The geographical uniqueness of the Delmarva region has led to its unique development. This region boasts one of the oldest Native American tribes in the state, the Accohannock. Other tribes present on the Eastern Shore were the Lenni Lenape, Nanticoke, Delaware, Shawnee, and several other small Algonquin-speaking groups. Once the colonists established land holdings, slaves were imported from Africa, Asia, and India. The pattern of slavery on the Shore was not very unique from that up and down the East Coast. However the development of a free black community was a trait unique to Delmarva. Slave owners were releasing their slaves as early as the late 1700’s; well before the abolitionist movement gained popularity. As many are aware, Delmarva was home to two key figures in this movement: Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the former utilizing the Bay and its many tributaries in her Underground Railroad, and the latter being born in Talbot County. The free black community often continued to work on the plantations on which they were enslaved; though some were able to lease land and establish independent households.
Households of the time supported themselves on staple crops of corn and wheat (one million acres of the peninsula were devoted to these two crops), dairying, raising poultry and hogs, fruit culture, and vegetable production. Accomack county was the foremost sweet potato producer in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Limited grazing reduced the sustainability of cattle-raising but poultry dominated stock production and continues to do so to this day, the region being recognized nationwide for the success of its poultry industry. However many may not know that Delmarva is considered the home of that unique pork delicacy called scrapple. This region’s agricultural industry yields $175 million annually, with Wicomico currently the number one agricultural producing county in the state.
Of course fishing became a primary industry of Eastern Shore inhabitants. The natives introduced colonists to shellfish such as oysters, mussels, and crabs, as well as various fish like shad and sturgeon. Oystering once dominated watermen’s attention, however in the mid 1900’s the Shore’s menhaden was one of the biggest fishing industries in the United States. Watermen were employed in a myriad of roles such as shuckers, crabbers, commercial or sport fishermen, net hangers, fish fryers, ferryboat captains, and even mailboat captains. Today, crabbing dominates the Delmarva peninsula.
When looking above and no longer below the blue-green glassy surface, waterfowl caught the eye of Delmarvans. The area gained much attention for its excellent hunting and nationally renowned decoy carvers whose working-man tools have become highly sought collectors’ items. Trappers, fur dealers, guides, and recreational hunters round out the Shore’s hunting community. The region even shaped a hunting dog, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, in the fashion of its people: hardy, tenacious, reserved, protective, and hard-working.
Delmarva today strives to maintain a sense of community while youth move away as middle-aged families and those wishing to retire are attracted by small town values, affordable property, and beautiful waterways. Steeped in history, the region’s culture is defined by the water. The people survive tempests, diseased waters, and population disbursement as they seek to stem the tide which erodes their way of life.