Oyster Wars

Wayward Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay

HUMANITIES, May/June 2011, Volume 32, Number 3

In 1884, Maryland watermen hauled fifteen million bushels of oysters out of the Chesapeake Bay. The slippery little bivalves once deemed only suitable for the poor man’s pot had grown so popular in the years after the Civil War, they “created a boom reminiscent of a gold rush,” says John R. Wennersten. “And where there is a boom, there is greed.”

Greed combined with guns to make the Eastern Shore a rough-and-tumble place. Poaching was common and more than a few men died violently in the headlong rush to make money.

The author of The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay and a lecturer for the Maryland Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau, Wennersten recently regaled the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C., with oyster tales from colonial times to the present. The settlers at Jamestown, who “didn’t recognize what they had,” described themselves as “reduced to eating oysters.” Later, farmers used oysters as fertilizer, and slaves subsisted on them. But the Civil War created a lot of disposable income, and people started to look for status foods. The Chesapeake Bay region could meet the rising demand thanks to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the development of canning.

After John Crisfield, the president of the Eastern Shore Railroad, got a railroad spur to town, “Crisfield became a city of oysters.” In The Oyster Wars, Wennersten wrote that in 1872 the town “had the largest oyster trade in the state and provided employment for over six hundred sailing vessels.” It teemed with oystermen, merchants, immigrants and—to the dismay of proper society—gamblers and prostitutes. A local saloon’s boxing ring was the site of “no-holds-barred conflict” between watermen from Virginia and Maryland’s Smith Island. One colorful character was Haynie Bradshaw, a Smith Island Methodist, who “fell from grace” during the oyster season to become “one of the scrappiest dockside brawlers on the Eastern Shore and the staunchest defender of Smith Island’s honor.”

Marylanders did not just fight with Virginians; there was sharp competition between those who tonged and those who dredged. Tongers worked in shallower waters, and their boats generally carried a couple of men, one who would use long tongs to gather the oysters and one who would cull. Dredgers used larger boats and worked deeper waters, where they could harvest more in the basketlike scoops they dragged over the oyster beds.

By the late 1860s, the stakes were high. A captain of a dredger could earn $2,000 a year at a time when most Marylanders earned $500 or less. Dredgers began moving into waters that tongers considered theirs. People resorted to guns, and watermen were turning up dead in the bay, says Wennersten.

The state responded by creating the Oyster Navy in 1868. Led by Captain Hunter Davidson, the underfunded navy could barely keep pace with the brash watermen. In his pleas to the legislature for more money and better boats, Davidson said the watermen were “reckless of consequences” and “will risk any weather and are willing to kill to enable them to reach the handsome profits that are now being offered them in the market.” Finally, armed with a howitzer and other weapons, the new navy chased outlaw dredgers, sinking boats when necessary, and placed armed schooners at the mouths of several rivers. Unpopular to say the least, Davidson became a target. A pirating oysterman named Gus Rice failed to murder him in 1871, but continued to plague Davidson’s successors. Among Rice’s worst offenses was shooting in the dark at the Corsica, a pleasure boat carrying women and children that he and his men mistook for a police boat.

Unscrupulous captains were not above stealing people. There was a shortage of labor, so “they would shanghai workers,” says Wennersten. The victims were often immigrants coming into Baltimore. Once on a boat, the immigrants faced beatings and withholding of wages.

Sometimes they “drowned when they caught the boom,” adds Wennersten. It got so bad that the Maryland German Society sent a detective to investigate the abuse and murder of a German immigrant by a Chesapeake captain.

Today’s oyster wars are against parasites and pollution, says Wennersten. “Everyone wants to save the bay, but no one wants to be inconvenienced” to do it.