Tales of the Coast
Coastal Histories


Dynamic Sustainability: Maryland's Atlantic Coast

Ocean City and Assateague Island

Dynamic Sustainability: Shoreline Management on Maryland's Atlantic Coast

1524-1875, Discovery and Early Settlement

Fenwick Island

Fenwick Island was very sparsely populated for most of the historical period. It was likely first discovered by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524, and later in the 17th century it was known to the Virginia colonists, who had already established settlements farther south. But there wasn't really any settlement on Fenwick Island to speak of. Settlers used the Eastern Shore barriers as grazing land because there were no fees or fencing laws for keeping animals on the uninhabited spits and islands. As a result, colonists released their cows, sheep, and horses on Fenwick Island to avoid paying the mainland fees and taxes.

After the Civil War, Fenwick Island and a portion of the surrounding territory on the mainland was bought by a man named Stephen Taber. Around the same time, Col. Lemuel Showell and four associates founded the Atlantic Hotel Company Corporation in 1868 with the idea of opening a hotel on Fenwick Island. Taber deeded some of his territory to the group for their hotel, which they opened in 1875. Named the Atlantic Hotel, it was the first development on the barrier.


Assateague Island

Assateague Island developed differently than Fenwick Island. Assateague was used as a seasonal fishing ground by Native Americans, but by the 18th century, the Native Americans abandoned the area and moved farther west because of disputes with the colonists and diseases that decimated their population.

In the colonial period, Assateague Island was a free grazing ground just like Fenwick Island. In the late 17th century people grazed their animals there to avoid mainland fencing laws.

In the 18th century the island changed hands many times, and by the 19th century a small village was founded on the southern portion of the island, which is in Virginia. Residents of Assateague Village fished, grazed sheep and a few cows, and they farmed small plots.

The natural environment significantly impacted Assateague Island because the waters offshore were dangerous. Frequent shipwrecks resulted in two important developments for Assateague: the building of the lighthouse in 1833 and the opening of Life-Saving Stations.

The lighthouse warned ships of dangerous conditions and it was rebuilt in 1867 to be taller and brighter than the original. In 1875, two Life-Saving Stations opened on Assateague Island to aid shipwrecks. A large part of the village's population was involved in these activities.


Ocean City

From its very beginning, Ocean City was meant to be a resort destination.

Horses of Assateague

There is a legend that the horses of Assateague Island arrived after a Spanish shipwreck, but historians now believe that the horses were left on the island by settlers, they became feral, and those that are still there today are the descendants of the previously domesticated horses.