Sea Salt

"It was fishing and salt-making that first brought Europeans to Northampton County. The Jamestown settlement regularly sent fishing parties to the area of Cape Charles to catch and salt fish in the 1600s.

Salt-making was an early industry of such importance throughout the colonies that salt from the Eastern Shore was exported to as far away as Massachusetts as early as 1633. Essential to the household economy of the day, the production of salt attracted various entrepreneurs." 
-from Historic Architectural Survey of Northampton County, VA 

History of Salt

Salt making is intertwined with the history of human civilization. Salt was so important to governments and economies it was heavily taxed; trade routes began because of salt; Roman soldiers were paid in salt- the word salary comes from salt; it was used in religious ceremonies to purify; and on more than one occasion has set off revolutions. It seems the rise of our civilization has pivoted around salt production! 

"Salt production has been important in China for two millennia or more, and the Chinese, like many other governments over time, realized that taxing salt would could be a major revenue source. Nomads spreading westward were known to carry salt, and Egyptian art from as long ago as 1450 B.C. records salt making."

For a detailed history of salt please visit:

Sea salt in wicker baskets

Sea salt in wicker baskets. Photo © 2011 by Tomasz Sienicki [CC BY 3.0 (] 

History of Salt Making in Northampton County 

According to Virginia Places, "The first major colonial salt-making operation in Virginia was started by Sir Thomas Dale in 1614. Dale, the marshal of the colony responsible for military defense and discipline, sent colonists to Smith's Island on the southern tip of the Eastern Shore to make salt.
He sent indentured servants to the eastern side of the Eastern Shore ("seaside") to boil Atlantic Ocean water and precipitate salt...

English colonists desired salt to improve the taste of food, and it was essential for preserving pork that might be stored in barrels after killing hogs on Bermuda. In 1614, Dale's colonists set up a salt-production base on the Eastern Shore on Smith's Island, and stayed there when not manning the kettles.

ESVA Barrier Islands
In this photo taken by the ISSO, Smith Island can be seen near the tip of the peninsula. Click on the image for a larger view.

Saltmakers boiled 250-300 gallons of seawater in large kettles, evaporating the water to produce salt. The salt manufacturing operation required collection of driftwood and perhaps cutting some nearby trees for fuel. The saltmakers were not entrepreneurs working for themselves. They were indentured servants working for the Virginia Company, which owned the colony until 1624." 

Barrier Island Saltmarsh
Smith Island salt marsh similar to what the salt makers of yore would have seen. Photo credit: USFWS

Read the rest of the story at

For more information about Smith Island, please visit our Lighthouses page. 

Salt Making in Northampton County in the 21st Century 

Barrier Islands Salt Co.
Barrier Islands Salt Co. crunchy, flaked sea salt.
Photo courtesy of Barrier Islands Salt Co. 

Barrier Islands Salt Co. 
Owners: David and Anna Lee
Cheriton, VA 
website: Barrier Islands Salt Co. 

The salt making entrepreneurial spirit continues into the 21st century with the newly formed business Barrier Islands Salt Co. Owners David and Anna Lee are opening a salt works in Cheriton to produce pristine barrier islands sea salt. Their technique has not changed much from the old days where gallons of sea water were boiled in large kettles to create salt crystals. One hundred gallons of seawater produces about 25 pounds of salt. The Lees were delighted when water tests from around the barrier islands showed the purity of the water with toxins and pollutants registering very low. 

Anna Lee explains, "Because these barrier islands are protected by the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, the environment has been allowed to flourish...The water here is naturally filtered. The restored eelgrass meadows, oyster reefs and the unique ecological structure of the area all play a part.” 

(For more information about the Barrier Islands, please visit our What's a Barrier Island? page.) 

The Barrier Islands Salt Co. has created quite a buzz about a seemingly ordinary condiment but salt has a very long history in human civilization. 

The Lees explain their motivation on their website's "About US" page, "We created Barrier Islands Salt Co. to celebrate the wild & pure waters surrounding Virginia's barrier islands. We love creating a product that captures the flavor of this magical coastal wilderness for customers to take home and enjoy.

We’ve spent over four years perfecting our sea salt and the result is a bright white, flake sea salt with a clean, oceanic flavor and a sweet finish. We’re extremely proud to be Virginia’s first coastal saltworks since the 1700s."  

David and Anna Lee
David and Anna Lee of Barrier Islands Salt Co. 
Photo courtesy of Barrier Islands Salt Co. 

You can read more about the Barrier Islands Salt Co. in the Eastern Shore Post September 26, 2019 issue:
Eastern Shore Is Sweet on Salty New Business

We wish them all the best in their new/ old endeavor! 

Recreational Salt Makers

Buck Doughty and Rob Gustafson

Buck and Rob put seawater into the cauldron and prepare for a long day of salt making. Photo by Helene Doughty

Barrier Islands Salt Co. may be the only commercial company producing salt on the Eastern Shore but there have been recreational salt makers before them. 

Local storyteller and metal artist, Buck Doughty is a direct descendant Hog Islander. He and friend, Rob Gustafson have been boiling seawater in a large cauldron over a fire to produce their share of salt for the past six years. 

"Conditions here are ideal for recreational salt-making. Thanks to the proactive efforts of the Nature Conservancy and others to acquire and forever protect these barrier islands, the waters remain some of the cleanest on the Atlantic seaboard. Abundant stands of hickory, cherry, pine, and oak grow close to the shorelines and buffer the undeveloped land. The scene that unfolds before intrepid adventurers is as wild and untouched as Governor Dale’s salt-boilers would have experienced in the early 1600s." 
-Rob Gustafson

To learn about their adventures in recreational salt making please read, OLD SALT: Boiling sea salt on the Eastern Shore of Virginia written by Robert Gustafson and published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine on  July 20, 2019.