The Marshalls of Smith Island

by Tom Horton


Name four of earth’s most precious natural resources, little Maria Marshall was asked on a test in elementary school:

Gold, water, oil, she responded….and “turkles”—this last a perfect answer for a child of Smith Island, a unique fishing community that has persisted for centuries, ten miles offshore in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

That winter her Dad’s harvest of diamondback terrapins from the remote marshes brought needed income between the end of oystering and the start of crabbing.

That was thirty years ago, when my wife and kids and I lived a few years next to the Marshall family in Tylerton, one of three tiny towns on Smith. The population of 124 then now hovers around 40, with perhaps 200 souls left island wide.

This is a film about a remarkable couple, Mary Ada and Dwight Marshall, whose lives personify Chesapeake Bay’s waterman, seafood harvesting culture and history; also about the four children who chose to break with that tradition.

The film, like my 1996 book, An Island Out of Time, is both celebration and elegy for a place beset with rising sea levels and erosion, pollution and harvest restrictions, and young people seeking opportunities older generations of islanders never dreamed of—all this seen through the lens of the Marshall family of Smith Island.

I recall Mary Ada could rise at 2:30 a.m. and pick 20 pounds of crabmeat and load it aboard the 7 a.m. ferry to Crisfield, then cook breakfast and  get the kids off to school and clean the house and “cut and wrap” several hundred soft crabs for the freezer, before picking some more and rustling a several-course dinner for Dwight and four children.  She could bake an eight-layer chocolate cake for a church supper, ice it, and have the cooking pans and bowls washed and put away – in twenty minutes.

Dwight read his natural surroundings as avidly as I might have gone through several newspapers before breakfast.  Automatically as a dog extracts information from the breeze, he never walked down the dock extending from in front of his home without noticing what the crabs and minnows and bottom grasses were doing. He was always checking a few eel pots and crab pots he kept set around his shanty just to test the waters.

Maria and her three brothers all decided on lives apart from the island, though their hearts and souls remain (and their own kids beg to spend their summers with the grandparents.) Now Dwight and Mary Ada are struggling with whether they should move from where their families have been rooted since the nation’s beginnings.

The passing of any culture is on the one hand sad, especially one whose people are such a living, breathing expression of a unique region like Chesapeake Bay; but just as remarkable is how this tiny island and its families have persisted marching to their own drummer within a few miles of the mainland and a day’s drive of some 50 million mainland Americans.