DELMARVA ALMANAC

Assateague Island’s Early Beginnings

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Assateague Island is 37 miles long and actually home to three separately managed parks. The story of how it got divvied up goes back a few hundred years.

The earliest European maps do not even show Assateague. At most they show indications of shifting sand bars. Assateague, for much of its history, has actually been a series of islands rather than one contiguous one. Washovers happened up and down the barrier island. These naturally formed inlets would sometimes persist in the same locations but often they did not. Three recurring inlets between Ocean City’s current inlet and the Chincoteague inlet were called Sinepuxent, Green Run, and Pope’s Island.

The name Assateague has been assigned a few different meanings: “the river beyond”, “a place across”, "a running stream between" or "swiftly moving water". It is also the name given to the tribes living in the region at the time of the European invasion. These tribes had lived there for over three hundred years before the appearance of white explorers. They were thought to have lived on the island itself but records of those early travelers show that they only summered there and wintered across the inland bay in villages that were less exposed to the harsh winters along the ocean. When they came to the island they were not vacationing. They were working hard catching and preserving fish and other wildlife for the winter. The mollusks, fish, deer, ducks and other waterfowl they caught were smoked over big fires and transported in baskets back to the main land where they were buried in underground caches for use all winter long. The tribes saw the island as part of their territory but not necessarily as property.

British King Charles I made Assateague Island a part of the Maryland land charter granted to Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert in 1632. Relations with the native peoples were somewhat reasonable though deteriorating when in the early 1660’s one Colonel Edmund Scarborough led a campaign to usurp Maryland’s Eastern Shore counties for his own home colony of Virginia. His strategy was to foment distrust and outright hostility between English settlers and the native tribes. His troops would then come in to save the day and by virtue of his military accomplishment he thought he could lay claim to the land for Virginia. The king or emperor of the Assateagues by this time was the leader of a band of several tribes from present day Worcester and Somerset County. He petitioned the courts in Maryland for help. In 1668 Scarborough gave up his quest and signed an agreement with the Calvert government acknowledging the present border between the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia. But by then the die was cast and most of the so called Indian tribes were being systematically pushed out of the region.

By the 1680’s a land grant on Assateague Island was given to English settlers Captain Daniel Jenifer and his wife Anne Toft at the southern end of the island. In 1702 Capt. William Whittington was given a grant of 1,000 acres on the northern end. He called his patent "Baltimore's Gift" and he used the land for livestock grazing. As early as 1715 Captain Whittington subdivided his portion of the north end of the island into lots for sale. Homesteaders who bought them mostly did not prosper and they were abandoned.

The island has been the subject of many tall tales that have some basis in fact.The legend of the island’s famous ponies coming from a Spanish ship may have started with the story of a frigate called the Greyhound which sank just off Assateague September 6, 1750. After running aground very close to the beach in foul weather the ship's crew unloaded a good portion of their cargo - several chests of Spanish silver. As the weather started to let up they dragged dories and the silver across the dunes and made their way across the inland bays to the mainland.

Almost as soon as they landed safely on the other side local wreckers were stripping the Greyhound of anything of value. Wrecks along the coast of Assateague were frequent enough that scavenging opportunities attracted permanent residents to the small villages now developing there. Locals called these folks “wreckers”. They took the remaining cargo of mahogany from the Greyhound, the personal belongings of the crew, the boat’s hardware and fittings, and even some of the wooden timbers and decking of the boat itself. By this time the ship’s captain Daniel Huony had made his way to Snow Hill where he complained bitterly to the local authorities. This incident and many others like it led to the passage of maritime salvage laws.

At that time a story began to circulate that there were also horses aboard the Greyhound and that they had escaped during the storm. Some people suppose they were the start of the now famous herds of Assateague ponies. This is unlikely since Worcester county farmers had already been using the island for grazing their cows and horses for many years. The stories about the Spanish horses may have been encouraged by livestock owners who wanted to cut down on taxes by minimizing the size of their herds.

The problem of ships running aground on the constantly shifting shoals off our coast was answered by the creation of the U.S. Lifesaving service which bought land to build lighthouses and rescue outposts, and hired surfmen to patrol the beaches up and down the coast. The first of the Delmarva Life-Saving Stations, Green Run and Assateague Beach, were built in 1875 on what is now the Maryland end of Assateague Island. As the shipping industry evolved with safer steam powered vessels and better navigation tools the number of shipwrecks dropped dramatically.

At that point the wreckers who remained turned from salvage work to fishing. The villages had only one school and there were no churches though the faithful would gather in private homes for worship and prayer. It was hard to find tillable land on the island for subsistence gardens though a few of the inland bay islands provided some. Life was hard and the children of residents often left their small island villages for opportunities elsewhere.

After the Civil War a hotel was built at Green Run and a development was underway at North Beach. Land speculators bought tracts and tried to sell off their lots. The storm of 1933 which created Ocean City’s inlet effectively doomed the existing villages south of it, cutting off access to supplies and the train bridge to the mainland which was also destroyed.

A movement began in 1935 to make the unstable island a public park under the auspices of the still relatively young National Park Service. Virginia Congressman Otis Bland brought forth legislation to get things started. But Worcester County officials balked so the initiative stalled. Development prospects on the southern end of the island were deemed unlikely so land owners in Virginia sold most of their lots in 1943 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They used money from the federal duck stamp program buying the land for $75,000. That was park number one.

In the 1950’s a retired New Yorker named William Green took up the cause to make the rest of the island a national park in order to “save the Island from the sea and Honky-tonk.” He joined with a committee of 46 fellow Worcester County residents and then a statewide group to convince local and state legislators that more tax revenue would be gained from a wild life preserve and recreation area than from a development that would require continued expensive infrastructure costs.

With nothing resolved the next development boom began. The Ocean Beach Corporation bought up a large tract on Assateague and sold almost six thousand lots to about 3,200 people. They connected the island to the county’s electrical grid and improved the telephone lines. But two main problems held things up. They had no plan to deal with the inevitable sewage created by the new town. And, the only way to reach the island was by one small ferry service.

The project was dealt a fatal blow when the great Ash Wednesday nor’easter in March of 1962 washed over the island and destroyed what infrastructure that then existed. Out of forty-eight homes that had been built only eight remained standing in the town that would have been called Ocean Beach, Maryland.

After that disaster the state of Maryland negotiated with the feds and the county to buy some portion of the island for their own park. Money was set aside to build what is now Assateague State Park on a tract that had been slated to become another Atlantic City. Now we had park number two.

In 1965 the Ocean Beach Corporation cried uncle and sold all their property to the government. On September 21st of that year President Lyndon Johnson signed an act of Congress creating the Assateague Island National Seashore; saying that we should leave future generations “a glimpse of the world as God made it, not just as it looked when we got through with it.” This gave us our third park on Assateague.

It took almost another decade to negotiate and complete the purchase of the remaining tracts of land including several hunting lodges on the island. Their owners got a special deal. They were paid for their properties and given up to 25 years to continue using them. That time period has now come and gone. Any of the buildings belonging to these gunning and fishing clubs, that the park service did not use, have been abandoned and allowed to “naturally rot away”. These ghost structures lie empty deep in the back country of the island and only the most intrepid hikers venture out to find them.

The shifting shoreline of Assateague continues to fascinate us with her natural beauty and wildlife. It is a coastal gem that attracts millions of visitors every year with pristine beaches and well maintained amenities for visitors. Who knows what the island will look like a hundred years from now? We can be grateful that whatever form it takes someone in the not too distant past took the time to save Assateague for all of us to enjoy.

References:


Assateague Island National Seashore
The National Park Service

The Old Assateague Island Hunting Lodges
Photographs by Allen Sklar

Delmarva's Atlantic Coast Stations
ocmuseum.org

Worcester County - Maryland's Arcadia
Worcester County Historical Society - Dr. Reginald V. Truitt and Dr. Millard G. Les Callette 1977

Chincoteague and Assateague Islands
By Nan DeVincent-Hayes, Gianni DeVincent Hayes, Bo Bennett
Arcadia Publishing 2000

Assateague Island
By Myrna J. Cherrix

Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands
edited by Brooks M. Barnes, Barry R. Truitt
The University Press of Virginia - 1997

Ocean City: Going Down the Ocean
By Michael Morgan

Assateague Island National Seashore - Wild Ponies
assateagueisland.com