Subculture: Smith Island Watermen

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What life is like on one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most isolated islands.

By Elena Gooray


Captain Grant Corbin Sr., 67. (Photo: Christopher Leaman)

Linguists believe thatthe English language is rapidly losing its regional variations, but Maryland’s Smith Island watermen have bucked this trend — even as their population has shrunk in recent decades. “Down” is still “dane” and male crabs are still “jimmies”; irony runs so thick through Smith culture that “she ain’t pretty none” means the speaker fancies a lady’s looks. About 360 Smith Islanders live in relative isolation on the Chesapeake Bay, echoing the island’s 17th-century English settlers’ Elizabethan dialect, and favoring centuries-old crabbing and fishing techniques.

  • Island people is a different breed. If someone’s in a jam here, someone else is going to help them out. If you’ve got somebody who’s been in a fire, someone will bring them dinner the next night.
  • Outsiders think they’re a whole lot smarter than island people. You’ve got scientists who think they know more than we know, but when you’ve worked on the water 58 years, there are just some things you know about crabs, oysters, the water, [that] they don’t.
  • Some people come out here from the city, they’re tickled to death by it — then they want change after three or four years. They don’t stick around. Some people move down here and think they can afford it, but then they get a storm on the shoreline and their jetty washes out and it takes a lot to put it back.
  • A lot of families now, the wives are working. It takes two incomes. It’s a shame. You wish the women could spend more time at home, but you need both people working now to bring in enough money. If they want to work, that’s one thing. But it ain’t “you want to do it,” it’s “you got to do it.”
  • They’re gonna have to move where there is some jobs. The main place they have to work is the prison. I mean the big Somerset County prison. It has a lot of guards. It’s a pretty good-sized prison.
  • It’s important that when we’re dead and gone, that somebody be carrying on this life. You need people to know how people did live, and how things went, and how we made a living. And how we were religious, and how honest people were, and just to know who we were.

Captain Grant Corbin Sr., 67, as told to Elena Gooray.