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  • Labor, Landscape, and Four Virginia Watermen
  • Jessica Taylor (bio) and Patrick Daglaris (bio)

In Mathews County, Virginia, men crab, oyster, and fish in workboats or sail on commercial vessels. They leave home hemmed in by 350 miles of shoreline, tidal wetlands, stands of pine trees jutting into the water, and small, brushy islands at a distance in the haze. On shore, fewer than nine thousand people live in Mathews County, many of them retirees in second homes and care facilities or commuters to military and shipbuilding installations nearby. Though local commercial watermen once numbered in the thousands, only a little over a hundred residents work in the maritime industry today.1 "It was hard work, but I didn't mind it," former waterman Gilbert Hall remembered. "I was young. I never liked that kind of work, fishing. My daddy was good to me, he worked me to death but then you gotta make boys work."2 Young and old men understood that fishing together, and sharing the stories about fishing, transferred the value of hard work between generations of men who had navigated changes that redefined the daily nature of their work. In oral histories, the Middle Peninsula's watermen [End Page 257] described drawing on these skills and values as they responded to intertwined environmental and economic instabilities, from species collapse to labor migrations to climate change.

For watermen fishing through the twentieth century, good seasons of productivity and profit punctuated a longer overall decline in the amount of work. Informed by generations of local knowledge, men who fished for a living in the Chesapeake Bay were sensitive to how economic and ecological imbalances affected everyday life for their communities, and their cultural resilience was rooted in values shared between men. Watermen in Mathews County, we argue, used fishing technology and environmental knowledge to adapt to change and to pursue a particular ideal: individual economic autonomy through physical labor. But over the last century, accelerating shifts in technology and the Chesapeake's environmental quality, harvests, and demographics rendered some fishing technologies and labor regimes obsolete. As local landmarks eroded from the shore and commercial fishing on the Chesapeake became financially untenable for many, watermen explained these challenges as only the latest among many they had already weathered.3

However universal "hard work" might seem, the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century development of the Chesapeake Bay's diverse water industries transformed the meaning and payoff of work. During the nineteenth century and onward, the growth of cities like Baltimore, and the steamer lines and roads leading to them, created employment for skilled people in relatively distant rural areas like Mathews County. Although men on the Middle Peninsula built and captained merchant ships and manned fishing vessels long before the Civil War, cities' need for dry goods, produce, and seafood created a wider demand for steamship captains and workers to carry freight beyond Virginia. Watermen who harvested oysters, crabs, menhaden, and other fish likewise profited. The waters and banks of the York River and the Chesapeake Bay teemed with steamships and industrial fish-packing houses and canneries; the docks were crowded with families and crews of men moving crates of colorful watermelons, cantaloupes, and daffodils.4 [End Page 258] Mechanization, demographics, and fluctuating fish populations and profits changed the historical landscape. Increased harvesting efficiency also may have caused the decline in catches and the rise in busts that began to disappoint watermen by the turn of the twentieth century.5

Economic change has depressed the overall population of Mathews County, which remained stagnant as Virginia's population exploded. Here, the water is calm and winding, and skinny pines, buoys, osprey nests, and low marshes punctuate clear views of a creek's or harbor's opposite shore. The Mathews tip of the Middle Peninsula, once connecting mariners to consumers nationwide, seems isolated to young residents; they take the road up the peninsula or bridges south across the river to look for work. A tourist taking in the bay finds it pristine, but to an experienced waterman it looks empty. "[W]e don't have many watermen no more. We don't. Like I say, we used to have...

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