The waters of the Chesapeake Bay have long sustained life in Maryland, providing both industry and food. Cities and towns sprung up along the banks of its tributaries and quick access to the Atlantic Ocean allowed international trade to flourish and spurred the growth of Baltimore and Annapolis. Seafood was a staple in every Marylander’s diet from the earliest days of the colony—perch, sturgeon, catfish, oysters, and crabs supplemented settlers’ meals. The Bay’s bounty helped the colonists survive when the harvest failed to yield enough of the standard crops, like corn and wheat, to accommodate the rapid population growth. By the mid-1800s, subsistence fishing grew into a fully fledged industry and became a vital part of the economy.
These days, the blue crab is synonymous with the Maryland fishing industry, but that was not always the case. Fishermen annually pulled 48 million pounds of shad from the Chesapeake during the mid to late nineteenth century. Even with fin fish plentiful, the oyster reigned supreme in the Bay. It became a cash crop with thousands of men and women employed in harvesting and packing. But it also prompted highly contested regulation and fierce, sometimes violent, competition.
Early colonial settlers of the Chesapeake Bay region were astonished by the breadth of the oyster population. Oysters were a popular dish in England, but over-fishing had left a severe shortage of the once abundant bivalve. The near perfect conditions in the Bay allowed oysters to thrive and grow to amazing proportions. Some were so large that they had to be cut up before they could be eaten. The shallow water was the right mix of fresh and salty and filled with nutrients. The filter feeding systems of the oysters kept the bay waters pristine and extraordinarily clear. The mollusks could cleanse the entire bay in just a week. The oyster reefs grew so high that they became a navigational challenge. Almost every tributary of the Bay boasted mature, natural oyster bars.
Despite the abundance, Marylanders did not initially profit from oyster harvesting. Oysters dredging occurred on a small scale, and fishermen provided product only to the immediate local market. Thus, the supply remained high. New England oystermen saw this as an opportunity. Northern oyster bars had rapidly become depleted because of over-harvesting, so the oystermen moved into the Chesapeake and began exporting Bay oysters north. In 1820, Maryland legislators realized the negative impact this could have on the local oyster beds and economy. Dredging was outlawed—only hand tonging was permitted—and oysters could only be transported out of state by Marylanders.
Rather than lose profit, the Yankees moved south to set up shop. One such enterprising businessman was Caleb Maltby. He moved to Baltimore from New Haven, Connecticut and set up the first oyster packing house in the city in 1834 or 1835. The new Baltimore and Ohio Railroad helped grow his business—allowing him to ship his canned oysters quickly and efficiently to New England. Other entrepreneurs saw Maltby’s success, and opened competing packing house on the docks of Baltimore. Over ten thousand people were in employed by the city’s 115 packing houses by 1869.
Locals also wanted their share of the wealth. The town of Crisfield in Somerset County was literally built on oysters. So many oysters were shucked there that the shells were used as the foundation to build new land. In 1854, massive deposits of oysters were found in the Tangier Sound, which is bounded by Tangier Island, Virginia and Smith Island, Maryland, and brought oystermen to the little town, then called Somers Cove. John W. Crisfield saw great opportunity for an oyster boomtown and ensured that the Eastern Shore Railroad would connect the Somers Cove to the outside world in 1866. His plan was a success, and when the town incorporated in 1872 as a city, it was renamed Crisfield, which became the seafood capital of Eastern Shore, and arguably the United States.
Canning and the explosive growth of the railroad provided for oysters to be shipped across the country. The demand for Chesapeake Bay oysters hit an all-time high, and illegal dredging became epidemic. More restrictions and laws were imposed to curb poaching. Oystermen from all over the Northern East Coast dredged the Bay and sent their haul to New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, and even Baltimore to be packed and shipped. Confiscation and other heavy fines were imposed on those who were caught dredging, but the business was so lucrative that these punishments had little effect. Enforcement of the oyster laws, which was left to local sheriffs, was also rather lax. They did not have appropriate resources to patrol all 2,300 square miles of the Chesapeake. The sheriffs sometimes received support from local fishermen who felt illegal oystering was an affront to their way of life. For example, a combined force of police and watermen captured the heavily armed Osiris in 1849 and arrested 40 men.
These skirmishes were all too common in Maryland waters between illegal dredgers and local sheriffs. Stricter regulations requiring oystermen to be licensed and creating an oyster season of September 1 to June 1 were enacted. In an attempt to lighten the sheriffs’ burden, the crews of licensed fishing boats were deputized and had the power to arrest illegal oystermen. Maryland lawmakers finally allotted real resources for enforcement after the Civil War. Legislators approved the charter for a steamer to patrol the Bay for illegal oyster fishing in 1867, thus creating Maryland’s oyster police force, commonly called the Oyster Navy.
The Oyster Navy fought in a veritable Oyster War from the end of the Civil War until the 1950s. Oyster harvesting was notoriously hard work. Oystermen worked in frigid conditions on the Bay during the legal season and were prey to its conditions. Boats were always short men to work them, so unlawful captains frequently shanghaied crew members—often immigrants new to Baltimore who spoke little English. Illegal dredgers were known as oyster pirates for both their criminal work and rowdy behavior. They took to the water well-armed and ready to fight off law enforcement. The newspaper were ran weekly stories describing violent clashes between fishermen and the police. Competition for the best harvesting locations was fierce, and fellow oystermen often fought one another for them.
Despite legislation to protect the vital mollusk, over-fishing quickly destroyed the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster beds. The annual harvest dropped from fifteen million to less than ten million bushels from 1884 to 1890. This prompted even more confrontations on the Bay. In the small town of Rock Point, Maryland, Swepson Earle, the conservation commissioner, reported “Three killings a week created no civic resentment, while many weeks during the oyster season marked the departure from this life of as many as five or six men.”(1) The last shot of the Oyster War was fired in 1959 when Berkeley Muse was shot and killed by Maryland oyster police for illegal dredging near Colonial Beach, Virginia.
Further restrictions were placed on oyster harvesting, including size requirements for oysters sold and leasing of oyster beds. Renting out the beds allowed for planting of new oysters and limited the amount of oysters pulled from the area. From 1906 to 1912, a group from the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, led by Charles C. Yates, charted what was left of the oyster bars, which provided an accurate picture of the state of oysters in the Bay. Yates’ maps are still in use today.
The fight to save the Bay’s oysters still rages today. Years of pollution and over-fishing virtually destroyed Maryland’s oyster industry, and very few oystermen work the Chesapeake. Conservation efforts have led to a comeback, but the oyster population might never recover to the bountiful quantities that once defined the Bay. (Lara Westwood)
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Wennersten, John R, The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay (Centreville: Tidewater Publishers, 1981), 90.
Kennedy, Victor S. and Linda L. Breisch. “Sixteen Decades of Political Management of the Oyster Fishery in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay,” Journal of Environmental Management 153-171 (1983).
Kimmel, Ross M. “Oyster Wars: The Historic Fight for the Bay’s Riches,” The Maryland Natural Resource (2008).
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Oyster Reefs.”
Plummer, Norman H. Maryland’s Oyster Navy: The First Fifty Years. Chestertown: The Literary House Press, 1993.