When the English arrived in Chesapeake Bay, the native Americans supposedly referred to the Eastern Shore as Accawmacke - the "across the water place" or "land beyond the water."1 Assuming that is an accurate description of the meaning of the word, the English were talking with Native Americans who recognized the Eastern Shore was isolated by the Chesapeake Bay.
Spelling of Accomack has varied over the years. The General Assembly finally resolved in 1940 that the county name would be spelled with a "k," as Accomack County, but the town that serves as the county seat is still spelled Accomac without the "k." There is just one other place in the United States called Accomac, and no other place spelled with the "k" in the name.2
English settlement of "Ye Plantation at Accawmacke" came early. The natives on the Eastern Shore were friendly, and access to the area by boaat was relatively easy compared to walking into the interior past the Fall Line. The Chesapeake was a highway, rather than a barrier, in the 1600's.
In 1634, Accomack was created as one of the first 8 local jurisdictions (initially called shires rather than counties) in the colony of Virginia, decentralizing government services from Jamestown. The original Accomack County covered the entire Eastern Shore; today's Accomack County is just half of its original size. The original Accomack County covered the entire Eastern Shore; today's Accomack County is just half of its original size.
In 1643, the local jurisdiction's name was changed to Northampton County, perhaps because the leading citizen on the Eastern Shore (Obedience Robins) sought to honor his home territory in England - and perhaps as part of an effort to select English rather than "heathen" aboriginal names. Robins was been a supporter of Lord Cromwell and the Parliamentarians who controlled England - and finally Jamestown - in the 1650's.
By 1663, both Obedience Robins and Lord Cromwell were dead, King Charles II had been restored to the English throne, and the Royalists were back in charge in Jamestown. The General Asembly divided the Eastern Shore into two counties, and the northern half of the peninsula next to Maryland was given the original name of Accomack County. Obedience Robins' rival, the Royalist Edmund Scarborough (or Scarburgh), ensured that the southern boundary of Accomack County was drawn more than halfway down the peninsula towards Cape Charles. The boundary left 50% of the Eastern Shore population in Northampton County, but significantly more than half the acreage on the Eastern Shore was placed in Scarborough's Accomack County. Scarborough also worked with Maryland officials to define the northern boundary of Accomack County, and managed to get the boundary line drawn north of the actual 38th parallel.
Scarborough's influence in Jamestown did not last. By 1670, Governor William Berkeley wanted to arrest Edmund Scarborough for threatening the Native Americans and Quakers on the peninsula, even those in Maryland. Scarborough's reported murder of several Native American chiefs was one of many Anglo/Algonquian incidents that ultimately culminated in Bacon's Rebellion, a civil war within the colony of Virginia in 1676.
However, Scarborough claimed to be the burgess for Accomack, and therefore immune from arrest. The protection from arrest prevented the King (or his governor in the colony of Virginia) from harassing the legislators when there were major disagreements. Without immunity, the King/governor could arrest elected representatives to block them from voting in the House of Burgesses.
Governor Berkeley eliminated Scarborough's immunity by abolishing Accomack County in 1670. This eliminated Scarborough's position as a representative from Accomack county, and thus his protection from arrest. Scarborough died in 1671, eliminating the conflict - and the next General Assembly re-created Accomack county. In 1687, the General Assembly responded to complaints from Northampton County and adjusted the boundary northward, to the current line between Occohannock Creek and Matchapungo Creek.3
Today, Accomack County benefits economically from tourism to Chincoteague, including visitors watching the annual Pony Swim in July. Tourism is supported by two Federal agencies that manage the northeastern corner of Virginia for conservation and recreational use. The US Fish and Wildlife Service administers Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and the National Park Service has managed Assateague Island National Seashore since 1963. The National Park Service lost the interagency battle within the Department of the Interior to manage the Virginia as well as the Maryland portion of Assateague Island, but still maintains a visitor center in Virginia.
Both Federal agencies have to cooperate with local and state officials, who at one time sought to develop Assateague Island into a seashore resort rather than to conserve its natural values. Tn 1934, the National Park Service identified a dozen possible national seashore recreational areas, and recommended that the "34—mile strip between Ocean City and Fishing Point [the south end of Assateague] could be preserved without any roads whatsoever."4
In 1943, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established a wildlife refuge on the southern end of Assateague Island to protect habitat for snow geese, but in the 1950's private developers subdivided the Maryland portion and built Baltimore Boulevard on the northern end. After the state received a donation of 540 acres for a new park, Maryland built a bridge to Assateague - but a major storm in 1962 showed that the flooding risk on the island was extreme. Still, local officials in Virginia completed the bridge linking Chincoteague and Assateague islands in 1962, which the Chincoteague—Assateague Bridge and Beach Authority had been planning since 1955.
In 1963, the Federal government proposed to establish the Assateague Island National Seashore. Under that proposal:5
Representative Rogers C. B. Morton proposed consolidating all development on the island into three communities, including on at Tom's Cove in Virginia focused on a wildlife center and museum. Speculators and landowners in Maryland still opposed the Federal "land grab," and even suggested moving the seashore to Parramore and Hog islands in Virginia. In 1965 the National Park Service countered with a different proposal, but still supported a road down the island from the Maryland state park almost to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The extent of the road became a key part of the debate, with some proposing the road should link the bridges in Maryland and Virginia even at the cost of disrupting the refuge's waterfowl habitat:6
Conservationists opposed the road, together with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Park Service postponed requests for funding the road, until existing tourism-based businesses on Chincoteague Island began to fear competition from potential new development on Assateague Island.7 No road was ever built, but the desire to allow over-the-sand motorized vehicles helped to block designation of any wilderness on Assateague Island.8