When Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake shore back in the seventieth century he had a special interest in the Indians aside from his ill fated romance with Pocahontas. Smith noted the Nanticoke Indians were really into eating oysters. The Indians would harvest oysters in massive quantities from the creek bottoms then feast on them for several days at a time. When the feast was over the empty shells were piled up in mounds called middens. The middens are striking evidence the Native Americans not only enjoyed oysters, but they enjoyed them in large quantities. The largest oyster midden left by the Indians in the Chesapeake Bay area covers nearly thirty acres of land near Pipe’s Creek on the Potomac River.
In 1860 some twelve million oysters were sold in the New York area. As impressive a number as that is, in just ten years the number rose to seven hundred million. They were a must have delicacy at every fashionable party while at the same time they were the staple of the working poor. In his book The Big Oyster (Ballantine Books), Mark Kulansky tells about the “the Canal Street plan”. All the oysters you can eat for just 6 cents. However, if a customer was found to be eating too many oysters the waiter would make sure he got at least one oyster with a loosely open shell, a sure way to end a hearty appetite.
Humans have been enjoying oysters ever since Neanderthals roamed the earth. Way back in 78 B.C. when the Romans occupied Britain, oysters were transported to Rome. They were packed in snow and ice to keep them fresh while they were being transported by the Roman Navy. During the time of Christ a man named Sergius Orata was doing oyster aquaculture. Oyster shells were in common use for medications and cement.
George Washington operated a thriving seafood business at his Mount Vernon landing around 1760. He sold fish and oysters locally and exported them to Jamaica and London. After the Civil War the seafood business on the Chesapeake had its biggest bonanza in history while at the same time oysters were becoming hard to harvest in the New England states. The popularity of oysters caused the demand to exceed the supply in the North. Dredging had become the more common way to harvest oysters on Long Island Sound. Dredging scraped the bottom clean and left few oyster to replenish the bed. Over fishing had depleted the supply. Soon the scoop like dredge was put to use in the Chesapeake Bay area to help supply the voracious appetites from states to the North where oysters were in increasing short supply.
In 1870 oyster packers on the Eastern Shore shipped some nine million bushels a year. In less than ten years just one of those oyster packers shipped twenty-five thousand barrels of shell oysters and three hundred thousand gallons of shucked oysters to the markets in Baltimore and New York. In his book titled The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay John R. Wennersten relates, “During the season of 1869-1870 there were 563 vessels licensed in Maryland to dredge for oysters: they averaged twenty-three tons each and carried eight hundred bushels at a load. Despite the law prohibiting out-of-state dredgers, many outsiders registered their vessels under Maryland owners with false bills of sale. The economic impact of the boom was especially noticeable along Baltimore’s Long Wharf, where hundreds of schooners, pungies, and bateaus annually disgorged four million bushels of oysters to the insatiable packing houses.”
There were two methods of harvesting oysters. The tongers used metal baskets attached to hinged poles to reach down to the bottom and scoop up the oysters. The “drudgers” used large sailing vessels to drag basket like scoops along the bottom and across the oyster beds. Originally dredging had been prohibited by law because of the damage it did to oyster beds. However, after the Civil War, dredgers were permitted to operate on the Chesapeake Bay as long as they limited their harvesting to deep water. There were fortunes to be made in oystering. By 1871 dredgers were invading the areas reserved for tongers. As hostilities grew worse, the bloated dead bodies of oystermen began appearing in the rivers where oystering had been a peaceful process for centuries. The sheer mathematics of the oyster harvest contributed to the Maryland General Assembly establishing an Oyster Navy in 1868. Captain Hunter Davison, commander of the Maryland Oyster Navy, commanded the worn out Civil War tug Leila. His was an unpopular and dangerous job. His life was threatened and at one point pirate crews of oyster dredge boats plotted to murder Captain Davidson.
Virginians and Marylanders became enemies because of the steadily decreasing supply of oysters that were the result of overfishing by dredge boats. Captain Davidson was increasing the pressure on pirate dredges to the point they headed to more peaceful Virginia waters. Virginians began to feel the threat and took to carrying rifles aboard their boats. They did not hesitate to use them against poachers.
In his book Maryland’s Oyster Navy (Published for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum by the Literary House Press, Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland.) Norman H. Plummer wrote, “Not all the action against dredgers took place in Maryland waters. Virginia had its own problems with oyster pirates. In 1882 Virginia Governor William E. Cameron made it a goal of his administration to bring order to the oystermen. So determined was the governor that he twice led attacks on oyster pirates, on one occasion firing shots himself from the deck of a chartered steamer and overseeing the arrest of 72 illegal dredgers. In 1884 he secured passage of legislation that, for the first time, established a Virginia fisheries police force. It was comprised of three vessels. The small Virginia force would have to defend Virginia oyster bars from invading Maryland dredgers, sometimes with dramatic results.”
Plummer describes a fierce battle in the Oyster Wars, “In February 1884 the Cambridge schooner Ada Luddington, Captain Andrew Steidele, and a fleet of 17 other Maryland boats were dredging off Stingray Point, Virginia when they were surprised by an unknown schooner. The latter sailed into the midst of the Maryland fleet. Suddenly hoisting an American flag, it disgorged nearly one hundred men armed with rifles and pistons. Someone uncovered a cannon on board the schooner and commenced firing. Luddington immediately hoisted all sail, but the schooner was close by and gave chase. Luddington, her sails riddled by gunfire, was seized. She was found to have 1,300 bushels of oyster on board. Her crew was jailed.” It is believed the vessel came from Middlesex County, Virginia and may have been a private ship used prior to the creation of Virginia’s tiny oyster police force.
Captain Willard Norris of Deltaville served with the Virginia Marine Police commanding the police boat Ranger. Capt. Norris recalls pursuing illegal oyster dredgers on the Potomac River. The oyster dredgers were a cunning lot. He said it took awhile before he figured out how he could spot a dredger from far off then by the time they reached him, there were no signs of dredging equipment. Eventually he discovered their secret. Upon seeing they were about to be caught in an illegal act, they attached a float and a block of salt to the dredge rigging and let it sink to the bottom. After a few days, when the police were long gone, the salt would melt away and the float would bring a line attached to the rig to the surface.
Howard “Fishhawk” Smith was born and raised at Sandy Point in Kinsale, Va. In 2006 he told me that as a boy his father would take him out in his 24 ft wooden log “canoe” to hand tong for oysters. Fishhawk said, “The drudge boats would come and could take a lot more than they could tong in a day. So my Daddy fitted a model A Ford engine to his old canoe and hooked up a drudge he made. My brother and I would go out at night and drudge for the best oysters in the deep water. We would carry tongs, we had an oyster tonging license, on the boat, but we would drudge and I would watch for the police. When the police came in their power boats we would run. They never did shoot at us but the Maryland Oyster Police did shoot at drudge boats further up the river.”
When Fishhawk and his brother spotted the police they would simply drop their dredge overboard and they would take off. After the police had gone they would retrieve their drudge. Fishhawk told me: “They never caught us. Sometimes we would go up the river to a place called Bowman’s Creek that had very shallow water and a bar across the entrance. We would drudge up there and we knew the police could catch us and cut us off when we were coming back. So what we would do before we would start drudging, we would find a spot where we could cross over the bar. We would make a big circle and then run over the bar. The 30 foot police boat couldn’t get over the bar and they couldn’t catch us.”
Fishhawk said they drudged oysters to survive. They got sixty cents for a bushel of oysters. They were willing to risk getting caught because they needed the oysters for food and they needed the money they earned. I asked Fishhawk how his family got into working on the water. He told me his family before his grandfather were slaves and worked on the water for their masters. After slavery his ancestors stayed in the area and established families that have followed the watermen’s life every since. His father was Captain on a sailing freight vessel before returning to Kinsale to work the water.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Director of Education Kate Livie summed up the Oyster Wars in this way, “
The State Fishery Force, or ‘Oyster Navy’, as it was commonly called, was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1868, three years after dredging was legalized in Maryland waters in 1865. The Oyster Navy regulated oyster harvests from state waters (deeper water reserved for dredgers) and the much disputed and raided county waters (shallow water reserved for tongers), and was funded by dredging license fees and fines, packing taxes, and state appropriations. Virginia also attempted to fight illegal oystering by imposing limits and license fees, as it had little physical enforcement capabilities. In both states, oystering was big money and oyster poachers, or “pirates” as they were romantically described, were motivated by economics to harvest as many oysters as possible- laws or no laws. As investigator Richard Edmonds stated in 1880, “Dredging in Maryland is simply a general scramble, carried on by 700 boats, manned by 5,600 daring and unscrupulous men, who regard neither the laws of God nor man.”