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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Water Ways: Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities

Mid-Atlantic Regional History

Read about the heritage this project hopes to preserve

The history of the Mid-Atlantic was largely shaped by the availability of its natural resources and the use of its waterways in transportation and commerce. Early European settlers learned from local Native Americans how to harvest the waters. In the southern part of the region, Africans brought to work as slaves on tobacco plantations became accomplished fishermen and boat pilots. Dutch settlers on Long Island turned oysters into a cash crop, and descendants of English shipbuilding families harvested groves of Atlantic white cedar to supply their trade. The deep harbors of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore fostered shipping that turned the region's fishing, lumbering, and agriculture into multi-million dollar industries. As sail power gave way to steam and diesel, bay and river pilots and tugboat captains navigated more and larger cargo ships around the dangerous shoals.

Seasonal Cycle

Through the annual seasons of work in rural water communities, families "followed the water," passing on such knowledge as where to find fish and how to skin a muskrat and bone a shad. They redesigned boats, nets, and traps as needed for the work at hand. They carved lifelike decoys from the same native woods used in shipbuilding. Waterfowl guides helped create an early tourism industry by leading visiting hunters through local marshes.

Maritime Communities Today

Today, the pace of change in Mid-Atlantic maritime communities, both rural and urban, has become even more rapid. Commercial fishing is in severe decline, and many fathers discourage their children from entering the trade. Fish-packing houses have closed; fiberglass is favored over wood for building boats. But with their resilience, maritime communities are finding many ways to hold on to their heritage. In their stories can be heard not only frustration but also pride in their achievements and hope for their future.

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A waterman at Poquoson shores in Virginia. Photo by Harold Anderson.