The first name by which the town was ever designated was Annemessex Neck. The origin of this name is obvious because of the fact that a tribe of Native Americans called the Annemessexs lived and hunted on the river near Crisfield, which also bears their name. The local tribe was a branch of the Pocomokes which were seated to the east of here on the Great Pocomoke River. All of the Indians in what is Somerset County today answered to the Great Chief of the Nanticokes seated at a place known as Chicone on the Nanticoke River.
Among the first colonial settlers to this area was the family of Somers. Benjamin Somers (Summers), the progenitor, settled in the Annemessex area in the year 1663. He was granted a patent by the Calverts of Maryland on February 10, 1663. His tract of land was called Emessex and contained 300 acres. His home was near the center of the tract on a small gut leading out of a cove, which was later called Somers Cove. The upper part of this tract became the town of Crisfield, and the Cove still bears the name.
Crisfield would probably have retained the name Somers Cove or Annemessex but for a trifling accident which befell the Honorable John Woodland Crisfield, a leader of the Somerset Bar and Member of Congress from the District. Mr. Crisfield was also involved with the railroad, and during an inspection tour of the docks, he was walking along a shaky old footway which led to the Steamboat landing. The story goes that one of those old boards gave way, and the distinguished lawyer and statesman landed in the cold waters of the Annemessex River. With much difficulty he was fished out, not much the worse for his ducking, but his clients sought to mollify his wrath, and on the spot christened the future City of Crisfield.
Crisfield received its Charter from the Maryland Legislature forming the town in 1872. Most of the first houses built were placed on piles over marsh or water. To fill the swamp land, oyster shells were used. Today from the center of the town to the City Dock is man made land of billions of oyster shells crushed compactly together forming the foundation of the larger part of the business section of the city. The ground is as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar.
The late 1800s was the era of the steamboat, and Crisfield had regular steamer service sailing from Norfolk to Crisfield and from Crisfield to Baltimore. By 1910, the Custom House at Crisfield had the largest list of sailing vessels of any port in the United States, and became a port of entry. In 1910 Crisfield abandoned its early form of Commissioner Government that had served the community since 1872. Doctor William Fletcher Hall, a practicing physician in the city, was elected the first Mayor. W. Jerome Sterling, Edward P. Wyatt, and Benjamin F. Gibson were elected as Councilmen, and William E. Daugherty was appointed Clerk-Treasurer.
Today ferries from Smith and Tangier Islands and hundreds of work boats travel in and out of Crisfield harbor carrying passengers, oysters, crabs and other seafood. Crisfield is still a great port to visit, and we are grateful for the many visitors that arrive by cruise ship, private yacht, buses, cars and even airplanes.
Crisfield people find pleasure as well as their livelihood on the water. The fishing grounds adjacent
to the city are un¬equalled. Tangier Sound, situated on one side of the peninsula on which Crisfield is located, offers one of the finest courses for sailing yachts and motor boats in the world.
The “early history” of Crisfield is in its people. The courteous and respectful treatment of visitors, the slow and easy but thorough way of doing things which is rapidly disappearing from the American scene, is still very much in evidence in this virgin territory. Past customs and speech are not forgotten but are cultivated for future generations.
Crisfield’s history is probably not any different than many other ports on the Chesapeake, but to the residents of this once busy sea port, it is the birthplace of a nation and what we call home. Our city continues to grow in the 21st Century as new condos replace old seafood plants. It is our challenge to grow with a reverence for our past and those who struggled to build this city on the Bay.
Article by Phil Goldsborough, local historian