Friday, December 3, 2010


As isolated as Mathews is from the main stream--and trust me, it is--there is a section of nearby Gloucester County where isolation has been elevated to legendary status.  That area, of course, is Guinea.

Much has been said but very little written about Guinea.  Most of the stories, folktales, rumors and legends revolve around the rough-and-tumble nature of the people:  their fierce temper; their unique dialect; and in some versions of the stories even webbed feet, which may explain their affinity for boots.

(My family, like everyone else around here who is at or below sea level on a good day, owns several pair of Guinea boots. They come in very handy, especially during nor'easters. I've even seen Chesapeake Bay Mother wearing Guinea boots to feed Gustav the Killer Goose. But this isn't really about Guinea boots, Gustave, killer geese or webbed feet. At least I don't think it is.)

I'm not here to state that any of their reputation is true--especially that part about the webbed feet--but the stories persist.

Let's now pause for a public service announcement intended to protect CBW from bodily harm from an irate Guineaman.

Dear Reader Who May Be From Guinea,
I love Guinea and spent many a happy weekend there in my youth riding a pony named Satan. I'm sure that name had nothing to do with anyone's temperament or anything.  Surely it was just a quirky coincidence and I was not just calling you Shirley, RIP Leslie Nielsen.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I'm not suggesting anyone in your midst has a temper from Hades webbed feet. In fact, it was my mother who said that, but thank you for letting me talk about the rumors and stories, because they are fascinating and people really want to learn more.


OK, now that we've taken care of that, let's continue.

Someone who interviewed people from Guinea in the 1960s contacted me recently after coming across this blog. We have been e-mailing back and forth about the rumors and stories.  He's trying to pinpoint the genesis of the Guinea reputation. Although he's heard many possible theories, he's not convinced any of them are 100% accurate (or even 25% for that matter).  He also says the stories keep "popping up like prairie dogs out of their holes."

Below is an excerpt from an e-mail he sent on the topic of how Guinea came to be:

"The best story is that they were deserters from the Cornwallis gang--mercenaries for the British at Yorktown.  What bull.  Think of all the German names handed down in Guinea.  Total laugh.  They were more than likely just British immigrants.  Since a lot of them had English names they could have been ex-British guys from that army but I don't think they would necessarily have been welcome locally.

Another story involves some kind of ship--pirate or something--that wrecked off Big Island.  Supposedly the guys had to walk ashore and then went on to settle there.  But where is that wreck and why isn't the location and bones of it passed down in oral history?  Folks up county were trying to explain why the guys down there were different."

Wikipedia postulates the following about Guinea:

One area of Gloucester County is known as Guinea, which includes the unincorporated communities of Achilles, Bena, Severn, and Big Island. Located near Gloucester Point, the area has historically been the center of the seafood industry of the county. Founding families of Gloucester, such as Shackelford, Rowe, West, Jenkins, Green, Kellum and Belvin, were long involved in the industry. While the industry has declined over the years, it still remains the cultural core of the community. The watermen are known locally as "Guineamen." Guineamen speak a distinct, heavily accented form of non-rhotic Southern Vernacular English.

The name "Guinea" is of uncertain origin. A commonly held but incorrect explanation is that it was named "Guinea" to deride Loyalists who quartered Hessian mercenaries during the Revolutionary War, soldiers who were paid one guinea per day. The Hessians were attached to Cornwallis' army. They were believed to have occupied lower Gloucester during the closing days of the Revolutionary War or deserted their service fighting for the British. Cornwallis sent British troops and cavalry to occupy Gloucester in October 1781, and Hessians may have been a part of that contingency and were sent to secure lower Gloucester due to its strategic importance at the mouth of the York River.

But, the area in the upper part of the neck was called "Little Guinea" prior to the Yorktown campaign. The marshy, somewhat isolated peninsula was a haven for British deserters. After the surrender of Cornwallis, British prisoners in Gloucester County were allowed to wander about without confinement or guards.


My mother, who hails from Gloucester,  has shared some of her Guinea stories, one of which I wrote about on this blog back in January. (Click here for that trip down Memory Lane.)  That post pretty much covers their reputation and webbed feet but doesn't delve into the questions of how Guinea came to be and the origins of that reputation.

If there is anyone reading who has stories--even shreds of information--related to Guinea, please leave a comment.  You may also e-mail me at if you wish.  

Some questions:

What do you know about the early inhabitants of Guinea, and where did you hear/learn the information?
How did Guinea get its name?
What stories have you heard and who told you?
Can anyone cite specific incidents that might have spawned the reputation so commonly associated with the area?
Are they descended from pirates? Mercenaries? Mermaids?
Aside from the physical isolation, what may have contributed to the legends and reputation that persist about the temperament of the people?

p.s. As far as the temperament of the people go, most anyone will say (in the same breath as telling you the stories) that people from Guinea are "as good as gold."  My personal experience with anyone from Guinea (ponies named Satan aside) supports that gold theory.

And lest anyone think I'm picking on Guinea and Gloucester County, rest assured Mathews is merely North Guinea or Guinea Extended. We are quirky, we're different, we're isolated, and we are proud of our unique way of life. We may be a cast of characters--oh, what a cast--but you won't find a more generous, giving, close-knit community, even if we do have webbed feet we're as crazy as loons.

Have a great weekend.


deborah said...

nothing to contribute (as usual) but this is all very interesting! I can't wait to read more about Guinea.
I'm loony as loony can be...does that mean I'd fit right in? :))

Ann Marie said...

I have NOTHING to say .. but tagging you in my photo from yesterday.. you need to see this.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Deborah- You always have something to contribute, and for that I thank you. I'm sending you your honorary membership card to the Mathews County Chapter of the Society of Loons, aka SLoons. (I'll come up with a better name.)

For everyone's benefit, Ann Marie tagged me in a photo of Guinea boots she found while shopping yesterday. They are PINK and also come in yellow, red, etc. I want a pair!

Meg McCormick said...

Very interesting! I'm fascinated by the "ends of the earth" and the people who live there, and it sounds like your Guinea is just such a locale.

I have only ever heard Guinea used as an ethnic slur for Italian-Americans...

Those boots? You may call 'em Guinea boots but I call 'em Wellies.

Jamie said...

The only info I know about Guinea that you haven't shared is about the dead humpback whale that washed ashore there a couple of months ago. And the only other comment I have that might sort of have something to do with your post is that secretly I've always wanted webbed feet.

Anonymous said...

I just read your old post, and feel fortunate to be still breathing. Warn me next time when you expose me to native vengeance. Holes happen in innocent boats when lines are crossed! Better check on your boat! MUM

wv: Those guys have some culto!

Anonymous said...

P.S.: Bubba Jenkins sends his regards, guaranteed in the second amendment. Mum

wv: some things are just all hortch it.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

CB Mother - I think we're safe for now. You should tell some of the other stories you know, I am sure there are many.

Caution/Lisa said...

My articulate, intelligent question is: what are guinea boots?

BayBrowder said...

Three things....a day late:

1. Wonderful news....Honey, the wonderful gentle skittish tri-colored hound who has been reporting about her friends at the to-be-closed overflow shelter goes to a new loving home today. She has spent three years at the shelter and has earned all the rewards that can possibly come to her.

2. My experiences in Guinea with Guinea people have been very cordial. I've enjoyed every visit.
Like Mathews County, it is a wonderful, unique place with wonderful, unique people.

3. Hoping that Virginia Tech can beat Florida State tomorrow night fot the ACC Football Chamionship. After starting 0-2, many said "their season was over", but after 10 straight wins....the Hokies have had a great season regardless of the outcomes of the ACC Championship game and their bowl game. GO HOKIES!!!

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Bay Browder - That is FANTASTIC news about Honey, so glad to hear it.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Caution Flag - Basically they're rubber boots that come up knee high or lower (any higher and they're hip boots). They're good for sloshing around in high tides, shallow waters of any sort, muddy yards, fields, nor'easters, hurricanes, etc.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Meg-I've also heard the term used that way, also a "guinea T" as in t-shirt (also known as a "wife beater" shirt around here). Basically it's a sleeveless t-shirt. Strange.

Jamie-You don't need webbed feet when you have the rubber ducky float!

Daryl said...

I am a loon ... ask anyone .. wait dont ask .. you know .. love the photo and info and wish you and the rest of the gang a wonderful weekend ..

Lynne M. said...

I spent many a day/night in Guinea myself and absolutely love it. It is very true that the people who live there (at least the originals..) will give you the shirts off their backs, no question. And if you have just one friend down there, you are to be considered safe from whatever may come, as they fiercly protect their "own". I'm not going to share any "stories", even though I have many. I'll just say that there is never a dull moment in Guinea (and you would have to had been there to understand, hehe). My family has been in Gloucester for many, many generations. My Grandma's family hailed from Guinea, and she still had a bit of accent herself even after moving out of Guinea at a young age.

Wow, my comment has turned out to be almost as long as your post! I could go on forever...

Elizabeth Stokes said...

I have been exposed to the folks from Guinea all my life, as a young girl visiting relatives in the Afro-American community, the older black watermen spoke just like the other guineamen and it was and is a lovely dialect. I could still hear in my mother's accent when she passed ten yrs. ago in he DC area at 98.Elizabeth

Heather from Newport News said...

i'm a few years late on this topic but recently heard that the people of Guinea are inbred for generations, and have also heard of webbed feet and hands and even hands that have fingers fused together to almost look like a kind of hook or crab claw, as well as the interesting dialect that they seem to have. i was just wondering if you or anyone else know if there are still inhabitants or houses on the island? i know a lot of people would say no but i feel like if you look on google earth, it looks like there are still houses or ruins of these houses. i know that someone at william and mary now owns the land and that it is like a wildlife preservation to some extent. i read recently that the last of the west family left the island in the early 1990's. just wondering if you have more insight on these topics. thank you!

Heather from Newport News said...

ONE MORE THING! while driving through guinea, i have noticed many hounds running about loose and have been told that hounds thrive around the area, and are wild. is this true?

Anonymous said...

In an English history book published mid 1970s Damn Yankees confirmed a ship did leave yorktown prior to the yorktown surrender it did ship wre k in quinea. If you are local, you know the york river winds and storms are sudden in the month of october. Therefore, this is not legend.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that the deserters from Cornwallis' army split up into three groups. One group settled in Poquoson, one in Guinea, and one in Tangier Island. I don't know if this is true. If so, is there historical documentation to back it up?

Unknown said...

My grandfather was called bubba james...he was a jenkins from gloucester.