Crisfied’s History: An Epic Tale

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Early 20th century downtown Crisfield, MD.

Crisfield’s history is a captivating story that begins with a people’s desire for liberty in the 1600’s.  Over the next two centuries, the locals led modest lives until the oyster bonanza in the 1860’s which brought the railroad and transformed the area into a lawless boom-town  creating a seafood and shipping metropolis.

The timeline below will introduce you to our history and to discover more, come visit us in Crisfield,MD.

-c. 13,000bc.: Paleo-Indian people begin to inhabit the region.

-1,000ad: Native Americans begin living in villages and create an agricultural society supplemented with hunting, fishing and harvesting other types of seafood.

-1608:  Capt. John Smith maps the Chesapeake, come just a few miles from Crisfield, MD.

-1620: First account of a European trading with Native Americans in Somerset County.

-1635: First naval battle of the Chesapeake Bay takes place in the Pocomoke Sound.

-1655: Quakers, a Christian religious group begin to emigrate to Accomac Shire in the colony of Virginia.

-1659:  Virginia passes ant-Quaker laws requiring them to pay tithes to the Church of England.  The Quakers begin petitioning Lord Calvert for exile in the Maryland Colony.

-1661:  Calvert starts issuing land grants to the Quakers to establish a boundary between MD and VA from Watkins Point.

-1670 to 1700’s: Tobacco is used as currency, life and commerce is based around it.

1660’s-1700’s: Settlers begin populating Somerset County, many coming north from Virginia, others from Europe paying for their voyage across the Atlantic by becoming indentured servants after their arrival in the new world.

-Revolutionary War:  Many locals fought with the Rebels in militias protecting farms from English sailors plundering and kidnapping locals to fight in the war.

-1790’s: Agriculture begins shifting from tobacco to wheat and other produce, slavery begins to decline on the Eastern Shore.

-Early 1800’s: Lower Somerset life is based on farming in the summer and oystering in the winter.  The community of Lawsonia was where most people resided during this time, downtown Crisfield was still only water.

 -The War of 1812: Hundreds from Somerset County fight in the war.  British again raid local farms along the Pocomoke Sound.  In the April of 1814, the Battle of Jenkins Creek transpired where locals got word of a looming British raid, locals ambush the English sailors and they return to the Bay.

-1820:  Maryland outlaws oyster dredging and only allowing the harvesting with tongs.  Oystermen would stand on the rail of the boat scooping up oysters.

-1840’s:  According to an early 20th century article in the Crisfield Times, one of the iconic Chesapeake sailing schooners, the pungy boat, was first built just north of Crisfield by Thomas Riggin and George Daughtery.  The pungy was used for transport vessel and as a dredge boat well into the 1900’s.

The Lady Maryland, a schooner used as a floating classroom, is a pungy.

-1854: Michael Somers and Severn Riggin own a small store at the head of the Little Annemessex River, serving oystermen and locals.  Downtown Crisfield is still water and marsh.

-Late 1850’s: An extremely large oyster bed is found in the Tangier Sound, large ‘up-North’ oyster brokers begin moving into the area.

-Civil War: The area, and families were torn by conflicting loyalties.  Even though only a very small percentage owned slaves, the majority had Confederate sympathies.  Federal troops put a stranglehold on the Somerset, and the entire Eastern Shore.

-1863: Beginning of the Oyster Wars, where heavily armed pirates would dredge illegal waters and battle police boats and local tongers.  Oct. 1, two ships were sank in the Tangier Sound.

-Early 1860’s:  Michael Somers and Capt. Hance Lawson go to Annapolis and obtain the water rights that would become downtown Crisfield.  Somers and Lawson bring in a partner, lawyer, politician and advisor to President Lincoln, John W. Crisfield.

– 1866: Tracks were laid into town for the railroad, Somers Cove was officially a boomtown.

-c.1866:  The first “bugeye” the forerunner to the skipjack, was built by Capt. Clem Sterling in the Mariners section of Crisfield.  His only crew was his nephew, Leonard Tawes.

-1867:  Eastern District for the U.S. Customs Office is established to record sailors identity and manifest records, along with levying fees on the shipments into Crisfield.   Capt. Hance Lawson is first Custom’s Officer.

-Late 1860’s: Oyster Buyers, some from up north and many local, bought at the dock and shipped them on the railroad to metropolitan markets.  When in port, the oystermen transformed Somers Cove into a lawless town with saloons, brothels and gambling houses in abundance in the downtown area.

-1860-70’s: In attempts to make money in the off-season, Crisfielder’s began marketing something that had only been eaten during hard times, the blue crab.  The crab now serves as an iconic image of Maryland.

-Early 1870’s: Locals began fighting to bring law and order to Somers Cove, one account has Col. Thomas Hodson firing a shotgun into a riotous crowd of oystermen fighting in the street.  It’s said that the group disbanded, moved a short distance down the road

-Early 1870’s: With Somers Cove having become the richest area on the Eastern Shore, every speculator, investor and entrepreneur wanted to stake their claim in the town.

–  1872: Crisfield  became a town with elected officials, and with the locals wanting the debauchery of the oystermen caroused, bringing law and order to town was first on the agenda.

-1890’s-1930’s: Sailing vessels congested Crisfield’s harbors bringing their product to port, just as many Crisfield schooners and pungy boats filled Baltimore’s inner harbor.

-1900-1930’s: Majestic churches were built all over Crisfield, along with many homes that demonstrated the wealth of the community.

-Early 1900’s: In the first few decades of the 20th century, Crisfield was the home port for more sailing vessels than anywhere in the United States. Crisfield was reputed as the seafood capitol of the world shipping millions of gallons of oysters, crabmeat and soft crabs each year.

-20th Century: As the railroad industry became replaced with interstate highways, sailing transport with diesel and the bounty of the Chesapeake declined, Crisfield’s landscape, and it’s history changed forever.

Timeline written by Joe Paden.

Want to hear more?  Come visit and contact us to experience all that Crisfield has to offer!

All images used under the Fair Use Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107.