© 2022 WYPR
20th Anniversary Background
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Beauty Of Devil’s Island In The Chesapeake Bay

Tom Pelton

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, at the very end of a long peninsula reaching out into the Chesapeake Bay, is a remote and isolated crabbing town called Deal Island.

The place is so little-known and off the grid that it is often mistaken for the better known town of Deal, Maryland – on the Western Shore. But this is a different place, all the way on the other side of the Bay. And the only way to get to Deal Island is down a long road leading west from Princes Anne through vast and open wetlands and over a narrow bridge.

The town is dominated by a wooden dock, piled with crab pots. A waterman’s bar called “Arby’s”  doubles a general store, and about 20 workboats come and go.

A skipjack called the Somerset is tied up beside the boat ramp, its canvas sails furled and streaks of rust tracing its white wooden hull. It’s a sign of this town’s still-living connections to the Chesapeake’s history, when thousands of these single-masted ships dredged oysters from the bay bottom.

A workboat rumbles up to the dock, and a pair of watermen begin hauling baskets of crabs they’ve just caught. The boat’s captain says the crab catch has been exceptionally good this year.

“It’s been one of the better seasons, around here,” the captain said. “How are the prices on crabs? They were good about a month ago, but they are about average now. But there are also plenty of little rockfish, and little spot and hardheads.  That’s summertime for you.”

I drag my kayak down to the boat ramp and set off paddling into the harbor, passing moored workboats called the Lady Katy and the Macon Lynn.

Seagulls and royal terms swarm around a long pier and a collapsing shack where a waterman runs a soft crab processing operation in a series of wooden tanks.

Once outside the harbor, I find a narrow stream leading into an expansive marshland of spartina grass. I wind my way through a maze of twisting, winding creeks that grow narrower and narrower until I can paddle no further. Thousands of fish swarm and jump in the shallows.

Above this green dreamscape, a line of storm clouds rolls in from the south, with black tendrils curling down and the erratic lines of lightning flashing.

The scene feels symbolic of the dark history of Deale’s Island, which used to be known as “Devil’s Island” in the 18th century. This is because it was a haven of pirates and outlaws who would hide among the trackless swamplands here.  During the American Revolution, the Devil’s Islanders sided with the British, and would raid Patriot ships in Tangier Sound and the lower Bay.

Even after the war ended, the raids and piracy continued.  So in March of 1783, Maryland put together a makeshift Navy and sent three ships – the Fearnaught, the Defense and the Venus – to attack the pirates. 

The Maryland soldiers caught the Devil’s Islanders by surprise. The locals were defeated so soundly, they decided to change their ways and become fundamentalist Christians. In a public relations move, the local Methodist minister changed the name of the island from Devil’s first to Deil’s…then to Deal Island. The new name and the new reputation stuck.

As I was thinking about this, overhead, the black clouds roll past, revealing a brilliant blue sky and a rainbow stretching over the southern Bay.

It’s a sign that – just as the weather in the Chesapeake can change on a dime – we all can change, too.  Just like the Devil’s Islanders.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.