1900 Chincoteague Incorporation:  The Rest of the Story

Special from Tracks in the Sand

By Rick Smith


    The incorporation of the Town of Chincoteague in 1900 set off a political storm on the Island.  To recap its history, a petition[1] signed by 300 voters and sent to Del. S. Wilkins Matthews[2], an Accomac County Representative to the General Assembly, led to the passage on March 13, 1900[3] of an act to charter the Town of Chincoteague.  While the incorporation met with initial jubilation (“Our people welcome with open arms the new state of affairs which are to be installed in our community in the near future by the Incorporation act recently passed by the Legislature”)[4], disagreements arose and, after a series of local votes[5] to reconsider, a petition went to the Assembly and, on Feb. 8, 1901, resulted in repeal of the original Act of Incorporation[6].


    The local newspapers recorded some of the reasons for the course reversal: arguments over town boundaries and restrictive regulation of activities on the Island.  But newly discovered evidence suggests there was more to the story.


    In 1902, Virginia held a Constitutional Convention to rewrite its own charter.  Among many issues debated, one dealt with petitions sent to the General Assembly by local constituencies and seemed to focus upon “local option,” the decision by local citizens as to whether liquor could be sold in a particular jurisdiction.  The key word here is “decision.”  How was the will of the people, on any particular issue, to be ascertained?  A mere letter from an interested party clearly was not adequate.  A petition, signed by a majority of registered voters in the locality, certainly seemed a better way to determine the will of the people.  But here too there was a problem.  Delegate Nathaniel B. Wescott[7], a lawyer from Pungoteague, spoke to the matter on Feb. 3, 1902, and in doing so shed new light on the 1900-01 Chincoteague incorporation debacle.  What follows is a direct quote of his remarks, as published in the Richmond Dispatch on Feb. 4, 1902.


    “But a few years ago there was a motion set on foot in one of the sections of the county I have the honor to represent in this body, to secure the passage of a charter of a certain portion of that county as a municipal corporation, I refer to the incorporation of the town of Chincoteague.  The representatives of the county declined in a matter which, in the very nature of the thing itself, admitted of such a wide divergence of sentiment and of opinion to act upon the mere request and importunities of certain individuals in the passage of such a charter law, and demanded of the advocates of incorporating the town, that the consensus of the wishes of the inhabitants of that section of the county be demonstrated by a petition to the General Assembly to pass such a charter, signed by a majority of the legal voters of that island.  Such a petition was furnished to the representatives of my county in the General Assembly, and the act chartering the town of Chincoteague, was passed, and the town incorporated.  What was the result?  Charges of wholesale forgery were made against the individuals who were most active in getting up the petition.  Mind you, gentlemen, I speak not, because I know not, of the extent to which, if any, there was foundation for such charges, but merely to the fact that such charges were made and earnestly insisted upon.  It was said, for instance, that whilst the name of every colored voter resident upon Chincoteague island was to be found upon that petition, as a matter of fact, with the exception of the name of a single individual colored man who did sign the petition, the name of every other colored man upon the island, attached to the petition, was an out and out forgery.  The charges and countercharges did not stop there.  The fact that the General Assembly had acted upon a petition purporting to indicate the wishes of that community which had been demanded by the members from that section, resulted in strife, commotion, ill-feeling and dissatisfaction, which culminated at the last session of the General Assembly in the repeal of the charter, because it had been enacted into law without, in truth and in fact, the proposition to incorporate that territory ever having met the sanction of the majority of the people concerned:  not withstanding the fact that the names of a majority of them were signed to the petition.”


    Wescott’s main point, stated more explicitly elsewhere, was that there was no mechanism to determine the validity of signatures on a petition.  But the evidence he used to bolster his case, the allegation of fraud in the petition process for the Chincoteague incorporation, provides new insight into a potential deciding factor behind the General Assembly’s act to repeal the Town Charter in Feb. 1901. 


    There appears to be no way, however, to investigate the forgery of signatures alleged by Wescott.  The best evidence would be inspection of the petition itself, or at least a transcribed list of the names appearing thereon.   Unfortunately, the General Assembly stopped archiving petitions in 1865 and, further, kept no record of proceedings other than a journal of who presented what when, and what acts were passed.  The inclusion of specific details of the fraud alleged in Wescott’s discourse, particularly with regard to the black “signers,” lends credence to the account.  Given the widespread divergence of opinion on the issue, why would every black member of the community step forward to sign in favor of incorporation?  Another piece of circumstantial evidence would be whether other instances of fraud in petitions or elections had occurred on the Island or in the County.  To this end, Wescott provided a second allegation of fraud.


    “Another instance of a similar nature, in connection with the General Assembly, and the town had been incorporated by a similar effort, which was also brought into question, so great was the dissatisfaction and the claim of misrepresentation of the wishes of the people residing within the corporate limits of the town, that an effort was set on foot to induce the General Assembly, if not to repeal the charter, at least to submit the question as to whether or not the charter should be repealed or should remain on the statute books, to be determined by an election of those interested.  Petitions, pro and con, to the General Assembly with reference to the matter were circulated and largely signed.  I came myself to Richmond to interview our representatives in the General Assembly in behalf of that contingent, or element, within the corporate limits of the town who desired that the charter be repealed.  From the day the question was first agitated – from the time that one petition in favor of the repeal was started – and a petition against the repeal was also started – the charges that were constantly made, of signatures that were induced by misrepresentations, of lack of authority to place the names of certain individuals upon that petition and other equally questionable methods of procuring signatures went on until the personnel represented by these petitions was as uncertain and unreliable and as instable as the quicksands under the influence of opposing currents in a river.  Utterly unreliable, I submit to you, gentlemen, as demonstrating the wishes of a majority of any community upon any subject, has ever been, is today, and in my humble opinion, will ever prove the effort of demonstrating the wishes of that majority by the signatures to petitions.”


    Wescott does not provide the name of the corporate entity involved in the disagreement.  But, only two other towns in the county were incorporated prior to 1902; Onancock, 1882, and Bell Haven, 1895.  [Wachapreague was incorporated April 2, 1902.][8]  Bell Haven apparently voted unanimously in favor of incorporation.[9]  But, from Onancock, there is a report[10] of “an interchange of opinion” that resulted in an incorporation resolution being “adopted almost unanimously.”  So apparently this is the “other instance” to which Wescott refers.


    Beyond incorporation, local option (prohibition of the sale of liquor) decisions were much on the minds of citizens of Chincoteague immediately before the turn of the century, and often these two issues were linked.  For example, at that same Onancock meeting, local option also was debated.10  The result was significantly more conflict over whether to ban the sale of liquor or not, and the meeting ended with no resolution of the matter.[11] 


    On Chincoteague in 1901, in a letter to the editor of the Enterprise (July 20, 1901), Oswald M. Jones, an Island druggist, defended himself against “unscrupulous,” “holier than thou self-constituted apostles of morality.” [12]  In published letters it had been claimed that he preferred “license because that means incorporation.” While Jones stated that he saw the issues as separate, clearly an incorporated entity, by action of its town council, would make it easier to enact local option laws. 


    We know that Jones as a proponent of incorporation; he was the Town’s first mayor (1900).[13]  And we know that he strongly favored licensing the sales of liquor[14].  In his mind prohibition simply promoted the establishment of underground “speak easies.”  There certainly was evidence to support that view.  On an Island that was supposedly “dry,” there abounded as many as 10[15] to 13[16] illegal establishments.  Compare that to four licenses sellers before the 1886 local option election.15


    Jones was the first signer, and therefore probably the initiator, of both petitions (1896[17] and 1901[18]) to hold local option elections on “dry” Chincoteague.  So, is it possible that Oswald M. Jones was also the first signer of the allegedly doctored 1900 petition requesting incorporation of the Island?  It’s anyone’s guess.


    Irrespective of who falsified signatures on the petition that went to the General Assembly, there is little doubt that this act contributed to the repeal of the Incorporation Charter in 1900.   But the story of dirty politics on the Island did not end there.  The clouds of an even bigger political storm were already visible on the horizon.

[1] Virginia Citizen, Irvington, VA, 2/23/1900; Peninsula Enterprise (PE), 2/24/1900.

[2] Lived in Atlantic District.  US Census, 1900, Atlantic District, Accomac County, VA, #252.

[3] Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1900, Chapt. 974 in O’Bannon, J.H., Acts and Joint Resolutions Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Virginia during the Session of 1899-1900, Richmond, 1900, p. 1092 (approved March 7, 1900); Journal of the House of Delegates of the State of Virginia for the Extra Session of 1901. p. 39.

[4] PE, 3/24/1900.

[5] These “elections” seem to have been held by the Town, which was incorporated at the time.  No record of these votes appears in the County Court Order Books.

[6] Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1900, Chapt. 974 in O’Bannon, J.H., Acts and Joint Resolutions Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Virginia during the Extra Session of 1901, Richmond, 1901, p. 37 (approved Feb. 8, 1901).

[7] Wescott represented Chincoteague druggist Oswald M. Jones in his application for a liquor license in 1896.  This application set off a lengthy legal battle over alleged fraud during the 1901 local Option election in the Islands District, of which Chincoteague comprised the major portion.  Accomac County, Virginia, Court Order Book (OB), 1894-96, 514.

[8] Information found by contacting local municipalities.  Also available on Rootsweb.ancestry.com under VA Cities, Counties, and Towns.

[9] PE, Nov, 23, 1895.

[10] PE, Jan 12, 1882.

[11] Eventually, Lee Magisterial District, which included Onancock, along with Atlantic, The Islands (includes Chincoteague), and Metompkin Districts voted in favor of Local Option, i.e. banned the sale of liquor, in 1886. Only Pungoteague defeated local option and retained the “wet” status quo. 

[12] PE, 7/20/1901.

[13] PE 5/12/1900.  Oaths were recorded in the County Court Records for Oswald M. Jones, Mayor; James E. Tarr, town sergeant; Isaac J. Hudson, recorder and treasurer; W.J. Matthews, James B. Richardson, Robert L. Marshall, Thomas H. Pruitt, Joshua W. Williams, and Peter D. Corbin, councilmen.

[14] Jones was the first signer on two separate petitions requesting the holding of a local option election in the Islands Magisterial District in 1896 (Loose Papers, County Court, Accomac County, Virginia, November Term, 1895) and 1901 (Loose Papers, County Court, Accomac County, Virginia, June Term, 1901).  Given that on both occasions the status quo in the district was “dry,” it is clear that the purpose of the petition was an attempt to legalize the sale of liquor.

    After his wife died in 1906 (Accomac News, Dec. 1, 1906), Jones married married Gay Mapp and moved to Norfolk where he continued to work as a druggist (1920 US Census, Precinct #14, Norfolk, VA, #172)

[15] PE, 4/2/1887

[16] Richmond Dispatch, 5/30/1901.

[17] Loose Papers, County Court, Accomac County, Virginia, November Term, 1895.

[18] Loose Papers, County Court, Accomac County, Virginia, June Term, 1901.