorganism. The symptoms include fever,

jaundice, liver enlargement, the occurrence of hemorrhages and

occasional relapses of fever. Improved sanitation through cleaning the

working areas and changes in the fish processing technology have

reduced the incidence. Earlier in the century there would be

occasional outbreaks as in 1924 when twenty-three cases were reported

in Aberdeen, Scotland, among fish workers. Since the 1930's the advent

of mechanical processing and freezing of fish has largely eliminated

the older, less sanitary processing techniques thus reducing the

chances of contracting Weil's disease.

Vibrio vulnificus, a dangerous salt-requiring bacterium known to

cause blood poisoning, and other vibrio bacteria (such as Vibrio

cholera) occur naturally along United States coastal waters, including

the Chesapeake Bay. Symptoms can include chills, fever, low blood

pressure, and diarrhea and seizures may occur. Skin infections are

usually red, swollen and very painful sores. Most infections occur May

to October, the period of highest water salinity and temperature.

Since 1974, when vibrio poisoning was recognized, less than one

hundred people are known to have died from it in the United States.

Schmidt and Hoyt (1985:1-2) documented fifteen cases of vibrio

infection, two of whom died, in tidewater areas of Virginia between

1974 and 1984. Though incidence of Vibrio vulnificus infections are

rare, Schmidt and Hoyt note the existence of high-risk categories,

. .chronic conditions that may make a person more
susceptible to vibrio infection include liver disease,
kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, and blood disorders like
leukemia. People with high iron levels in their blood,
from liver disease, for example, are more vulnerable to
bacterial infection. In addition, use of immunosuppressive
drugs, steroid therapy or chemotherapy, and alcohol may
increase risk. If the immune system is suppressed, it is
difficult for the body to fight the bacteria. (Schmidt and
Hoyt 1985:1)

Infection can be caused by eating raw shellfish, especially oysters,

and by exposure of punctures, cuts or ulcers to salt water. Fishermen

can contact vibrio while working in salt water and harvesting or

cleaning shellfish.

The incidence of accidental injury and death in the fishing

industry is a significant issue. Poggie and Gersuny (1975:355) cite a

comparison of fatalities in coal mining, reputed to be the most

dangerous land work, and commercial fishing in the United States. In

1965 there were 21.4 deaths per million man-days in the commercial

fisheries compared with 1.04 deaths per million man-days in coal mines

while textile mills reported only 0.8 deaths per million man-days.

Exposure to extreme cold has been a fact of the commercial

fisherman's work though modern technology today provides more efficient

heating aboard ships than in the past. Certain types of fishing still

involve working under bitterly cold conditions. The possible loss of

feeling or even the loss of digits due to frostbite are ever present in

winter fishing. In parts of New England fishermen report a phenomenon

known as "soft hands" caused by repeated exposure to cold while

working. Hands that have "gone soft" are lax and lack normal muscle

tone. They are not capable of firm grip. The condition is quite

common among the older men of the Boston trawler fleet.

A recent review of the literature on acclimatization and

habituation to cold stress suggests that,

when sufficiently exposed to cold all humans adapt to
cold through increased metabolic rates and with an
attendant increase in peripheral temperature. (Frisancho

Frisancho, however, also cites research (LaBlanc 1975) on the Gaspe

peninsula fishermen of Canada which suggests that when the cold stress

is only moderate, the adaptation is through habituation rather than

through metabolic compensation. That is, the adaptation is acquired by

continuous exposure to moderate cold and the individual develops the

habit to function with a degree of hypothermia almost as if his

thermostat were set slightly lower.

Finally, fishermen typically have continued, long-term exposure to

wind, sunlight, heat and glare. One expects to find, therefore, higher

incidences of skin cancers among fishermen and this has been born out

by the research among the Somerset watermen. Moreover, preliminary

research on the effects of sunlight on eye disease has been initiated

comparing coal miners (low exposure to sunlight) and fishermen (high

exposure to sunlight) (Maguire et al. 1982:129). This pilot study

suggests a significant difference between these two populations in the

incidence of several eye pathologies, e.g., pterygium, corneal droplet

keratopathy, and cataracts. These preliminary results, however, need

to be checked by drawing larger, more representative samples.


The Development of the Project

The research project developed from my interest in the culture of

well-bounded occupations, occupationally related illness and health

care in rural, medically under-served populations, on the one hand, and

my curiosity about the culture of the people inhabiting the Eastern

Shore of the Chesapeake Bay (Maryland) on the other. I wanted a

project that I could carry out for comparatively little expense and

that would involve the use of participant observation, formal

interviewing, and key informants in addition to library and archival


The commercial fishermen and Somerset County on Maryland's lower

Eastern Shore were chosen as the research population and research

location for several reasons. I wanted a gemeinschaft-like social

setting in a comparatively economically underdeveloped locale which

would surrogate, as nearly as possible for the social conditions of

research in a developing country. Also I required a clearly

identifiable occupational group whose members lived in communities in

which the target occupation was well known, firmly established and a

traditional type of employment among many local families. I was also

interested in doing the research in a population which was insular and

comparatively distrustful of outsiders since it would provide another

Figure 3-1

Map of the Somerset County Research Areas

challenge and the possibility of learning more about how to gain entry

to such communities and develop rapport with the people in them.

Once having made a tentative decision on the research population

and location, I began to do archival research. I used the library

resources of the following educational institutions in the process of

the archival research for the dissertation: the Catholic University of

America (Washington, D.C.), the University of Maryland (College Park),

and Prince George's Community College (Maryland). I also consulted the

collections of the Library of Congress, the Maryland Department of

Natural Resources (Annapolis), the National Medical Library (Bethesda),

and the Somerset County Public Library (Princess Anne).

At the outset I consulted the Atlas of Maryland (Thompson et al.

1977) and discovered that, indeed, Somerset County as well as its

neighboring county to the north, Dorchester, was low in population,

sparsely settled and relatively poor as compared with other Maryland

counties. I read deGast's (1970) and Warner's (1976) books on the

commercial fishermen of the Chesapeake Bay which, in retrospect, are

two of the better books describing the life and work of the watermen.

At this time I also consulted the Health Systems Plan (Health Planning

Council of the Eastern Shore 1978) for the nine counties of Maryland's

Eastern Shore, including Somerset, which listed heart disease, infant

mortality and hypertension as the most significant problems of the

region (see figure 2-1). In reading through the plan I found no way to

disaggregate the commercial fishermen as a group form the whole shore

population. Telephone conversations with staff members of the Health

Planning Council of the Eastern Shore (H.P.C.E.S.) located at Cambridge

(see figure 1-1), confirmed my suspicion that the H.P.C.E.S. did not

have or know where to find this kind of occupationally related health

data. The director of the H.P.C.E.S. indicated that Somerset County

was classified as medically underserved and also gave me the names of

the members of the Somerset County Health Planning Council and the

county health officer.

During my first visit to Somerset County I spent several days

simply driving about its villages and back roads. I visited the many

small mainland fishing and farming communities as well as the inland

county seat of Princess Anne and the town of Crisfield located on the

Little Annemessex River (see figures 3-1 and 3-2). I also took the

public transport boat from Crisfield to Smith Island in Tangier Sound

where three small settlements of commercial fishermen and their

families are located. I purposefully refrained from contacting anyone

during this trip since my goal was to see the area and become familiar

with its geography and settlement pattern. I took several rolls of

thirty-five millimeter slides and also spent a day going through the

collection in the small Maryland Room of the County Library in Princess


On the basis of this trip, I decided definitely to pursue research

among the commercial fishermen of Somerset County. I set up two file

boxes for field notes, one for a consecutive file and the other using

the Human Area Relations Files categories (Murdock et al. 1971). I

decided to gather general ethnographic data as well as to focus on

specific topics. I most avidly pursued the following topics: (1) the

history of the area; (2) the work of the commercial fishermen; (3) the

Figure 3-2

Map of Somerset County Rivers, Creeks and Sounds

nature of their community life; (4) the work related health problems of

the fishermen; and (5) the health care system in the area. As the

research progressed, I began to do formal interviews with fishermen,

health care personnel, and various other persons such as ministers and

pharmacists who served the fishing communities in Somerset.

Early Field Research Experiences

My usual base of operation while in Somerset County was the

Washington Hotel in Princess Anne. From there I was able to have the

most efficient access to the various communities in which the majority

of commercial fishermen lived. When working on Smith Island I would

rent a room for a couple of days at a time from a family that took in

boarders (figure 3-3).

My early contacts with watermen were chance meetings in

restaurants, bars, church events, and on the Captain Jason, the boat

that serves to connect the Smith Island population with the mainland at

Crisfield. On one of my earliest trips to Somerset County I met two

watermen and a marine biologist who worked for the Chesapeake Bay

Foundation (C.B.F.) Center located on Smith Island. The first of the

watermen was a garrulous, retired man of about seventy years of age I

will call Caleb Guy. We struck up a conversation in the Mount Vernon

Inn in Princess Anne during lunch one hot June day in 1979. Mr. Guy had

a seventh grade education and had spent his whole life "on the water"

as a self-employed waterman tonging oysters in the winter and

harvesting crabs in the summer. We talked about forty-five minutes and

he told me about the difficulties of his work. He told me he no longer

Figure 3-3

Map of Smith Island

had much feeling in any of his fingers which he attributed to having

repeatedly suffered frostbite while oystering.

The second waterman, Jack March, was much younger than Mr. Guy,

only twenty-nine years old. I met him on the noon boat ride from

Crisfield to Smith Island. He lived on the island with his wife and

baby daughter. On any other day I wouldn't have encountered him since

he would have been out on his crab boat working. However, his boat

motor had malfunctioned and Jack had gone into Crisfield on the early

ferry to purchase the necessary parts. He was holding a six pack of

Budweiser beer which contained only three cans dangling by the plastic

mesh from one had and an open beer in the other hand. We got to

talking and pretty soon he offered me a beer which I accepted. Jack

and I hit it off and he told me about his crab scrape boat, his crab

shanty and finally invited me to go out with him on his boat on my next

visit. About a month later I did just that, As time passed Jack and

his wife, Suzy, became key informants. He is also included as one of

the twenty-five watermen whom I formally interviewed concerning their

work and health.

My contact with the marine biologist, whom I'll call Bill

Silverton, also occurred on the Captain Jason on the very same day I

met Jack Marsh. Bill, a young man of twenty-three years, gave me his

card and invited me to drop by the Smith Island house which the C.B.F.

had recently purchased to use in their estuarine studies education

program. Known to the islanders and in Tangier Sound generally as the

"Save the Bays" because of the white and blue bumper-sticker

proclaiming this aim, the C.B.F. is an Annapolis-based conservation


group whose aim is to maintain the quality of the Chesapeake Bay

biota. Part of their effort involves educating the public and for that

reason the C.B.F. has established several education centers throughout

the Bay to which centers groups of students of varying ages come for a

few days to a week at a time to learn about the estuarine environment

and life forms.

My initial dealings with Bill Silverton and others at the Smith

Island C.B.F. were friendly and cordial. Early in the research I spent

a few nights at the C.B.F. house and participated in various of their

programs as a guest. Through them I met a half dozen commercial

fishermen. However, within a short time I realized that the C.B.F.

people were themselves not entirely well received by the Smith Island

population and that the C.B.F. local staff was taking somewhat of a "my

people" or proprietary attitude toward the watermen. On realizing this

I withdrew from so close an involvement with the C.B.F. as had already

developed. I made sure the islanders understood that I was not part of

the C.B.F. by no longer staying overnight at the C.B.F. house and by

ceasing to be involved in their programs. This disengagement took a

few months to effect since some of my first contacts with the islanders

had been through introductions made by C.B.F. staff members.

In the long run this situation presented no insurmountable

problems to my data collecting on the island. I learned an important

lesson from it. I learned that though it may appear to save time and

effort to ally oneself with a group in the community which you are

studying, it will not necessarily be true and, additionally, you are

likely to be used in some way by the group for their own ends. Though


I keenly felt the need to "belong" in some way, I learned to be quite

circumspect about the degree to which I would allow this to occur. I

found my research needs were better served by taking other approaches.

I began developing my own individual contacts both accidentally and by

going through people with whom I developed a level of trust and rapport

in order to acquire introductions and references for interviews.

Through the use of the "snowballing" approach I was able to gather

plenty of information and obtain interviews.

From the outset of the field work I wrote letters and followed

them up with phone calls in order to get interviews with individuals

who could tell me about health and health care in Somerset County. I

found this approach to be appropriate when dealing with health care

professionals, politicians and county government workers. Early in the

research I easily obtained interviews with the director of the Health

Planning Council of the Eastern Shore at Cambridge, the chief

administrator of McCready Memorial Hospital in Crisfield and Health

Officer of Somerset County. I also attempted this letter writing

approach for contacting some of the commercial fishermen. I abandoned

it quickly, however, as it seemed to generate a level of suspicion and

distrust that I had not expected. I was unable to get a single

satisfactory interview by directly contacting watermen in this manner.

It turned out that being approached through a formal looking typed

letter by a person they did not know anything about was outside their

usual repertoire of social interaction. They were uncomfortable with

being so contacted and possibly a little threatened. I had to discover


the appropriate way to approach the fishermen if I was to be able to

make any formal interviews.

I solved the problem by adopting the strategy of tapping into the

social networks of various local persons whom I got to know and who had

developed some level of confidence in me. In this manner, I was able

to move carefully from person to person in an informal manner. The

necessity of acquiring interviews in this manner affected the nature of

the sampling procedure for the formal interviews about which I have

more to say in a later section of the chapter.

Ethnographic Field Techniques

Simple observation and informal interviewing

During the research period leading up to the beginning of the

formal interviews, there were many opportunities for simple observation

and informal interviewing. I was able to acquire quite a lot of data

of a general ethnographic nature through the use of these techniques.

One of the most useful guidelines for successful social

interaction in the Somerset County area was acquired by simple

observation during a trip aboard the public transport boat to Smith

Island. There were six island women, two watermen, the two-man boat

crew, two tourists from New York City, and myself aboard the Captain

Jason. What I saw was that the repeated attempts of one of the tourists

to engage people around her in conversation was not at all welcomed.

They were polite to her her but tried to break off the conversation as

soon as possible. The woman then pursued one of the crew members

around the boat. He was clearly put out and tried to get away from

her, though he was never rude. Surprisingly, I found that the actions

of the tourist annoyed the waterman sitting next to me to such an

extent that he struck up a conversation with me, though we had only

previously nodded to one another. It became clear this tourist's

behavior was seen as inappropriate--pushy, prying, rude and annoying.

I was fortunate to have been in the situation since I am sure that,

while the New Yorker's behavior was exceptionally inappropriate to the

situation, it was a kind of lampoon of my own potential. For a while

following this experience I became extraordinarily reticent to strike

up conversations, possible too cautious in fact, for fear of alienating

the very people I wished to approach. Even so I believe there were

times when I may have done so without fully understanding it.

Generally, though, I became more patient and when possible I tried to

wait people out, giving them plenty of time to size up and get used to

me. Thus, early in the field research I was acutely aware of the issue

of "impression management" (Pelto 1970:218-220). The necessity of

establishing rapport while also being open about my role as a gatherer

of information was, from the beginning, a real and daily experience

throughout the period of field investigation.

I adopted a strategy of waiting and "hanging out" in some public

places which was helpful early in the research. It usually lead to the

gathering of useful overheard information and sometimes to

conversations and informal interviews. For example, sitting in eating

and drinking establishments frequented by commercial fishermen was

usually fruitful. One rainy day in Crisfield many watermen who had had

their workday shortened by the inclement weather began to congregate at

the Captain's Galley, a bar and restaurant just a few paces from the

dock. I had returned from a visit to Smith Island and stopped in to

have lunch. As the bar gradually filled to over flowing and many beers

were consumed, tongues loosened and catch sizes, boat prices, crab

prices and many other topics formed the basis of the discussions and

arguments that ensued. I learned more about the catching and marketing

of crabs in two hours than I would have guessed possible.

On another occasion in the *same bar, I had a conversation with a

twenty-five year old waterman while killing time waiting to interview a

Crisfield medical doctor with whom I had an appointment. The young

waterman and I recognized having seen one another about town over the

previous few months and after sitting quietly at the bar nursing a beer

for about forty minutes, he started a conversation with me. By then I

had learned to wait out these men rather than rushing into

conversations. It paid off because in the next twenty minutes while we

talked, he gave me his job history and talked about the health problems

and injuries he'd had in the past year or so.

In the period

conversations between

1st Waterman:

2nd Waterman:

1st Waterman:

[Brief Pause]

2nd Waterman:

1st Waterman:

[Brief Pause]

before our exchange I overheard portions of

the other watermen present, e.g.,

"Haven't read a whole book in my life-
except the Biblel"

"You never read the Bible!"

"Sure have."

"Sold (hard crabs) for 700 dollars today."

"I had a 250 dollars fine yesterday. God damned
Marine Police!"

1st Waterman: "Willy, don't you never wear no hat on
the water?"

2nd Waterman: "Naw, its only the wind burn bothers me."

These snippets of overhead conversations as well as the

information from the conversation with the young waterman went into my

field notes. Later these isolated pieces began to take their places in

revealing the local cultural pattern that I was working to establish.

For example, there turned but to be a marked degree of

anti-intellectualism repeatedly expressed in the speech of these men.

The aforementioned comment concerning attitudes toward books is but one

clue to its existence.

Key Informants and Participant Observation

The development of key informants during my research was more

fortuitous than purposeful. I happened onto them in the process of

field work and interviewing. Persons who became key informants were

willing to share information, took a positive attitude toward my

research efforts and were spontaneously cooperative. I developed

useful key informants in Crisfield and Smith Island.

In Crisfield a sixty-two year old widow was instrumental in my

acquiring some of my initial interviews with watermen and nurses. She

was always willing to answer questions and seemed to welcome my visits

to her home. I attempted to reciprocate by doing a few odd chores

around her house from time to time, such as weeding flower beds and

cutting the lawn. I came to know her through a colleague of mine at

the community college in Prince George's County where I was teaching.

The colleague had a friend who had been born and reared in Crisfield.

The friend of my colleague was a dean at another Maryland college

nearby. I made a luncheon appointment with him and the result was that

he phoned his mother in Crisfield and told her to expect me to contact

her. She was very knowledgeable about the area, having lived there all

her life, and quite helpful.

The other key informants were Jack Marsh and his wife on Smith

Island. This relationship began purely by chance in an encounter aboard

the public transport boat from Crisfield to Smith Island as described

above. Jack seems to have decided I was going to be a kind of older

brother. I met his wife Suzy when she brought her baby girl for a

"well baby check up" with the island nurse. I was spending the

afternoon with the nurse observing her work. Subsequently both Jack

and Suzy were friendly and welcoming to me whenever I would drop by.

In addition to the key informant relationships, there were

occasions in which I participated in organized group activities in

these communities and learned of the structure of local society and the

importance of these activities in the community. Some of the occasions

I was invited to attend and others were public events to which anyone

might come. Among the other occasions I attended were a church

"social" dinner in Tylerton, men's softball games in Ewell, Crisfield

and Deal Island, a funeral at Pocomoke, a Polynesian dance performance

sponsored by the Ewell Ladies Auxiliary of the Volunteer Fire Fighters

Association, a two day long cardiopulmonary resuscitation workshop at

Tylerton, the annual Hard Crab Derby at Crisfield and the Annual

Waterman's Festival at Mount Vernon. In addition I was invited to

dinner with people in their homes, to go oystering and crabbing with

various watermen and to observe how the Smith Island nurse performed

her duties during one afternoon.

Bruce's Store, the general store (and only store), in Tylerton

served as a gathering spot for the members of that community. One of

the activities I especially enjoyed was sitting in Bruce's Store and

playing dominoes with some of the watermen after dinner in the

evening. It was a situation which proved to be an abundant source of

information and contacts for interviews. Although I proved to be

mediocre player, fortunately there were others who were worse than I.

Some of the men with seventh or ninth grade educations seemed to

especially enjoy being able to win against me once they found out I had

a lot of formal education and was a college professor. I believe it

corroborated their suspicion that "book learning" was overrated.

Anyway it was all done in an atmosphere of cordiality and friendliness.

Sampling and Formal Interviewing

2 3
I carried out two small purposive, homogeneous sample surveys.

Moreover, both were strategic informant samples; i.e., the occupants of

key roles are overrepresented (Smith 1975:129). One was an "expert

choice" survey of seventeen health care personnel aimed at discovering

(a) the health problems of the commercial fishermen as distinct from

the general local population, and (b) the health care delivery system

in place in the county. The other survey was a "snowball" sample of

twenty-five commercial fishermen from the Crisfield, Mount Vernon,

Rumbley-Frenchtown, Deal Island, and Smith Island areas of Somerset

County (see figure 3-1). The interviews of the fishermen sought

information concerning their work histories, the nature of their work,

their health and whether it was affected by their work.

The survey of health care personnel involved four nurses, three

doctors, one county health officer (also an M.D.), one hospital

administrator, two officers of the Health Planning Council of the

Eastern Shore, one pharmacist, two members of the Somerset County

Health Planning Council, one Methodist minister, and two members of the

Smith Island Medical Board. From these interviews there emerged a

picture of the present health care system and a description of the

views of health care personnel regarding the health of the commercial

fishermen in Somerset County. This is described below in Chapter VII.

The survey of commercial fishermen consisted of a sample of

twenty-five individuals from the county. I originally intended to

simply draw a random sample from the computer printout of all (i.e.,

1,752) commercial fishing licenses issued in Somerset County (acquired

from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources). However, due to the

nature of the population and the methodological difficulties involved

in getting these men to cooperate with formal interviews when contacted

by a stranger, I was forced to employ a deliberate, purposive sampling

approach instead. This approach involved going through the networks of

individuals with whom I became friendly and cordial. I found that the

watermen would cooperate with a formal interview if they were carefully

approached through persons who they knew and trusted. Their wariness

of strangers and suspicion of outsiders made it nearly impossible to

proceed any other way and get cooperation. Someone they were familiar

with needed to vouch for me.

Though the major part of the field research work was carried out

in Crisfield and, especially, on Smith Island, the twenty-five watermen

whom I interviewed were from five areas in Somerset County where a

great many watermen live. These are natural groupings of communities

adjacent to one another due to being located on small "necks"

(peninsulas) or on an island facing Tangier Sound (see figures 3-1 and

3-2). They are (1) Smith Island (including Ewell, Tylerton, and Rhodes

Point), (2) Crisfield (including Crisfield, Lawsonia, and Birdtown),

(3) Rumbley (including Rumbley, Frenchtown, and Fairmount), (4) Deal

Island (including Deal Island, Chance, Wenona and Dames Quarter), and

(5) Mount Vernon (including Mount Vernon and Monie Neck). Five watermen

from each area were interviewed.

I decided to interview a few fishermen from each of these areas

for a total of twenty-five interviews to have a more representative

sample. Thus I located the men by "snowballing" from people who were

already known to me. This means inquiring of these persons whether

they knew any commercial fishermen from the five areas who would

consent to being interviewed by me. In some cases I would approach the

person to be interviewed myself saying that a mutual acquaintance had

recommended me to them. In other cases, my contact would make a phone

call or introduce me in person. I also interviewed some retired and

semi-retired watermen, especially about the topics of fishing boat

construction, the advent of new kinds of fishing gears, and the impact

of the shift from sailing to power boats.


The problem of how to present myself and my work was often

perplexing. Very early in my research I would say I was a social

scientist interested in talking with commercial fishermen about their

work, or that I was a college teacher who was working on a degree which

required that I do research and that I had chosen to study the health

and work of commercial fishermen. I soon discovered that for the

majority of people I encountered almost anything I told them translated

in their minds to "He's a teacher and he's writing' a book about us."

That seemed to be the information that travelled ahead of me whatever

else I said or how I phrased it. If the person I was trying to

interview was well disposed toward me because I had approached through

a friend or acquaintance they trusted, I was usually given a chance.

Toward the end of the research I had learned how to get the interviews

and image management problem did not concern me overmuch.

The sophistication with which the people in these Somerset

communities manipulate strangers was surprising to me. On many

occasions I felt I was the one being interviewed. The Smith Islanders

especially, for example, maintain a strong sense of group solidarity

and maintain a semi-closed community. For the outsider simply finding

a place to stay on the island is difficult, though in the larger

village of Ewell there are two families who can accommodate overnight

boarders. They're used to seeing tourists and other visitors only

during the period between one o'clock and about three thirty in the

afternoon when the boat brings them and takes them back to the

mainland. I believe an informal norm exists among Smith Islanders

discouraging the taking-in of strangers, say by renting them a room for

an extended period.

It is rare that a house on Smith Island is sold to other than

another islander. They are wary of researchers and writers. One

islander said to me, when he heard that I was writing a book," that he

didn't want to talk to me because the next thing he knew his words

would turn up in print and he would probably be misrepresented. Though

this attitude is widespread, it did not prove insurmountable.

Watermen routinely suspect strangers and new acquaintances of

being game warders or undercover agents for the Maryland Department of

Natural Resources Marine Police whom they feel are trying to catch them

doing something illegal such as wild fowl hunting out of season or

harvesting undersized oysters and crabs. On several occasions

different watermen I encountered related to me the story of a Smith

Island waterman who befriended a stranger. The stranger came and

stayed at the waterman's home but later "tricked" his host into some

illegal duck hunting. The stranger, who was a game warden, then

arrested the waterman who had to pay a fine.

What is occurring, I believe, concerns the maintenance of social

boundaries that are important in the lives of the islanders. There are

several social spheres for these people, i.e., (1) an internal world,

(2) an external world, and (3) an interactional world, each demanding

different roles. In the interactional world the external and internal

worlds are in danger of meeting and must be kept separate. It is to

the interactional sphere of social relations that the warning, testing,

story telling about game wardens, and accusatory behavior (e.g.,

"That's fine but you look like the "fish fuzz" [game warden] or maybe a

"narc" [undercover narcotics officer] to me!") pertains. This kind of

behavior appears to be effective in putting outsiders on notice and

putting them off, either by frightening them or insulting them. It

took me a little while to understand that it was a categorical kind of

treatment I was receiving; that it was aimed at me because I was seen

as a member of the outsider/stranger category. I was identified as

someone belonging to the potentially dangerous external world, a world

they wanted kept separate from the social field internal to the island



1. I have employed the books by Pelto (1970) and Smith (1975) as the
primary sources of information for research concepts and methodology.

2. ". .a purposive sample has a known chance equal to 0 or 100
percent of being selected or, as is more likely, where the chance of
being selected is different from 0 or 100, the selection chance is
unknown" (Smith 1975:115).

3. "Homogeneous samples sample from a relatively narrow range of some
theoretical variable" (Smith 1975:115).

4. In "snowball" samples key role occupants supply names of other key
role occupants; "expert choice" samples request "experts" to choose
typical or representative units (Smith 1975:128).


The commercial fishermen of Somerset County live in small

communities near the water where their boats and shanties are kept.

They are remnants of an earlier population of fisher-farmers. Their

forebears survived by a combination of agriculture, fishing, boat

building, and merchant sailing from the middle seventeenth century to

the late nineteenth century. Some of these Eastern Shore men sailed

with English privateers against Spanish and French ships while others

were simply lawless, freebooting pirates. Since the late nineteenth

century, they have primarily supported themselves through commercial


The Somerset fishermen and their families inherit a tradition of

independence and self-reliance from an earlier era when economic

self-sufficiency and individual resourcefulness even to the point of

piracy were the requisite qualities for survival. It was time when

welfare, social security, and various governmental supports, such as

aide to dependent families, were nonexistent. They are a hard-working

people among whom the older values still resonate. They are a

tradition-oriented group many of whom place great value in kinship and

are proud to trace their family lines back many generations to colonial


In many ways Somerset fishing villages approach the ideal

characteristics of a folk or gemeinschaft community. At the same time

they have not failed to adapt to technological and social developments

in the world beyond. In this chapter I trace the history of such

changes among the Somerset County watermen within the broader context

of the history of Somerset County and the Chesapeake Bay region in


Somerset County, the home area of the people who are the subjects

of this dissertation, is geographically located on the lower Eastern

Shore of the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. The Eastern Shore

is part of the Delmarva peninsula which is bordered on the north by the

Delaware Bay, on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and by the Chesapeake

Bay on the south.

The Colonial Period

The southern extension of the Delmarva peninsula was one of the

areas of the earliest European contact and settlement in the

mid-Atlantic coastal zone. As early as the year 1524 it was cursorily

explored from the Atlantic side by Giovanni da Verrazano who, sailing

for the French, landed a party which travelled inland as far as the

Pocomoke Swamp in present-day Worcester County, Maryland. It was not

until the early seventeenth century, however, that the waters adjacent

to Somerset County and nearby areas of the Delmarva were first charted

by Europeans. The earliest cartographic description was made by John

Smith who sailed in 1608 from the Jamestown, Virginia, colony making

two short voyages to map the Chesapeake Bay. Included on Smith's 1608

map is the first known cartographic representation of Somerset County

lands. Smith named a group of low, marshy islands the Russell Island

and a nearby river the Wighco. A projection of land north of the Wighco

was labeled Watkins Point. By all accounts the Russells are the islands

which are today known as South Marsh, Bloodsworth, Smith, and Tangier;

the river is the Pocomoke; and Watkins Point is near the Little

Annemessex River where the city of Crisfield is now located (see

figures 3-1 and 3-2) (Papenfuse and Coale 1982).

European settlement on the Eastern Shore began early in the

seventeenth century at the southern end of the Delmarva peninsula with

settlers from the Virginia Colony who called the area Accomack. In 1649

a group of English en route from London to Jamestown, Virginia,

immigrants under the leadership of the Cavalier Henry Norwood were

stranded on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. Their ship, Virginia

Merchant, was wrecked by a storm in Assoteague Bay. Travelling by foot

and with aid from Native Americans, probably Algonkian speaking

Assoteagues, Norwood's group eventually made contact in 1650 with

Jenkin Price who was a trader with the Eastern Shore Indians. From the

Northampton settlement on the lower end of the Eastern Shore, an area

settled by Englishmen from the Virginia colony, Norwood and his party

with the aid of Price succeeded in reaching their original destination

in Virginia (Torrence 1935:429 and 454).

The earliest settlements in what is now the Maryland portion of

the Chesapeake were planted about 1635. In that year a group of

Virginians led by John Claibourne established a foothold on Kent Island

(see figure 1-1) in the middle reaches of the bay opposite the site of

the present city of Annapolis. Claibourne claimed the island and the

surrounding areas for the Virginia Colony. However, a scant three years

earlier, in 1632, Lord Baltimore had secured an exclusive land grant

from the English king to settle the areas north of the Virginia

Colony.1 In 1634 the representatives of Lord Baltimore established

Maryland's first seat of government at St. Mary's City in what is now

St. Mary's County on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake. The following

year a naval engagement, the first recorded on the Chesapeake, was

fought between Marylanders and Claibourne's Kent Islanders at the mouth

of the Pocomoke River near Somerset County. Claibourne's force was

defeated and his attempt to claim portions of the upper bay for the

Virginia Colony was blocked.

In these early years settlement in Maryland was impeded by the

raids of the powerful Susquehannock Indians headquartered in the

northern end of the Chesapeake. The depredations of the Susquehannocks

effectively dampened the immigrants' enthusiasm for settlement in the

middle and upper bay regions prior to 1652. In that year, however, Lord

Baltimore's agents secured a treaty with the Susquehannocks and during

the ensuing decades settlement in several separate areas of Maryland,

including Somerset County, rapidly developed.2 The Annemessex River and

Monokin River areas of Somerset County, the former now Crisfield and

surrounding communities, were primarily settled by people from the

Accomack, Virginia, part of the Eastern Shore after about 1660 (see

figures 3-1 and 3-2). The early settler influx seems to have been

largely due to the lack of religious freedom in the Virginia Colony and

the greater availability of land in the Maryland Colony. Beginning in

the early 1660's, land holdings of varying sizes began to be surveyed

and recorded with St. Mary's City. By 1666 estates of several hundred

acres, i.e., Makepeace and Emmesox, were recorded.3 In 1672-73 George

Fox, the Quaker churchman, travelled in the Big Annemessex River area

and left a description which indicates a burgeoning population

(Wilstach 1931:172). About this time near the Little Annemessex River

the village of Somers Cove, later renamed Crisfield, was founded.

Smith Island, by traditional accounts, is said to have first been

settled in 1657 by dissenters from other Maryland colonies. In any

case, by 1679 a deed for 1,000 acres, called Pitchcroft, of Smith

Island land was patented to one Henry Smith (Wilson 1973:231).

The local population continued to expand during the late

seventeenth century. By 1704 Somerset County's settler population had

grown to 4,473 souls (Wilson 1973:5).

On the river bends, creeks and small harbors of the Big and Little

Annemessex Rivers clustered the homes and sailing boats of those who

supported themselves by subsistence fishing and farming. In addition,

there were other communities farther upstream which served as loading

and receiving points for agricultural produce and manufactured goods

coming to and flowing from the large estates, their tenants, and later,

from plantations worked by slaves. Upriver towns such as Salisbury and

Whitehaven on the Wicomico, and Princess Anne on the Manokin, were in

existence by the 1730's. Salisbury and Princess Anne were made post

towns in 1732 and 1733, respectively, and Princess Anne has been the

Somerset County seat of government since the latter year.

In the first third of the eighteenth century other areas of

Maryland surpassed Somerset County in population growth and extent of

settlement (Papenfuse and Coale 1982:37). Though the reasons for this

are not entirely clear, there are several possible factors: (1) the

presence of more desirable land in other Maryland areas of the bay, (2)

the greater accessibility of the rivers in other areas from the main

bay channel (to get to the rivers of Somerset County a line of marshy

islands and the shallow Tangier Sound must be navigated), and (3) the

extent of marsh land in the Tangier Sound/Somerset area produced a

great swarm of mosquitoes, marsh flies and other noxious insects which

not only made life uncomfortable in the warmer months but carried

disease as well.

Though Somerset enjoyed a population increase of nearly 100%

between 1704 (4,437) and 1755 (8,682), other Maryland localities were

growing even more rapidly. The result was that by 1755 the Baltimore

and the Annapolis/Anne Arundel County settlements had become larger in

population than the settlement in the Somerset area. Thus by 1755 the

total Maryland Colony population was 153,565 of which the Baltimore

area was 12%, the Annapolis/Anne Arundel area was 8.6%, and the

Somerset area was only 5.7% (Papenfuse and Coale 1982:3). From the

second half of the eighteenth century the Somerset population

experienced slow population expansion compared to other Maryland


The Revolutionary War and the Late Eighteenth Century

During the Revolutionary War period the large plantations and

farms of the Eastern Shore, especially in the northern counties of

Kent, Cecil, Queen Ann and Talbot, made vital agricultural

contributions to the rebel war effort (see figure 2-1). Without these

food stuffs the great difficulties faced by the revolutionary army

might well have been sufficient to tip the balance in the favor of the

British. Throughout the lower Chesapeake Bay, however, British Naval

forces were in control during most of the conflict. In the Maryland

counties of Worcester and Somerset as well as in Accomack County in

Virginia, the British, at the outset of the war, enjoyed the loyalty of

most of the colonists, especially among the lower echelon of colonial

society. According to Shomette (1985:255-288) and Wilson (1973:8),

these counties were "hotbeds" of Tory sympathy. Many Tangier and

Pocomoke Sound inhabitants supported the British rather than the

slave-owning, rebel estate owners and large farmers whom they strongly

disliked (Wennersten 1981:8). Thus, during the early years of the

conflict, these local militias were not called out to serve in the

colonial army because of the strength of British support among the

people there.

Faced with a need for troop supplies, the British as well as Royal

Navy deserters and Tory privateers began to take provisions from the

small farmers and villagers as well as from the owners of the large

estates of the Eastern Shore. This practice converted many Eastern

Shoreners with Tory sympathies to the rebel viewpoint.

Then, in 1782, word filtered into the lower Eastern Shore that the

British fleet intended to establish a land base at Somers Cove in

Somerset County from which to march on Philadelphia. A small force

known as the "Maryland Navy" had for some years attempted,

unsuccessfully, to eliminate the marauding picaroons who plundered with

impunity the Tangier Sound region's farms, towns and shipping. Led by

Commodore Zedekiah Walley, the commander newly appointed by the

Maryland Governor's Council, the Maryland Navy embarked in four ships

to seek out picaroons and Tory privateers operating in the lower

Chesapeake, but especially those in Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds.

Walley and his force captured a picaroon barge and her eighteen

crewmen in the lower bay in October 1782. After then sailing south down

the bay and chasing other enemy shipping before them, Walley's flotilla

returned northward to continue his patrol of Tangier and Pocomoke

Sounds. In late November, Walley set out from the protected Onancock

Creek in Pocomoke Sound to investigate reports that a privateer with

several captured ships stood off nearby Watt's Island. Tracking the

enemy force northward up from the southernmost islands of Tangier

Sound, Walley caught them in the waters of Kedge's Straits, just north

of Smith Island. A bloody day-long battle ensued which involved six

vessels on each side. Commodore Walley was killed and his force nearly

annihilated (Shomette 1985:289-304).

The picaroon fleet, manned by Tories and escaped slaves, was

captained by John Kidd, a Virginian loyal to the British. Though Kidd

was himself wounded and his force also suffered heavy losses, the

battle did not serve to rid the area of privateers. Kidd soon

recovered and continued, along with others, to attack shipping in the

bay for some years (Shomette 1985:289-304). The Battle of Kedge's

Straits, however, may have served to alter the thinking of the British

Navy concerning the use of Somers Cove as a landing from which to

launch an overland attack on Philadelphia as it was never subsequently

attempted. Possibly the battle indicated to the British Navy that

there would be much stronger local resistance than they had assumed.

The Somerset population no longer appeared to be predominantly British

in sympathy.

Many of the Tory privateers were simply outlaws, and others nearly

so, and had been so even under British Colonial rule (Shomette 1985).

There was no love lost between the bay small farmers and watermen on

one hand, and the colonial landed gentry on the other. The planter

class was haughty and arrogant in their relations with the watermen and

other unlanded poor citizens. They often treated them worse than they

did their slaves (Wennersten 1981:8). Known widely under the label

"picaroons" in Dorchester and Somerset counties, these elements of the

colonial lower class were largely self-reliant, self-supporting,

ungoverned and ungovernable. A few picaroons continued their outlaw

activities of piracy and raiding even after the close of the

revolutionary war.

Perhaps the most notorious of the picaroon watermen was Joseph

Wheland, better known as "Tory Jo," who led a gang of which varied in

size and composition but which at one point numbered eight whites and

twenty-seven blacks. With this heavily armed crew Tory Jo captained a

galley and, operating out of Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds, he regularly

plundered settlements and pirated bay shipping (Wennersten 1981:8-9).

In the years both before and following the war picaroons like Tory Jo

were active, but their numbers dwindled until by the War of 1812 what

remained were the stories of their daring activities (Shomette

1985:256-313). They also left behind them a general folk tradition of

lawlessness, self-reliance and independence.

Some of the Somerset County Village and place names from this

period are suggestive of this lawless ethos of the time. Rhodes Point

on Smith Island is by local tradition reputed to have been called


Rogues Point. Maps of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth

centuries (Atlas of Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester Counties 1884;

Papenfuse and Coale 1982:64-65) indicate Deal Island as Devils Island

and Dames Quarter as either Damn Quarter or Damned Quarter.4

The Early Nineteenth Century

Organized religion came to the waterfronting communities of

Somerset County through the missionary zeal of itinerant Methodist

preachers. Although Anglicanism (Episcopalianism) and Presbyterianism

as well as Quakerism had an earlier presence in Somerset, none of these

religions seems to have enjoyed much popularity among the picaroons and

watermen. The success of Methodism was the result of proselytizing

among the bay coast and island peoples which began in the 1790's. By

far the best known Methodist evangelist from the early nineteenth

century was th legendary preacher Joshua Thomas.

Joshua Thomas, Tangier Islander, converted to the "New Method" in

1807 and immediately commenced spreading the "good news" among the

island and people of Tangier Sound. In his log sailing canoe,

Methodist, Thomas was an indefatigable preacher of Methodism (Wallace

1978). Due to the efforts of Thomas and others less well known today,

by the 1820's Methodism was well entrenched in most of the villages

bordering Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds. Even today Deal Island, where

Thomas is buried, and Smith Island have only Methodist churches.

Methodist "Camp Meetings" were a combination of religious revival

and secular festival held annually and they drew hundreds of people

from many small communities. People came to the camp meeting in their

boats, on horseback and by foot. They usually stayed for several days

or a week. Only two years after Thomas' conversion he preached at the

first Methodist Camp Meeting ever held on Tangier Island (Wallace

1978:71-82). Today only the Smith Islanders regularly sponsor and hold

an "old time" camp meeting. The Methodist congregation on Smith Island

has organized and held a camp meeting annually since 1889 and are the

inheritors and last guardians of the local tradition of an annual

week-long church camp meeting in the Tangier Sound region (Crisfield

Times: July 24, 1980).

In the years following the Revolutionary War the Somerset Cornty

population grew to a total of 17,388 by 1800. Of this number 7,432 were

slaves and 9,956 were free. At this time Somerset County had primarily

a farming economy. According to Joseph Scott (1909) who wrote a

description of the county in 1807, the county's major cash agriculture

effort was the cultivation of corn, some wheat and "much tobacco."

While rockfish, shad and herring were said to have been in good supply,

Scott makes no mention of the place of crabs or oysters in the local

commercial economy. It appears that at this time shellfish were local

consumption items and did not yet form the basis of a cash producing


During this period the towns of Somerset were quite small but some

commerce existed. Princess Anne, which boasted an Episcopal church and

forty dwellings, was regularly visited by deep draught vessels which

sailed up the Manokin River to within seven miles of the town. These

ships took on grain and timber for Baltimore and other bay ports. In

the northern portion of Somerset the town of Salisbury was on the

Wicomico River which was navigable by large vessels to fifteen miles

upstream from its mouth on Tangier Sound. Salisbury had only five

dwellings and an Episcopal church, and large ships were prevented at

this time from ascending closer than five miles to the town because of

the many dams which had been constructed on the river.

The clear picture drawn by Scott of Somerset County in 1807 is

that of a regular export trade in timber, tobacco, corn and some wheat

from up river farms worked by slaves and tenants. The subsistence

economy activity of the small farmers and fishermen on the islands near

the marshy river mouths is not mentioned.

During the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War,

Somerset had a quiet and slowly growing population and economy. Corn,

wheat, tobacco and also cotton became the major crops (Wilson 1973:7).

Waterbourne commercial enterprise grew throughout the entire Bay area

and Somerset was no exception. The county was the home of

shipbuilders, ship captains, seamen and sailing schooners all engaged

in maritime commerce.

John and Sally Morris and their seven children, as described in

the Crisfield Times (August 21, 1980), seem representative of the

county's population around 1848. They lived on a small piece of land a

few miles northeast of Crisfield. Morris tonged for oysters in winter

and farmed and caught crabs in the spring and summer months. The

Morrises were active in their local rural community. Morris and his

sons and sons-in-law helped organize and build a Methodist church in

the latter years of the century. Like the Morrises, most county

residents followed a mixed subsistence strategy that varied with the


The Rise of the Seafood Industry

The Civil War caught Somerset County citizens between the Union

and the Confederacy. Though Maryland remained in the Union, many in

Somerset preferred the Confederate cause and left to join the rebel

armies. Many watermen took advantage of the opportunity of earning

money by running the Union naval blockades to trade with the

Southerners (Wennersten 1978:88).

Prior to the Civil War the Chesapeake Bay oyster industry had

begun to develop but was interrupted by the outbreak of fighting.

However, following conclusion of hostilities, the industry grew

exponentially leading to boom times throughout the Chesapeake Bay

region in the 1870's and 1880's. Several factors contributed to the

growth of the oyster industry at this time.

Beginning in the 1830's New England entrepreneurs established the

oyster packing-shipping businesses in the Chesapeake Bay following the

exhaustion of the oyster fishery in New England area (such as Long

Island Sound). In 1836 Caleb S. Maltby came to Baltimore from

Connecticut and opened the first successful raw oyster packing-shipping

operation in the state (Wennersten 1981:13). In 1850 there were six

packing houses in the city and by 1862 there were fifty-eight (Board of

Shellfish Commissioners 1923:282). In 1848 a certain A. Field, also

from Connecticut, developed an operation based on canning cooked or

steamed oysters in Baltimore. This innovation dramatically expanded the

market area and volume of sales of Chesapeake Bay oysters.

Construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road (B. & O.) had

begun in 1828 from Baltimore. As it moved westward from Baltimore, the

railway opened new markets and Baltimore consequently prospered. The

B. & 0. line when completed in 1853 linked the city with the Ohio

River. Baltimore became a major port of entry and a shipping point for

manufactures needed by the population along the rail line. The New

England and Mid Western markets both increased the demand for oysters

which Somerset County watermen and others in the Bay were swift to


The harvest increased from 1,350,000 bushels in 1850 to 3,000,000

bushels in 1860. Following a lull caused by the Civil War, the peak

years of the oyster boom were in the 1870's and 1880's. The Maryland

oyster harvest reached 14,000,000 bushels in 1874 and its all time high

of 15,000,000 in 1884. But by the 1890's the catch was steadily and

rapidly ebbing until by 1904 it was only 4,500,000 bushels (Board of

Shellfish Commissioners 1923:282). In only a rare and exceptional year

since then has the harvest yielded more than 3,000,000 bushels; and for

the last four decades it has hovered in the 1,500,000 to 2,500,000

bushels range.

The oyster boom drew thousands of people into the industry and on

to the Chesapeake. The latter half of the nineteenth century was a

rough and lawless time on the Bay during which it was common for oyster

boat captains to shanghai men for their crews. Both legal and

shanghaied crews worked under the harshest of winter conditions, often

remaining for weeks or months on the oyster "rocks." Their captains

would sell the harvests to "buy" boats while still on the oyster

grounds. Buy boats were usually vessels capable of carrying more

oysters than the oyster boats themselves. Buy boats would put into

small settlements to buy locally harvested oysters or take on the

oysters from the harvest boats while they were still working the beds.

Buy boats transported the oysters they purchased to market in Baltimore

or elsewhere thereby saving the oyster harvesters the loss of time in

travelling to market themselves.

In the Somerset County waters of Tangier Sound and its tributary

rivers, oysters were plentiful during the last century. As the market

developed the local watermen began to intensify their oystering

efforts. The earliest stirring of this new commercial enterprise

occurred in Somerset County on the eve of the Civil War (Wilson

1973:8). The first locally known buy boat began to call regularly at

the village of Somers Cove. The boat's captain is credited with

teaching a rapid oyster shucking technique and with stimulating a new

market for Tangier Sound oysters by buying them from the local tongers

and then delivering them to Baltimore for sale to one of the packing

houses. Somerset's watermen were fast to recognize a good opportunity

and, following the Civil War, a local oyster harvesting and shipping

industry quickly developed.

Eventually the Somers Cove area attracted the interest of business

men who thought the local abundance of oysters and the existence of a

cheap labor force made it a promising site for a better capitalized

seafood industry. Some packing-shipping houses were established and

soon after negotiations to bring the railway to Somers Cove were

initiated. The New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Rail Road completed

a spur from its main line on the Eastern Shore to the outskirts of

Somers Cove in 1866, and in 1874 it was extended to the water's edge.

At this time Somers Cove was renamed Crisfield in honor of a Princess

Anne attorney, John W. Crisfield (Wilson 1973:9-31), who was

instrumental in bringing in the railway. In addition, in 1870 the

Eastern Shore Steamboat Company was organized and began to serve

Crisfield and a number of other Tangier Sound communities (Wilson

1973:51). Steamboat travel became, for a time in the latter years of

the century, the most desirable and comfortable form of transport

available. With these improvements in transport and commerce a measure

of social change and prosperity developed that these communities on the

Lower Eastern Shore had never before experienced.

Crisfield changed quickly and by 1872 it was port to over six

hundred sailing ships and claimed more trade in oysters than any other

city in the state (Wennersten 1978:82). By 1882 the town had a

population of twelve hundred, but combined with surrounding

neighborhoods numbered closer to 5,000 (Wilson 1973:31). From the late

1860's well into the 1880's Crisfield was a wild, booming town (Wilson

1973:9-12 and Wennersten 1978:82). Part of this boom town was literally

built on top of millions of oyster shells discarded by the packing

houses and used to fill the immediately surrounding marshy areas.

During these years fights, murders, brothels, saloons, a theatre with

burlesque performances, new residences, and businesses, churches, and

numerous seafood concerns uneasily coexisted, creating an exciting

atmosphere and the possibility of a fast fortune.

A review of the special schedules for agriculture of the federal

censuses taken on Smith Island in the period from 1860 through 1900

(Fehr 1979) documents a shift in subsistence and settlement patterns

for the island population which was occurring during those years. The

people were changing their settlement pattern from a dispersed to a

nucleated one due to the rising waters of the bay encroaching on the

arable land and turning it gradually to marsh. Eventually only three

areas of higher land remained and at these points the three villages of

Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point coalesced. At the same time a shift

away from a subsistence economy, partly dependent upon agriculture, to

a specialized cash-market economy centering particularly on oysters was

in progress.

By 1890 Somerset County's population had grown to 28,653 but

thereafter began to decline. The county had seen its heyday and with

the decline of the oyster boom the economy and population subsided. By

1920 the population was down to 24,535 and the trend continued.

Although one may occasionally still hear the Crisfield politicians

speak of their city Crisfield developing a population of 50,000 with a

deep water port, today this is only a dream whose origins were in the

oyster boom of the last century. Even though the 1970-80 decade saw a

1.4% population growth, 1980 county population had declined to 19,188

and has hovered close to that figure for several decades.

While in 1980 the Licensing and Consumer Services of the Maryland

Department of Natural Resources recorded 805 licensed oyster catchers

in Somerset County, the number of Somerset County watermen in the late

nineteenth century was over 1,500 (Wennersten 1978:84). This figure

cited by Wennersten is probably low but even then was declining from

higher numbers of watermen who worked the waters of Tangier and

Pocomoke Sounds in the 1870-1885 period before the oyster beds were


Watermen were divided into two distinct groups in the last century

on the basis of how they worked the oyster beds. Tongers used a

scissor-like wooden shafted apparatus called a shaft tong. Working

alone or in groups of two or three using small boats in the shallow

waters of the rivers, creeks, coves and guts, tongers gathered oysters

by standing on the sides of their boats and letting the wooden tongs

slide through their hands to the bottom. By opening and closing the

upper ends of the shafts, they caught oysters between the opposing,

rake-like iron ends of their tongs. This method was a slower and

comparatively less efficient harvesting technique than dredging, but

required less cash investment in boats and equipment and could be done

single-handedly, if necessary.

The other oystermen were called dredgers or "drudgers" after the

cage-like iron dredges they dragged across the oyster beds suspended by

ropes from their sailboats (see figure 4-1). Dredgers worked anywhere

in the bay and its tributaries that oysters could be located. Tongers

thought the dredgers should operate only in deeper waters where tongers

could not safely go. Consequently, there was rivalry and often

violence between them. In 1820 the Maryland legislature had enacted a

law prohibiting use of the oyster dredge in Maryland waters. However,

the tongers were unable to supply the rapidly increasing demands of the

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developing oyster market, and by 1854 the legislature allowed the use

of small dredges in some of the waters of Somerset County.

Because of its profitability, oystering was becoming a lawless

business. In response the legislature created the Oyster Police in

1868 authorizing it to enforce the laws of the state (Board of

Shellfish Commissioners 1923:285). The oyster dredges and the "oyster

navy" armed themselves and engaged in regular shootouts.5 For many

years the Oyster Police were too understaffed and underequipped to

control the depredations of the dredgers effectively.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century due to the decline in

the number of oysters in the bay fishery, the competition between the

tongers and the dredgers intensified as both fought for the dwindling

oyster resources. In spite of this conflict and the general economic

depression of the early 1890's, it was still possible to make a good

living gathering oysters. But as time wore on it paid less and less

well and some watermen began to seek additional sources of income.

Somerset in the Twentieth Century

By the turn of the century the yields of the oyster fishery had

severely declined from over exploitation. Nonetheless the fishery

continued to be harvested. About this time the softshell crab market

became profitable and, somewhat later, the hard shell crab industry

picked up as well. In both oyster and crab fisheries new technologies

were introduced and diversification occurred in the market where

previously oysters had been dominant.

By the eve of World War I the oyster industry was greatly

depressed and became even more so with the collapse of the overseas

European market during the war. Following the armistice the industry

revived to a small degree but regained only a fraction of its

nineteenth century prosperity. However, with the development of

various innovations such as the power driven workboat, the

winch-operated patent tong rig, the crab pot, the clam hydraulic rig,

and the expansion of the crab, and later, the soft shell clam industry,

commercial fishing has continued to be a viable occupation for Somerset


The small, sail-powered log canoes of the tongers and larger,

sloop-rigged skipjacks of the dredgers which dominated the waters in

the late nineteenth century and first years of the present century gave

way before the onslaught of boats powered by internal combustion

engines. The earliest internal combustion engine appeared about 1904

in small sailing canoes (Brewington 1956:67). These motorized canoes

were heavy and slow.

By 1909 there were gas motor driven boats in the Crisfield and

Smith Island area as indicated by this note from the Crisfield Times,

SMITH ISLAND--Mr. Clifton Evans met with a very
painful accident one day this week. While on board the
gasoline launch belonging to Tolson and Evans his clothes
became entangled in the shaft of the engine hurting him
very badly. (Crisfield Times. February 20, 1909:2)

The rate of adoption of motorized boats for oystering an crabbing seems

to have been somewhat slowed by the war years. Even so the Somerset

watermen were quick to see the potential of such an innovation and its

widespread adoption was not long in coming.

There are still watermen living in Somerset County who recall when

sail power dominated commercial fishing and the impact which the change

over to motor-driven boats had on the industry. One waterman, a

retired Smith Islander born in 1899, remembers the first power boat he

ever saw. In 1981 he recounted:

there was a man came [to Smith Island] on the fourth
of July around 1913 in a .sailing canoe, pointed at both
ends, that had a motor in it. He came to the landing at
Tyler's grocery store [in Ewell] to get some fuel. At that
time there were sailing workboat races on the bay side of
the island and I asked him if he'd carry me with him to see
them. I can remember how strange it was to be able to head
right into the wind. You couldn't do that with a sail
powered boat.

Within a few short years watermen shifted from sail to powercraft. The

same Smith Islander recalled:

we started to use them pretty quick. There were three
one summer, then ten the next and by 1920 or thereabouts it
was in full swing.

These small power craft increased the versatility of the crabbing

efforts and, combined with a better market for hard crabs, expanded the

crabbing from one centered primarily on soft crabs to include more

extensive catching and shipping of hard crabs as well.

The early motorized log canoes were slow, heavy and not very

serviceable in winter weather except for shaft tonging in the creeks,

guts and small rivers. After some experimentation with other

constructions, a V-bottom hulled boat with a round stern became popular

(Brewington 1956:67). Its major drawback was a tendency for its stern

to settle very low in the water when under way (see figure 4-2). The

Hooper's Island boat, also known as a "draketail," was the next



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work-boat innovation. With a hull design copied from that of the U.S.

Navy's torpedo boat destroyers, the draketail provided the watermen

with a fast and relatively inexpensive wooden workboat.6

When the square or "box" stern cabin cruiser appeared and became

widely available it successfully replaced the draketail. Many watermen

built box stern boats for themselves, their relatives, or others who

paid them (see figure 4-3). I interviewed a sixty-nine year old

waterman from Smith Island in 1983. He had built many types of boats at

his home in Ewell. In 1969 he built a forty foot box stern with an

eleven foot beam and in 1974 he built his last boat, measuring forty

feet in length with twelve foot beam, for his son. Both are box stern

V-hulls and are being used daily as work boats. As is so often the

case, the boats are named after the wife and daughter of the builder,

it being a very common practice to name work boats after female members

of the family. During the period of my research in the early 1980's,

workboats were not being built by these watermen and those men with the

necessary knowledge and experience are over sixty years old.

In recent years many watermen have shifted to fiber glass

workboats which are lighter and easier to maintain. However, many

Crisfield and Smith Island watermen prefer the older style and heavier

wooden workboat because of its better handling, especially in rough

weather. These men keep older and heavier wooden boats in repair and

continue to use them.

The development of the wire hard crab pot sometime in the decade

1930-40 extended the range of crab fishing. Crab pots tied to floats

could be employed in all areas--rivers, sounds, creeks, and deeper

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water bordering on the channel--and left to fish passively until

checked, emptied and rebaited. Later, in the years immediately

following World War II, the invention of a hydraulic rig to harvest

soft shell clams set off a flurry of clamming activity throughout the

bay. It also resulted in conflict between clammers and oystermen.

These technological innovations and their impact will be further

discussed in chapter VI.

My interviews confirmed Warner's statement that Somerset watermen,

like other baymen, subscribe to the idea of "the right of free

plunder," i.e., the right to take oysters and other marine resources

when, where and as they can (Warner 1976:89). Inevitably the

conservation inspired efforts of the Maryland Legislature to regulate

the manner, season and volume of harvesting the various fishery

resources of the Chesapeake and its tributaries collided with the

deeply entrenched views of these independent men. As the state's

regulatory activities became an increasingly important factor affecting

commercial fishing, confrontations between watermen and the marine

police erupted from time to time.

Until recently the last recorded violent confrontation involving a

Somerset waterman occurred in 1949 (Crisfield Times July 8, 1949). In

that year a Virginia Fisheries deputy shot and mortally wounded a

Crisfield waterman while trying to arrest him for illegally fishing in

Virginia waters. Since then it appeared that the era of violent

confrontations had come to an end. In 1982, however, crabbers from the

two states exchanged gunfire near Smith Island. The southernmost

uninhabited portion of the island is bisected by the Maryland-Virginia

line and it has been a longtime frustration of the Smith Islanders that

they were not allowed to fish in the crab-rich Virginia waters. One

Smith Islander, annoyed at not being able to fish in what he considered

the home waters of his island as well as the more southerly Virginia

waters, succeeded in bringing a federal court case protesting the

restriction. The federal court ruled that since crabs, unlike oysters,

are migratory and as such they are covered by the laws of interstate

commerce. This meant Virginia had to change its laws to allow Maryland

watermen to set crab pots in summer and winter dredge for crabs (the

latter is illegal in Maryland) so long as they bought Virginia


In 1984 the Maryland crab fleet, many of them from Somerset, came

to Virginia waters in force for the first time. They started placing

their crab pots in April and in some areas there were more Maryland

crabbers than Virginia ones. The Virginians claim the Marylanders are

setting 500 to 1,000 crab pots while they don't ever set more than

about 350. The Virginians further claim that most of the crab buyers

are from Maryland and that they pay Virginia watermen a lower bushel

price than they pay the Maryland crabbers (Washington Post April 30,

1984:45). There are hard feelings on the part of the Virginians and

while it is quite possible that these allegations are true, it is just

as likely that they are somewhat exaggerated.

Smith Islanders have deserved reputations as aggressive,

hardworking and opportunistically minded fishermen. Since the bay

warms earlier in the southern reaches of the lower Virginia portion,

the crabs come out of hibernation there before they do in the more

northerly Maryland portion. The Smith Islanders were quick to cash in

on being able to start the crab season nearly a month earlier than they

were able to do when restricted from crabbing in Virginia waters.

Once most watermen became convinced, earlier in this century, that

the marine police of both Maryland and Virginia could and would enforce

the fisheries laws, the logical next step was for the laws to be

challenged. The federal court decision represented a new approach for

the Somerset County watermen. By successfully employing legal action

as a strategy in gaining greater access to the crab fishery, the

Somerset watermen added another strategy to their adaptive repertoire.

Even so, Somerset commercial fishermen are still a stubbornly

independent and tough minded people, many of whom are strongly set in

their ways. Some are not above circumventing the fisheries regulations

and game laws if they believe they can escape discovery, though most

have accepted the inevitability if not the necessity, of the game

warden, marine police patrol, the fisheries licensing, and the

conservation statutes.


1. The exact location of the boundary between Maryland and Virginia
continued to be a matter of dispute until the Black and Jenkins Act of

2. The other important settlement areas were St. Mary's City, Kent
Island, and the Severn River/Annapolis local. The Annapolis community
began to outstrip St. Mary's City and the seat of government was
transferred from St. Mary's City to Annapolis in the mid 1690's.

3. The brick house known as Makepeace, probably built in the early
1700's, today stands on the outskirts of Crisfield City and is occupied
as a residence by its present owner.

4. The heritage of this tradition may well account for much of the
closed community aspect of the Smith Island villages referred to in the
previous chapter.

5. For a detailed exposition of the development of the Oyster Police
from this period on into the twentieth century and their role in
enforcing the various fisheries laws, especially as pertains to oysters
and crabs, see Wennersten (1978 and 1981).

6. The only draketail workboat in Tangier Sound is owned by a Smith
Island waterman and regularly used as a workboat. An example of a log
canoe is on display at the Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland.


Population Size, Age and Sex Composition

Since the days of the oyster boom in the nineteenth century,

Somerset County's population has gradually declined. From 28,653 in

1890, it had dropped to 18,922 in 1970. The 1980 figure (19,188),

however, indicates a modest (1.4%) increase over the 1970 census

figure. The small population growth in the 1970-80 decade was

localized in the area the county seat of Princess Anne northward toward

the growing city of Salisbury in neighboring Wicomico County. This

increase did not affect the areas where most watermen and their

families reside (i.e, Rumbley-Frenchtown, Crisfield, Mount Vernon, Deal

Island and Smith Island) which have either remained stable or declined

in population since 1970 (Bureau of the Census 1983:256).

In 1980 the median age of the county population was 32.7 years and

the mean household size was 2.8 persons. Twenty-six percent were aged

under eighteen and 15.6% were sixty-five or older. This age

distribution has implications for health care delivery and will be

examined in Chapter VII (Bureau of the Census 1983:257).

In 1980 52% of the county population were female and 48% were male

(Maryland Department of State Planning N.D.).

Ethnic Composition

Somerset County's ethnic composition, which in 1980 was 65.02%

white, 34.6% black and .38% a variety of American Indian, Chinese,

Filipino, Asian Indian and unclassified others, has remained nearly

unchanged for many decades (Maryland Department of State Planning

N.D.). The black population is a comparatively stable group with some

emigration and little immigration. It is probable that most county

blacks can trace their heritage back to ancestors who were slaves owned

by local whites.

The low level of involvement of county blacks in commercial

fishing is puzzling, especially since other areas of the bay have

villages of black watermen. There are, for example, some predominately

black fishing villages on Hoopers Island, Dorchester County immediately

north of Tangier Sound. But in Somerset black commercial fishermen are

rare. As for the presence of blacks in the fishing villages of

Somerset, there are none living in the three communities on Smith

Island and none in the Rumbley-Frenchtown area. On Deal Island proper

(excluding Dames Quarter and Tangier where blacks and whites are about

equal in number) blacks number only 12% of the population. Blacks

comprise about 30% of the population of Crisfield (Bureau of the Census


During my research I saw black sports fishermen chartering boats

out of Crisfield and a black man employed as a hand on a skipjack

crew. According to older informants in the Crisfield area, blacks were

the majority of people who worked the seasonal job of oyster shucker in


various oyster packing and shipping enterprises. It may be that blacks

were prevented, legally or extralegally, from working on the water

following the Civil War. The conspicuous absence of blacks, who number

more than a third of the county population, from the ranks of the

commercial fishermen in Somerset invites further investigation, but is

beyond the scope of this study.

Density, Rurality and Settlement

Somerset is one of the least densely populated and most rural of

all Maryland counties (Bureau of the Census 1983:256). Its population

density (1980 Census) is only 56.7 persons per square mile as compared

with the Maryland statewide average of 428.7. Within the county only

15.2% (2,917) of the population resides in areas designated as urban.

Although, as earlier noted, the general county population increased

slightly in the 1970-80 decade, its urban population declined by 5%

while its rural population increased by 2.6% (Maryland Department of

State Planning N.D.:22-9). This phenomenon results from growth and

expansion of the city of Salisbury.

People employed in Salisbury are increasingly buying land and

constructing or renting homes in the low density and less expensive

areas of nearby northern Somerset County. From these locations, they

can commute less than twenty-five miles to work in Salisbury. Thus,

urbanization and suburbanization related to Salisbury have begun to

affect Somerset's pattern of population settlement. As yet, however,

this trend has not greatly affected the predominantly fishing

communities, except insofar as there are more nonfishing work

opportunities gradually becoming available, especially for those

willing to commute. The Deal Islanders and the Mount Vernonites are

geographically the most well-situated to take advantage of these jobs

and the fishing communities most likely to be affected by the

suburbanization of the Salisbury population.

Commercial fishermen tend to live in the small city of Crisfield,

in hamlets and villages very near the water, and on island communities

in Tangier Sound or the Chesapeake Bay proper, such as Hollands Island,

Deal Island, Janes Island (also known as Old Island), Watts Island,

Smith Island and Tangier Island. Today Smith Island, Deal Island and

Tangier Island, the latter in Virginia waters, remain the only

inhabited islands in the area. The others were abandoned owing to

severe erosion or because the gradually rising waters of the Chesapeake

Bay turned them to tidal marshes. Holland's Island, for example, which

as late as 1912 was three miles long, a mile wide, and occupied by more

than three hundred people living in sixty houses, became uninhabitable

and was entirely abandoned by 1922 (Wilson 1973:218-220). The same fate

appears to await Smith Island which in the late 19th century had

sufficient nonmarsh land to allow dispersed settlement and farming.

Today Smith Island cannot support agriculture at all and has only three

small areas with land high enough for the islanders' homes, i.e., Ewell

(also called North End), Rhodes Point and Tylerton.

Income, Unemployment and Poverty

Somerset County citizens are comparatively poor by Maryland

standards. The county family median income (1979), $14,602, is the

lowest of all twenty-three Maryland counties and is $8,510 less than

the statewide median family income of $23,112. Seventy-five percent of

county families (see table 5-1) as compared with only 49% of all

Maryland families reported earning less than $20,000 annually. More

dramatically illustrative of the county population's comparative

poverty within the state is that 41% of its families earn less than

$10,000 annually, nearly twice the statewide figure of 22%.

Eleven percent of county families and 15.7% of individuals in the

labor force report incomes below the poverty level for 1979, while for

the state as a whole family and individual incomes below poverty level

were only 7.5% and 9.8%, respectively (see table 5-2). Somerset has the

second highest percentage of families and individuals living below the

poverty level in the whole state. Only Garrett County, in the

mountainous western end of Maryland, ranks higher in percentage of

population with incomes below poverty level (Bureau of the Census


Reported levels of unemployment in Somerset are also high. In

1982 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Bureau of the Census 1983:262)

indicated a civilian labor force unemployment rate of 19.7%.


Among residential structures in the county there is a

significantly high proportion of older houses than is generally found

throughout the state or in any of the more urban counties. This is

consistent with the high poverty level, rurality and low income level

of the area. Almost forty-four percent (43.7%) of Somerset County

houses as compared with only 22.4% of all houses in the state were

constructed prior to 1940. More recently, there has been an upturn in

Table 5-1

1979 Family Incomes for Smith Island,
Somerset County and Maryland State

Annual Family Smith Island Somerset County Maryland
Income % % %

Less than $10,000 54.0 41.0 22.0
$10,000 to $19,999 37.5 34.0 27.0
$20,000 to $29,999 4.0 15.0 23.0
$30,000 to $39,999 0.0 6.0 14.0
$40,000 to $49,999 4.5 2.5 7.0
$50,000 and over 0.0 1.5 7.0

Source: Bureau of the Census (1983: 264) and Maryland Department
of State Planning (N.D.: 255).

Table 5-2

Percent of Families and Individuals with Incomes Below Poverty Level
in 1979 for Smith Island, Somerset County and Maryland State.

Smith Island Somerset County Maryland State
% % %

Families 21.0 11.0 7.5

Individuals 28.0 15.7 9.8

Source: Bureau of the Census (1983: 264) and Maryland Department
of State Planning (N.D.: 255).

county housing construction such that the percentage of houses built in

the county and statewide were about equal in the 1970-80 decade, i.e.,

22.2% and 23.6% respectively.

Plumbing facilities are lacking in 9.6% of county homes and only

1.9% of homes throughout the state. Sixty percent of Somerset County

houses but only 36% of houses statewide are heated by fuel oil or

kerosene. Finally, the median value of homes is $27,500 in Somerset

and $59,200 statewide while median monthly rent is $161 in the county

and $266 in the state for 1980 (Bureau of the Census 1983: 261).


Courthouse records from Princess Anne reveal that Somerset County

inhabitants tend to marry individuals from their own part of the

county. Marriage statistics for the areas of Somerset where most

watermen reside, i.e., Deal Island, Rumbley, Crisfield, Mount Vernon,

and Smith Island, were examined to discover the extent to which persons

from these areas marry individuals from within or from beyond their own

areas. Tables 5-3 and 5-4 show the numbers and percentages of

marriages within and beyond each of these areas since 1910. I computed

the means of the percentages of in-marriage for the eight years for

each of the areas which allowed me to rank the five areas by degree of

in-marriage. The most to least in-marrying areas are Smith Island

(mean percentage of 70), Crisfield (mean percentage of 64), Deal Island

(mean percentage of 50), Mount Vernon (mean percentage of 29) and

Rumbley-Frenchtown (mean percentage of 19).

Table 5-3

In-Marriage and Out-Marriage Figures for
Selected Somerset County, Maryland Areas

Marriages Year of Marriage
Residents 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1981
of: # # # # # # # #

to Same 47 54 40 81 111 35 33 36
to Others 17 25 25 46 48 22 30 21

Smith Island
to Same 4 5 4 12 12 5 10 5
to Others 5 3 0 7 5 2 3 2

Mount Vernon
to Same 7 11 4 0 0 2 0 0
to Others 1 7 3 6 0 6 0 2

Deal Island
to Same 20 23 10 15 12 9 3 3
to Others 3 2 10 23 18 9 14 8

to Same 11 2 0 0 0 1 0 1
to Others 8 1 0 3 0 8 0 5

Source: Courthouse Records, Princess Anne, Maryland.
Note: Deal Island includes Deal Island, Dames Quarter, Wenona
and Chance; Smith Island includes Ewell, Rhodes Point and
Tylerton; Rumbley includes Rumbley, Frenchtown, Fairmount and
Upper Fairmount.

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