Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2021

In Memoriam

A Tangier Tragedy: William Asbury Crockett

By Debra Baldwin


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Like many of the men from the communities surrounding Tangier Sound in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, William Asbury Crockett lived his life on the water. Asbury was the third son born to Major and Zipporah Crockett on March 19, 1861. Major was an oysterman and all his sons helped out in the family business as soon as they were able, even as young as 12 years old.

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William Asbury Crockett served for a decade ...

By the time he was 19, Asbury, as he was called by all who knew him, was working as a sailor according to the census reports and the family business included other sailors and fishermen among his siblings. On April 17, 1881 Asbury married his second cousin, Margaret Crockett, and the two were blessed with at least five children during the next 15 years. The Crocketts were living next to their extended families on Tangier Island during these years.

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This circa 1907 Crockett family portrait shows ...

On June 30, 1890 the Tangier Sound Lighthouse was established and William A. Crockett began his U.S. Lighthouse Service career there as first assistant. Two years later, Asbury resigned for unknown reasons and went back to his previous maritime occupations. On the 1900 census, he was listed as a sailor and crabber and carried on the family tradition by having his two eldest sons work with him. The younger of the two, Frank, was only age 13 at the time.

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Tangier Island Shoal extended “from the southern ...

It isn’t known why Asbury rejoined the Lighthouse Service in 1905 and moved 100 miles further up the Bay to Craighill Channel Lower Range Front Light. After a short time there, he changed to Smith Point Lighthouse for a year. He was next transferred to Solomons Lump Lighthouse, followed by Holland Island Bar Light for two years and then returned back to Smith Point from 1911 to 1913.

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In May of 1914, three months after Asbury’s ...

In October of 1913, William Asbury Crockett returned to Tangier Sound Lighthouse in the same position as first assistant that he had started out, 23 years earlier. He must have thought it was the best place for him to be stationed, being so close to his family only a mile off Tangier Island. He could not have known what would befall him only a few months later on February 11, 1914.

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Another Harper’s Monthly Magazine photo from 1914 ...

Asbury’s cousin, Elmer Crockett, would later relate the sorrowful tale as recorded in Barcat Skipper: Tales of a Tangier Island Waterman. Elmer was only 11 years old in 1914, but the memory of that day stayed with him his whole life. He recounted, “Ed Thomas was the keeper of Tangier Sound Lighthouse in 1914, and the assistant keeper was William Asbury Crockett, known to us on the island as Asbury.

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This 1914 Harper’s Monthly Magazine photo shows ...

“Their job was to keep the old light burning. I used to go out there in the spring sometimes. We would go fishing and at lunch would pole over and eat with the keepers. They seemed to enjoy the company. Some of their duties included scrubbing floors, shining brass, keeping oil reservoirs filled in lamps, trimming and lighting wicks, cleaning, and polishing the reflectors and glass panes, keeping the yawl boat fitted and painted, and in general, keeping the lighthouse in good repair. But they always seemed to have time to stop and chat with us when we went over. All the young boys respected the keeper and his assistant.

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The inscription on William Asbury Crockett’s ...

“The old lighthouse was about a half mile from shore out in Tangier Sound. It was built up on a bar on the western side of the sound. It was a square building with the light set on top, and there was a bell hanging from a dormer window. It was nice inside; just like someone’s home. There was a bunch of books the men could read on Sundays when they weren’t working around the lighthouse.

“Ed Thomas and Asbury Crockett were both respected men in the community. It was Asbury’s job every day to come to Tangier to buy groceries and to get the mail. There was a small boat there at the lighthouse he used to sail across the sound to the store and post office. The little boat looked just like a yawl or push boat to the davits of an old sailing schooner. It had a small square sail in her and was just right for rescue and sailing to the island.

“Asbury, you watch the wind today,” said Ed Thomas. “She is gusting from the northeast. If you are not careful, the little boat could turn over and you would not last long in this kind of weather.” “Captain Ed, don’t you worry. I’ve been out in a lot worse than this,” said Asbury.

“I know, but I also know if you are blown over today, you’re going to freeze to death before they get you to shore.” The wind was steady picking up, but Asbury went down and lowered the boat into the water. He climbed in and sailed over to the store there on the shore without any trouble.

“There were always some old watermen sitting around the old potbellied wood stove telling stories about the hard winters they remembered when the lighthouse was built. I was told it was built around 1890. The light then was only twenty-four years old, and a lot of those ‘boys’ sitting in the store were in their eighties.

“When Asbury came in, everyone spoke. They all expected him because he came every day about one o’clock and would stay for about an hour. He would get the mail and a few groceries. He would laugh with the boys and listen to some of the old stories. Asbury wouldn’t say much. He was a quiet type of fellow. His wife and family lived over on the north end of Tangier in a great big house we used to call the Hall.

“When the weather was fair, Asbury would sometimes slip home just to check on the family and to make sure they did not need something. But on this day, the weather was a mess, and after about forty-five minutes, he said goodbye to the boys and went down to his little boat. When he got into the boat, he had a mail sack in one hand and a box of groceries in the other.

“Asbury shoved the little boat off the beach into the water and jumped in. Ed Thomas was watching as Asbury started across. “He is a fine sailor,” Ed thought to himself. “He’ll be all right.”

“The snow and the wind had picked up. The wind was gusting. When Asbury was about halfway to the lighthouse, between it and Sandy Point, a gust of wind caught his sail just right and flipped the boat over in about six or seven feet of water.

“Ed Thomas ran across the dock that extended out from the lighthouse and jumped into the other little boat they kept at the house. He went as hard as he could to make the little boat go, but it was too late. Asbury was standing straight up under the water. Ed reached down and pulled him into the boat. The men from shore were on their way but it was no use. Asbury had drowned.

“When they came ashore, a crowd of people gathered around. Some were crying, and others just could not believe what had happened. The men put Asbury on an oyster culling board that had been lying there by the dock and carried him down the road.

“Ed [my brother] and I were sitting over by the window in the old schoolhouse when we saw a bunch of men coming down the road. I could see they were carrying something. There was a solid flock of people following. I strained my eyes to see what it was they were carrying. When I realized who it was, I felt so sad.

“When we got home, mamma was in the kitchen. I could tell she had been crying. The word had spread quickly on the island. She told Ed and me to go feed the chickens and we did. I knew she wanted to be alone.

“I only remember a few drownings that occurred during all those years I lived on Tangier, but the drowning of Asbury Crockett is one I’ll never forget.”

Head keeper Edward L. Thomas was lauded by the Lighthouse Board for his actions that day. The March 1914 Lighthouse Service Bulletin related that “Edward L. Thomas, keeper of Tangier Sound Light Station, Va., has been commended for the brave effort made by him to rescue from downing the assistant keeper of that station, William A. Crockett, deceased.”

It must have been very bittersweet to keeper Thomas to be praised for a failed attempt at saving Asbury. The newspaper reports at the time differed slightly from Elmer’s reminiscence in stating that it was the boom on the boat that swung in the wind to topple Asbury overboard; that he was stunned or unconscious for a period of time before sinking; and that he was only a few hundred yards from the lighthouse at the time it happened.

The Richmond Enquirer even quoted Asbury as he was struggling in the water, shouting to Keeper Thomas “to hurry as [he] could not stand it much longer.” It added that Thomas used the boathook to reach Asbury on the bottom “before life was extinct, and with help, he might have been revived. A physician was called as soon as he could be taken to Tangier, but by that time he was dead.

“The paper further eulogized Asbury in declaring that, “He was a worthy citizen, prominent Methodist, and highly esteemed by all who knew him.” His wife, Margaret, was truly heartbroken and the family bereft. On Asbury’s gravestone, the inscription reads:

In memory of my dear husband

A husband true A father dear

Has left us here to weep

And we so often gather near the grave

Where my dear husband sleeps

Such is the account of the drowning of William Asbury Crockett, beloved husband, father and friend to many on Tangier Island. Perhaps one day, a U.S. Lighthouse Service Memorial Marker will be placed at his grave to honor his 10 years as a veteran U.S. Lighthouse Service keeper who died in the line of duty.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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