Smith Island lies in the Chesapeake Bay twelve miles west of Crisfield, Maryland.
Captain John Smith first charted the archipelago in 1608, but seasonal occupation by Native Americans goes back more than 12,000 years. Most Smith Islanders descend from 17th-century settlers, most of whom arrived in Maryland and Virginia from southwest England and Wales. Surnames indicate a smattering of Scotts and Irish soon followed. Both Maryland and Virginia claimed Smith Island until the dispute was finally settled in the 1873. The Maryland-Virginia state line runs through the island chain, a fact that played a key role in the bloody “Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake.”
Smith Island is so closely associated with the maritime activities of crabbing and oystering, that few know that the first permanent residents were farmers. Islanders turned from land to water after the Civil War in an economic restructuring resulting from skyrocking demand for seafood and wildfowl, at a time when erosion and rising water levels made farming increasingly challenging.
The three-by-five mile island chain has three villages with a total population of about 350 year-round residents. The Cultural Center is in Ewell, which is the largest village. Ewell joins Rhodes Point by bridge, while Tylerton is on a neighboring but unconnected island. Most everything and everyone that comes to Smith Island arrives by boat. The cruise and passenger ferries offer roundtrip passage daily throughout the summer and early fall. The passenger ferries also provide limited passage during the off-season. The cruise boat affords you the comfort of air conditioning and bathrooms on board along with a light narration of the passing scenery. Locals and their supplies travel on the three passenger ferries (two serving Ewell and Rhodes Point, and one Tylerton). This transportation option provides narration of a different kind, in the form of the distinct dialect of the locals you will meet aboard.
Bring along your kayak (for an additional freight fee) to take advantage of the various water trails and beaches. Bikes and golf carts are available for rent. Photo opportunities abound as you tour the island and meet the people. You’ll also want to catch a peek of the many waterfowl, wading birds, shore birds, herons, and other wildlife that inhabit the island.
The Smith Island Cultural Center is in the village of Ewell, a short walk from the county wharf. The Crisfield and Smith Island Cultural Alliance, Inc. operates the museum and gift shop, which is open daily from 12:00 - 4:00 from May 1st through late October.