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Sands of time written on Assateague Island - May 1, 2013

Assateague Island is one of Maryland’s great natural treasures. It is home to a plethora of unique animal species, and also boasts a rich history that dates back centuries.

Before European settlers colonized the Eastern Shore, there were many Native American tribes that called this area home. The Algonquin tribe was the largest on the Shore and gave rise to other tribes throughout the region, including the Assateague, Nanticoke and Choptank tribes. The Assateague tribe lived on the Eastern Shore of the Delmarva Peninsula and used the island during the spring and summer months as a fishing and hunting ground, but never built a year-round village there.

By the 17th century, European settlers had begun to colonize the Eastern Shore and started to displace local Native American tribes. These settlers eventually dislodged the Assateague tribe and started using Assateague Island for their own gains. Settlers would use the island as a grazing area for livestock because it provided free food, water and shelter for their animals. It was also naturally isolated, so there was no need for fences and allowed the settlers to avoid taxes and laws for livestock on the mainland. Today’s wild horses are believed to be descendants of the horses that were left on the island to graze during this time period.

By 1833, the Assateague lighthouse had been built due to the numerous shipwrecks that occurred from shifting sandbars near the island. A small village, only 225 people at its maximum, was established on the island during the 1800s. By the 1900s, the village was in decline and eventually became abandoned in favor of a village on the Virginia side of the island, Chincoteague.

In 1933, there was a massive hurricane which created the Ocean City inlet between Fenwick and Assateague islands. This inlet created a convenient shipping channel between the coastal bays and the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1950, a group of investors started planning a new development on Assateague, called Ocean Beach. There was another company called Atlantic Ocean Estates, Inc., which owned land on the northern end of Assateague.­ Atlantic Ocean Estates saw the need for a bridge connecting the Delmarva Peninsula and Assateague, so it donated 540 acres of land on the island to the state of Maryland. The reason behind this was that if Maryland had land on the island it wanted to convert into a state park, it would need to build a bridge in order to access it. Construction of the bridge began in 1961 and cost the state of Maryland around 1.5 million dollars.

In 1962, a massive storm hit Assateague and the viability of a sustainable seaside community was seriously questioned. After nearly five years of intense debate, the first piece of private land was sold to the federal government in 1965. During the next several years, many private landowners sold their plots to the government for financial compensation.

In the early 1970s, a judge ruled that the government needed to pay deficiency judgments, which awarded landowners additional money based on initial appraisals from the government at the time of sale.

The federal government continued to buy land until it controlled almost all of Assateague Island by 1982. The state of Maryland ended up controlling 540 acres of the island for a state park, and Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge was already established. Yet there were still 4.5 acres owned by Atlantic Ocean Estates that had yet to be addressed. All in all, the total amount of money used by the federal government to attain Assateague Island from private landowners was around 22.4 million dollars.­

Assateague Island is still divided to this day; the vast amount of the island is now Assateague Island National Seashore, but the Maryland state park and the Chincoteague wildlife refuge still operate on their much smaller land partitions.­ 

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