Historic Resources Associated with African American Watermen of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay

A view of the interior of Outlaw Blacksmith Shop showing examples of his work and the rebuilt forge. Photo: DHR.

How a Multiple Property Document (MPD) report helps paint a fuller picture of the contributions of African American watermen to the seafood industries of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay.

By Lena McDonald

A map of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Virginia
A map of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the the Department of Historic Resources on an ambitious project to survey and document historic resources associated with African American watermen who have worked the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries since the colonial era. The resultant report, a Multiple Property Document (MPD), describes and recognizes the contributions of African American watermen to the seafood industries of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. The Bay’s watershed is defined as the tidal waters east of the fall line that drain into the Chesapeake Bay.


Although the survey associated with the MPD focused on a select number of counties, the MPD applies to all of those geographic areas within the watershed. In order to document and recognize the full extent African American watermen’s contributions, the historic context provides a summary of the colonial-era work of Africans and African Americans, and a deeper dive into their fascinating history from Reconstruction to the present day.


An MPD does not itself result in listing of associated resources in the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register of Historic Places. Rather, the MPD provides a thematic framework and registration requirements to streamline preparation of nominations of specific properties. Information provided in an MPD need not be repeated in a nomination form. The registration requirements provide a clear basis for establishing how a given property is significant for its associations with the historic themes in the MPD. As such, MPDs are useful planning documents that can aid with identifying, evaluating, nominating, and preserving places that are significant in a locality’s history due to their shared importance to the geographic area where they are found.


Interior of Outlaw Blacksmith Shop Showing Examples of his Work and the Rebuilt Forge
A view of the interior of Outlaw Blacksmith Shop showing examples of his work and the rebuilt forge. Photo: DHR.

The first property to be nominated under this new MPD will be the Samuel D. Outlaw Blacksmith Shop in the Town of Onancock, Accomack County. An accomplished blacksmith, Outlaw owned and operated his shop from 1927-1972. In addition to traditional blacksmithing work repairing farming and vehicular equipment, Outlaw specialized in hand crafting watermen’s tools such as crab dredges, clam rakes, oyster tongs, rudders, and rudder shafts for local watermen. A prominent member of the Onancock community and one of the most successful and long-lasting blacksmiths on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Outlaw continued working part-time through the early 1990s. Today, the Town of Onancock operates his shop as a museum that will be reopening to the public later this spring. For additional information, please visit here.


Look for both the MPD and the Outlaw Blacksmith Shop to be presented at the March 16, 2023, joint meeting of the Virginia State Review Board and Board of Historic Resources.

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