Prior to the 1870s, Claiborne was part of the nearby McDanieltown postal community (now McDaniel). Its name can be traced back in honor of William Claiborne, a fur trader who founded an English settlement on nearby Kent Island in 1631. Early land patents in Claiborne included 'Rich Neck Manor,' which was first granted to James Mitchell in 1652. Either Mitchell or the subsequent owner of Rich Neck, Philip Land, built a chapel in the 1650s. The Rich Neck Manor Chapel still stands and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, but is private property. Rich Neck was also home to Matthew Tilghman, the head of the Maryland delegation to the Continental Congress, and Lloyd Tilghman, Confederate general.
It was past the entrance to today's Claiborne harbor that British vessels passed during the War of 1812, landing in McDanieltown, within sight of Claiborne.
The area of town now known as 'Old Claiborne,' was located on Tilghman’s Creek facing the Miles River. It included a steam sawmill started by John Hansel Tunis around 1867. 'Bingham's Steamboat Wharf' was also in use for steamboats on their way up the Miles River to St. Michaels. By 1877, John Tunis' son, Joseph Tunis, had added the Claiborne Oyster Company, a boatyard, a few homes, two more steamboat wharves, and expanded his father's sawmill into the Claiborne Saw and Planing Mills. At the foot of Rich Neck Road was a general store. Tunis also laid out grids for a new community of 188 lots and advertised them for between $18 and $40. A plat of it appears in an 1877 county atlas, showing eight main streets with the names: Rich Neck Road, Leeds, Ward, Progress, Monument, Tilghman, and Dom Pedro. At its center was Henry Clay Square, a large area reserved for public buildings. Joseph Tunis provided a slogan: “Young man don’t go West, but to Claiborne.” The village did not develop as Tunis had hoped and by 1893, Tunis had abandoned his plans. In later years several families from North Carolina who knew or where employed by the Tunis family in their North Carolina lumber mills relocated to 'Old Claiborne', for example Ben Perry whose home in 'Old Claiborne' was built in 1905.
The island is known in the land records of the province of Mary-Land as Great Choptank Island, but took on the names of a succession of its owners. When granted to Seth Foster in 1659, it naturally became known locally as Foster's Island, and so on. The Tilghman family owned it for over a century, beginning with Matthew Tilghman in 1752, and they were the last family to own it. It has remained Tilghman's Island ever since. The community and the post office are simply called Tilghman.
Some would like to believe that Great Choptank Island was first charted by John Smith of Jamestown in 1608. This cannot be so as he did not explore this part of the Eastern Shore and the island is separated from the mainland only by a very narrow waterway, one Smith could not have seen without landing.The island was occupied briefly by the British invasion fleet in 1814, primarily to acquire provisions of fruit and livestock. The present community was established in the 1840s when James Seth purchased the island from General Tilghman and began selling parcels to farmers and oystermen in the area. When dredging began in the Chesapeake Bay, the watermen of Tilghman's Island were quick to join in. Boat-building and blacksmithing were important businesses, as well as fishing, oystering and farming. Selling oysters to Washington and Baltimore became much more profitable in the 1890s when steamboat service was established. Many seafood processing enterprises sprang up, as did a robust hospitality industry. Many families escaped Baltimore's summer heat by coming to one of the fine guest houses on Tilghman's Island; husbands came over on the weekends. Other watermen took out hunting and fishing parties, and their wives provided guests with friendly accommodations.
The island became and remains a popular get-away for vacationers, drawn by superb fishing and the hospitality of island residents. Although the seafood industry is now much diminished and the shucking houses and processing plants replaced by up-scale housing, Tilghman's Island remains an interesting and enjoyable place to visit -- out in the Bay at the end of a long peninsula.