Telling the Story of Virginia’s Watermen

Preserving tradition and culture at the Yorktown Watermen’s Museum.  

by Karen Soule

At this moment, the York River’s frozen ice and blustery January winds remain imbedded in the still-chilled souls of Yorktown’s residents. But hope—and spring—is eternal, especially at the Watermen’s Museum, located along the town’s Riverwalk Landing. 

The museum’s mission is to share the history and culture of those who made their living working on the Chesapeake Bay. During the cold winter months, the staff and volunteers find the best way to do that is with music, dance, storytelling and art. Though the building and exhibits are technically closed until April 1, the place is hopping with multiple events throughout the month. 

Once spring arrives, the museum and its many volunteers really come alive, with museum docents like Donna Coffie who enthusiastically share the region’s unique history and culture. “The museum tells the story of the evolution of life on the water, from Native Americans to ferrymen to pilots to the military,” she explains. Naturally, the Bay’s traditional watermen who harvest oysters, fish and crabs are prominently featured. “Twenty years ago, there were 9,000 licensed watermen on the Bay,” Coffie notes. “Now there are less than 3,000. It’s important to honor their contribution to the Chesapeake.” 

Visitors can explore the stories of the Chesapeake in numerous exhibits, from the early native people and their fishing practices to the exploits of Blackbeard the pirate. Coffie also explains that, although located in Yorktown, the Watermen’s Museum doesn’t focus much on the Battle of Yorktown itself. “The nearby American Revolution Museum at Yorktown covers that history in depth,” she says. “But we do actively preserve the history of Cornwallis’ sunken fleet.”

  Model making is just one of the traditional crafts taught at the Yorktown Watermen’s Museum. photo by Karen Soule
Model making is just one of the traditional crafts taught at the Yorktown Watermen’s Museum. photo by Karen Soule

In 1781, with the French fleet threatening and moving up the river, British General Cornwallis scuttled numerous ships to act as an underwater barricade. It didn’t work. The French fired superheated cannonballs at the remaining ships, igniting the wooden vessels and burning them to their waterlines. The muddy tidal waters of the York effectively preserved many of those vessels. Today, the museum, along with other organizations, is working with maritime archeologists to document the location of several of these shipwrecks.

Once spring turns into summer, the museum gears up its educational programs for all ages. Week-long children’s programs include Pirate Camp, Boatbuilding, Nature Explorers and Archeology Camp. A new offering this year is Marine Explorers Camp where kids can measure water quality and learn about sea level rise and research biodiversity. In addition, campers learn about deadrise boats, how to burn-out canoes and oystering practices as part of the All About Boats Camp. But camps aren’t just for younger visitors—the Adult Pirate Camp gets grown-ups in on the action with an evening of grog and pirate songs.

Whatever the season, the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown is a destination where visitors of all ages can celebrate what makes the Bay unique—and have fun doing it. Through creative programs and engaging exhibits, the Watermen’s Museum shares the compelling stories of the people that worked Virginia’s waterways. 

Karen and David Soule sail their Ericson 38 Soulmate out of Fishing Bay Yacht Club in Deltaville.