Smith Island, 1974

Robert E. Lee: An Account of His Visit to Smith Island

By Barry Truitt

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Changes 1852/1871 to 1993

Because of its strategic location near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island has played an important and somewhat colorful role in the early history of the Eastern Shore. Among notable visitors to the island in its early history have been Captain John Smith - a man of great public relations skills for shortly after his visit in 1608 the island bore his name - and the legendary Blackbeard the pirate, who used the south end of the island for a layover during the heyday of piracy along the Atlantic coast. A creek and cove located there still bear his notorious name.

The spring of 1832 found another notable visitor on his way to Smith Island for family business purposes. He was a young Army lieutenant from Fort Monroe, Virginia who had recently married into the Custis family. The Custis family held extensive lands on the Eastern Shore including the original "Arlington" plantation on Old Plantation Creek and Smith Island on the seacoast in Northampton county. The name of the young Army lieutenant was Robert E. Lee, the future Confederate general of Civil War fame.

Smith Island had been in the Custis family since 1691 when it had been granted to John Custis. As with most of the Virginia barrier islands, Smith Island was first used for livestock grazing. Islands and their sea meadows and marshes were highly valued to the early settlers as pastures for the grazing of cattle, horses, ponies, goats, and sheep. Because the construction of extensive fences and the clearing of land were unnecessary, the islands were extremely attractive as pasturage.

While stationed at Fort Monroe in 1831, Lee had married Mary Ann Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of George Washington's wife. He had studied engineering and had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with high honors in 1829.

In the spring of 1832 and at an age in his mid twenties, Lee apparently made a trip by horseback around the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore and Smith Island on behalf of the Custis family to check up on management of the barrier island. In a letter dated May 22, 1832 and written from Old Point, Virginia to George Washington Parke Custis at Arlington near Alexandria, Virginia, Lee gave his father-in-law "an account of my visit there and also to submit to your better judgment my views on the manner of turning it to profit". This letter, presently housed in the Special Collections Library at Duke University, documents a period of history when the Virginia barrier islands were considered little more than pastures and provides insights on the harsh realities of life on a Virginia barrier island in the early nineteenth century.

In his 1832 visit, Lee had found Smith Island to be "nearer the level of the sea than I expected to find it". He describes the surface of the island as being "composed of alternate ridges and glades running as near as I could judge from north to south and from one extremity to the other". He found "the soil of the glades is as rich as possible and covered with fine grass, that of the ridges contains a great deal of sand and is covered with pine".

Barrier island migration, or erosion, was a problem for island owners even in 1832. Lee describes the part of the island exposed to the ocean as "wearing away, the beach which used to protect the glades has been in many places levelled, and the water at common high tide finds its way into the glades and renders the pasturage not so good".

At the time of Lee's visit, four tenants lived on Smith Island under the supervision of a Dr. Simkins, the overseer at Arlington: Thomas Roberts, Hamilton, Hamby, and Hitchings. Lee found Roberts to bear "an uncommonly good character with every one I met with both on the island and main. He has built himself a very comfortable house and Dr. Simkins, considering him entirely honest and trustworthy, has given him immediate charge of all the property" on the island. Hamilton and Hamby are both described as respectable men, but "Hitchings, by the respected testimony of all is drunken and dishonest". Lee gave him orders to leave the island.

The tenants had advised Lee that the gale of 27th April, 1831 had nearly covered the island. Only some of the highest ridges escaped the high tides "where which the cattle and sheep took refuge". The high tides had also destroyed the little patches of corn that the tenant families grew around their houses and "the salt not having left the ground deprives them of a crop for this year".

Since the cattle and sheep raised on the island were the major source of income produced on the island, Lee took great pains in describing their condition. Each tenant family had from "30 to 40 head of cattle which they milk, take care of, and so forth, and as they rapidly increase will be at last valuable". Lee estimated an additional 150 wild cattle on the island. He recommended that all the old bulls be shot in the Fall and all the calves be caught in the Spring and the males altered to make steers or beef the following Fall.

Lee encountered about 60 of the wild cattle early one morning during his visit on the beach "where they had taken refuge the night previous to get rid of the moschettoes (which are already very thick)". The wild cattle would not let him get nearer than about 300 yards of them. They were described as "all small and not yet recovered from the hard winter" and with " a great many calves and yearlings among them". The tame cattle were described as "somewhat larger and in better order".

Lee was unable to get an accurate tally on the number of sheep on the island but estimated them to be over 100. The sheep are described "as nearly as wild as the cattle and looked very ragged". He directed that they be fleeced, counted, and marked though he could learn of no one who wished to purchase the wool.

As to the management of the island, Lee offers his thought to his father-in-law that "it would improve the island to sell some timber and wood off it as it would render the interior dryer, diminish the quantity of ticks (of which I got full) and moschettoes which must harass the cattle very much". Smith Island in 1832 must have had a large pine forest on it similar to the one on Parramore Island today or the one on Hog Island that was lost to the sea in the early twentieth century. Lee mentions that "timber is much wanted on the main for ships and house building and I might make some arrangement with those who supply Norfolk with pine wood to cut it off the island".

While on Smith Island, Lee visited the lighthouse that had been constructed on the island by the government in 1826 and learned of much of the bounty supplied by nature to the islanders. "The keeper of the lighthouse and assistants were very kind to me, gave me plenty of milk, butter, eggs, and fish. They had plenty of sea bird eggs, those of the willet and sedge hen were the best. Fish is so common there that they cooked a large dish of the roes for me. The season for rock and the streaked bass was just commencing and in a few days that of the drum would begin".

After leaving the island, Lee met with Dr. Simkins, the overseer at Arlington on the Eastern Shore mainland. Simkins had been prevented from going to Smith Island with Lee by business. Lee found Simkins to be "very polite and is a gentleman and sensible young man".

Lee apparently had traveled by horseback from Fort Monroe around the Chesapeake Bay in reaching the Eastern Shore for he states that "the next time I go over (to the Eastern Shore), it will be by water". The death of his horse Bolivar at some point during his trip cut short his planned itinerary. As with many first time visitors to the Eastern Shore, Lee was "very much pleased with the E.S." and mentions giving Mary, his wife, a description of "Arlington" plantation.

It is unknown if Robert E. Lee ever visited Smith Island again, as shortly thereafter, his career in the Army as an engineer took him around the country. Smith Island remained in the Custis- Lee families until 1911 and continued to function as pasturage as late as 1926. Historians are grateful for the insights that Lee's letter offer on a period of life on a nineteenth century Virginia barrier island.

The full text of the letter, and many other interesting stories about Virginia's Barrier Islands can be found in "Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands." 1997. eds. Brooks Miles Barnes and Barry R. Truitt. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville VA.