America’s Most Unique Island is Vanishing Away Just Off the Virginia Coast

Tangier Island Cemetery: Courtesy of baldeaglebluff
Tangier Island Cemetery: Courtesy of baldeaglebluff

Few American states, if any, can compete with the Commonwealth of Virginia when it comes to geographic diversity.

Serving as America’s oldest permanent English settlement, the state’s east coast is comprised of proud seafaring communities and is home to the world’s largest naval station. Just a few hundred miles inland and you might as well be a million miles from the ocean, as the sandy beaches give way to the Blue Ridge Mountains and millions of acres of cow pastures and John Deere tractors busily making the “spring cut” of hay.  Continue westward even farther and the ridge and valleys will eventually surrender to the jagged mountains of the state’s coalfields in far Southwestern Virginia.

Here, at least one of the state’s counties is west of Detroit, Michigan, and closer to nine state capitals than her very own in Richmond.  Residents in this region of the state have far more in common with a farmer in West Texas (probably because the founders of Texas came from this region), a thousand miles away than with their fellow Virginians living in Fairfax only a couple hundred miles to their northeast — in these parts, the term “Northern Virginia” is seldom ever spoken in a positive manner and for what it’s worth the feeling seems mutual in the dark blue localities around our nation’s capital.

Virginia is a state that has always struggled to remain united – this was evidenced greatly during the American Civil War – and the problem hasn’t gotten much better in the 150 years that have followed.

When the state legislature meets each January it becomes very evident to any onlooker that the people who call Virginia home are as different as the lands they represent and so are their accents.

The Tidwater representatives will be heard pronouncing water as “War-dor”, while representatives from the Southside may be heard asking “Watch chu plan to do ah-boat tha court hoose?”  While the state’s Appalachian representatives may be overheard saying they “Liketa never got the young’uns in their district the funding they deserved.”

Yet, as fascinating as these Virginia accents may be, they pale in comparison to the voices of the inhabitants of Virginia’s Tangier Island, America’s most unique and fascinating island.

Located in the Chesapeake Bay midway between the state’s mainland and the Delmarva Penninsula, Tangier Island is only 1.2 square miles in size, but what makes this island so unique are the 727 individuals who call this forgotten island home.

The first white settlers arrived on the tiny island in the late-1600s and early 1700s from Southwest England. More than a dozen miles from the mainlands of Virginia or Delmarva, these individuals mostly kept to themselves, enjoying a simple and isolated life on a remote island in the Chesapeake Bay.

With no bridges or roads, the only way to reach this .86-mile x 1-mile island was by taking a +12 mile boat ride – and so the isolation of this placed continued for roughly three centuries until a small runway was constructed on the island’s west coast in 1969.

Owing to this isolation, the tiny island community has attracted the attention of linguists because the 17th Century English Restoration era dialect spoken by the island’s natives has been largely preserved and has remained unchanged for more than 300 years. (Click here to hear  the accents)

The words spoken by residents of the island sound more like a northern English, Scottish, or Irish accent than it does an American accent and many islanders have often been mistaken for being from the UK or Ireland when traveling to areas outside of the Chesapeake Bay. The brogue is most distinctive the further south one travels on the Outer Banks, with it being the thickest on Ocracoke Island and Harkers Island. Locally, the accent is called “Hoi Toider”, in that the term “High tider” is pronounced with a distinctive “oy” in the hard “i”, in common with the Westcountry dialect found in Southwest England.

Locally, the accent is called “Hoi Toider”, in that the term “High tider” is pronounced with a distinctive “oy” in the hard “i”, in common with the Westcountry dialect found in Southwest England.

Satellite Image of Tangier Island
Satellite Image of Tangier Island

Owing to the island’s isolation, the resident’s lifestyles are characterized as laid-back and “folksy.” The isolation also contributes to the prevalence of Tangier disease, a recessive genetic disorder which causes high blood cholesterol that is named after the island’s residents.

There is only one school on the island, with fewer than ten children in each grade. The residents were given access to cable television and Internet through a new microwave tower in spring 2010. There are phone lines on the island. Two doctors live on the island currently, but practice in Delaware.

Although the island has one power plant, it is mainly used for emergencies but is operational. Power comes in from the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Methodism has been and remains a very strong influence on Tangier, stemming from the charismatic preaching and revival camp meetings held there in the early 1800s by Joshua Thomas, the famed “parson of the islands.” Because of their ties to the Northern Methodist Church, Tangier residents did not support slavery and refused to join the rest of Virginia in seceding from the Union during the Civil War. Traditional religious values still dominate in the community, and a local ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol. The Tangier town council blocked Warner Brothers from using the island to film the 1999 Kevin Costner film Message in a Bottle, objecting to the script’s drinking, profanity, and sex. If visitors bring their own alcohol, they are advised to be discreet and not drink it in public.

Sadly, the island is quickly vanishing away.

Standing only 3 ft. above sea level, Tangier Island has always been in a very fragile position, yet rising sea levels and erosion of land is only part of the problem for this historic island: the land in and around the Chesapeake is actually sinking, for example, Hampton Roads is gradually sinking 5-7.5 inches per century, and though this may not seem like much to most, for the folks living in Tangier, only 36 inches above sea level, every inch matters.

The BBC recently stated that “fishing restrictions, erosion, and rising sea levels have resulted in most of the younger members of this tightly-knit community looking for opportunities elsewhere.”

If you want to visit America’s most fascinating island, you had better hurry… fortunately, ferry boats run to and from the island every day. Sign me up!

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