of the Chesapeake Bay
Written by Susan Elnicki WadeIf someone tried to take away your plate of fresh Chesapeake oysters, would you pull out a gun to defend your shellfish?
Well, you wouldn’t be the first person to react that way to an oyster thief. For decades, the Chesapeake Bay felt like the Wild West, where deadly boat chases and gunfights were commonplace along the shores. And all the conflict was over one innocent creature: the oyster.
During the Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay, says Jeff Holland, executive director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, “oysters were so valuable that people needed artillery to protect them from pirates. It’s astonishing that people would kill each other over a bivalve.”
For thousands of years, the bay was a dream breeding ground for oysters. English settlers in the early 1600s were amazed by 12-inch-long oysters and beds so large that ships would run aground on them. Captain John Smith ate them. George Washington relished them. And as America grew, so did oysters’ popularity. By the late 1700s, Chesapeake oysters were served on tables from Norfolk to Boston.
Things started getting nasty in the early 1800s, when over-harvesting in New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut depleted those oyster populations, and Northerners started licking their chops over the Chesapeake’s bounty. When New England oyster boats floated into the bay looking for fresh waters to plunder, locals did not hang up a welcome sign. To protect their treasure of oysters from Yankee intruders, Maryland and Virginia passed laws that only allowed fishing by local residents.By the mid-1800s, a new steam- canning process meant that people as far away as the Pacific Coast and the Colorado gold mines were gobbling up Chesapeake oysters that were delivered long-distance by train. Baltimore became the country’s oyster-packing epicenter, with more than 100 processing houses along its harbor.
Sleepy waterfront towns such as Cambridge and Solomons turned into bustling ports built upon discarded oyster shells. When railroad tracks extended down the Eastern Shore to Crisfield, the town erupted with oyster shucking plants, brothels and saloons packed with thirsty workers and watermen. The bay and its rivers became jam-packed with skipjacks and boats of all shapes and sizes, and the oyster supply seemed endless. “By 1875, a total of 17 million bushels of oysters had been removed from the Chesapeake,” reports Dr. Henry M. Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary’s City. “Yet harvesting continued to increase. At its peak in the mid-1880s, more than 20 million bushels of oysters were taken from the bay each year,” When a massive oyster reef was discovered in Tangier Sound, things started to really heat up. With such a plentiful resource, you’d think there’d be enough for everyone to be satisfied, but fierce clashes occurred over who could harvest oysters.
In shallow areas, watermen leaned over their boats using long wooden tongs to lift their catch from the water by hand. In deep waters, large ships pulled dredges with iron teeth along the bottom making a clean swipe over oyster beds. Maryland allowed dredging as long as ships stayed away from the shore and riverbeds. When dredgers ignored the laws and invaded the tongers’ space, big problems started brewing. To protect their oysters and livelihood, tongers appealed to Annapolis for help, but the lackluster response forced them to handle matters on their own. Gruesome gunfights and unruly water disputes became regular events.
To make matters worse, the border between Maryland and Virginia wasn’t clearly marked or well-defined. When Virginia watermen heard about the plethora of oysters in places like Tangier Sound and the Eastern Shore rivers, they felt they had a right to them. Maryland oystermen heartily disagreed. Violence and anarchy escalated to such a point that in 1868 the Maryland Oyster Police Force was formed, with Hunter Davidson elected as its first commander. He received a side-wheeled steamboat named Leila to restore order— not a fleet of boats, just one. Imagine policing that expansive bay with just one boat.
“The Oyster Police were outnumbered but still put up a valiant fight,” says the Annapolis Maritime Museum’s Holland. “In one incident, a dozen illegal dredging schooners chained their boats together and floated defiantly on the Choptank River. When this rag-tag flotilla prepared to shoot, the Oyster Police steamer barreled forward and rammed those schooners like a bowling ball.” Two ships were sunk, two were taken captive.
The Oyster Police added more ships and armed them with stronger firepower, but the oyster pirates remained bold and brazen. Dredgers moved through the Chesapeake with cold efficiency and shortsightedness. They stripped more oysters than the bay could produce and then plundered the tributary rivers. The Oyster Police caught some pirates, but many dredgers worked at night posting lookouts to watch for patrol boats. The Little Choptank River was especially hard hit and lost thousands of oysters a day to dredgers. When Cambridge formed a militia to defend its oyster bars, dredgers fired on the town and promised to torch the entire city if they met resistance again.
By the 1890s, the bay’s oyster population had fallen into steep decline, and in 1900 more oyster packing houses closed on the bay than opened. Over-harvesting brought the annual yield to around three million bushels in the 1920s. In 1942, decades after the bay’s oyster population had plummeted, a vast bed was discovered on Swan Point along the Potomac. Maryland police had a tough time protecting their state’s treasure from Virginia watermen, because many Mary- land boats were at the time being used in World War II efforts. By the late 1940s, oyster pirating kicked back into high gear, and Virginia dredgers—nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet—buzzed away from Maryland police in high-speed power boats. Gunfights and dramatic chase scenes ensued between Virginia daredev- ils and frustrated Oyster Police, now armed with rifles and machine guns.
The final Oyster Wars skirmish took place in a quiet waterfront town called Colonial Beach. If you’ve ever cruised up the Potomac River, you might have noticed a funky border between Virginia and Maryland. Dating back to colonial times, Virginia’s state line ends at the southern shore, and Maryland has the rights to the Potomac. That means oysters in the Potomac belong to Maryland. One night in 1959, a Virginian named Berkeley Muse decided to dredge oysters. When he realized he’d been spotted by a police boat, he sped toward the safety of Virginia’s Monroe Bay. Maryland police took off after Berkeley, and bullets flew. Berkeley was hit in the chest and bled to death at dawn in his boat on the shore of Colonial Beach. His death proved to be the last straw. The two states worked out legislation that eased tensions, and after nearly a century of bloody conflicts, the Chesapeake Oyster Wars were over.
CHESAPEAKE OYSTER RESOURCES
If you’ve got Chesapeake oysters on your mind and want to cruise around the bay to learn more about them, check out the following places and resources:
Annapolis Maritime Museum
723 Second St., Annapolis, Maryland; 410-295-0104, amaritime.org
Located in the old McNasby Oyster Co. building, the museum is dedicated to Chesapeake oysters and houses an amaz- ing relic from the Oyster Wars: a cannon from one of the Oyster Police steamships.
The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay
by John Wennersten, Published by Eastern Branch Press: easternbranchpress.com
Well-written and meticulously researched, it’s the go-to book for this remarkable historical period.
100 Museum Dr., Newport News, Virginia; 757-596-2222, marinersmuseum.org
The museum’s Chesapeake Gallery displays scores of artifacts and has hands-on activities about the bay’s nautical heritage.
The Oyster Guide
If you’ve had enough reading and are ready for eating, Oyster Finder identifies the different types of oysters, describes their tastes, and gives maps of their regions.
Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association
8218 Hell Neck Rd., Gloucester, Virginia; 804-694-4407, wmpeople.wm.edu
Farming, not fighting, is the new wave in oyster production. Use this site to locate a Virginia oyster farm and see how the bialves grow.