- 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
However, the best beds are at just these depths and, by the late nineteenth century, the conservation-minded Maryland legislature had reserved the prime areas for the tongers. Dredging—dragging a toothed scoop to which is affixed a sack made of chain—was banished to the less accessible, less productive bottoms. It is, of course, far more efficient than tonging and, in being so, is also more destructive. Those beds it does not scrape bare it disturbs and often ruins.
A complicated regulatory code had been enacted practically as soon as Maryland (and later Virginia) appreciated the economic value of the Chesapeake oysters. According to a scholarly study, the typical waterman, however, was “fanatical in his belief that the oyster, as a product of nature, is not amenable to such laws as apply to other kinds of food or property. ” So, in order to enforce its laws, Maryland in 1868 established the “State Fishery Force” or, as it was dubbed even in government documents, the “Oyster Navy.”
Not that the oyster pirates were easily intimidated by the flash of a badge. They fought a number of pitched battles with the fleet’s two steamers (armed with cannon) and twelve sloops, and several times sent the lawmen running. Once, in January, 1886, they nearly captured the Oyster Navy’s flagship Kent. The pirates’ boldness was encouraged by the fact that commissions in the Navy were strictly political until 1884. In that year a sloop commander was asked what he did when some Virginia dredgers fired on him, and responded, “Why, I heaved to and went home.” At this point, the Navy was reorganized under sterner sailors.
There have been shots fired down to the present, and a casualty as late as 1959. But oystermen now are forbidden by the laws of both states to carry firearms, and the “Navy” has become efficient. Its major job today is the enforcement of conservation laws. Indeed, the prim Methodism of the Marylanders, a legacy of the zealous Reverend Joshua Thomas, “the Apostle of the Eastern Shore,” makes it difficult to appreciate the lawless reputation of the watermen in the oyster’s golden age. Shorthanded captains were notorious for shanghaiing their crews and, when the season was over, “paying them off with the boom.”
An old-timer recalled, “Some captains would pay ‘em off decent but I heerd tell some would tell the green man, ‘Here, get on top of that cabin and sweep ‘er off,’ and when the man was up there, the captain, he’d jibe her [helm to the following wind] and the boom would swing hard over and knock the man into the water.”
Goode’s Fishery Industries of the United States (1887), otherwise a model of bureaucratese, burns with Victorian hyperbole when describing the Maryland dredgermen. They were “daring and unscrupulous men who regard neither the laws of God or men.” They were “perhaps one of the most depraved bodies of workmen to be found in the country … gathered from jails, penitentiaries, workhouses, and the lowest and vilest dens of the city.”
Oystering has always been backbreaking and, thanks to the monthswith-an-”r” tradition, bone-chilling work. In the Chesapeake Bay today, most of the men who crab in the summer turn to oysters for their income in the winter. But, as William Warner writes in his Beautiful Swimmers, “There is no air of expectation, no joy at the change-over.”
In order to conserve the resource, Maryland restricts oyster dredging (as opposed to tonging) to sailing vessels four days of the six-day week. The last commercial sailing fleet in the United States survives in the state. But it is disappearing as the oysters do. On the eve of the First World War, there were two thousand wind-powered dredgers and tongers licensed to reap the bay’s oysters. By the late sixties, there were forty-seven.
The story probably will have a happy ending; that is, no ending at all. Conservationist legislation and farming techniques have resulted in the stabilization and even the increase of national production. But they never will be cheap again. Except perhaps in New Orleans and in a few pockets on the Eastern Shore—where a family can still get a gunny sack full for a picnic at ten or twelve dollars—oysters will continue to appear mostly on the menus of expensive restaurants, a treat for the times when “money is no object.” Diamond Jim, at least, would not have been daunted.