Chincoteague Beacon, March, 2008


If At First You Don’t Succeed:  The Incorporation of Chincoteague

by Rick Smith


    This month, today in fact, we mark the anniversary of the incorporation of the Town of Chincoteague, March 13, 1908.  Truly an auspicious occasion, but how is it that we find in the 1900 Acts and Joint Resolutions Passed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Chapter 974, “An ACT to incorporate the town of Chincoteague, Accomac county”?  The explanation involves a complicated series of events and likely has its roots in the independent spirit that so characterizes the inhabitants of our Island.

    As early as 1885, we find mention in the Peninsula Enterprise that at least some of the population desired a formal organization of the Island: PE, Jan. 24, 1885, “ “Capt. Jim” wants the island incorporated, but the ingredients won’t combine.  We think he would like to be mayor if he can’t be postmaster.” Fifteen years would pass before public opinion would build to the point where action was taken. In the interim, our venerable correspondent repeatedly lamented a lack of order on the Island; ill-kept roads, dangerous racing on public streets, gun toting youths, and meandering stock. 

    At the beginning of the new century, the Island was booming.  New businesses were popping up and many new families were moving to the island.  "Chincoteague at present is in a prosperous condition.  Our oysters are fat and selling at good prices.  Merchants, hotels and other business places are doing a flourishing business.  Our churches are all new and out of debt with one exception, and that will be shortly.  And last but not least the most of our people are in good health and enjoying themselves” (PE 1/13/1900).   

   The time was ripe for the formal uniting of the community into a legal entity to better meet the needs of the inhabitants. Though the Enterprise is silent on the event, it appears that, in late 1899 or early 1900, a referendum was held on incorporation, and the vote was in favor.  Protocol then called for a petition to be sent to the General Assembly requesting action to incorporate the town.  In response to said petition, the Virginia Assembly acted on March 13, 1900 to incorporate the town.  Prior to a town election scheduled for May 24, 1900, the Act appointed as town council: W.N. Conant mayor; N.S. Smith recorder; and J.B. Richardson, O.M. Jones, R.L. Marshall, T.H. Pruitt, J.B. Dale, Thomas Beebe, and Joshua W. Williams as councilmen.  This council would serve until duly elected town officials took office on July 1, 1900. The town would have the power to set and enforce ordinances and levy taxes upon inhabitants, properties, and businesses within the town limits.  And a sergeant was to be appointed by the council and would serve as tax collector and exercise the duties of constable within the limits of the town and two miles beyond.

    In April of 1900, the oaths of office of the newly appointed town council were recorded by the county clerk: Oswald M. Jones mayor; Isaac J. Hudson recorder and treasurer; James E. Tarr sergeant; and W.J. Matthews, James B. Richardson, Robert L. Marshall, Thomas Pruitt, Joseph T. Rowley, Joshua W. Williams, and Peter D. Corbin as councilmen.  Note that some of these names and/or offices are not the same as submitted to the Assembly.  The charter provided that if any of the initially named individuals failed to take the oath of office, the remainder could appoint other inhabitants from the town to fill the vacancies.  Apparently some of the appointees chose to serve in different offices, or not at all.

   So, the Town of Chincoteague was officially established in the Spring of 1900, with an election of the council scheduled for May 24.  But, apparently some folks had second thoughts.  From the Charter itself, we can see that some of the residents were reluctant to give up their freedoms to a central authority: “… no order, by-law, ordinance, or resolution shall be made or adopted by said council to prevent the running at large of horse, mules, sheep, and cattle within the corporate limits without having first submitted the question of adopting such order … to the qualified voters of said town.”  The Island and its inhabitants were both united and divided by water.  Marshy north and south, split down the middle by the Glade or Canal, the Island consisted of several separated communities; the main business center, “Up the Island,” “Down the Island,” Deep Hole Village.” “East Side,” and “Birchtown,” to name just a few. Having been relatively isolated and free to do as they pleased for well over a hundred years, many in these communities balked at “citified” restrictions on time-honored practices.  Whether the May election of a council took place or not is unclear.  What is clear is that on December 1, 1900 an election was held in which 264 Islanders (out of a total of 331) voted to dissolve the incorporation.

    In an attempt to save the day, a proposal was made to reduce the town boundaries to include only the main business area, but the ship had taken on too much water.  On Dec. 29th, a vote was taken to reject incorporation (134 to 106) no matter what the boundaries might be.  Interestingly, it seems the only persons permitted to vote were those within the proposed smaller boundaries!  The physically divided Island had fractured politically.

    In response to the ensuing petition, the Virginia Assembly on February 8, 1901 repealed the town’s charter.  The home team had scored first, but by the end of the half, they trailed.  Hope rested in a second half rally.

    In the subsequent years, a determined group of individuals continued to work to build support for a second try at incorporation.  Finally, in the January 25, 1908 Accomac News we find:

“The question of incorporation is in the right hands – men who represent the back-bone and sinew of the Island, and the community embraced may rest assured of its success, and in a short time the few knockers will be falling over one another to get in out of the wet.  Come in now brother let’s make it unanimous.” 

    We can assume another vote was held, because a new petition requesting incorporation went to Richmond that year and on March 13, 1908 the Assembly approved an Act Incorporating the Town of Chincoteague.  The boundaries described were similar to those proposed and rejected seven years earlier; that is, only the main business section, roughly from Chincoteague Channel to the Glade, and about six blocks north and south of the current Rt.175 bridge. Interestingly, unlike in 1900, the new Charter did not require an election before a wandering animal ordinance could be enacted.  The 1908 Act appointed a temporary town council: A. Frank Matthews mayor; William L. Watson, William N. Conant, Emory E. Phipps, Thomas Savage, Kendel J. Jaster [Jester], and James Aydelotte councilmen, and specified that an election was to be held June 9 for their successors, who would serve for a two year term beginning on Sept. 1, 1908.   Apparently the prescribed election took place, and the slate of appointees was swept in, taking their oath of office on July 4, 1908.   The town then moved swiftly to enact ordinances (including Ordinance 11 that instituted a fine for wandering animals!), assumed responsibility for fire services, and established a town lock-up.  William J. Chandler, grandson of Capt. Joshua L. Chandler (grave at Turntable), was elected Sergeant. 

    Chincoteague had become a self-governing town ruled by law, and just over the horizon lay improved streets, electricity, and telephone service.  An only slightly belated entrance into the Twentieth Century!


The author is grateful to Dr. Miles Barnes for assistance in researching this article.


In the coming months, we’ll look at some of the first actions taken by the council, and also investigate the expansions of the town boundaries over the next eighty-three years.