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One of the more well-known historical
personalities of the Eastern Shore is Joshua Thomas, who was responsible
in great part for the permeation of Methodism among the water communities
dotting the mainland of Somerset County and the Tangier islands 1
of the Chesapeake Bay. We would know little about this man so important
in Eastern Shore religious history but for the Rev. Adam Wallace's 1861
biography, The Parson of the Islands. Wallace described Joshua Thomas as
being of a "natural roughness, a polished diamond of the first order, to
whom lawyers, judges, doctors and preachers gave more heed than they would
to the most cultured man in the community." The Parson is truly legendary
and, as such, is a "larger than life" character in the annals of Somerset
County history and folklore.
Joshua Thomas was born in the Potato Neck (now Fairmount) area of Somerset
County on 30 August 1776 to John and Martha Hall Thomas. John Thomas died
as a result of a dog bite when Joshua was a tot; Martha remarried to George
Pruitt, Sr. who became subject to "drunken frolics for weeks at a time"
after the family home was burned by "refugees". Apparently Joshua was still
quite young when his stepfather drowned. Joshua was a man of temperance
and mightily exhorted against the use of alcohol, preaching total abstinence,
this attitude presumably stemming from his youthful experiences.
During his childhood years
of deprivation and poverty, Joshua's mother instilled in her children the
love of the Lord. He and his brothers became expert fishermen and canoe
navigators while keeping starvation at bay. Joshua often prayed in an effort
to ascertain the best fishing location and always gave thanks to the Lord
for the fish he caught.
For about three years Joshua
lived with David Tyler on Smith Island, with whom he had been working on
the water as a fisherman for several years after the death of his mother
at age 80. Martha Hall Thomas Pruitt is allegedly buried under the former
Ford's store in Upper Fairmount, now the site of Chesapeake East Pottery.
When Joshua was about 23
years of age, he began praying for a wife and "promised if the Lord would
bless me with a good wife I would begin to serve him better than I ever
yet had done." On 10 September 1797 Joshua married Rachel Evans, daughter
of Richard and Molly Crockett Evans of Shanks, the Virginia portion of
Smith's Island. Prior to her death at the age of 27, Rachel bore Joshua
six known children as follows:
John Thomas b. 20 Dec 1799;
d. 7 May 1866 m. 29 Dec 1818 Ann Crockett - resided and buried on Tangier
Hester A. Thomas b. 14 Sept
1802; d. 13 Feb 1866 m. Jacob Webster - resided and buried on Deal's Island,
Clooe [Chloe]Thomas b. 8
Joshua Thomas b. 28 Oct
Elisha Thomas b. 30 Mar
1811 m. (1) 11 Apr 1829 Sally Parks; (2) 1 June 1840 Elizabeth Bradshaw;
(3) 24 Aug 1858 Ann M. Tyler; (4) 16 Feb 1873 Mary Jane Parks - resided
Deal's Island, Maryland
William Seymour Thomas b.
20 May 1812 m. 11 June 1833 Mary Anne Dougherty - resided Deal's Island,
In the early 1800's there
was no regular form of organized worship on any of the outlying islands,
although as early as 1782 there was "a large and faithful band of Christians"
on Deal's Island. Phoebus' was a preaching place in 1782; a church was
built in 1812, later rebuilt and renamed to St. Peter's as it is known
today. On the occasion of the baptism of his first-born son John, Joshua
Thomas examined his religious beliefs and thereafter began to attend the
Episcopal Church at Annamessex and Pungoteague, Virginia. The Rev. Joshua
Reese, Rector of Stepney Parish 1799-1801, was summoned to preach on the
islands from time to time and Joshua was usually drafted to transport the
rector in his canoe. It was during these trips that Joshua became interested
in organized religion. Joshua soon regularly kept the Sabbath at the old
chapel which stood near the head of Coulbourne's Creek and of which St.
Paul's Church at Quindocqua was a successor. Methodism had begun to seep
all along the Eastern Shore since about 1778 and meeting houses had sprung
up in various locations. The first two churches erected on the Annamessex
Circuit were Curtis' Chapel and Miles' Chapel, the latter first built in
1784 and a new structure erected in 1817. The name was changed from Miles'
Chapel to St. Peter's in 1813. On one visit to St. Paul's, upon finding
Father Reese away, Mr. William Miles invited Joshua to attend St. Peter's
Methodist Church, which Joshua did with great reluctance.
At a camp meeting held in
Pungoteague in August 1805, presided by Lorenzo Dow, Joshua became interested
in Methodism because of the powerful sermon by Dow. It was, however, at
a camp meeting in Annamessex the following year, that he was converted
to Methodism. This was the first step on his vocation as the greatest local
preacher the Eastern Shore ever produced. Joshua's cousin, John Parks,
who was reared at Hog's Neck on Smith Island in the same neighborhood as
Joshua, was also converted at this time. Shortly after his conversion,
Joshua became an official member of the circuit as an exhorter; the circuit
included Smith's and Tangier Islands.
During the War of 1812,
the British fleet made Tangier Sound the center of their operations while
the Chesapeake Bay area was under attack. Brother Thomas, as Joshua was
now known, conferred with the British Admiral on several occasions as Joshua's
reputation as a just and holy man preceded him. Brother Thomas influenced
the Admiral to spare the trees around the Methodist camp ground and to
use a vacant house as a headquarters rather than seizing a neighbor's home.
In the late summer of 1814 the British prepared to take Baltimore. Before
they left Tangier Sound, Brother Thomas was summoned to exhort the soldiers.
At the appointed hour, some twelve thousand men were lined up in columns
to hear Joshua Thomas preach. He warned them of the danger and told them
God told him they could not take Baltimore and would not succeed in their
battle, which history shows they did not prevail. It was during the British
fleet's unsuccessful assault that Francis Scott Key wrote of the bombs
bursting in air over Fort McHenry, the words that became our nation's national
anthem. While Brother Thomas' part in the war was small, within a short
period his reputation grew exceedingly.
While the British were still
locally encamped, Brother Thomas' wife Rachel, passed away. He married
30 Sept 1814 Charlotte Bradshaw, daughter of Richard and Arabella Mister
Bradshaw, by whom he had at least three more children:
Lybrand Thomas b. 26 Dec
1814 m. 22 Oct 1850 Mary G. Daniel - resided Deal's Island, MD
Ann Maria Thomas b. 5 Oct
1820 m. (1) 20 June 1839 William M. Mister; (2) Charles Snow
Aaron Thomas b. 29 Dec 1829
m. 14 Nov 1844 Alsey A. Thomas
On 17 July 1828 the first
Methodist camp meeting was held on Deal's Island--where Brother Thomas
had resided since about 1825--at a site called Old Hill. The managers for
that meeting were Brother Thomas, Travers Daniel, Gabriel Webster, John
Parks, Charles Parks, Severn Mister, George Rowe, John Webster, William
Wallace, Capt. William White, Hamilton Webster, John Waters, Lewis Phoebus,
Denard Evans and Aaron Bradshaw. Brother Thomas had been ordained a Deacon
in the church and had become the successor to the Reverend David Wallace.
Rock Creek Church, to which Brother Thomas had a four mile walk, was the
first place of public worship in the vicinity of Deal's Island.
Between June 1825 and September
1837 nineteen marriages performed by Joshua Thomas of persons residing
on Smith's and Tangier Islands are recorded at the Accomack County Courthouse.
It is likely some of these marriages were performed at John Parks' home
on Smith Island as the boundary between Maryland and Virginia was between
his house and kitchen. In 1835 Brother Thomas was ordained as an Elder
of the Methodist Church and attended the Philadelphia Annual Conference
that year, where the Presiding Elder introduced him as the man who had
preached on Tangier Island before the British army.
The canoe, "Methodist" in
which Brother Thomas traveled to practice his itinerant ministry, is as
famous as he.
The "Methodist", having a length of between 20 and 30 feet and a five foot
width, was hewn by Hance Croswell of Annamessex from a tree grown in the
neighborhood of Curtis' Chapel and was built and launched at some 150 yards
north of St. Peter's Church on Jones' Creek.
In August 1850, the Deal
Island camp meeting site was moved from Evans' Hill to Parks' Grove. Parks'
Grove was located on the current Harrison Road in Deal Island, which is
in close proximity to St. John's Methodist Church, built in the same year.
The 1850 camp meeting was the last time Brother Thomas preached, as he
took a severe fall and spent the remainder of his life as an invalid. Adam
Wallace formed a committee to have a wheeled vehicle with a movable chair
seat built for Brother Thomas by William Lecates, the carriage maker in
Princess Anne. When Wallace delivered the wheelchair, Brother Thomas prophetically
prayed, "Lord fit him some day to write a book about what thou hast done
for me, and send him back here after I am in my grave to do this work for
At the age of 77, Joshua
Thomas departed this life on 8 Oct 1853 survived by his second wife and
children Seymour, Aaron, John, Lybrand and Hester. His nephew, Zachariah
Webster, preached the funeral sermon. The epitaph on his tombstone reads:
islands are among those referred to as the "Russell Isles" by explorer
Capt. John Smith in 1608 and include Tangier Island, Virginia, the archipelago
Smith Island, named for Capt. Henry Smith, Jane's Island, Deal Island,
South March Island, Long Island, Spring Island, Bloodsworth's Island and
Copyright © by Rebecca F. Miller
Miller's Choice Genealogy
Princess Anne, MD 21853
All Rights Reserved December
The above is the full text
of the article written for the Fall/Winter 1994 Somerset County Historical
was "edited down" due to space limitation in the Bulletin. The inspiration
for the article stemmed from finding the pages from the Thomas Bible containing
the births of the children. Believe it or not, these pages were found in
a chest of drawers donated to the Society; this precious document was used
as a liner for a drawer. The document has been framed, courtesy of Philip
L. Goldsborough, and was hung in the music room of the north end of the
Teackle Mansion, SCHS headquarters.
Page constructed by; Phil
Goldsborough October 30, 1997
Copyright © All Rights
Reserved by Goldmar
This page is best viewed
in 16 bit high color palette, and 640 x 480 pixels desk top area.
document and images used with exclusive written permission from the authors!)
Island is filled with History and Treasure from days gone by. In the following
writings you will discover the Christian principals to which Tangier Island
is dedicated and lives by. Our Island Welcomes all who care to visit.
A Document by:
not lightly upon these shores nor cast lighthearted gazes upon our isle...take
not a dim view of our dwellings nor laugh at our narrow roads...do not
misunderstand our language nor make joke of our native tongue... do not
mock our walk or look down upon our quaint ways...for upon these shores
have walked me of God, made of fiber woven close for age... and inside
these dwellings laughter and love have flowed to make mansions of our homes...our
language is that of times past and ages still unknown and our native tongue
speaks with truth, understanding and compassion... our walk is that of
pride a labor - bent somewhat from toil but never from shame...our quaint
time is abundant here and we wish it not away...and fear not our streets,
as narrow they are, for they are roads of welcome to strangers, highways
to let all visitors come into our lives, and exit for those who misunderstand
us, or mistrust us or wish not our love.
M. Walczyk, Peter's Row, 27 Thomas St., Coram, NY 11727
the summer of 1608 John Smith started out on an exploration trip of the
Chesapeake Bay. He traveled from Cape Charles and went up the bay to the
Potomac River and went up as far as present day Washington D. C. and back
down to Jamestown. It was actually two trips for at one point he was very
badly hurt by a stingray and had to return to Jamestown to be treated.
It was during these two voyages, while looking for fresh water that he
came across a group of islands in the middle of the bay. He named them
the "Russell Isles," for a Doctor Russell who was then on board ship with
group is today what is known as Smiths, Tangier and Watts Islands. Tangier
Island is about 6 miles below the Maryland-Virginia State line and at one
point all the islands below the state line were known as the "Tangier Islands"
in Virginias records. These, among others, included Shanks, Old Walnut
Island, Piney Island, Queens Ridge, Horse Hummock, South Point, and Hog
Neck. The latter three being attached to the lower part of Smiths Island
in Maryland. The "s" was probably lost sometime after 1880 when erosion
took its toll on these islands and the inhabitants moved to Crisfield MD,
Onancock VA or Tangier Island itself.
that time what we now know as Tangier Island consisted of six ridges or
long narrow areas of land rising slightly above the marsh of which three
are inhabited today. Main Ridge is today the center of town. The old church
was in the same location as the present one on the northern end of this
ridge and the land south of it was called "The Field." At one time it was
planted with corn. Canton is the ridge just to the east of Main Ridge and
is connected by a bridge. It was on this ridge the first settlement was
made and for a while was more populated that Main Ridge. It is generally
believed that the homes of the early fishermen were here while the other
ridges were used for farming. West Ridge is about a mile long. In recent
times a sea wall was erected and it has a small airport or airpark on it.
Creek Ridge or what remains of this has long been abandoned. Joshua Thomas
son, John ran the first store on the island here. Canaan or "The Upards"
is about a mile and a half above the others and although at one time it
was connected to Main Ridge by a roadway it became unreachable by land
around 1923 and has not been inhabited since 1928. East Point Ridge was
a very small ridge to the northeast of Canton. It was abandoned in approximately
1905, shortly after the houses on it burned.
In 1670 Ambrose White received a patent for 400 acres called an Island
in the Chesapeake Bay. the next year White assigned his patent to Charles
and John West. In 1673 William Walton was granted 400 acres on the western
island which was formerly patented by White. There is a similar entry in
the patent book three years later but Scarburgh and West were the recipients
instead of Walton and in 1678 a formal patent was issued to both of them.
Charles Scarburgh left his interest to his wife Elizabeth in 1702 and John
Wests interest went to his eldest son a year later. In 1713 two patents
were granted to Elizabeth Scarburgh and Anthony West for Tangier Islands.
One was for 900 acres which included the original 400 acres and 500 acres
more found within its bounds. The other grant was for 170 acres of new
land south of Tangier called "Sandy Beach Island" which was probably the
hook shaped part that is now attached to the main of the island. This was
the first time Tangier Islands was named in the records. Although Elizabeth
Scarburgh left her interest to her daughters, some how the title went to
her oldest son, Bennett. It then passed to Henry Scarburgh and then to
a Charles Scarburgh. In 1762 Charles Scarburgh confirmed an undeeded sale
of his half to Colonel Thomas Hall. The next year Hall sold this to William
Andrews as 475 acres.
Tradition states that Tangier was first settled by a John Crockett and
his eight sons in 1686, who had come to the island to tend cattle, but
nothing has been found to verify this. The first Crockett of record on
Tangier was Joseph, the son of Sampson and the grandson of John Tyler of
Smiths Island MD. It was this Joseph who bought 475 acres of the Andrews
land in 1778. It does not seem likely that Joseph tended cattle at all
for he was left a inheritance by his grandfather John Tyler, was bound
to his uncle Thomas Tyler to be a weaver and learn his numbers, lived on
Smiths Island MD with his uncle until about 1744, was made constable of
"Tangier Islands" in 1763 and was given all of "South Point" by John Fish
in his will of 4 April 1765. It was not likely that a man of some means
would be tending cattle. By 1799 the West part of the patent had descended
down to a John West who in this year left his interest to his son Anthony,
who was to complete an unrecorded deed for 100 acres to Josephs son John
and the remainder was to be sold. Joshua Thomas, who was raised on Smiths
Island, living with his cousin David Tyler there and had married Rachel
Evans, the daughter of Richard, bought 75 acres of it.
The 1800 census of Accomack County showed that there were 79 people on
the "Tangier Islands," most of which were Crocketts or descendants of Crocketts.
Farming was their chief occupation. By 1880 the population was 589 and
by 1900 there were 1064 inhabitants. The population increased slowly between
1800 and 1850, and then rapidly until 1900.
In 1805 an event happened that had a great impact on the life on Tangier,
the Chesapeake Bay and Joshua Thomas in general. The number of Methodist
followers had been growing since the close of the Revolutionary War and
Joshua Thomas was hired to carry some people to a Methodist camp meeting
on Pungoteague Creek. While there, he heard Lorenzo Dow, a very powerful
preacher speak and he along with others were converted. On arriving home
he arranged for a meeting to be called. And, so, the Methodist Church was
established on Tangier. The small Methodist society, led by Thomas until
he moved to Deals Island MD met in homes until 1835 when the first church
was built. A list of members in 1825 includes: Henry Crockett and Sally
Crockett, Priscilla Crockett, a widow, Zachariah and Polly Crockett, Daniel
and Esther Dise, Rhoda Parks, Babel and Nancy Paul, George and Leah Pruitt,
John and Elizabeth Thomas, and John and Anna Thomas. The church grew and
prospered and in 1856 the first Sunday school was established by Henry
Crockett and Kathryn Sturgis; children and adults attended.
The War of 1812 did not have much effect on Tangier Island until 1813 when
the British extended their excursions up the Chesapeake Bay. By March of
that year the British had traveled up the Bay for about 180 miles. shortly
after, they arrived on Tangier Island. They had set up a number of water
wells on the beach and built several houses. They threw up breastworks
and mounted a cannon on the south end of the island adjacent to Joshua
Thomas camp meeting grove and also had plans to erect a hospital when summer
came. At one point, about 1200 British soldiers must have been on the island.
In Summer of 1813, the British disembarked for their attack on Baltimore
from Tangier Island. The commanding officer asked Joshua Thomas to speak
before they left and his sermon warned of defeat.
There have been four epidemics on Tangier. First, in 1866, came Asian cholera.
Along with this epidemic came a religious revival with repenting and praying
when the people started to die. Bodies were quickly buried, many of them
in their front yard and without stones, for there was as many as five adults
dying at a time. Both the Death Records of Accomack County and the dates
on the graves with stones show that the island was hardest hit in the month
of October. In the early 1870s there was both tuberculosis and a measles
epidemic and in the 1880s there was smallpox.
Resides sickness, the weather can be and was harsh at times. There have
been many tropical storms and hurricanes to hit the island. One such storm
in 1821 "The September Gust" swept over the island leaving great destruction.
The winters can also be especially hard. Almost once a year the Bay freezes
making travel to the mainland impossible for a few days and at least once
a century the freeze is so great that people walked on the ice to get supplies.
Today supplies are flown in.
With the advent of the seafood market in the 1840s the Chesapeake Bay became
alive with sailing ships that carried oysters and later crabs to major
cities such as Baltimore and New York. The people gradually stopped harvesting
the land and harvested the waters. With the coming of the railroad to Crisfield
MD, their water crop could be shipped farther and oystering and crabbing
became their main livelihood. Tangier Island today is a mixture of old
and new. The people still follow the water, and along with Smiths Island
MD and other bayside communities, supply a great amount of the nations
seafood. The majority of the people still follow the Methodist Religion
that Joshua Thomas brought to the Island in 1805. And, today, like in 1800
the population is mainly Crocketts and descendants of Crocketts.
used with written permission of Gail M. Walczyk
© All Rights Reserved 1997
by; Gail M. Walczyk, Peter's Row,
27 Thomas St., Coram, NY 11727