Thursday, May 19, 2022

Why Do We Call It… Poquoson?

A view of the water from Thomas Jefferson Rollins Park in Poquoson. (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)
WYDaily’s Managing Editor Nancy Sheppard is also a professional historian and nonfiction history author, specializing in, among other subjects, the history of Hampton Roads. -Ed.

POQUOSON — The City of Poquoson in it of itself feels like a separate world from its neighboring localities. The street signs reflect the names of families who live in generational homes and can trace their roots back to the seventeenth century. “Bull Islanders” (as they are colloquially called) take great pride in the history and culture that makes up this saltmarsh community.

But where did the name “Poquoson” actually come from? Today, we will take a deeper dive into the etymology behind the name.

Messick Point in Poquoson (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)

The early years of the town are quite interesting in the ebbs and flows of early colonial times. At first, the Spanish claimed dominion over what would become the “Old Dominion,” calling the region La Florida. Those who have ever traveled through Poquoson may be familiar with Little Florida Road. After a series of missteps with the indigenous people, including a massacre at a makeshift Catholic mission just north of Yorktown (which is a separate story for a different day), the Spanish relinquished their claim to the land but still coveted the abundance of waterways and fisheries.

To fast forward our story a tad, the first recorded settler to Poquoson was Joseph Moore, who emigrated to the Virginia Colony in 1626. The area’s identity was derived from the indigenous word, “pocosin,” which referred to low, flat, and swampy regions. In 1631, the word “Poquoson” was used in reference to the area it is now named for in a land grant for a portion of the Elizabeth City Parish.

Now, why is it spelled differently than the indigenous word? Here is a fun fact about spelling… There were no rules or standards at that time as to how certain things (primarily improper nouns) were spelled so, therefore, things were written out phonetically. Eventually, certain commonly-used spellings were accepted and then adopted as the “official” spellings for particular words (proper and improper nouns alike).

Back to our story.

When Elizabeth City Parish resident Benjamin Syms died sometime in or before 1643, he left in his will a portion of property of what he referred to as the Poquoson Parish in order to establish a free school for the area’s children. At that time, the Poquoson Parish also included the areas now known as Tabb, Seaford, and Grafton; all of which are in modern day York County.

Did You Know…
Benjamin Syms was one of the namesakes of the Syms-Eaton Museum in Hampton whose collection upon its closure was absorbed into what is now Hampton History Museum.

Following the Revolutionary War, people began moving to the tiny riverside town. During the War of 1812, even more arrived from the Eastern Shore, noting that it was a far safer location from the War than where they came from. With them, they brought the knowledge and skills of the fishing industry; one in which created an identity for itself in the Poquoson zeitgeist which endures to this day.

The era of Jim Crow was, in no doubt, a turbulent one. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing the landmark court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kan.), which argued that racial segregation in the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.

Poquoson Learning Garden at the Poquoson Museum (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)

That same year, York County proposed a million dollar school construction project, which would eliminate Poquoson High School. Residents of the township knew that this could mean a shift in the student body population, thus intruding upon the long-held desire to maintain Poquoson as a place that seldom saw “newcomers.”

As a result, Poquoson voted to separate from York County and form its own government in order to maintain “control of its schools.” However, it wasn’t until 1954 that this control would be asserted to form a school system apart from York.

A local newspaper article dated May 30, 1954 described the trifecta of issues Poquoson residents believed to be the antecedents for the decision to form its own school system. The article was published just days after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously concluded that, in Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation was unconstitutional, regardless of if a segregated school was considered “equal.”

Coupled with a teacher shortage and the desire to maintain Poquoson schools as a Poquoson-only identity, that same article noted, “Segregation, a third burden, is like a gathering storm on the horizon. But Poquoson, with it’s bare handful of [Black American] school age children, could probably — if it had to — resolve this problem tomorrow.”

As an interesting aside in this lane of historical study, in 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Poquoson’s residents were approximately 89 percent “white alone”; a stark difference from its neighboring localities which include York County (69 percent), Newport News (40 percent), and Hampton (37 percent).

The cross at Messick Point in Poquoson (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)

However, this in no way suggests that race was the impetus behind the school system split. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision handed down in 1954, York County would not integrate its schools until 1967 (the delay partially attributed to the “Massive Resistance” movement). The transition in York County was reported as “smooth” due to its large military population. However, there is not much scholarly work examining how smooth the transition to desegregation went for Poquoson.

The City, while it maintained certain ties with York County (e.g. the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office and, later the merging of local newspapers to create the now-defunct publication, “Yorktown Crier-The Poquoson Post”), it was an independently-operating locality. On June 1, 1975, similar to other parts of Hampton Roads, Poquoson adopted the city form of government.

The sense of local pride and resilience was put to the test in September 2003 when Hurricane Isabel smashed into the Hampton Roads Peninsula. Like every literal and figurative storm before, the “little town that could” banded together to support one another. Poquoson, due to it sitting seven feet below sea level, bared the burden of incredible damage. Many homes, particularly the older generational homes, were destroyed by the extreme flooding that occurred as a result of the storm. Approximately 50 percent of the City’s population filed disaster recovery or flood insurance claims. Personal belongings and debris remained scattered along the streets named for the oldest families in the City for months. Without fault or failure, the residents came together to rebuild; neighbor helping neighbor, cousin pitching in for cousin.

The City also took action and passed a new ordinance that requires the first floor of new structures built in Poquoson to be at least three feet above the Base Flood Elevation (two feet higher than the requirement set forth by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)). Flood markers were posted throughout the City; denoting the water level as a result of the flooding.

A sign in front of Bull Island BBQ in Poquoson (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)

Today, that sense of pride continues to resonate with the locals whose families have been together for centuries. Driving down Little Florida Road towards Thomas Jefferson Rollins Nature Area, the old homes that survived the hurricane stand feet off their foundations. Deadrise boats are docked at the City’s piers with the fishermen’s traps neatly stacked nearby. You can grab a bite at Bull Island BBQ, which sits in a little, unassuming building just near the cross at Messick Point. Neighbors pack the stands on Friday nights to cheer on the Poquoson High School Bull Islanders’ football team before finding their spots in the pews of local churches on Sunday.

The thing that brings this community together is more than a sense of pride in where they live — it is the feeling of belonging and one of family. The quiet waters that border three sides of the town fill the salt marsh just as the love of Poquoson flows in the veins of its residents.

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