- Historic Sites
Consider The Oyster
It saved the early Colonists from starvation, it has caused men to murder each other, it used to be our most democratic food—in short, an extraordinary bivalve
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
And these are all natural hazards, quite apart from the works of man. The bon secours of Mobile Bay have been just about extinguished in recent years by industrial pollution, and any hopes for the recovery of Delaware Bay are precluded by the same modern hex. The sunbelt construction boom of the 1960's and 1970's appears to have doomed Galveston Bay oysters as their cultch (old shells) is scraped up by the megaton for manufacture into concrete, plate glass, and aluminum (and textiles, dry ice, soap, fertilizer, magnesium, and chicken feed). The universally honored small oysters of Yaquina Bay, Oregon, are no longer to be found in regional restaurants, the victim of “high mortalities from unknown sources” under study at Oregon State University.
But the major source of the oyster lover’s despair has been his own gluttony. So prodigious was it even in the colonial period that New York and New Jersey assemblies enacted conservationist laws in the seventeenth century. Several other colonial legislatures followed suit before the Revolution. The fabled Wellfleets temporarily disappeared before 1775. Local gourmands attributed the tragedy to a quarrel among oystermen, rather than to their intemperance at table. In fact, New England beds were so mercilessly raked over by the early nineteenth century that New England schooners began harvesting spats (seed oysters) from Long Island Sound and, later, the Chesapeake, for transplanting in their home waters. By the time of the Civil War, 650,000 bushels of seed oysters were carried annually from Maryland and Virginia to the North, but there was no tempering Puritan lust. They ate the transplanted three- and four-year-old “oysterlings” before the C. virginicas were fairly able to reproduce themselves. The New England beds never recovered.
But the Yankee foragers had demonstrated to the watermen of the Chesapeake that there was a demand for their oysters beyond the nearby plantations. “Foreign” oystermen were banned from the Bay, and New Englanders, New Yorkers, and the whole country were put on notice that, henceforth, they would buy their prizes from Virginia and Maryland. They were willing. In 1867, Northern capital financed a spur of the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Railroad out the Anemessex peninsula on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Its sole purpose was to reach the town of Crisfield, the sleepy marketing center of the Maryland watermen. Although the Anemessex line had a modest aim, it presented its own engineering problems. The last quarter mile to Crisfield consisted of tidal marsh and open water, and constructing the trestle over it took a year to complete. It was a temporary expedient. Shells from Crisfield’s processing sheds were dumped into the swamp so that, after a few years, the tracks ran on a solid pearly grade. Crisfield itself is built on the remains of countless generations of C. virginicas. Several downtown blocks are six feet higher than they were in 1867.
Although Maryland and Virginia oystermen acted together to expel the Yankee oystermen from their beds, they soon turned against one another. Actually, the “civil war” between the two states can be dated all the way back to 1632, when Charles I failed to draw the water boundary between Maryland and Virginia at the thalweg , or deepest part of the channel, as was the common practice. Rather, he decreed the border on the Potomac and other parts of the great estuary to be the highwater mark on the Virginia side. As might be expected, this annoyed Virginians, but not until the commercial oyster boom of the mid-nineteenth century did it cause undue violence. Then, the ancient charter had the effect of granting to Maryland practically all the Bay’s highly marketable oysters.
The “Jenkins Award” of 1877 transferred 23,000 acres of prime bottom to Virginia. (Today, 985 square miles of Chesapeake Bay are in Virginia, 703 in Maryland.) But the mischief was done. Maryland’s Smith’s Islanders especially refused to accept the Jenkins decision; their best beds were over the thalweg . The result was a shooting war until 1910, when the disputed beds finally played out. At least fifty men are known to have been killed between 1860 and 1890, another fifty wounded, and the actual figures are likely much higher. Fortunately, although both sides regularly employed artillery as well as small arms, the oystermen were not sharpshooters. As Harper’s Weekly observed in 1894, “They have fired abundantly, but not accurately, and enough lead has been wasted to supply sinkers for all the fishing lines along the Atlantic Coast.”
The hostilities were complicated by the fact that Marylander not only fought Virginian over territory, but tonger also fought dredger over methods of collecting the catch regardless of state allegiance. “Tonging” is the older and simpler method of oyster gathering. Working in a vessel which can be as small as a canoe, the oysterman pinches the oysters from their rocky moorings with a pair of hinged intersecting iron or steel rakes on the end of two long wooden handles. The tonger has several sets of his tools and usually works in a maximum of twenty feet of water (although tongs with forty-foot poles are still in use).