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Heritage of Chesapeake Bay Watermen Communities

Michael Paolisso, Principal Investigator
Stacey Hockett Sherlock, Co- Principal Investigator

This work focuses on the communities of Deal Island, Chance, and Wenona, located on the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland.  The majority of the families in these communities are economically dependent on the harvesting of the blue crab.

Many community members have been generous in sharing their knowledge and time with us.  As a way of thanking them, we put together skipjack heritage exhibits for the 42nd and 43rd annual Skipjack Race and Land Festivals held on Deal Island.  Traditionally, skipjacks have been used for oystering in the Chesapeake Bay.  Many Marylanders regard the skipjack as a symbol of the heritage of the Bay.  In fact, the skipjack is the state boat of Maryland, and was pictured on the State Stamp.  Over the years, the skipjack fleet has declined in numbers from hundreds to only a few working boats.  This decline in boats is also related to the decline of the oyster population in the bay, due mainly to marine diseases.  The few remaining working boats are docked in harbors along the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and race every summer as part of this festival.

Community members worked with us to pull together local resources for the exhibit.  These resources included photographs, written information, and material culture.  The experience of putting together the exhibit raised questions about the representation of watermen heritage.  The exhibit was a celebration of the skipjack, but watermen no longer make a living by working on skipjacks.  So what does the Bay’s heritage mean for people who live and work in watermen communities?  What kinds of things do these people recognize as their living heritage?   Based on initial interviews, people in watermen communities view the heritage of the Bay as the right to “work the water.”  Environmental degradation and increased fishery regulations threaten that right.  As we continue our research, we will focus on learning what heritage really means for those living in watermen communities.

University of Maryland | Department of Anthropology | 1111 Woods Hall | College Park, MD 20742