By Sam Serio
Native American tribes were thriving on what is now Virginia’s Eastern Shore for more than twenty centuries when Captain John Smith arrived in 1607.Â Â One of these tribes, led by Chief Barabokees and Emperor Waskawampe, had claimed as their own an island five miles off the Virginia coast, calling it Chincoteague, or “The Beautiful Land across the Water.” Â The Assateague tribe gave their name to the barrier island just to the east of Chincoteague.
The Virginia and Maryland Indian tribes cherished Chincoteague, Assateague, and the other barrier islands for their rich stores of game and shellfish.Â They valued the shells of the whelk so much, in fact, that they used them to create strips of beadwork, referred to as “Roanoke.” Roanoke was considered legal tender among the tribes, who traded for other goods.
Although Chincoteague Islanders no longer use shells to fund their daily lives, they cherish their “Beautiful Land across the Water” as much as the Native Americans did four centuries ago.Â The marshes, forests, and beaches of Chincoteague and Assateague fill the islanders’ lives with year-long beauty, and provide a million annual visitors with glimpses of nature that have changed little since the islands’ Â paths were followed by Indians stalking wild game.Â
Much of Chincoteague Island’s timelessness has been preserved in the work of the Island’s gifted artists’ colony.Â Canvases depicting sunrise over wetland grasses stretching as far as the eye can see, or capturing a moment of perfect stillness before a great white egret sets down at Goose Pond recall scenes which would have greeted the Algonquins on their approach to the Beautiful Land across the Water. The lines of a perfectly carved Chincoteague swan decoy provide a lasting memory of these magnificent birds swimming along the Chincoteague marshes at twilight.
The fields, beaches, and wetlands of Chincoteague and Assateague have fed and sheltered countless millions of migratory birds traveling the Atlantic Flyway through the centuries. Â The waterfowl, as well as the Island’s native deer population, were staples of the Native American diet. Bow hunters in limited numbers are still permitted to hunt deer on Assateague in order to control their population.
The island forests echo with the calls of nesting songbirds, like warblers, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, and nut hatches.Â During the summer their songs are joined by those of cardinals, blue jays, and finches, while the staccato of woodpeckers keeps time.
The Native Americans relied not only on Chincoteague’s game but on the bounty of her waters for their survival. That bounty still draws Â a steady stream of recreational fishers each year, arriving in the spring for the first of the flounder runs, and continuing through the summer to head for deeper water to go after sharks, tuna bluefish, and in late July, the greatest of all game fish, marlin.
Then there are the oysters, clams, and crabs.Â The first Europeans to arrive on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 1607 startled a group of Native Americans roasting a shellfish feast, and dined on the clams, crabs, and oysters when the Indians disappeared into the forest.Â By the 1800s The Beautiful Land across the Water had become one of America’s premiere suppliers of clams and oysters.
Beautiful, bountiful, and bright with the promise of adventure, Chincoteague Island has something for everyone!